The United States now believes that for the last 10 years Pakistan has been playing a double game, publicly acting as America’s ally, while secretly training and arming the Taliban in its war against the US in Afghanistan.
In a prison cell on the outskirts of Kabul, the Afghan Intelligence Service is holding a young man who alleges he was recruited earlier this year by Pakistan’s powerful military intelligence agency, the ISI.
He says the Pakistanis trained him to be a suicide bomber, to be used in the Taliban’s intensifying military campaign against the Western coalition forces. After fifteen days training, he was ready to head to Afghanistan. The prisoner claims the preparations for his mission were overseen by an ISI officer in a camp in Pakistan.
Taliban bases in Pakistan
The man recruited to be a suicide bomber changed his mind at the last minute and was later captured by the Afghan intelligence service.
But his story is consistent with a mass of intelligence, confirming suspicions the Americans had been harboring about the Pakistanis increasingly over the last decade – that it has been secretly arming and supporting the Taliban in its attempt to regain control of Afghanistan.
“There were three of us. We were put into a black vehicle with black windows. The police did not stop the car because it was obviously ISI. No one dares stop their cars. They told me … you will receive your explosive waistcoat, and then go and explode it.
These suspicions started as early as 2002/3 – with the Taliban launching attacks from their bases in Pakistan on American forces in Afghanistan, but they became more widely held after 2006 when the Taliban’s assault increased in its ferocity, not least against the ill-prepared British forces in Helmand province.
The final tipping point in American eyes was the attack on Mumbai when 10 gunmen rampaged through the Indian city, killing 170 people – two weeks after Obama’s presidential victory in November 2008.
Despite Pakistan claiming it played no part in the attack, the CIA later received intelligence that it said showed the ISI were directly involved in training the Mumbai gunmen.
Bruce Riedel, a veteran CIA officer, called in by President Obama to review all intelligence on the region says the evidence was damning:
“Our own intelligence was unequivocal. In Afghanistan we saw an insurgency that was not only getting passive support from the Pakistani army and the Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI, but getting active support.”
Training and Supplies
Pakistan has repeatedly denied the claims but the BBC documentary series, Secret Pakistan has spoken to a number of middle ranking – and still active – Taliban commanders who provide detailed evidence of how for the last 10 years the Pakistan ISI has rebuilt, trained and supported the Taliban in its war on the US in Afghanistan.
“For a fighter there are two important things – supplies and a place to hide,” According to one Taliban commander, who fights under the name Mullah Qaseem:. Pakistan plays a significant role. First they support us by providing a place to hide which is really important. Secondly, they provide us with weapons.”
Another commander, Najib, describes how, following the American troop surge introduced by President Obama in Afghanistan in 2009, the Pakistanis responded in kind.
“Because Obama put more troops into Afghanistan and increased operations here, so Pakistan’s support for us increased as well. It increased a great deal.”
The Taliban commander describes the remarkable contents of a single supply truck he claims the Pakistanis delivered to his group, “500 landmines with remote controls, 20 Rocket propelled grenade launchers with 2000 to 3000 grenades. They brought AK47s, machine guns and rockets.”
To American soldiers like Major Mike Waltz, on the ground in the dangerous border regions of Afghanistan, the evidence of Pakistani support for the Taliban was plain to see:
“When we were operating near Pakistani military posts they would often flash signal lights and we could see them from ridge line to ridge line to ridge line and then down to the Pakistani military post and a series of signals and then mysteriously the folks that we were going to interact with were gone. The Pakistani military was clearly signalling with folks up in the mountains which we knew were insurgents.”
The Americans have responded by taking matters into their own hands. In President Obama’s first year in office, there were an estimated 53 drone strikes inside Pakistan on Taliban camps or key figures in the insurgency – more than the previous five years combined.
The drone attacks are deeply resented by Pakistan. “The problem with the drone attacks is that the overwhelming population of Pakistan thinks they are terrible,” said former National Security Adviser, General Asad Durrani. “So just because of that, I think the cost is too heavy.”
At the same time, the attacks have become increasingly effective as intelligence has been withheld from the Pakistanis, claims Riedel.
“At the beginning of the drone operations, we gave Pakistan an advance tip off of where we were going, and every single time the target wasn’t there anymore. You didn’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to put the dots together.”
Bin Laden’s capture and killing followed this same model – the Americans acting on their own, to the humiliation of the Pakistan. Trust between the two supposed allies has never been lower.
Killing bin Laden was the reason America had attacked Afghanistan and overthrown the Taliban – but in the ten years since 9/11, that war had taken on a life of its own.
The Taliban’s refusal to hand over Bin Laden to the US ’s death was the original reason for war, and his death has removed a major obstacle to peace.
But those who claim that Pakistan’s hidden hand has shaped the conflict, fear the same is true of the negotiations for peace. Last year, in the Pakistani city of Karachi, Mullah Baradar, the Taliban’s second in command, was captured by the ISI.
Secretly Baradar had made contact with the Afghan government to discuss a deal that would end the war. He had done so without the ISI’s permission and according to Britain’s special representative to Afghanistan, that was unaccceptable to the ISI.
“The story I heard was that the Pakistanis were able to find and detain Baradar and their motive in doing so was to bring him back under control and to send a message that if you want to do a deal you have to do it with Pakistan. You can’t plough an independent furrow.”
The Afghan government began peace talks with the Taliban but these were abandoned after its chief negotiator, former President Rabbani was killed by a suicide bomber, purporting to be a Taliban envoy.
Any future peace will have to be concluded with Pakistan President Karzai has since declared
To American policy advisers like Bruce Riedel, the message is clear:
“The ISI may not be able to deliver the Taliban to the negotiating table, but they can certainly spoil any negotiations process. So far, there’s very little sign, that I’ve seen, that Pakistan is interested in a political deal.”
While denying links to the Taliban, Pakistan insists that it is doing no more than what any country would do in similar circumstances. According to their chief military spokesman, General Athar Abbas:
“We cannot disregard our long term interest because this is our own area.”
According to General Durrani:
“The point is history changes. And in history you have friends with somebody today, and you’re mortal enemies with him tomorrow.”
As for Pakistan itself, there are those like Bruce Riedel who fear that the forces unleashed in ten years of war may yet come to haunt the whole world:
“There is probably no worse nightmare, for America, for Europe, for the world, in the 21st century than if Pakistan gets out of control under the influence of extremist Islamic forces, armed with nuclear weapons…The stakes here are huge.”
What happens in Pakistan, may yet be the most enduring legacy of 9/11 and the hunt for Osama Bin Laden.