For the past 20 years, Pakistani officials have indignantly denied providing any assistance to the Taliban, portraying their countrymen as much victims of the Islamist Afghan Pashtun militia as the American soldiers who died fighting them.
And for just as long, U.S. military and intelligence officials have dismissed Pakistan’s denials, accusing its Inter-Service Intelligence Agency (ISI) of playing a duplicitous double game with its putative ally in Washington. Behind Pakistan’s denials, these officials said—and it became widely known—ISI operatives fed the Taliban’s hardline Haqqani network with weapons, military equipment and training—all of which the group then used in deadly attacks against both Afghan and U.S. forces and diplomats in Afghanistan.
Pakistan Spy Chief Faiz Hameed dropped into Kabul
The Haqqani network, seen by the Pentagon as the point of the Taliban’s spear in its war against U.S. and coalition forces, “has long enjoyed the support and protection of the Pakistani government and is, in many ways, a strategic arm of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Agency,” Adm. Michael Mullen, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs, testified before Congress in 2011, a decade after the 9/11 attacks that prompted the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan that toppled its Taliban government.
But now, after another decade of denials, Pakistan finally has dropped its pretense of innocence.
“We are the custodians of Taliban’s leaders,” Pakistani Interior Minister Sheikh Rasheed Ahmad admitted to a television interviewer on Sept. 2, publicly acknowledging the close ties between Islamabad and the Taliban. “We have taken care of them for a long time. They got shelter, education and a home in Pakistan. We have done everything for them.”
It sounded more like a plea than a boast. Two days later, the head of the ISI itself, Lt. Gen. Faiz Hameed, descended on Kabul, undoubtedly driving home the same message.
The fighting in Afghanistan has been going on for so long now that it’s easy to forget that the ISI actually helped create the Taliban, enlisting the children of the Afghan refugees who had fled the Soviet occupation of their country in the 1980s and lived in the tent camps that Pakistan provided for them along its border with Afghanistan.
Their recruitment occurred in the early 1990s as civil war raged in Afghanistan following the earlier withdrawal of Soviet troops and the collapse of the Soviet-backed Afghan government in 1992. Concerned that warlords supported by its historical foe, India, would prevail and leave Pakistan boxed in on two sides, the ISI trained, armed and sent these refugee children back into Afghanistan straight from their madrassas, the fundamentalist Islamic religious academies in the camps where they studied. Taliban means “students” in Arabic.
Pakistan supported the Taliban as they vanquished rival Pashtun warlords and took power over three-fourths of the country in 1996. And Pakistan’s support continued throughout the Taliban’s harsh, austere reign until U.S. forces toppled their government shortly after the 9/11 attacks, when George W. Bush declared that governments had to choose what side they were on.
"You're either with us or against us in the fight against terror," Bush said in November 2001.
It was then that Islamabad publicly distanced itself from the Taliban, proclaiming Pakistan a loyal ally in the U.S. war on terror. But the ISI covertly continued its support for the group, giving its leaders and fighters sanctuary, more weapons and training in the southwestern Pakistani border city of Quetta. Refreshed and rearmed, the Taliban slipped back into Afghanistan to wage their insurgency against the Afghan government and the U,S. troops that propped it up.
With the U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Taliban’s return to power last month, Pakistan’s investment has now returned substantial dividends with the appointment of Haqqani network leaders and ISI proxies to top positions in the Taliban’s new interim government.
They include Prime Minister Mullah Hasan Akhund, a senior Haqqani aide and the ISI’s top choice to lead Afghanistan. The appointment of Akhund, who appears on the United Nations terrorist list, relegated Taliban political chief Abdel Ghani Baradar to the deputy prime minister’s slot, reflecting the ISI’s suspicions of Baradar following his independent negotiations with the United States in Qatar over the American troop withdrawal.
Others ISI favorites include the new Afghan Interior Minister Sarajuddin Haqqani, the eponymous network boss who also shows up on the U.N.’s terrorist list and has a $10 million FBI bounty on his head; deputy intelligence chief Tal Mir Jawad, a Haqqani loyalist and suicide-bomb expert; and Minister for Refugees Khalil al-Rahman Haqqani, an uncle of Sarajuddin Haqqani who commands a $5 million U.S. bounty.
According to experts, including Bruce Riedel, a former CIA South Asia analyst now with the centrist Brookings Institution think tank in Washington, the key positions in the Taliban cabinet taken by Haqqani network leaders underscore the ISI’s dominant position in Afghanistan. The presence of ISI chief Lt. Gen. Faiz Hamid in Kabul when the new government was announced on Sept. 8 further punctuated the spy agency’s influence, these experts say.
"Pakistan's imprint was writ large,” former Indian ambassador Vishnu Prakash told NDTV, a New Delhi television network. “You have to be in denial to state that Pakistan's role was limited.”
Then why, after so many years of the ISI’s covert support for the Taliban, did Sheikh Rasheed, Pakistan’s interior minister, feel the need to acknowledge it publicly?
It’s about money. Pakistan’s saying, “You owe us.”
According to Riedel and other South Asia experts, the Pakistan-Taliban alliance has always been fragile despite Islamabad's extensive assistance over the years. While Pakistan aimed to exert control over the Taliban with its support, Taliban leaders always sought to maintain both the movement’s independence and Islamabad’s aid. But now that the Taliban have returned to power, their differences with Pakistan, long buried during the years of struggle, are now bubbling to the surface.
For example, the Taliban never accepted the so-called Durand Line, the 19th-century border drawn by a British colonial bureaucrat that runs 1,600-miles between Afghanistan and Pakistan and cuts through Pashtun tribal lands on both sides. Ignoring Taliban protests, Pakistan has built a fence along most of the border, but the Taliban consider the tribal lands on the Pakistan side to be part of their homeland.
Now that the Taliban are back in power, “their Afghan Pashtun nationalism is likely to spike,” Riedel told SpyTalk. “So we may see some friction.”
Moreover, today, “the Taliban don’t need Pakistan like they have for the last twenty years,” Riedel adds. The war’s over. Rather than the ISI’s weapons and training, Afghanistan’s new rulers now desperately need funds to buy fuel for all the tanks and other armored vehicles the Americans left behind in their chaotic withdrawal, as well as major economic assistance to govern their war-shattered country. The money that the Taliban bring in from their illicit opium trade doesn’t come close to meeting those demands.
While a recent U.N.-sponsored donors conference came up with pledges for some $1.2 billion in humanitarian aid for Afghanistan, the Taliban are reaching out for additional assistance from individual countries with cash to spare, such as China.
But Sheikh Rasheed’s public acknowledgement of Pakistan’s history of support for the Taliban came only after a senior Taliban official based in Qatar met with India’s ambassador earlier this month and urged New Delhi to invest in Afghanistan.
“This was a marriage of convenience,” retired Indian Army Maj. Gaurav Arya told a television interviewer, referring to the Pakistan-Taliban alliance. “There was a time when the Taliban was in the back pocket of the Pakistan army and the Pakistan deep state. But today, the Taliban needs money. And Pakistan cannot give money…”
He added, “So Sheikh Rasheed is trying to remind the Taliban that when you were not in power, you were dependent on us, and we did you a lot of favors by allowing you to settle in Pakistan.”
Arya portrayed the Taliban as desperate for money. But if Sheikh Rasheed’s acknowledgement is any measure, Pakistan is no less desperate to maintain its grip on its newly empowered Taliban neighbors.