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Pakistan and the Taliban


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Kabul fell to the Taliban on 15 August. There is so much more to be said about the disastrous decisions the United States that precipitated this calamity, not least the so-called peace process whose only concrete effects were to weaken and demoralise the Afghan government, while bolstering the ranks of the Taliban by forcing the release of thousands of jihadists. The chaotic Saigon scenes have testified to the incompetence of Joe Biden’s administration, even at administrative tasks, and the horrors are only just beginning.

This post has a slightly different focus, namely the role of Pakistan, specifically its military and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), as the author and operator of the Taliban and allied jihadists. This factor—absolutely fundamental to the conflict—has been, for twenty years, bizarrely absent in much of the coverage, and suggestions recur to this day that the Taliban is actually a problem for Pakistan. When the Pakistan dimension does come up, it will either be to note that Pakistan has some kind of role in funding or otherwise “supporting” the Taliban, and at its strongest the Taliban will be called a “proxy” of the ISI.

Even the word “proxy”, however, underplays the extent to which the Taliban is Pakistan, a wing of its (deep) state power. The reason this matters is because Pakistan has received $34 billion since 2002 in U.S. overt aid and military “reimbursements” (a rather loosely interpreted category), not to mention other forms of aid from Europe, IMF loans that are within the U.S. power to block, and whatever kick-backs have been given whenever the Pakistani military decides to burnish its image by handing over a senior—or allegedly senior—Al-Qaeda figure.

In other words, the definition of the problem in Afghanistan was and is Pakistan, and, rather than taking coercive measures to alter this fact, the West—in the name of the War on Terror—lavished billions of dollars on a military-intelligence oligarchy that diverted huge amounts of that money to creating and sustaining the very jihadists they were being paid to help defeat.

ISI’s control of the Taliban is resolutely denied by Pakistan and its academic and media surrogates—sometimes though malice, sometimes through ignorance. Without intending to be comprehensive, this post intends to draw attention to some of the available evidence that this denial is nonsense.

Pakistan has used terrorism as an instrument of foreign policy since Pakistan’s creation in 1947. Pakistan began using Islamists to influence Afghanistan’s internal affairs in the 1950s and launched a full-scale jihad against Afghanistan not later than 1974—under Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, let it be noted, not General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq. The policy has essentially continued the ever since, intended to bring Afghanistan under Pakistani control as part of the Pakistani military establishment’s ideological commitment to “forever war” against India.

Pakistan will often claim that the U.S. drew it into Afghanistan as part of the operation to evict the Soviets after 1979 and then left the Pakistanis high and dry in 1990 to cope with the aftermath. But the truth is the reverse, as documented in great detail by Christine Fair in Fighting to the End and Hussain Haqqani in Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military: the ISI manipulated the U.S. efforts against the Soviet occupation to bankroll its own pre-existing jihad project, reflagging its Islamist operatives as the Mujahideen, which had only an incidental connection to the Afghan resistance against the Soviets.

The ISI’s favourite Islamist was also the most radical and the one with the most expansive vision: Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. After a devastating civil war among the Mujahideen that destroyed Kabul, the ISI lost faith in Hekmatyar in 1994 to be the steward of a colonial regime in Afghanistan and dropped him, whereupon he put himself at the service of Iran. The exact details of the Taliban’s emergence remain shrouded in some mystery, and a lot of myths and miracle stories have been put forward in explanation. The secrecy of an intelligence operation is not that surprising, though. ISI had recombined elements of the Mujahideen networks with the students (talibs) at the Deobandi madrassas in the border areas. A lot of these students were refugees from Afghanistan, pushed out by the Soviets; many were Pakistanis and others from further afield.

Kandahar was swiftly grabbed by the Taliban in a two-week operation in the autumn of 1994, and, in September 1996, ISI had succeeded in installing the Taliban in Kabul. For the next five years, the ISI continued trying to have the Taliban conquer the remaining territory in Afghanistan from an alliance of Mujahideen commanders, now known as the United Islamic Front, or more informally the Northern Alliance. The Taliban was deeply intertwined with Al-Qaeda after Usama bin Laden’s arrival in May 1996 and could draw on their funds and Arab shock troops.

The Taliban, at the direct instruction of then-ISI chief Lt. Gen. Mahmud Ahmed who flew to meet with the Taliban’s nominal leader Mullah Muhammad Omar in Afghanistan in September 2001, refused to hand over Bin Laden after 9/11. The ISI provided the Taliban with all sorts of assistance during the brief war with the U.S.-led NATO forces in late 2001, and Abpara would continue this policy at ever-escalating levels for the next two decades.

Carlotta Gall in The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan, 2001–2014 documents Pakistan being embedded with the Taliban from the get-go:

Before the summer of 1994 was over, Mullah Omar had acquired Pakistani advisors. People in Kandahar remember [former ISI chief] Major [Hamid] Gul, along with Colonel Imam [“former” Pakistani general Sultan Tarar] … [Tarar] would come to epitomize the Pakistani officers who adopted the mujahideen cause as their own.

Gul gave an interview to UPI on 26 September 2001, saying, “Mossad and its American associates are the obvious culprits [behind 9/11]. … This was clearly an inside job. … Will that also be hushed up in the investigation, like the Warren report after the Kennedy assassination?”

Gall goes on:

Soon after Omar secured a base in Kandahar city, he attacked the border town of Spin Boldak. This time the Taliban showed clear signs of Pakistani support, including cross-border artillery fire. Local journalists reported that among the attackers were hundreds of Afghan students from Pakistani madrassas run by the Pakistani religious party politician Maulana Fazlur Rehman. They left a trail of wrapping paper as they unpacked brand-new weapons.

Rehman, a Deobandi cleric at the head of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI), has been a key part of ISI’s organic, ideological connective tissue with the Taliban.

As the Taliban advanced from its base in the south, Gall writes, “Units of bearded Pakistani commandos in civilian clothes appeared and took up positions at the prison and several other strategic sites.” Gall describes the Taliban advance, underwritten “by substantial military and logistical assistance from Pakistan”, and the need for the direct injection of Pakistani commandos to take Herat from Ismail Khan in September 1995, after which Tarar was “officially” appointed consul-general at Pakistan’s consulate in that city. From Gall:

[Tarar/Colonel Imam] was open about his involvement in the military campaign. The American reporter Steve LeVine visited the consulate there in June 1996 and found Imam directing the Taliban assault on the Shomali Plain north of Kabul from his desk, barking orders down the telephone. Colonel Imam remained close to Mullah Omar for the next seven years … Journalists and Western diplomats who met him in those years described him as wielding a remarkable level of influence. One Pakistani journalist saw him speak to a roomful of Taliban in a government building in Kandahar. His listeners all sat before him with their heads bowed in obedience, in the manner of students before a revered teacher. …

Pakistan piled support and money onto the Taliban offensive on the capital. … Just days before the assault, the top operational commander of the Taliban, Mullah Borjan, had told a Pakistani journalist that ISI officers had given him orders to execute [former Communist ruler Muhammad] Najibullah as one of his first acts upon taking Kabul. Borjan had come from the frontline to Quetta, ostensibly to undergo treatment for his kidneys—but in fact to meet with his handlers in the ISI. … [T]he journalist suggested to Borjan that the Taliban would lose the sympathy of many Pashtuns if they executed [Najibullah]. Borjan said he agreed. He wanted to arrest the former president and send him to Kandahar to be put on trial.

“But are you aware of the black gates?” Mullah Borjan added. “I have just come from there. The gates are in your cantonment area,” he said.

“Do you mean the ISI?” the journalist asked.

“Yes. They are insisting that the first thing we do is kill Najibullah. If I don’t, I am not sure what will happen to me,” he said.

Mullah Borjan never made it to Kabul. He was assassinated on his way back to the frontline, reportedly by his bodyguard, a Pakistani from Kashmir.

The journalist summed it up: “The Taliban do not have minds of their own.”

When the Taliban took Kabul days later, the first thing they did was drag Najibullah through the streets and string him and his brother up on Ariana Square … The first ring of Taliban fighters controlling the gawping crowds were Urdu-speaking Pakistanis.

Pakistan kept the Taliban regime isolated from the outside world and thus dependent. “Pakistani military and intelligence support for the Taliban remained extensive and committed right up to 2001”, Gall writes.

After 9/11 hit and President Bush asked for the Taliban to hand over Bin Laden,

Omar was listening to his Pakistani intelligence advisors, who wielded the greatest influence. Colonel Imam joined him in Kandahar in the days after 9/11. He urged Omar to ignore demands to hand over bin Laden and to resist the American attacks. … The head of Pakistani intelligence, Lieutenant General Mahmud Ahmed, traveled twice to Kandahar to talk personally with Mullah Omar in the weeks after the 9/11 attacks. … Mahmud, who was deeply caught up in the Taliban cause and a committed Islamist, told Omar to hold on to bin Laden and resist the attack. General Mahmud even told the Taliban leader what he knew of American attack plans and how best to withstand them.

General Mahmud’s support for the Taliban became so obstructive that the Bush administration demanded his removal … [Pakistani president, General Pervez] Musharraf replaced him on October 7, 2001, the day the bombing campaign began. Colonel Imam remained at Mullah Omar’s side even after the bombing began, until an exasperated Musharraf sent orders: “What are you doing there?”

For years American officials failed to recognize the huge investment in time, money, and military effort that Pakistan had put into the Taliban from 1994 to 2001. … It was a seven-year bloody campaign waged by the Pakistani military. It was the continuation of a policy to dominate Afghanistan pursued by Pakistan since the early 1970s[.]

Gall goes on to document the role ISI played in post-2001 Afghanistan, a role that, as a reporter working in-theatre for The New York Times, she could not help but notice all around her.

Perhaps most sensational, Gall records:

According to one inside source, the ISI actually ran a special desk assigned to handle the al Qaeda leader. It was operated independently, headed by an officer who made his own decisions. He did not have to pass things by a superior. He handled only one person: bin Laden. What he did was of course wholly deniable by virtually everyone at the ISI.

Gall’s understated conclusion: “This revelation explained a lot.”

In July 2001, Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report, “Crisis of Impunity: The Role of Pakistan, Russia, and Iran in Fueling the Civil War in Afghanistan”, which went into some depth on the ways Pakistan was behind the Taliban.

“The Pakistan government has repeatedly denied that it provides any military support to the Taliban”, HRW noted in opening, yet:

Of all the foreign powers involved …, Pakistan is distinguished both by the sweep of its objectives and the scale of its efforts, which include soliciting funding for the Taliban, bankrolling Taliban operations, providing diplomatic support as the Taliban’s virtual emissaries abroad, arranging training for Taliban fighters, recruiting skilled and unskilled manpower to serve in Taliban armies, planning and directing offensives, providing and facilitating shipments of ammunition and fuel, and on several occasions apparently directly providing combat support.

In April and May 2001, Human Rights Watch sources reported that as many as thirty trucks a day were crossing the Pakistan border; sources inside Afghanistan reported that some of these convoys were carrying artillery shells, tank rounds, and rocket-propelled grenades. … Pakistani landmines have been found in Afghanistan … Pakistan’s army and intelligence services, principally the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI), contribute to making the Taliban a highly effective military force.

“Pakistan has a history of military support for different factions within Afghanistan, extending at least as far back as the early 1970s”, HRW went on, which escalated once Pakistan was in receipt of American money intended for the anti-Soviet effort. Pakistan trained at least 80,000 Mujahideen. “Even after the withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1989, serving and former Pakistani military officers continued to provide training and advisory services in training camps within Afghanistan and eventually to Taliban forces in combat”.

Noting that the “lion’s share” of the money designed to work against Communism had been channelled by Pakistan to Hekmatyar and his Hizb-i-Islami (HII), HRW says: “Hikmatyar’s failure to defeat the Afghan government forces under … [Ahmad Shah] Massoud and take Kabul left Pakistani policy temporarily at a loss in 1993-94 and searching for a new partner.” Under Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto (r. 1993-6), the “interior minister, Gen. Naseerullah Babar, created the Afghan Trade Development Cell in the ministry ostensibly to promote trade routes to Central Asia but also to provide the Taliban with funds.”

Pakistani state agencies took over running Afghan infrastructure: everything from telephones to roads, radio, and the airports. The border was virtually dissolved, and there was no crackdown on the Taliban’s “taxes” on trucks and drugs, despite siphoning off tens of millions of dollars Pakistan could hardly afford to lose. Food and fuel was provided by Pakistan to the Taliban regime. “The Taliban thus has links to a broad range of Pakistan’s military, political, and social institutions”, HRW says.

In terms of the Pakistani direct involvement beyond just command-and-control Soviet-style “advisers”, HRW documents:

Pakistani aircraft assisted with troop rotations of Taliban forces during combat operations in late 2000 and … senior members of Pakistan’s intelligence agency and army were involved in planning major Taliban military operations. The extent of this support has attracted widespread international criticism. … These features [of the Taloqan assault in September 2000] were uncharacteristic of the Taliban’s known capabilities, including the length of the preparatory artillery fire, the fact that much of the fighting took place at night, the Taliban’s willingness to sustain heavy casualties, and the disciplined halting of the offensive after the city fell.

This would not be the first time that the Taliban suddenly showed new military prowess and innovation. On several occasions between 1995 and 1999, the Taliban’s military skills improved abruptly on the eve of particularly pivotal battles, and in one case, declined just as abruptly after a credible threat of intervention was made by an outside power. During its offensives in 1995 against Herat and in 1996 against Kabul, for example, the Taliban suffered heavy losses after mounting attacks against veteran government forces. Initial defeats were followed by a period of quiet; then Taliban troops mounted new attacks, displaying capabilities that had been conspicuously lacking before.

At Herat in April 1995, a 6,000-man Taliban army was defeated … after it ran short of ammunition and other logistical support; the rout was such that some analysts predicted that the Taliban phenomenon had run its course. Instead, after retraining and refitting, in August 1995 Taliban troops … suddenly counterattacked, … and attacked from the rear, leaving the paved roads at will and driving their vehicles across open ground and rugged, hilly terrain. The pickup trucks, whose delivery was facilitated by Pakistan, introduced a kind of mobile warfare that had not been seen in the fighting before.

Similarly, after Taliban offensives aimed at Kabul were thoroughly defeated during the autumn of 1995, with significant losses of men and equipment, a period of quiet ensued, but Taliban troops then renewed their attacks and displayed a notable increase in technical capability. … Again, retreating government troops were caught off-guard by the speed of the attacks by Taliban forces and their penchant for crossing rough ground in 4×4 pickup trucks and attacking on the … flanks.

In these operations Taliban forces used a speed and technical proficiency very uncharacteristic of mujahidin forces … and in particular used mobility and maneuvers that were more characteristic of a professional army-specifically, of professional officers and noncommissioned officers trained in the practice of mobile warfare …

[F]ollowing the killings of eight Iranian diplomats and one Iranian reporter at the Iranian consulate in Mazar-i Sharif in August 1998, the Taliban forces that were advancing eastward from the city against resistance from Jamiat, Wahdat, and some Junbish forces suddenly faltered and lost their unusual combat proficiency. … [A] substantial Iranian military force (ultimately close to 250,000 men) was massing on the Afghan/Iranian border. The Iranian government explicitly blamed Pakistan for the incident … The sudden decline in Taliban military effectiveness … was caused by the withdrawal of Pakistani military advisers as part of an effort by Pakistan to prevent the crisis from getting out of control.

After the Taliban took the capital in 1996, the ISI set itself up in the former Afghan Army base of Rishikor, southwest of Kabul, and parties like JUI flocked into Afghanistan to take up leadership at the training camps. Of the twenty or thirty instructors at Taliban camps catering to about 1,000 recruits at a time, “the balance” were Pakistani and four or five were Arabs, HRW reports. “In some instances, self-described former Pakistani military officers provided specialized forms of assistance”, rather like the Russian military-intelligence officials—the “little green men”—who turned up in Ukraine, only for the Kremlin to claim they were former members of the military gone on holiday. A considerable number of the recruits at these camps were Pakistani citizens, too, and other “foreigners”—not that the jihadists recognise nation-states—from Arab states, mostly the Gulf and North Africa. Thus, the “Afghan” Taliban was—and remains—not only foreign-controlled but considerably made up of foreigners (see below).

The HRW report concluded by noting that “private” Pakistani companies, some United Arab Emirates dealers in Dubai, and Chinese entities had been involved in trade with the Taliban, though this was limited by necessity: all equipment came into Afghanistan through Pakistan’s port of Karachi, and in any case the Taliban did not have money, except that which the ISI gave it, making any effort to diversify its support structures stillborn. The Saudi monies—which were official until Al-Qaeda bombed the U.S. Embassies in East Africa in August 1998 and the Taliban refused to hand over the culprits—were channeled directly through the ISI.

As mentioned, the Pakistanis controlled the training programs for the Taliban and other jihadist groups, and HRW managed to interview ISI officers who had been captured by the Northern Alliance when they were fighting in the ranks of the Taliban. When the U.S. retaliated for the Embassy bombings with missiles against the jihadist camps in Afghanistan, several ISI officers were killed. If one speaks to veterans of the Afghan war, many of them have an institutional memory of the massive Pakistani air operation to retrieve the ISI officers and their Taliban agents in late 2001, and many others have personal stories of encountering Pakistani military operatives during combat with the Taliban.

Rob Clark, a British serviceman who fought down in Helmand, told me that it was common knowledge within the military that Taliban field commanders were often Pakistani, sometimes identifiable by tattoos in Punjabi, at other times by the passports they possessed. This was a source of great annoyance to the Afghans, who understood that “the Taliban” phenomenon was an external invasion of their country.

This raises the issue of the composition of the Taliban. In passing, HRW makes the point, quoting a senior Pakistani officer, that in 1999, “up to 30 percent of Taliban fighting strength is made up of Pakistanis”. This is a strangely neglected fact. A recent report by Oved Lobel draws attention to the Taloqan battle in September 2000. It was not only a case of direct Pakistani military involvement—the Taliban façade nearly crumbled and the Pakistanis essentially invaded Afghanistan to overwhelm the Northern Alliance in a horrific bloodbath that caused one of the worst refugee waves of the first Taliban era. It was a battle in which the significant proportion of foreign fighters in the Taliban ranks became obvious.

More from HRW:

Human Rights Watch also interviewed several Taliban fighters who were recruited by Harakat-ul Ansar (now Harakat-ul Mujahidin) and Lashkar-i-Taiba, two well-known religious parties that are active in the fighting against Indian forces in Kashmir. It should be emphasized that this recruitment is performed openly and even aggressively … [R]ecruits regularly cross into Afghanistan in trucks and buses, on their way to fight against the United Front, and meet no interference from Pakistani border guards even on main roads.

In other words, the Taliban is not really “Afghan” in any serious sense—conception, command, or composition—and it forms, alongside Lashkar-e-Tayyiba and other militant Islamic groups, a fluid network under ISI control that shares personnel and resources to be shifted across fronts, primarily Afghanistan and India, as tactical necessity dictates.

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