by Dr. Adrian Hänni and Lukas Hegi.
The aim of the present study is to gather facts and disclose links that demonstrate the kind of game the Pakistani government is playing with the West, with its intelligence service “Inter-Services Intelligence” (ISI) supporting the Taliban on a grand scale. After a historical summary highlighting the close connection between the Pakistani intelligence agency ISI with the Taliban since their emergence in the mid-90s (in part one, two and three), the arrest of an influential Taliban leader is used as an example to demonstrate the effrontery with which the Pakistanis are playing their game (in part four).
In Mid-February 2010, the New York Times reported on its front page the arrest of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar Akhund, the number two of the Afghan Taliban leaders, by Pakistani security forces (Mark Mazzetti and Dexter Filkins, “Secret Joint Raid Captures Taliban’s Top Commander“, New York Times, 15.02.2010). Baradar was arrested at an Islamic school near Karachi. In the United States, this arrest was hailed as a great success. On the one hand because this appeared to deal a serious blow to the leaders of the insurgency in Afghanistan, but on the other hand also because many experts and commentators seemed to recognise this as a long-awaited change in the strategy of the Pakistani leaders. Soon, however, critical voices were increasing, not least from Pakistan itself, which considered the operation against Baradar and other cadres of Taliban and al-Qaeda to be the pursuit of Pakistan’s own interests rather than a cooperation in the “war on terror”.
Baradar, probably born in 1968, is a Zirak-Durrani Pashtun and belongs to the Popalzai tribe. During the Soviet occupation, he fought with the Mujahedeen against the Soviets. After the occupation, he is said to have founded and led an Islamic school in Maiwand together with with the later Taliban leader Mullah Omar. In 1994 he was among the founders of the Taliban, who, according to their founding myth, created the new movement under the impression of the disgusting behaviour of some mujahideen commanders (“Profile: Mullah Abdul Gahni Baradar“, BBC News, 17.02.2010). Varying information is circulating about his function during the Taliban era. He is said to have served as governor of the provinces of Herat and Nimroz, have been deputy chief of staff and held the position of deputy defence minister of the Taliban government. After the commencement of operations of the United States and its allies to topple the Taliban in October 2001, Baradar is said to have got his fellow combatant Mullah Omar to safety in the mountains with a motorcycle (Ron Moreau, “America’s New Nightmare“, Newsweek, 24.07.2009). He himself was imprisoned by coalition troops, but was set free after a short time following intervention by the ISI (Mazzetti and Filkins, “Secret Joint Raid Captures Taliban’s Top Commander”). Since then, Baradar has increasingly become the real leader of the Taliban. Mullah Omar appeared noticeably less frequently and operational decisions seem to have been made evermore by Baradar. Meanwhile, he was considered “de-facto leader” of the Taliban (Moreau, “America’s New Nightmare”).Baradar also has connections with President Hamid Karzai. When, in late 2001 Karzai returned to Afghanistan with the help of the Americans and tried to regain control in his home region, he got into a dangerous situation during negotiations with warlords. Baradar saved him and in return got the promise that he would not be prosecuted by the government of Karzai for his time as Taliban minister. Karzai is also said to have promised him to let the Taliban participate in a new Afghan government. This deal never materialised, and after the coalition troops attacked his home, Baradar fled to Pakistan (Bette Dam, “Mullah Baradar: friend or foe?“, Radio Netherlands Worldwide, 16.02.2010). From there, he was involved in the development of resistance against the U.S. and NATO forces. Baradar became more and more of a leader figure, even though his name and prominence were probably familiar only to a few. His rise was also helped by the elimination of colleagues and rivals, such as the notorious Mullah Dadullah. Mullah Dadullah is considered the initiator of the insurrection that began in 2003 with the murder of a Red Cross employee. Dadullah was killed in a commando raid by NATO troops on 13 May 2007. Since 2007, Baradar also seems to have been the strong man in the highest military body of the Taliban, the Quetta Shura.
During the whole period, the contact between Baradar and the government in Kabul seems never to have been interrupted. According to a Newsweek article by Ron Moreau, who has communicated with Baradar also by e-mail, the Taliban leader actively supported entering into discussions with the central government of Karzai on at least two occasions, in 2004 and early 2009. Baradar therefore had a very influential position: Firstly, as a leading member of the Quetta Shura, he had a crucial role in shaping the military strategy of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Secondly, he also had ties to Pakistan’s ISI, which becomes evident, if from nothing else, from the fact that the intelligence service secured his release from American captivity. And thirdly, Baradar has never let the connection to the government in Kabul be interrupted and has signaled his readiness for dialogue.
On the morning of the 8th of February 2010, Pakistani security forces stormed a madrassa in Karachi (“Taliban Commander Mullah Baradar ‘seized in Pakistan’“, BBC News, 16.02.2010). They arrested several people. The ISI had allegedly become active following a tip-off, but had been unable to locate the leader of the Taliban themselves. Therefore, he had requested the assistance of American experts. When Baradar switched on his mobile phone, the trap snapped shut. The technicians of the CIA had located his position and guided the Pakistani security forces to it. It is unclear who knew how much about the person they targeted. The ISI was said to have asked the Americans for help without informing them about the purpose, and the statement of the CIA “that the ISI initially wasn’t aware of the fact that they had arrested Baradar either caused hilarity in Islamabad” (Martin Killian, “Pakistan verhaftete Taliban-Chef, um Krieg in Afghanistan zu verlängern“, Tages Anzeiger, 24.08.2010, 9; Dexter Filkins, “Pakistanis Tell of Motive in Taliban Leader’s Arrest“, The New York Times, 22.08.2010). Three explanations for the spectacular arrest of Mullah Baradar are possible::
- It was a fluke. The ISI really had no idea who they were arresting;
- It was a change of strategy. Pakistan actually has made a U-turn on its Taliban policy and will deny the insurgents help in the future;
- It was part of the double game. Pakistan once again played a double game and took with Baradar the most influential person who sought a dialogue and a solution through negotiation with the Government of Karzai, out of circulation, because Pakistan saw its strategic objectives endangered.
The first explanation can be excluded, because on the basis of the above-mentioned earlier contacts between ISI and Baradar it may be assumed that he was well known in Pakistan. A high NATO official confirmed this assessment: “Baradar is too high-profile for them not to have known who it was.” (Filkins, Pakistanis Tell of Motive). Nor is it likely that individual elements of the ISI were acting independently. This leaves the question of whether the change in thinking that has long been desired by the U.S. has actually taken place in Pakistan or whether the leaders of the country have once more betrayed their allies in favour of their own goals.Whatever the case may be, the United States responded to news of the arrest with pleasure. Experts and commentators spoke of a “sea change in Pakistani behavior” (Mazzetti and Filkins, “Secret Joint Raid Captures Taliban’s Top Commander”), a “turning point in Pakistan’s policy towards the Taliban” (Pir Zubair Shah and Dexter Filkins, “Pakistani Reports Capture of a Taliban Leader“, The New York Times, 22.02.2010) or a “strategic recalibration” (David Ignatius, “To Pakistan, almost with love“, Washington Post, 04.03.2010). With the arrest, Pakistan seemed actually to have met a key requirement of the Americans, namely to begin cracking down on the Taliban with more energy than before. The Taliban are infiltrating Afghanistan from the Pashtun tribal areas in Pakistan and carry out attacks on NATO troops in the country. 2010 attacks on supply lines in Pakistan also became more frequent. The arrest of Baradar was neither the first nor the last. In fact, the Pakistani authorities can present us with an impressive list of arrested Taliban and al-Qaeda extremists. The names include that of the former finance minister as well as the former police chief of the Taliban. Ashley Tellis has no fewer than 17 names in his report, which could actually indicate a change in the Pakistan’s attitude (Ashley J. Tellis, “Beradar, Pakistan, and the Afghan Taliban: What Gives?“, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Policy Outlook, 24.03.2010). Many indications, however, contradict this interpretation and suggest that the ISI, the military, and the Pakistani government once again played the familiar double game.
Tellis points out that except for Baradar and Maulavi Abdul Kabir, none of those arrested belonged to the Quetta Shura and therefore none had the corresponding influence within the Taliban. Doubts are also in order about the seriousness of the arrests. On several occasions, the Pakistani authorities have arrested Taliban leaders only to set them free again (Tellis, “Beradar, Pakistan, and the Afghan Taliban”, 3; Matt Waldman, “The Sun in the Sky: The Relationship Between Pakistan’s ISI and Afghan Insurgents“, Crisis State Research Centre Discussion Papers, No. 18, June 2010, 8f; Thomas H. Johnson and M. Chris Mason, “Down the AfPak Rabbit Hole“, Foreign Policy, 01.03.2010). Maybe sometimes even with the express consent of the civilian leaders. In late March or early April 2010, according to Waldman, around 50 Taliban were released from captivity. This after President Asif Ali Zardari had personally assured them that they would be released: “reportedly, he told them they were arrested because he was under a lot of pressure from the Americans”. (Waldman, “The Sun in the Sky”, 8f. The source is a Talib who is in regular contact with members of the Quetta Shura. Since the incident at present cannot be verified by any independent source, it could of course also be a false rumour or misinformation.) In addition to this, there is another important aspect: Pakistan is at risk of a negotiated peace between the government and the insurgents in Afghanistan, without its interests being adequately considered. Precisely these fears were fuelled by secret negotiations that Baradar and other Taliban leaders arrested in February 2010 had undertaken with the Karzai government (See among others: Waldman, “The Sun in the Sky”, 7; Dean Nelson and Ben Farmer, “Hamid Karzai Held Secret Talks with Mulla Beradar in Afghanistan“, Telegraph, 16.03.2010.). Baradar and the other high-ranking detainees like Mullah Abdul Rauf Aliza and Mullah Ahmed Jan Akhundzada belonged to the moderate forces within the Taliban who were ready to engage in peace negotiations (Tellis, “Beradar, Pakistan, and the Afghan Taliban”, 5). And Thomas Johnson and Chris Mason have come to the conclusion that the arrests were intended to withdraw any Taliban leaders who had a positive attitude towards negotiations with the Afghan government from circulation. For them, it is evident that: “This is not cooperation against the Taliban by an allied state; it is collusion with the Taliban by an enemy state.” (Johnson and Mason, “Down the AfPak Rabbit Hole”).Waldman quotes a diplomat, according to whom the Pakistani Government had all high-ranking Taliban, who had signaled their readiness for peace talks arrested by February 2010 (Matt Waldman, “Dangerous Liaisons with the Afghan Taliban“, United States Institute of Peace, Special Report, No. 256, 18.10.2010). He concludes that Pakistan wanted to demonstrate that it would block negotiations until it would be fully involved into the process. It seems that the rebels also understood the message that way. In interviews, most of those asked interpreted the arrests as an attempt to block the peace negotiations. Voices expressing strong doubts about a change of thinking within the military and civilian government could also be heard from within Pakistan itself. Members of the Pakistani executive branch reveal their intention to stop the secret peace negotiations Baradar had held with the Afghan government, which excluded Pakistan. A member of the security forces confirmed: “We picked up Baradar and the others because they were trying to make a deal without us. […] We are not going to allow them to make a deal with Karzai and the Indians.” (Filkins, “Pakistanis Tell of Motive in Taliban Leader’s Arrest”). Western observers in the country are sharing this view. For example, a high NATO staff admitted that: “We have been played before. That the Pakistanis picked up Baradar to control the tempo of the negotiations is absolutely plausible.” (Ibid). A former diplomat with extensive experience in the Middle East also considers the wave of arrests to be a warning of ISI directed at the Taliban. Finally, a report of the Congressional Research Service about the raid against Osama bin Laden in May 2011 also noted that Washington and other Western governments have seemingly been anxious for some time that Pakistan had begun to take a more aggressive and unilateralist course in 2010 to determine the progress of peace negotiations in Afghanistan. Signs suggesting this were the arrests of certain Taliban who had pushed negotiations with the Karzai government, as well as the protection of the Haqqani Network in North Waziristan by Pakistan (John Rollins, “Osama bin Laden’s Death: Implications and Considerations“, Report for Congress, Congressional Research Service, 05.05.2011). Thus, there remains little room for other explanations than the one that Pakistan has once again been playing a double game: On the one hand, it appeased the U.S. by giving them the impression that it was now seriously cracking down on the extremists on its territory. On the other hand, it influenced the strategy of the Taliban so that negotiations with the Karzai government without Pakistani permission were not an option, thus keeping the Taliban as a proxy for the enforcement of its own strategic interests in Afghanistan. At the same time it strengthened its control over the Taliban.
Since September the 11th 2001, the subsequent acceptance of the “Seven Points” by President Pervez Musharraf and the start of Operation Enduring Freedom in Autumn 2001, Pakistan has been presenting itself as a reliable coalition partner of the United States and the West in the “war on terrorism” – and has been publicly acknowledged as such by NATO countries. In December 2009 President Barack Obama reiterated characteristically: “[…] we are committed to a partnership that is built on a foundation of mutual interest, mutual respect and mutual trust” (Barack Obama, “Remarks by the President in Address to the Nation on the Way Forward in Afghanistan and Pakistan“, The White House, 01.12.2009). And as recently as April 2010, the U.S. Department of Defense called Pakistan an ally and “effective partner” (“Report on Progress toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan and United States Plan for Sustaining the Afghanistan National Security Forces“, Report to U.S. Congress, U.S. Department of Defense, April 2010, 5). As a result of its apparent strategic U-turn, Pakistan has received 10.7 billion US dollars in Coalition Support Funding (CSF) for its security apparatus since September 11th, and on top of that another 8,7 billion US dollars in economic aid, all by the United States (Alan K. Kronstadt, “Direct Overt U.S. Aid and Military Reimbursements to Pakistan, FY2002-FY2014“, Congressional Research Service Report, 11.04.2013; Alan K. Kronstadt, “Major U.S. Arms Sales and Grants to Pakistan since 2001“, U.S. Congressional Research Service Report, 07.03.2013). This means that Pakistan has received almost 90% of the total CSF worldwide (“Pakistan: Fixing Coalition Support Funding“, Cable from U.S. Embassy Islamabad to RHMFISS/CDR USCENTCOM MACDILL, U.S. Department of State, 15 December 2007). Pakistani officers even sit in the Tripartite Joint Intelligence Operations Center, which is located in the ISAF headquarters in Kabul (“Report on Progress toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan”, 7 and 32).
Behind this façade of a faithful ally in the “war on terrorism,” Pakistan is playing a bold double game, by means of which the outcome of the war in Afghanistan has been blown wide open: as was demonstrated unequivocally in the present study, the ISI at the forefront does give the Taliban – since the foundation of Mullah Omar’s group from 1994 to today – complete, very comprehensive and systematic support. The ISI supplies the Taliban with money, weapons, ammunition and intelligence, provides for their military training, organizes the recruitment of new Islamist militants in the madrassas, and helps in planning military offensives. Although the organisation, the nature and partly also the extent of assistance vary and have evolved over the 16 years, the support outlined is an iron constant in the relationship between the ISI and the Taliban – from the founding of the “religious students” and their rule in Kabul to their armed uprising in 2010. Moreover, since the flight of the Taliban from Afghanistan in the winter of 2001/2002, the ISI has been harbouring Taliban leaders in Balochistan and also supports the other two major factions of the rebellion in Afghanistan, the Hizb-i-Islami of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and especially the Haqqani network. There can be no doubt: Without the support and guidance from Pakistan, the insurgency in Afghanistan in its present extent would be impossible.
But the ISI does not only fuel the Afghan insurgency by increasing the capacity of the Taliban and its allies as by far the most important of its foreign sponsors. It also manipulates the intentions of these groups. The ISI has a significant influence on the insurgents – including at the strategic level – which is being applied both directly, through ISI agents in the Quetta Shura, as well as indirectly, through (threatened) arrests (as in the case of Mullah Baradar). Since 2002, the Pakistani intelligence service has been putting its Afghan proxy under a lot of pressure to continue the armed struggle against the Kabul government and the international forces by threatening to murder, arrest or extradite them to the U.S. The attempt of the ISI to control, or at least to influence them, can already be detected at the time of the Mujahedeen’s fight against the Red Army and has been shaping the sometimes-problematic relationship between the ISI and the Taliban from the beginning.
The Pakistani military and the ISI play their big double game with almost diabolical insolence. A portion of the billions of dollars they receive from the U.S. for the “war on terror” ends up by reaching the Taliban – one of the main enemies of the United States in this war – and their allies, who, with this money, kill American soldiers in Afghanistan. Moreover, the ISI and the Pakistani military even exploit the American troops to increase their control over the Taliban and to keep the Afghan insurgency alive. This happened during the arrest of Mullah Baradar and other senior Taliban in February 2010.
But why does Pakistan in general and the ISI in particular play this great double game? Why does the ISI still support the Taliban on a grand scale? This in spite of the carrot and stick policy of the United States, which is manifested in massive pressure, sweetened with two-digit billion sums. Despite the growing blowback caused by the Pakistani Taliban, who, since 2007, have developed into a serious threat for Pakistan and have at times controlled large areas in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and the North Western Frontier Province. Even though Pakistan’s Afghanistan policy can certainly not be explained in a purely mono-causal way, there is a superior motif that since the mid-1990s has been present in all major stakeholders: The perception of India as the largest and existential threat. This perception, associated with deep fears, explains the aim of Pakistan’s security strategy of a stable government in Afghanistan, which, if not directly controlled by Islamabad, should at least be well-disposed towards it, and in any event should be free of Indian influence. For 15 years, the ISI has been linking this hope almost exclusively with the Taliban. The concept of “strategic depth” is closely connected with this national interest and also implies a pro-Pakistan government in Afghanistan. “Strategic depth” means access to enough space west of the Indus for a regrouping of the Pakistani army, if they were to be pushed behind the river by an Indian invasion. Although the need for “strategic depth” has been convincingly refuted by Pakistan’s civilian strategists, the concept still plays a paramount role in the thinking of military leaders (Ahmed Rashid, “Descent into Chaos: The U.S. and the Disaster in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia“, New York:Penguin Books, p. 25). As recently as 2010, General Kayani, the Chief of Staff of the Pakistan army, has reduced the aim of his country to a simple denominator: “We want a strategic depth in Afghanistan.” (Tellis, “Beradar, Pakistan, and the Afghan Taliban”, 8).
Challenging the objective of Pakistan’s security strategy to minimise the influence and presence of India in Afghanistan, New Delhi has been taking an important role in the civilian reconstruction in Afghanistan, in which it has invested between 0.5 and 1.3 billion US dollars until 2010: India has been financing roads, bridges, canals, schools, training Afghan officials, and providing even for the reconstruction of the Afghan Parliament (Rashid, “Descent into Chaos”, 248; Waldman, “The Sun in the Sky”, 5). India’s reconstruction strategy, one of the best and most comprehensive ever in the Hindu Kush, was designed to gain ground in every sector of Afghan society, to give India a good reputation in the Afghan population, to derive the maximum political advantage and of course to prevent Pakistani influence (Ibid). In addition to increased development assistance, India has, encouraged by the U.S. government, stepped up its investments in and its trade with Afghanistan (“Reviewing Our Afghanistan – Pakistan Strategy“, Cable from U.S. Embassy Islamabad to Secretary of State, U.S. Department of State, 23.09.2009). India also maintains close relations with the Karzai administration. It has established a network of four consulates in Afghanistan, thereby reopening the consulates in Kandahar and Jalalabad, which had been closed since 1979, and the country’s Foreign Intelligence Service, Research and Analysis Wing (R&W) has also expanded its presence and increased its activities (Rashid, “Descent into Chaos”, 248f and 417; Waldman, “The Sun in the Sky”, 5.). In addition to the civil commitment, India would also like to take an important role in training the Afghan security forces. “[We] will not leave Afghanistan because we have strategic interests there”, YK Sinha, secretary for Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran in the Indian Foreign Ministry, told a representative of the U.S. government at a meeting in February 2010 (“Indian Views on Afghanistan: Eager for Increased USG Coordination, Wary of Pakistani Scheming, Skeptical on R/R“, Cable from U.S. Embassy New Delhi to Secretary of State, U.S. Department of State, 23.02.2010.). In short, India has been trying to profit from the lack of Pakistani influence over the Afghan government in an increasingly aggressive way. The ISI in turn tries to counter India’s – perceived or actual – influence by supporting the insurgents in Afghanistan as a proxy.
A secondary motif for the Pakistani support of the Taliban is the question of Pashtunistan and the controversial border demarcation with Afghanistan. During the second Anglo-Afghan war, Afghanistan had had to cede parts of Western Balochistan, Quetta and the bulk of the FATA to Britain in the Treaty of Gandamak in 1879. In 1893, Sir Mortimer Durand determined Afghanistan’s present borders with Pakistan (then British India) in accordance with this contract, thereby permanently dividing the Pashtun tribal areas (Cf: Rashid, Descent into Chaos, 267f. For the Durand Line and its historical impact on Pakistan and Afghanistan, see also: Georges Lefeuvre, “Afghanische Patrioten: Die Paschtunen, die Nation und die Taliban“, Le Monde Diplomatique [German edition], Nr. 9312, 08.10.2010, 14-15). The Durand Line has since then not been accepted by any Afghan government and has always been rejected by a large number of Pashtuns on either side of the border (Rashid, “Descent into Chaos”, 8; Jonathan Steele, “Gesucht: Taliban für den Frieden“, Le Monde Diplomatique [German edition], Nr. 9312, 08.10.2010, 13; Waldman, The Sun in the Sky, 5). Pakistan has therefore traditionally tried to gain influence among the Pashtuns, to prevent the emergence of a Pashtunistan and to silence Afghan demands for territory in northwest Pakistan. This objective provides a second important explanation as to why the ISI has been continuously supporting the Taliban since the mid-nineties. For unlike the Ghilzai-Pashtuns, who dominate in the upper echelons of the Taliban, their historical rivals, the Durrani Pashtuns, who, in turn, have most government posts in Kabul, are known to support of the idea of a Pashtunistan decidedly and make claims to Pakistani territory (Waldman, “The Sun in the Sky”, 5-7, 9; Tellis, “Beradar, Pakistan, and the Afghan Taliban”, 5). For Islamabad, Taliban depending on Pakistan therefore take on the meaning of a kind of universal advantage: their support ensures continued influence in Afghanistan without a Taliban-dominated government in Kabul, although Pashtun, bringing up the question of Pashtunistan and the Durand Line.
Pakistan’s Afghanistan policy is therefore strongly shaped by a historical perspective. On the one hand by the fateful legacy of the colonial boundary between Pakistan and Afghanistan, but above all by the by profound anxieties putting a strain on the relationship between Pakistan and India, which began with the emergence of the two States in the wake of the decolonization of British India in 1947. Since then, the rivalry has been cemented by four wars.
Pakistan is planning on freeing Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar according to an adviser of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (Bill Roggio, “Pakistan to free Taliban leader Mullah Baradar“, The Long War Journal, 10.09.2013).