The Pakistani Godfather: The Inter-Services Intelligence and the Afghan Taliban 1994-2010 (1/4)

Im Verlauf der nächsten Monate werden wir eine Serie von vier Artikeln über das Verhältnis der afghanischen Taliban  zum pakistanischen Geheimdienst ISI publizieren. Die Arbeit ist von unserem Vorstandsmitglied Lukas Hegi mitverfasst und in der Schweiz vom Blog veröffentlicht worden. Freundlicherweise stellt uns der Blog den Text zu parallelveröffentlichung zur Verfügung. Ganz herzlichen Dank dafür!

by Adrian Hänni and Lukas Hegi.

A U.S. soldier arrives to the scene where a suicide car bomber attacked a NATO convoy in Kabul, Afghanistan, Thursday, May 16, 2013. A Muslim militant group, Hizb-e-Islami, claimed responsibility for the early morning attack, killing many in the explosion and wounding tens, police and hospital officials said. The powerful explosion rattled buildings on the other side of Kabul and sent a pillar of white smoke into the sky in the city’s east (Photo: AP/Anja Niedringhaus).

Alongside the Americans, Pakistan plays a key role in the “war against terrorism” and against the insurgents in Afghanistan. The country receives huge financial and military aid. Nevertheless, this support could not improve the situation in Afghanistan. Quite to the contrary: The Taliban are stronger than ever. At any time, they can strike almost anywhere in Afghanistan. Therefore, the question is whether the money just evaporates ineffectively in a mire of corruption and inefficient administration, or whether Pakistan is playing a double game with its allies, thereby systematically aggravating the instability in its neighbouring state in order to protect its own interests.

The aim of the present study is to gather facts and disclose links that demonstrate the kind of game the Pakistani government is playing with the West, with its intelligence service “Inter-Services Intelligence” (ISI) supporting the Taliban on a grand scale. It also demonstrates the naivety of a superpower that allows an alleged ally to receive billions of dollars, with which Pakistan amongst other things financed groups that kill American soldiers almost on a daily basis. It also uses the money to expand its control over the insurgents in Afghanistan and undermines initiatives for a peaceful solution to the conflict.

After a historical summary highlighting the close connection between the Pakistani intelligence agency ISI with the Taliban since their emergence in the mid-90s (in part one, two and three), the arrest of an influential Taliban leader is used as an example to demonstrate the effrontery with which the Pakistanis are playing their game (in part four). The rivalry with its neighbour, India, and the consequent desire for strategic depth as well as the political goal to control the Pashtun tribal areas emerge as constant strategic guidelines.

The Taliban: From Their Emergence to Their Coming Into Power In Kabul (1994-1996)
When the Taliban first arrived to Southern Afghanistan in November 1994, their ideology fell on fertile soil. More than 15 years of war had left their mark on the country. The constant interference of foreign powers proved to be particularly fatal. Specifically, the unequal treatment during the resistance against the Soviet occupation (1979-1989) had increased the mistrust among the tribes and ethnic groups. The United States and Saudi Arabia, amongst others, had given around ten billion dollars of subsidies to the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation. These funds were distributed with the help of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Founded in 1948, ISI is a military secret service of Pakistan. The exact number of employees is not known but it is estimated to be at least 25,000. There are a further 30,000 serving as informants or performing similar tasks. De jure, the ISI is subordinate to the Prime Minister, but de facto it is the Chief of Staff of the Army that the ISI reports to and from whom it receives its orders. The ISI, which is often referred to as a state within a state partially going about its own foreign policy, is undoubtedly the most powerful and most politicised of the Pakistani intelligence agencies (to see a detailed portrayal of the ISI: Ishtiaq Ahmed, “The Pakistan Inter-Services Intelligence: A Profile“, ISAS Insights, No. 35, 15.08.2008). The ISI preferred the Pashtun tribes around Peshawar. They were therefore systematically given preferential treatment in the distribution of weapons and money by the Americans. Conversely, Pakistan regarded the south of Afghanistan around Kandahar as backward and the Durrani Pashtuns dominating the area at the time as untrustworthy (Ahmed Rashid, “Taliban: Afghanistans Gotteskrieger und der Dschihad“, 2002, p. 56).

The clashes between various factions and warlords in late 1994 had led to the disappearance of the old and more moderate leadership, and thus left room for the Taliban extremists (Rashid, p. 58). The whole country was divided among various warlords, forming and dissolving alliances as they pleased. In order to finance their war, the warlords exploited the population, cut down almost all forests and sold anything that wasn’t nailed down. The on-going insecurity in turn called the truck mafia into action, which was operating from the Pakistani city of Quetta and from Kandahar. The fragmentation of the southern Afghan territory by many local warlords led to a serious restriction of their activities (Rashid, p. 62).

Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (center) passes in front of an honor guard in the Afghan capital of Kabul, Afghanistan, after being sworn in as prime minister, June 26, 1996, ending four years of bitter fighting among U.S. backed rebels who took control of Kabul from the communist regime. Hekmatyar today is a U.S.-declared terrorist in hiding fighting international forces in Afghanistan. His representatives have opened talks with President Hamid Karzai’s political opponents, as well as Karzai.

Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (center) passes in front of an honor guard in the Afghan capital of Kabul, Afghanistan, after being sworn in as prime minister, June 26, 1996, ending four years of bitter fighting among U.S. backed rebels who took control of Kabul from the communist regime. Hekmatyar today is a U.S.-declared terrorist in hiding fighting international forces in Afghanistan. His representatives have opened talks with President Hamid Karzai’s political opponents, as well as Karzai.

Although the exact origin of the Taliban movement is controversial and shrouded in myth, we can be certain that the above-mentioned situation – lawlessness and lack of leadership – has paved the way for this radical movement. The Taliban initially had to manage without the support of the ISI, which at that time was backing Hekmatyar’s Hizb-i Islami. However, in 1994, the defeat and the loss of prestige of Hekmatyar was becoming apparent, and Pakistan began to look for a new proxy. Then there was the desire of the new Pakistani Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto, to open a trade route to Central Asia as quickly as possible. Because of the fighting around the capital, the northern route via Kabul to Mazar-i-Sharif and on to Uzbekistan was impassable. Therefore, the idea to open ​​the route via the southern part of the ring road from Quetta via Kandahar to Herat and on to Ashgabat established itself. The plan aroused the suspicions of the local princes, who feared Pakistan might be preparing a military invasion of the eastern neighbours (Rashid, p. 69).

The first battle between Taliban and Hekmatyar fighters began in mid-October 1994. At Spin Baldak on the Afghan-Pakistani border, the Taliban overran a garrison of Hekmatyar. With the consent of Pakistan they then conquered a vast weapons and ammunition depot, built by the ISI (Rashid, p. 71 and Anthony Davis, “How the Taliban became a Military Force” in William Maley (Ed.), “Fundamentalism reborn? Afghanistan and the Taliban“, London: NYU Press, 1998, 43ff). Consequently, the Taliban were able to continue fighting for quite some time. In addition, the Pakistanis had the opportunity to hide their support for the Taliban (Davis, 46). This action can still be viewed as merely tolerated by Pakistan, but anything that happened after November 3rd must be considered active help. On this day, Taliban marched out at the request of the Pakistani to free a convoy detained by southern Afghan warlords. Shortly thereafter, they went on to take Kandahar. Already at that time, foreign diplomats were speculating that the Taliban were operating with the covert support of Pakistan (“Developments in Afghanistan“, Memo to Ron McMullen, U.S. Department of State, 05.12.1994). At the same time, the Pakistani Interior Minister Nasrullah Babar boasted the success of “his boys” (Rashid, p. 73; English translation by the authors). However, the Taliban continued to try to demonstrate their independence and to resist the Pakistani influence.

While to many the origins of the Taliban still appeared mysterious, by the end of year, some sources were “concerned that the GOP [Government of Pakistan] (ISI) is deeply involved in the Taliban takeover in Kandahar and Qalat.” (Memo to Ron McMullen). The same source also expressed concern that the influence of the unpopular Pakistanis in the south could further destabilise the country and sooner or later lead to an Afghan-Pakistani conflict. Meanwhile, the Taliban continued their conquest of Afghanistan and marched north.

Pakistan was still putting its eggs into two baskets: On the one hand there were the Taliban, who had contributed to the opening of smuggling routes in the south, and on the other hand there was Hekmatyar and his Hizb-i Islami, who were exerting pressure on the government in Kabul. Whether it was a double game of the ISI, or whether the simultaneous support of both Afghan factions rather represents a power struggle between the civilian government of Benazir Bhutto and the ISI is unclear. According to Jason Burke, a confrontation between the civilian and military leadership of the country was at the origin of the support for the Taliban (Cf: Jason Burke, “Al-Qaeda: The True Story of Radical Islam“, London: I.B. Tauris, 2004, 125-126). The same assessment has been given by a report by Human Rights Watch in 2001: “The subsequent shift to the Taliban also reflected changes in Pakistan’s domestic politics. Newly elected in 1993 Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto sought to move away from Hikmatyar and the ISI and find new ways to open trade routes in Central Asia.” (Human Rights Watch, “Afghanistan: Crisis of Impunity“, July 2001, 24). This would imply that the support for the Taliban came firstly from the Home Office and its director Nasrullah Babar, while the ISI and the army still supported Hekmatyar, who was, however, involved in a gruelling two-front war. In mid-February the Taliban coming from the south had taken over his headquarters. They opened the roads to Kabul and made possible the supply of the city after the long siege. Thus, the Taliban gained great sympathy among the population, but also satisfied a key demand of the transport mafia (Rashid, p. 79).

An aerial view of Spin Boldak, Afghanistan, taken from a Blackhawk helicopter, April 4, 2011. Spin Boldak sits near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in southern Kandahar province. (Photo: Spc. Jonathan W. Thomas, 16th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment).

An aerial view of Spin Boldak, Afghanistan, taken from a Blackhawk helicopter, April 4, 2011. Spin Boldak sits near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in southern Kandahar province. (Photo: Spc. Jonathan W. Thomas, 16th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment).

After Hekmatyar and his Hizb-i-Islami had been the crown prince of the ISI for a long time and had enjoyed generous support, the relationship between Pakistan and the Taliban in early 1995 changed radically: “[a]t around this time the weight of opinion within the upper echelons of the ISI – (…) – now began to swing towards the Taliban. While in late 1994 Babar appears to have been the leading voice in the Islamabad establishment propounding the student’s cause, by January the ISI was taking a growing interest.” (Davis, 52-53). During that time, Taliban warfare also changed dramatically. This may reflect the fact that the former Afghan Defence Minister Lieutenant General Shahnawaz Tanai was reactivating his still existing network of connections to other officers of the communist regime for the cause of the Taliban. “None of this could have been done without permission, if not active encouragement, from the ISI itself.” (Davis, 54. Tanai had been a general in the Afghan army and Defence Minister during the Soviet occupation. In 1990 he organized a coup with the help of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, but failed. Tanai then fled to Hekmatyar in Pakistan, where he is supposed to have settled to this day. Pakistan was also allegedly implicated in this coup. For instance, Benazir Bhutto had called upon the country to assist Tanai.)

After their rapid initial successes, in the first half of 1995 the Taliban suffered some heavy defeats. Ahmed Shah Massoud and his fighters drove them from the area in front of Kabul, and in the West, they had to desist from their attacks on Herat, after Ismael Khan had received support from Massoud, who had had the Taliban bombarded for several days. However, a poorly planned offensive of Khan against the weakened Taliban ended in a disastrous defeat and the final loss of Herat. The defeat, however, seems not only to have been due to poor planning. Western intelligence services suspected “infusions of well-trained re-inforcement and new weapons – now supported by a functioning logistics machine” (Davis, 61). Following this, riots broke out in Kabul. A mob attacked the Pakistani embassy and killed an employee. Thus the relations between the two countries hit rock bottom. Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani accused Pakistan openly of trying to oust him with help of the Taliban (Rashid, p. 79; cf also: “Letter of GOP PERMREP to SYG on Afghanistan“, Cable from U.S. Mission USUN New York to RUEHC/Secretary of State, 01.11.1995). The Pakistanis were not very cautious and openly admitted to supporting the Taliban in front of the Americans. The Pakistani ambassador defended himself saying “that in the wake of last months’ sacking of the Pak embassy in Kabul, GOP Afghan policy has been increasingly driven by intense domestic opposition towards Afghanistan.” (“Pakistan Afghan Policy: Anyone but Rabbani/Masood – Even the Taliban“, Cable from U.S. Embassy Islamabad to Secretary of State, U.S. Department of State, October 1995, 2).

In March 1996, Pashtun scholars came together for a large gathering. The discussions on the future of Afghanistan “were conducted in strictest secrecy, and all foreigners were expelled from Kandahar for this time. Pakistani officials, however, were present to monitor the Shura, including Qazi Humayun, Pakistan’s ambassador in Kabul, and several ISI officials, including Colonel Imam, Pakistan’s consul general in Herat.” (Rashid, p. 91, English translation by the authors; on the role of Colonel Imam in the establishment of the Taliban, cf. also: Carlotta Gall, “Former Pakistani Officer Embodies a Policy Puzzle“, New York Times, 03.03.2010). The meeting had been convened as a result of the stalemate between the Afghan factions. Rabbani’s position had been consolidated and his prestige abroad increased. Consequently, Pakistan tried to forge an alliance against Rabbani with Hekmatyar, the warlord Rashid Dostum and the leaders of the Jalalabad Shura, but this was categorically rejected by the Taliban (Rashid, p. 94). The regional powers feared the consequences of Afghanistan dominated by the Islamist Taliban and gave massive support to Rabbani and Massoud. In return, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia increased their support for the Taliban (Rashid, p. 96).

Ahmad Shah Massoud at his military headquarters in Charikar. Massoud's mujahideen forces are fighting the Taliban to the north of Kabul. (Photo: Patrick Robert/Sygma/Corbis).

Ahmad Shah Massoud at his military headquarters in Charikar. Massoud’s mujahideen forces are fighting the Taliban to the north of Kabul. (Photo: Patrick Robert/Sygma/Corbis).

True to the motto “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”, Bhutto even tried to convince the U.S., which had an interest in curbing Iran, to support the Taliban. The United States declined, but the Taliban also refused to continue cooperating with other warlords (Rashid, p. 97). Yet the Taliban managed to convince Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to support them again. Riyadh and Islamabad had reached an agreement with them. In late September, the Taliban led a surprise attack on Jalalabad and overran it. At the same time, Pakistan let hundreds of gunmen enter unmolested across the borders into Afghanistan. The Taliban lost no time and continued their advance towards the capital from an easterly direction. A month after the attack on Jalalabad the first pickups with Taliban had already reached the streets of Kabul. The pro-government troops fled and Massoud also ordered a retreat for his troops. One of the first acts of the Taliban in Kabul was the execution of former President Mohammad Najibullah, whose battered body they then put on display in the streets of Kabul.

Taking Kabul didn’t mean the end of the war. The formerly warring warlords pulled together to form a new Alliance to defend Afghanistan against the Taliban. Massoud decided to make a full-scale attack on the scattered Taliban forces and advanced as far as Bagram. The success of the Taliban seemed seriously threatened. As a consequence, Pakistan again let thousands of ‘volunteers’ cross the border area of Pakistan into Afghanistan to fight for the Taliban. This enabled the militia of Mullah Omar to launch a new offensive and recover the lost territories (Rashid, p. 108f).

The way was paved for the Taliban, and the prevailing lawlessness and lack of leadership since the departure of the Soviets have certainly increased their acceptance in parts of the population. However, their success is down to more than just this. In addition to these pull factors a number of push factors have played their part. This includes logistics, enabling the Taliban to carry out their operations equipped with enough weapons and ammunition. They also had enough fighters as new religious students from the Pakistani madrassas could enter the country unimpeded at all times (Human Rights Watch, 23). Furthermore, indoctrination and training played a crucial role. The Taliban broke up the deadlock with mobile warfare and relatively quickly caused large shifts in territorial ownership. Mobile warfare was made possible because the Taliban had large numbers of vehicles (mainly white Toyota pick-ups) and sufficient communication infrastructure available. This included a mobile communications network and a wireless network for the Taliban leaders, both of which had been set up by Pakistan. Moreover, Pakistan had roads, the Kandahar Airfield and fighter jets for the Taliban repaired (Human Rights Watch, 23). They could also benefit from the experience of former officers of the communist army. These had been reactivated through the network of former Defence Minister Tanai, who had found refuge in Pakistan after a failed coup against Najibullah, which had most likely been supported by Pakistan in the first place. But corruption and the effects of money are also not to be underestimated. Many field commanders quite simply let themselves be bought. In any case, the substantial backing from Pakistan has significantly promoted the rapid advance and the takeover of Kabul by the Taliban.

Map of the situation in Afghanistan in 1996: Ahmad Shah Massoud (red), Abdul Rashid Dostum (green) and Taliban (yellow) territories.
Map of the situation in Afghanistan in 1996: Ahmad Shah Massoud (red), Abdul Rashid Dostum (green) and Taliban (yellow) territories.

Part 2 continues with the Taliban in Power in Kabul (1996-2001) – online in a few weeks.


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