The Taliban Story: Directorate S: The Pakistani Deep State (Part 15)
Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons

By Arun Anand

This is 15th part of the series on ‘The Taliban Story’. You can share your feedback at [email protected]. Here is the 15th part:

The Taliban Story: Directorate S: The Pakistani Deep State (Part 15)
Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons

Directorate S is a secret unit of the Pakistan’s spy agency ISI. It played a key role in supporting Taliban, Al-Qaeda apart from backing terrorism operations in Jammu and Kashmir in India.

Steve Coll bares a little bit of information about the extremely secretive Directorate ‘S’ in his seminal work ‘Directorate S: The CIA and America’s Secret wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan, 2001-2016”.

Coll writes, “Buried in this bureaucracy of ISI lay the units devoted to secret operations in support of the Taliban, Kashmiri guerrillas and other violent Islamic Radicals-Directorate S, as it was referred to by American intelligence officers and diplomats. It was also known as “S wing” or just “S” (During the Cold war, the K.G.B. also had a “Directorate S” that ran the spy service’s “illegal” operations, meaning espionage carried out by trained officers and agents who operated abroad under the deep cover. The ISI version had similar aspects …. on entirely ideological basis.) Directorate S partially resembled the CIA’s Special Activities Division, in charge of covert military operations. Officers inside ISI sometimes used other names for the external operations units-The Afghan Cell, the Kashmir Cell, Section 21 or Section 24. Veterans of Pakistan’s Special Services Group, a commando organization, primarily staffed the ISI’s covert war cells, just as the CIA drew its paramilitary specialists from the rank of the Special US forces.”1

Coll further adds, “To enlarge Pakistan’s sphere of influence in Afghanistan during the 1990s, Directorate S covertly supplied, armed, trained and sought to legitimize Taliban…Black label sipping Pakistani Generals with London flats and daughters on Ivy League campuses had been managing jihadi guerrilla campaigns against India and in Afghanistan for two decades.”

By 2001, several analysts at the CIA were becoming skeptical about the way that thin line between ideological and professional commitments was getting blurred in ISI and especially in Directorate S. The reports circulated by the CIA and DIA in US mentioned that a section of ISI and military was increasingly getting influenced and guided by the radical ideologies of Taliban, Al-Qaeda and its other clients and protégé.

The best-known ISI operator in the Afghan units of Directorate S was a Special Services Group career officer named Colonel Sultan Amir Tarar, whose nom de guerre was Colonel Imam. He had collaborated closely with CIA officers during the anti-Soviet war. He redirected his services to the Taliban after the Americans quit Afghanistan. Tarar was a tall man who kept a long graying beard and professed a deep religious faith. He was also a raconteur who enjoyed talking about the glory days of killing Soviet forces. He openly admitted that he had worked with Bin Laden during the 1980s. He found the Al Qaeda founder rather like a prince, very humble.2

By 2001 Tarar served as Pakistan’s consul general in Herat, Afghanistan, supporting the Taliban. He left Afghanistan early in October as the American bombing campaign neared…. Once back in Islamabad, Colonel Imam sought an appointment with the Taliban’s Ambassador to Pakistan, Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, an old friend and war comrade of Mullah Mohammad Omar’s. Zaeef received the ISI veteran at the Taliban’s embassy. After they exchanged greetings, Imam started to cry. Tears ran down his face and his white beard and he could not speak. When he finally composed himself, he said, “Almighty Allah might have decided what is to take place in Afghanistan, but Pakistan is to blame. How much cruelty it has done to his neighbor? And how much more will come!” The colonel laid the blame on Musharraf. He started to cry again. He said he would never be able to repent for what Musharraf had done by aligning himself with the Americans. “He would suffer not only in this world but in the next.” This was ISI in microcosm: an institution well practiced at manipulating the CIA and the Taliban simultaneously.3

Another evidence of this manipulation was that the ISI was supporting Taliban actively even after 9/11 when the US had started preparation for military action in Afghanistan against the Taliban regime.

At the end of September 2001, five ISI officers, among them a brigadier and a colonel, went to Afghanistan, taking with them several trucks laden with ammunition. Their goal was to consult with the Taliban regarding the forthcoming defense against the American invasion. The irony is that it was Lt. Gen. Aziz Khan, who, later on, had to negotiate with the Americans for the return of the Pakistani Taliban supporters who were held up in north-east Afghanistan. Three Hercules planes from Pakistan Airforce brought back the defeated Talibs, military and ISI personnel.4

(To be continued)



  1. Directorate S by Steve Coll (PP 47)
  2. Directorate S by Steve Coll (PP 63)
  3. Directorate S by Steve Coll (PP 63-64)
  4. The ISI of Pakistan by Hein G. Kiessling (HarperCollins Ed.2016) (PP-152)