The Taliban Story: CIA and ISI-A Failed Marriage
Photo Source: White House

By Arun Anand

This is 14th part of our series on ‘The Taliban Story’. You can share your feedback at [email protected]. Here is the 14th part

The irony couldn’t have been lost. On the morning of September 11, 2001, when US was hit by terrorist attacks from Al-Qaeda, an organization supported, protected and nurtured by Pakistan’s Inter Service Intelligence with help of Taliban, the ISI chief General Mahmud Ahmed was having a breakfast meeting in Washington with a select group of senior US lawmakers in a secure chamber of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence at Capitol Hill, the seat of power of the US.

The Taliban Story: CIA and ISI-A Failed Marriage
Photo Source: White House

On that morning on Capitol Hill, Ahmed was having a friendly exchange with Representative Peter Gross, the committee’s top Republican, regaling the Congressman with his knowledge of obscure facts about the American Civil War. Goss had wrapped a book about the Civil War to give to Ahmed as a gift, but the pleasantries were cut short when Committee staffers raised into the meeting room to tell the law makers and the ISI chief that the second plane had just hit the World Trade Center. “Mahmud’s face turned ashen,” recalls Goss. The Pakistani spymaster quickly excused himself from the meeting and jumped into the embassy car waiting for him. The book still wrapped was left inside the room.1

The following morning, General Ahmed was called to the office of Richard Armitage, the deputy secretary of the state, who was in mood for diplomatic correctness. President Bush had announced the night before that the United States would treat both the terrorists and their patrons equally, and Armitage presented the ISI’s dilemma in Manichean terms. “Pakistan faces a stark choice; either it is with us or not,” Armitage told the Pakistani spy chief, saying the decision was black and white, with no gray.2

Mahmud returned to Pakistan on September 15 and flew to Kandahar on September 17 to negotiate directly with the Taliban chief Mullah Omar. No American accompanied him.

Mahmud came back empty handed from Afghanistan, not able to convince Mullah Omar to expel or hand over Osama Bin laden. However, in his debriefings he painted an interesting picture of the negotiations that happened there. According to Mahmud, his talks with Mullah Omar lasted for four hours.

‘Omar had sat on a large rectangular sofa at his pine shrouded home on Kandahar’s outskirts, with his legs pulled up and crossed beneath him. As they spoke Omar picked at his toes. Mahmud relayed the main element of America’s position: Bin Laden had to be brought to justice or expelled. The same was true of 15 or 20 other Al Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan. The Taliban had to close all Al Qaeda camps. Mullah Mohammad Omar “might have two to three days” to consider surrendering Bin Laden.3

Mullah Mohammad Omar refused to hand over Bin Laden or expel him or bring him to justice. On September 20 President Bush addressing a joint session of Congress said, “We condemn Taliban regime. It is not only repressing its own people; it is threatening people everywhere by sponsoring and sheltering and supplying terrorists. By aiding and abetting murder, the Taliban regime is continuing murder.”

Bush in his address demanded from Taliban, “. Deliver to the United States authorities all the leaders of Al Qaeda who hide in your land. Close immediately and permanently every terrorist training camp in Afghanistan and hand over every terrorist and every person in their support structure to appropriate authorities. The demands are not open to negotiations or discussion. The Taliban must act and act immediately. They must hand over the terrorists or they will share in their fate.”

On September 24 the ISI chief went to US embassy to meet the US ambassador and a visiting Pentagon team. He told them, “The Taliban are on the side of good and against terrorism. I beg you-I implore you- not to fire a shot in anger. It will set us all back many years. Don’t let the blood rush to your head…. Reasoning with them (Taliban) to get rid of terrorism will be better than the use of brute force.” He reiterated in the end that whatever decision the US would take, Pakistan will stand behind the US. The US Ambassador said, “The most important sentence you spoke was the last one. The time for negotiating is over.”4

Even as the US started preparing for the final assault in Afghanistan against Taliban, the ISI officials kept on ‘whispering to their CIA counterparts in Islamabad that a war in Afghanistan Could spin wildly out of control. It would upset a delicate balance in the region, they said, perhaps even leading India and Pakistan toward a full-blown proxy war inside Afghanistan.’5

As the negotiations dragged on and September turned to October, the CIA quietly began inserting paramilitary teams into Afghanistan to make contact with the warlord commanders who fought under the Northern Alliance banner. Meanwhile a torrent of threat information continued to come into CIA’s Counterterrorist Center from its stations in the Middle East and South Asia. On October 5, two days before the United States dropped the first bombs on Afghanistan, Armitage sent an eye -only cable to Ambassador Chamberlin (US ambassador in Islamabad) demanding that she meet immediately with General Ahmed (, the ISI chief). He wanted a simple message delivered to Mullah Omar, and he wanted Ahmed to deliver it. If another attack was traced back to Afghanistan, Armitage wrote, the American response would be devastating: “Every pillar of the Taliban regime will be destroyed.”6

A day after the war in Afghanistan started, Pakistani dictator general Pervez Musharraf replaced General Ahmed at the ISI. His replacement was General Ehsan Ul Haq, an army commander who was leading the army’s corps in Peshawar where the CIA had set up one of its largest bases posts 9/11. Peshawar was one of the most crucial locations for war against Taliban and Al Qaeda. However, the appointment of General Ali Jan Aurakzai as corps commander in Peshawar in place of General Haq, the new ISI chief, clearly indicated what were the intentions of Pakistan. General Aurakzai was a long time Taliban sympathizer. He was also one of the key conspirators who supported Musharraf’s coup against President Nawaz Sharif. It is said that it was General Aurakzai who pointed a gun in Sharif’s face and told him that the military is taking charge of the country.

But for a CIA now at war, there was no relationship more important than that with Pakistan’s Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence. For years, it had all the qualities of a failing marriage: Both sides had long ago stopped trusting each other but couldn’t imagine ever splitting up.

(To be continued)


  1. The Way of the Knife by Mark Mazzettik (pp 28)
  2. The Way of the Knife by Mark Mazzettik (pp 28-29)
  3. Directorate S by Steve Coll (Allen Lane, 2018 ed.) (pp 62)
  4. Directorate S by Steve Coll (Allen Lane, 2018 ed.) (pp 62-63)
  5. The Way of the Knife by Mark Mazzettik (pp 33)
  6. The Way of the Knife by Mark Mazzettik (pp 33)