The Taliban Story (Part13): Taliban and ISI: Cloak and Dagger
Photo Source: Google Images

By Arun Anand

This is the 13th part of the 30-part series on ‘The Taliban Story’ that we bring to our readers. You can share your feedback at [email protected]. Here is the 13th part:

The Taliban Story (Part13): Taliban and ISI: Cloak and Dagger
Photo Source: Google Images

Pakistan’s Inter Service Intelligence (ISI) had played a key role in making Taliban capture power Afghanistan in 1990s. Yet the fissures between the two had started appearing much by 2000.

Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, the Afghan Ambassador to Pakistan during Taliban regime’s views on ISI are an eye-opener:

‘Pakistan before 11 September 2001 was an empty shell, where a government within the government had become the real force within the country. Musharraf tried to lead the country, but he was deeply involved in this domestic power struggle.

Now, as then, the ISI acts at will, abusing and overruling the elected government whenever they deem it necessary. It is a military intelligence administration that is led by Pakistan’s military commanders. It is the combined clandestine services, civil and military. It shackles, detains and releases, and at times it assassinates. Its operations often take place far beyond its own borders, in Afghanistan, India or in Iran. It runs a network of spies in each country and often recruits from among the local population to carry out covert missions. Its personnel are skilled and receive training in various fields, from espionage techniques to explosives.

People are placed in foreign countries in the guise of regular professions—a Mullah for a Mullah, a Tablighi for a Tablighi, a tribal man for the tribal man, businessmen for businessmen or a mujahid for a mujahid. Its reach is far and it has strong roots inside and outside its own country. The wolf and sheep may drink water from the same stream, but since the start of the jihad the ISI extended its roots deep into Afghanistan like a cancer puts down roots in the human body; every ruler of Afghanistan complained about it, but none could get rid of it.

The ISI seeks to find and recruit individuals from all strata of life. It has people in the embassies, ministries and provinces. Throughout my different government positions I always tried to stay away from the net they were spinning in the Afghan government, while avoiding any conflict so as not to become a target of theirs. While I was working at the embassy, many Ulema’ and other people came to me with the pretension of being pious and God-fearing; but often they had only come to persuade me to work with the ISI.1

Mullah Zaeef lamented that the ISI tried to recruit him also and was trying to spy on Taliban in the garb of a friendly agency. He said, “I remained loyal to my principles and tried to avoid spending time with people who would try to draw me into the web of the ISI. Many times, I received invitations from Generals with the ISI, but I made up excuses and kept away from them. I would pretend that I had a previous engagement or that I was not feeling well. On occasions when I would have to meet due to my responsibility as ambassador, I was still cautious.

Many times, I was approached and offered money, but I never accepted a single rupee from them, for if you fall once into their net, you will be stuck there forever. This is the habit of all intelligence agencies across the globe.

We have noted that whoever previously fell into the clutches of the CIA, KGB, ISI, SIS and so on is still stuck in those same clutches now, being used by different names and titles.

Officials from other departments and ministries would also approach me to find out about the current affairs and problems in the Embassy and in Kandahar. The ISI was always very forthright in stressing that they would support me and the Embassy in any issue or problem I had concerning Musharraf or the Pakistani Ministries. Again and again, they reassured me that it would be in Afghanistan’s best interests—and my own best interests—to work together with them, but I continued to conduct all official business though the Foreign Ministry.”2

The ISI was constantly in touch with Taliban even after the US had starting putting pressure after 1998 Embassy bombings to hunt Osama Bin laden who was given a sanctuary by Taliban. The Isi continued to pay lip service to the cause and kept on playing both the sides-US and Taliban. This was yet another classic example of the ISI style of functioning where it ensured that crisis should keep on simmering in the region and peace shouldn’t return to Afghanistan as it would slice down its role, importance, weightage and most importantly billions of dollars it was making in lieu of helping both the US and the radicals.

Mark Mazzetti, who won a Pulitzer prize in 2009 for his reportages from Afghanistan and Pakistan summed it up well, “With Pakistani intelligence providing succour to the Taliban with both money and advice on military strategy, and with the spigot of money from Washington to Islamabad shut off, American officials stationed in Islamabad during the 1990s found they had no leverage with the ISI when they demanded that Pakistani spies push the Talibani government in Kabul to hand over Osama bin Laden. The United States turned up the pressure after al Qaeda simultaneously bombed the American Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, but Pakistan’s spy service was unmoved. The Americans in Pakistan sent a string of cables to Washington detailing their frustrations. One State department cable from Islamabad in 1998 carried a dry, understated subject heading: ‘Usama bin Ladin: Pakistan seems to be leaning against being helpful.’ …By 2001 groups like the Afghan Taliban and the militia network run by mujahideen leaders Jalaluddin Haqqani were considered critical elements of Pakistan’s defenes.”3

It was clear that ‘Osama bin Laden’ had become a major bone of contention between the US and the Taliban and ISI was double crossing both of them.

Mullah Zaeef gives a first-hand account of the games played by the ISI, “There were ISI officials on most of Pakistan’s diplomatic missions to Afghanistan. I accompanied three Pakistani delegations on their trips. The first time I went with Moinuddin Haider to Kandahar he wanted to discuss the criminals Pakistan suspected were hiding in Afghanistan and their expatriation; the case of Osama bin Laden was the main goal of his mission.

The second trip concerned the destruction of the Buddhas in Bamyan. Haider wanted to stall the process in order to gain more time for negotiations. For the third diplomatic mission, a delegation of Ulema’ travelled to Kandahar to meet with Amir ul-Mu’mineen. General Mahmud Ahmad (ISI Chief) was part of the delegation, but he did not take part in the discussions. I don’t know if he was involved behind the scenes, but while the talks took place he always sat in silence. I remember the discussion that took place about the destruction of the statues. Haider had been trying to persuade Amir ul-Mu’mineen to delay the destruction, and Mahmud was sitting next to me.

It was clear that while Haider represented Musharraf and the government, Mahmud had his own agenda. When Haider spoke to Amir ul Mu’mineen he seemed to be more eloquent than the others, weighing his words carefully.

He raised his concerns about the plans of the Americans, saying, “You should make a decision. Be aware, though, that I am up to 80 per cent certain that the Americans will attack you. You should think about whether you can defend and save yourselves, and if you know how to. I for one don’t know what you can do!”

He was the only one who was worried about the Americans; everyone else seemed not to be concerned about the Osama issue. As Haider talked, Mahmud leaned towards me and whispered. “What is this silly donkey talking about?” I said nothing, but thought to myself what a great difference there was between the two men.”4

‘Even though Pakistan and the ISI maintained close relations with the Taliban, they also continued to uphold their ties to our opposition. Both before and after 11 September 2001, they assisted various commanders who were operating against us, giving them permission to carry weapons and organize themselves politically. Some of the commanders—like Karzai, Abdul Haq, Mullah Malang and Gul Agha Shirzai—were in direct contact with America and were working with the CIA and FBI. They received financial and other assistance through the US embassy. They enjoyed a considerable freedom and privileges in Pakistan.


A former leading mujahed lived on Street F-10–3, where our own embassy guesthouse was also located. We watched his activities closely from the embassy, and set up surveillance equipment to record the phone calls coming in and out; we also tracked the movements of his associates.

There was constant activity at his house, and every two- or three-days men from the ISI would pay him a visit. At times, even other opposition leaders would gather there. He used to meet Hezb-e Islami commanders and exchange views with the Northern Alliance, the main opposition to the Taliban, led by Ahmad Shah Massoud. From this surveillance we learned that money was being passed to support the Northern Alliance.

The ISI and the Northern Alliance met at least twice, once in Peshawar in the ISI offices and once in their Islamabad guesthouse, no. 8. I reported all their activities back to the Emirate. When I learned that the ISI had put together a deal between America, Iran, and the Northern Alliance to tackle

the Taliban, I travelled immediately to Kandahar. Reporting back to Mullah Saheb, I told him that the growing animosities between Afghanistan and Pakistan needed to be brought to an end. “We are not just neighbouring countries”, I said, “but share a common sphere and culture. We need to come to an understanding for the sake of the people”. I told him that I had strong indications that Pakistan was negotiating with America, Iran and the Northern Alliance in a plot against the Emirate of Afghanistan.’5



  1. My Life with the Taliban by Abdul Salam Zaeef, Hachette India (2016 ed.)
  2. My Life with the Taliban by Abdul Salam Zaeef, Hachette India (2016 ed.)
  3. The Way of the Knife by Mark Mazzetti, Penguin India (2013 ed) (Pp27-31)
  4. My Life with the Taliban by Abdul Salam Zaeef, Hachette India (2016 ed.)
  5. My Life with the Taliban by Abdul Salam Zaeef, Hachette India (2016 ed.)