The Taliban Story: Playing both sides: How Pakistan enabled revival of Taliban (Part 21)
Source: The Friday Times

By Arun Anand

The Taliban Story: Playing both sides: How Pakistan enabled revival of Taliban (Part 21)
Source: The Friday Times

This is the 21st part of the 30-part series on ‘The Taliban’. You can share your feedback at [email protected]. Here is the 21st part-

The Pakistan spy agency Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) played a critical role in enabling the revival of Taliban. Even as the US and allied forces had begun their war against Al-Qaeda and Taliban on 7 October, 2001 under Operation Enduring Freedom, the ISI had begun rescuing the Taliban and Al-Qaeda operatives from the battle grounds in Afghanistan.

In fact, the Bush administration was either slow to recognize or had closed its eyes despite having a strong presence of CIA on the ground. It is intriguing for many as to why the US didn’t stop ISI from nurturing Taliban and the Al Qaeda even after 9/11. It was one of the biggest policy failures of the US and it paid a heavy price for this for almost a decade.

Even as the fight against Taliban was on during November, 2001, the ISI was airlifting Taliban and Al Qaeda operatives in hordes and bringing them back from Afghanistan to safe sanctuaries in Pakistan so that it could equip them again and turn them into a potent jihadi force.

Col. Harjeet Singh explains in (Understanding Operation Enduring Freedom),1 what happened at Kunduz between 16 and 26 November where US and Northern Alliance were fighting pitched battle against Taliban. “…The siege of Kunduz that began on November 16(2001) was continuing. Finally, after five days of heavy fighting and US aerial bombardment, Taliban fighters surrendered to Northern Alliance forces on 25-26 November. Shortly before the surrender, Pakistani aircrafts evacuated intelligence and military personnel who had been in Afghanistan before the US invasion to aid Taliban’s ongoing fight against the Northern Alliance. However, during this airlift, it is alleged that up to five thousand persons were evacuated, including Taliban and Al Qaeda troops allied to Pakistanis in Afghanistan.”

He further adds, “The Kunduz airlift involved the evacuation of thousands of top commanders and members of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, their Pakistani advisers including Pakistani Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) agents and army personnel and other jihadi volunteers and sympathizers, just before its capture by the US and Northern Alliance forces. The Taliban and Al Qaeda combatants were safely evacuated by Pakistan Air Force Cargo aircraft to Pakistan Air Force bases in Chitral and Gilgit in Pakistan administered Kashmir’s Northern areas.” 2

Clearly the ISI was running its own war against the US and did not want to leave Afghanistan until the last moment. Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid says in his book ‘Descent into Chaos’, the request was made by Musharraf (Pervez Musharraf, the President of Pakistan) to Bush (US President George Bush) but Cheney (US Vice President Dick Cheney) took charge. The approval was not shared with anyone in the US State Department including Secretary of State Colin Powell, until well after the event. Musharraf said Pakistan needed to save its dignity and its valued people. Two planes were involved which made several sorties each night over several nights. Hundreds of ISI officers, Taliban commanders and foot soldiers from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and Al Qaeda boarded the planes. What was sold as a minor extraction turned into a major air bridge.3

Craig Whitlock pinpointedly questions the US policy towards ISI in The Afghanistan Papers, “After the terrorist attacks on the United States…. on the surface, Musharraf pirouetted swiftly and became a critical ally to the Bush administration…Yet the Bush administration was slow to recognize that Musharraf and the ISI were playing both sides. In Lessons Learned interviews, US officials said Bush invested too much personal trust in Musharraf. They said Bush glossed over persistent evidence, that the Pakistani military under Musharraf still supported the Taliban, using the same covert channels and tactics it had developed to help anti-Soviet guerrillas during the 1980s.”4

There were a few studies which were conducted on the ISI’s involvement in reviving Taliban during as the number of security incidents in Afghanistan documented by the United Nations grew tenfold between 2003 and the end of 2006. This was a clear indication of Taliban making a comeback. The question was how they were able to do it? Who was providing funds, training and sanctuary to them?

Amrullah Saleh, the head of Afghanistan’s apex security body National Directorate of Security under the Karzai government decided to conduct a field-based study on the revival of Taliban. The objective was to help Karzai and his allies make informed decisions when it came to handling Pakistan and Taliban. Saleh came out with a classified paper in May 2006 titled, “Strategy of Taliban”.

Saleh regarded Pakistan as an “India-centric country,” one that had never been “Afghanistan-centric.” He concluded, based on the limited circumstantial and hard evidence available, that I.S.I. had made a decision in 2005 to support the Taliban more actively, with cash and other aid, backed by covert subsidies from Saudi Arabia. It was the 1980s and 1990s all over again. The consolidation of Karzai’s government between 2003 and 2005 explained the timing of this Pakistani turn, Saleh judged. “What made them switch?” he asked. “Parliamentary elections, presidential elections, Afghan consensus [that] we will make the new order work, and the growing, positive relationship of Afghanistan with India.” In essence, Pakistan’s generals feared that Karzai’s legitimacy would steer Afghanistan toward a durable role as an Indian ally, with international backing, Saleh concluded. In a sense, both Pakistan and Afghanistan shared a dilemma: If they assumed the United States would not maintain a strong military commitment in the region for more than a few years, they had to manoeuvre now to construct alliances for a post–American scenario, recognizing that the region would almost certainly remain riven by the bitter conflict between India and Pakistan. 5

That Pakistan was preparing stage a future theatre of war was clear in a conversation between top US diplomat Ryan Crocker and the then ISI head Lt. Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani.

Crocker recalled prodding Kiyani, as he often did, to crack down against Taliban leaders who were believed to have taken refuge in Pakistan. Instead of denying their presence, Kayani for once gave an unvarnished reply. “You know, I know, you think we are hedging our beets, you’re right, we are because one day you will be gone again, it will be like Afghanistan the first time, you will be done with us, but we are still going to be here because we can’t actually move the country. And the last thing we want with all of our other problems to have turned the Taliban into a mortal enemy, so yes, we are hedging our bets.6

Incidentally Saleh got it perfectly right in terms of forecast. He had said in his study that the mobilization of Taliban would intensify so much that by 2009, they would move forward from their rural strongholds and major cities like Kandahar would be facing a real threat of an attack from them.

The paper forecast that the Taliban would mount a full-fledged insurgency that would bog down Afghan and international troops. This would turn out to be largely accurate, except that the Taliban drive on southern cities occurred even faster than that. “The pyramid of [the] Afghanistan government’s legitimacy should not be brought down due to our inefficiency in knowing the enemy, knowing ourselves and applying resources efficiently,” Saleh warned. Karzai was “extremely, extremely angry” about his findings. He ridiculed the predictions and asked him never again to call the Taliban “an insurgency.” Saleh told Karzai, “I hope time will prove me wrong.7

Alarmed over the growing incidents of violent attacks against the US and allied forces, Condoleezza Rice, then secretary of state in the Bush cabinet also commissioned a study of the Afghan war. It was conducted by David Kilcullen, a former Australian Army officer with a doctoral degree in guerrilla warfare.

Steve Coll raised a pertinent question in ‘Directorate S’, “Which side was Musharraf on? …. the C.I.A. continued to press Saleh to hand over evidence to I.S.I. so that Pakistan could round up suspected Al Qaeda and Taliban fugitives. The assumption was that the Pakistanis would make honest use of the N.D.S. intelligence. Around the time of his study tour, N.D.S. and the C.I.A.’s Kabul Station jointly provided to I.S.I. “a list of known locations, addresses, fund details, last known position of a number of senior Taliban folks,” as a senior Bush administration official involved described it. Some of the Taliban were under active surveillance. Within forty-eight hours, all of them moved. The Americans watched them disappear—they knew what had happened. Yet the Pakistanis just told them that their information was wrong.”

“When Kilcullen first voiced concerns similar to Saleh’s inside the administration, “People laughed at me.” They thought he had gone native during his visits to Afghanistan, traveling out with Afghan security forces, absorbing their conspiracy theories about I.S.I. The conventional wisdom in the Bush administration remained that the Pakistani position was one of weakness and ineptitude, not malice toward the American project in Afghanistan,” he added.

(To be continued)


  1. Understanding Operation Enduring Freedom by Col Harjeet Singh (Pp51)
  2. Understanding Operation Enduring Freedom by Col Harjeet Singh (Pp51)
  3. Understanding Operation Enduring Freedom by Col Harjeet Singh (Pp51-52)
  4. The Afghanistan Papers by Craig Whitlock (Pp82)
  5. Directorate S by Steve Coll (Pp216-217)
  6. The Afghanistan Papers by Craig Whitlock (Pp87)
  7. Directorate S by Steve Coll (Pp217-218)