By Arun Anand
This is the 20th part of the 30-part series on ‘The Taliban’. You can share your feedback at [email protected]. Here is the 20th part-
The road to revival of Taliban owes its birth and rapid progress to multiple factors and international as well as local developments that took place in Afghanistan. One of the most crucial periods was 2002-2003, immediately after Taliban was ousted. Some of the key factors that led to revival of Taliban comprised complacency, arrogance and error of judgement by the US, neglect of Afghanistan by the US and the international community in wake of the Iraq war, lack of enough development aid for Afghanistan leading to slow reconstruction, failure to prepare a strong Afghan security apparatus and Hamid Karzai led government’s misgovernance. But the most important factor was the role played by Pakistan and its intelligence agency Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Pakistan played both sides, on one hand it projected itself as a close ally of the US in its fight against Al Qaeda, while it continued to resurrect Afghan Taliban equipping it with money, training and safe sanctuary. Its anti-Taliban stand was cosmetic and the ground realties belied what Pakistan professed.
Initially, attempts were made by some Taliban leaders and some intermediaries to bring in a section of Taliban to work with Hamid Karzai government. This could have probably scuttled the revival of Taliban to some extent but these attempts were unsuccessful.
Many analysts and experts have commented on this process indicating that the way these initiatives were dealt with smacked of arrogance, complacency and error of judgement on the part of the US.
Even though the US had officially ruled out any amnesty for surrendering Taliban by the end of 2001, but Steve Coll puts it aptly, “Yet by the spring of 2002 the context for his policy had changed. Al Qaeda had abandoned Afghanistan’s cities. The Taliban had dissolved and disappeared. The country had quieted, apart from the eastern mountains. Karzai had started to lead a constitutional process outlined by the Bonn Agreement, to determine the form of national government. He remained open to negotiation with the Taliban, just as he had been in December.”1
Meanwhile, notwithstanding the US’ policy of absolute rejection of Taliban and its earlier attempts to open channels of communications for some sort of reconciliation with the US, a section of Taliban leaders continued to reach out to both Karzai and the United States.
Tayeb Agha, a political and press aide in Mullah Mohammad Omar’s former office in Kandahar, and Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a military deputy to Omar, approached Haji Mohammad Ibrahim Akhundzada, a leader in Uruzgan Province who was from Hamid Karzai’s tribe. Although he was a youthful and obscure figure at the time, Tayeb Agha would prove to be a consequential figure in Washington’s coming misadventures in Afghanistan. He was one of the few people who could reliably speak for Mullah Mohammad Omar, who had vanished. He provided a letter purportedly from the Taliban leader. The thrust of the note, according to an American official who later reviewed the matter, was, “Look, the Bonn Conference just happened. . .. We want to be part of Afghanistan’s future and I’ll let my Shura decide how to do this.” Karzai wanted to pursue the opening, but the Bush administration refused. 2
Another opportunity for building a bridge with a section of Taliban was provided by Bashir Noorzai, an opium trafficker and a former CIA agent.
Noorzai had come into contact with the CIA, when after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989 and Mujahideen capturing the power in Afghanistan, the US intelligence agency had kicked off a secret programme to buy back those antiaircraft heat-seeking portable Stinger missiles from the various Mujahideen factions which were distributed to them by the agency itself via ISI. The CIA was reportedly paying US $80,000 as a buy back price for every such missile that was returned to it. The US had distributed more than 2000 such missiles to the Mujahideen during their anti-Soviet war in 1980s.
Noorzai is reported to have brokered the sale of many such missiles and earned a handsome amount in commission. Bashir Noorzai belonged to the Noorzai tribe and he grew up in Maiwand, a place where Taliban Chief Mullah Omar had settled after the end of anti-Soviet war. In 1994, when Taliban captured power in Kandahar, Noorzai had provided logistic support including weapons and cash to Taliban. In the year 2000, he became Chief of his tribe after his father’s death. Noorzai tribe and Bashir’s family controlled large tracts of land where Opium was grown but neither he, nor his tribe had the desired political influence and Bashir not only resented that but he wanted to change this. His contact with Wakil Ahmad Mutawakil, who was the last foreign minister of Taliban presented him with this opportunity.
Mutawakil came from the home district of Noorzai. After the defeat of Taliban, he escaped to Quetta in Pakistan. Bashir Noorzai contacted him on telephone and convinced him to meet the US representatives. Trusting Noorzai, Wakil travelled to Kandahar but instead of being welcomed he was arrested by the CIA from Kandahar airfield which put Noorzai in an embarrassing situation.
The CIA had a base there, in a fenced-off area that also housed clandestine Special Forces, mainly Navy SEALs. Frank Archibald, a six-foot-two-inch former college rugby player and U.S. Marine, who had risen in the C.I.A.’s Special Activities Division, questioned Mutawakil. They talked about creating a new political party allied with Karzai. “Taliban for Karzai” was the general idea the C.I.A. explored—it offered a propaganda line, if nothing else. According to what Archibald later described to colleagues, the CIA officer “was practically living in a tent” with Mutawakil, while working with him on “creating a legitimate Taliban political party to join the system.”
Mutawakil suggested that he could recruit another significant former Taliban to join. Archibald worked up a presentation about Taliban defectors and the future of Afghan politics, according to the account he later gave to colleagues. He flew back to Virginia and presented his ideas at C.I.A. headquarters. Vice President Dick Cheney attended. “We’re not doing that,” he declared after he heard the briefing. One American official involved in the discussions put it: “It’s the same crap we saw in Iraq: ‘All Baathists are bad. All Taliban are bad.’ What American naïveté.” The message from Washington for Mutawakil was “He’s going to be in a jumpsuit. He’s going to Guantánamo.” Archibald managed to prevent that, at least. The Afghan government imprisoned Mutawakil at Bagram Airfield for about six months, before he was released into house arrest in Kabul. 3
Mutawakil’s imprisonment affected Noorzai’s credibility severely within various Afghan groups and sections of Taliban who were trying to reach out to the US for reconciliation through him.
Noorzai decided to give it another shot and persuaded another Taliban ally, Haji Birqet Khan, to return to Kandahar, but someone apparently passed information to the US troops that Noorzai and Khan were planning an attack on them.
American helicopters swooped over Khan’s home and opened fire. They killed Khan and also wounded his wife and one of his sons. The son lost the use of his legs. Two of the commander’s “young grandchildren were killed when they jumped into a well in order to try and hide from the bombardment.” The raid caused Khan’s tribe “to go against the Americans,” according to Noorzai. Noorzai gave up on the C.I.A. and fled to Quetta, where he returned to international opium and heroin smuggling. The Drug Enforcement Administration lured him to a meeting in New York several years later and arrested him. He was not the most unimpeachable of witnesses, but the essence of his testimony about Kandahar in 2002 was unarguable. The city had succumbed again to racketeering. Afghan allies passed false reports to the Americans for ulterior purposes. Violent Special Forces raids and intelligence errors alienated Pashtun families and tribes. 4
Coll says, “After 2002, the C.I.A. and Special Forces discovered there weren’t many Al Qaeda left in Afghanistan after all. They had migrated to Pakistan. So the American operators started attacking Taliban “because they are there,” as Arturo Muñoz, a C.I.A. officer who served in the 2001 war, put it. Yet the political consequences of this shift were poorly considered, in his judgment: “If you start shipping people to Guantánamo who many other Pashtuns know are not terrorists—if you start confusing horse thieves with terrorists—then they come to see that your idea of terrorism is impossible to accommodate. By our words and our actions, we destroyed the opportunity to take advantage of the Pashtun mechanisms for accommodation and reconciliation.”
He adds, “Cheney and Rumsfeld had imposed the policy they preferred: to signal to former Taliban that they faced war without compromise because of their alliance with Al Qaeda. Yet for the most part, by mid-2002, the Bush administration had stopped thinking seriously about Afghanistan. Archibald’s presentation about “Taliban for Karzai” was a rare instance when the issue of political pacification was even put up for discussion. The Bush administration’s policy was: The Taliban had been defeated, they remained illegitimate, and stragglers should be hunted down, imprisoned, and interrogated about Al Qaeda. The Taliban did constitute a millenarian revolutionary movement with an uncompromising leader, although it was indigenous and had never attacked outside Afghanistan’s borders. The movement’s core leadership might have rejected political engagement in 2002, if that had been attempted. Yet with incentives, influential former Taliban might have come in from exile, just as Mutawakil had done. The Bush administration’s message to the movement’s survivors and their backers in ISI was clear, however: The Taliban could expect no future in Afghan politics unless they fought for it.”5
- Directorate S by Steve Coll (Pp140)
- Directorate S by Steve Coll (Pp140)
- Directorate S by Steve Coll (Pp141)
- Directorate S by Steve Coll (Pp142)
- Directorate S by Steve Coll (Pp143)