Matthew Cole – Salon.com
On a recent bitterly cold winter day, I sat huddled on a red Persian carpet in an unheated Kabul office, waiting for a visitor who, I was told by a trusted friend, would help me understand why America is not winning its war in Afghanistan.
A stocky, bearded figure in a gray vest, a faded brown shalwar kameez and a cream-colored Pashtun shawl appeared at the door. He removed his shoes and walked on cracked, callused feet over the carpet to sit cross-legged beside me. Our meeting was conducted in secrecy. My guest was, until early 2007, a Taliban commander of 50 fighters in North Waziristan
, Pakistan, one of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) near the Afghan border where both al-Qaida and Taliban insurgents operate. Ever since he left the Taliban, he has been living in fear of assassination for treason. I thanked him in English for his willingness to meet, and he answered me in Pashto, the chief language of southern and eastern Afghanistan and Pakistan's Tribal Areas, without a trace of emotion.
"If you had tried to interview me this time last year," he said, "I would have killed you." Then he reached past my feet and poured himself a glass of sugary green tea.
Over the course of several hours in the Kabul office, "Haji Muhammed," as we agreed he would be called, spun a gemstone ring absently around his finger and ran his hands through his thinning hair as he described for me his firsthand experience of an American foreign-policy debacle. The U.S. is paying for both sides of the war in Afghanistan. As is becoming increasingly clear, for at least two and a half years, and perhaps far longer, the Pakistani government has been receiving massive U.S. aid while its intelligence agency and elements of its military have been pursuing their own anti-American agenda within Afghanistan. The U.S. has given the Musharraf regime $10 billion since Sept. 11, 2001, but Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and factions within the Pakistan army, while helping the U.S. track al-Qaida with one hand, have been aiding the Taliban with the other, both inside Afghanistan and across the Pakistani border in Tribal Areas like North Waziristan. In part because of Pakistani help, the Taliban have made a steady comeback and American and Afghan casualties are at their highest annual levels
since the war began.
Islamabad has denied complicity and Washington has maintained official silence, but the double-dealing is not surprising. It's just the continuation of the Pakistani government's former alliance with the Taliban, which was itself an outgrowth of a decades-old Pakistani policy of trying to exert control over the internal affairs of its chaotic neighbor. It was the recognition of Pakistan's motives that drove Muhammed to defect. "I left the Taliban because I could no longer stand Pakistan's hand in Afghanistan," Muhammed told me through a translator. "For years we were trained and helped, and fought alongside ISI and [Pakistan] army officers. But they are not mujahedin, they want to keep Afghanistan weak."
Muhammed said the ISI had helped train and arm him to fight inside Afghanistan against U.S. and international coalition forces since 2002. "If the world can know what happens inside the Tribal Areas, maybe Afghanistan has a chance to survive," he said. "Like this the war will not end."
For nearly two years now, the military situation inside Afghanistan has deteriorated. Violence has increased, security has shrunk and the Taliban have brought the war to Kabul. Coalition casualties increased more than 20 percent last year and estimates of civilian deaths for 2007 range as high as 6,000
. My own repeated trips to the country have convinced me that not only are Haji Muhammed's assertions about Pakistan's role in the violence true, but that the U.S. -- or at least its representatives on the ground in Afghanistan -- has long been aware of the problem.
Interviews with Afghan and U.S. intelligence officials involved in covert U.S. operations along the border suggest that U.S. intelligence operatives have known since 2005 that the Pakistan army and the ISI have been training and arming insurgents in the Tribal Areas who cross into Afghanistan to kill Afghan, U.S. and coalition forces. "Our guys are getting killed because Pakistan has a double policy," said an American policy advisor who travels frequently to U.S military and CIA bases near the border. But the same advisor says intelligence officials have only recently gotten through to their superiors in Washington that Pakistan is part of the problem.
On my own trip to an American military base near the border in Afghanistan's Kunar province in October 2006, I was asked on arrival to have an off-the-record conversation with a U.S. Army public affairs officer. He explained a few rules about avoiding sections of the base that were run by the CIA and Special Forces. Then he told me that although we could literally see Pakistan from where we stood, I should ask no questions about what role Pakistan played in Afghanistan's war. "You might as well pretend it doesn't exist," he said. He understood reporters were interested, and acknowledged that most of the insurgents operating in Kunar were based across the border in Pakistan. But the Army's orders were, essentially, to ignore the problem. "Pakistan," he said, smiling, "is a committed ally in the war on terror."
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The sweet tea could not keep us warm, so our host brought in an electric space heater. I listened as Muhammed detailed Pakistani help in attacking U.S. forces in Afghanistan. While it is impossible to verify all of his claims, parts of his story have been confirmed by a senior Western diplomat and Afghan and U.S. intelligence officials.
Muhammed is a Pashtun Afghan who joined the Taliban as a young fighter in 1993. He viewed the Taliban, which would rule Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, as a principled force bringing needed national stability. He fought against the Taliban's main rivals, the Northern Alliance, who would become instrumental in the American effort to roust the Taliban after 9/11.
The U.S. began bombing Taliban and al-Qaida sites in Afghanistan on Oct. 7, 2001, when the Taliban would not hand over Osama bin Laden. The aerial campaign was meant to support the Northern Alliance's push against the Taliban. After Kabul fell to the Northern Alliance and U.S. Special Forces in November, Muhammad retreated with other Taliban fighters across the border, to Miran Shah in North Waziristan, one of the southernmost of Pakistan's Tribal Areas.
The Federally Administered Tribal Areas are a collection of seven "agencies" and six "frontier districts" that share 250 miles of mountainous border with Afghanistan, and make up an area about the size of Massachusetts. Nearly all of the 4 million residents are Pashtun, like their neighbors across the border in southern and eastern Afghanistan. The arid, craggy region is less Pakistan than it is "Pashtunistan," an area run by millennia-old tribal customs rather than the central government in Islamabad. Since U.S. forces occupied Afghanistan and the anti-American insurgency began, the Tribal Areas have been headquarters for al-Qaida, and a refuge for the Taliban. The region has also been the site of most of the conflict's guerrilla and terrorist training camps, many of which Haji Muhammed attended, visited or helped conduct. Many of the worst terrorist incidents of recent years, the 7/7 suicide bombings in London
, the failed Heathrow airline attacks
, the German attacks and the recent train bombing attempts in Barcelona, involve individuals with significant ties to the Tribal Areas.
From the time Muhammed arrived in North Waziristan in 2001 until his recent defection, he worked, he says, under Siraj Haqqani. Siraj, now the leader of the North Waziristan-based Taliban, is the son of Jalaluddin Haqqani, who was one of the seven main Afghan mujahedin leaders of the Afghan-Soviet war in the 1980s, and a direct recipient of the U.S. and Saudi aid that was funneled to all seven of those leaders via the ISI.
Jalaluddin Haqqani had also fled into North Waziristan in late 2001. He had suffered serious wounds to his shoulder and leg. For six months after the fall of the Taliban, as the elder Haqqani recuperated, Haji Muhammed and his comrades did nothing, though they very much wanted to expel Afghanistan's new foreign occupiers, the Americans, and the American-installed government in Kabul. "We waited to see how the Americans were fighting," Muhammed told me. "And we waited for money and supplies. We had very little."
According to Muhammed, the fighters who regrouped in North Waziristan after the fall of Kabul were a complex and ever-shifting alliance of Afghan Talibs, al-Qaida of various nationalities, Pashtun tribal militias and Pakistani jihadists. Within the mix, he said, there were two main and distinct groups. One was largely domestic and made up of Afghan and Pakistani Talibs. The other one was, and is, led by foreign fighters -- Arabs, Uzbeks and Chechens. This was Muhammed's organization.
Though he served under an Afghan Pashtun, Siraj Haqqani, he worked and trained with Abu Layth-al Libi, a Libyan national in his 40s who's considered by many in the U.S. intelligence community to be al-Qaida's No. 3. Abu Layth is best known for being the man who informed the world in July 2002 that bin Laden was still alive, and was also seen in video footage from 2004 leading an apparent attack on an Afghan military outpost. Abu Layth was reportedly killed by a CIA predator drone strike this January.
Despite fighting alongside Layth, Muhammed did not consider himself al-Qaida -- he insisted to me, quite forcefully, that he was Taliban – but the goal was the same. All wanted to attack the Americans inside Afghanistan.
Some of the cash and weapons needed to carry the fight to the Americans finally appeared after Jalaluddin Haqqani reached out to his previous handlers in the ISI. Beginning in 2002, according to Muhammed, the Pakistani intelligence agents who had underwritten his struggle against the Soviets and had continued to fund him up until the U.S. invasion begin helping Haqqani again. Haqqani and his men were able to stockpile Russian and Chinese light arms provided by the Pakistanis, and Muhammed, not then a commander, helped organize small groups of fighters for additional training. In the winter months, Muhammed and the other fighters lived in the North Waziristan lowlands; when the snows melted, they headed for their training camps in the hills.
By 2004, Muhammed was a platoon leader. But supplies were still inconsistent and his platoon's efforts inside Afghanistan's eastern provinces against Afghan, U.S. and coalition forces remained sporadic. That changed later that year when Pakistan army trucks began arriving in Miran Shah to collect fighters. "We were put in the back of the trucks at night," Muhammed said. "There were about 40 or so men loaded into the trucks with the top covered. We were driven to Nowshera" -- a town far north of Waziristan in Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province where the Pakistan army has many training facilities -- "and we stayed for a few days for training. After, they drove us back to Miran Shah." European and American analysts believe Pakistan stepped up aid to the insurgents in 2004 because the Musharraf regime saw that U.S. forces were achieving no better than a stalemate in southern Afghanistan, the Taliban's stronghold. The Pakistanis stepped into the resulting power vacuum by aiding the Taliban.
The ISI also began to provide assistance in the Taliban's own training camps. The training camps inside both North and South Waziristan, said Muhammed, required new recruits to go through all the same training. After the ISI began helping, the labor was divided. In addition to leading attacks inside Afghanistan, Muhammed helped train young Afghan and Pakistani men in basic weapons. "I was good at some things, like teaching how to fire weapons." While he did that, an Arab or Uzbek trainer might school a smaller group in remote-controlled bombs or IEDs. An ISI officer, meanwhile, might teach an even smaller group how to gather intelligence.
Combined, it was an excellent education in guerrilla warfare, the same methods and tactics taught in the camps in Afghanistan prior to 9/11. And Muhammed intimated that because of Pakistani protection, the fighters in the North Waziristan training camps didn't fear American air power. "We were never scared or worried about American airstrikes. We were only worried about the men who entered. We had very serious security. You had to have proper paperwork and permission to get inside the camps. We worried about spies, but not missiles."
Muhammed himself also received training from the ISI that allowed him to launch more sophisticated attacks across the border. During late 2005, Muhammed and his platoon operated on the Shawal mountain range in North Waziristan. From the Shawal peaks he and his men could see Afghanistan just a few miles away. An ISI captain named Asif Khan trained him to use a 6-foot rocket called the Sakar-20, a Russian-made device that is roughly 6 feet long and requires several days to perfect firing.
The rockets were delivered at night by an ISI logistics officer to a house in Miran Shah. The next morning, Muhammed's men would retrieve them and transport them to the Shawal peaks. Capt. Khan never wore a uniform and kept his beard long. The ISI and army personnel who worked with the Taliban, Muhammed said, almost never wore uniforms, the better to blend in. "From their looks they were mujahedin," he said.
Capt. Khan, who took orders from another ISI officer whom Muhammed knew as "Major Doctor Sajit," spent a week teaching Muhammed how to position the rocket on the Shawal's ridgeline to get its maximum range of 30 kilometers. Khan, Muhammed said, also gave the Taliban fighters GPS devices, taught the men how to calibrate them, and then paid Afghans to take the device across the border to nearby American and Afghan bases to pinpoint their locations. With those coordinates, Muhammed could fire the Sakar-20 with decent precision. "Once I was taught, then I trained my men."
In 2005 and 2006, Muhammed fired the Sakar-20's at U.S. and Afghan posts inside Khost, the Afghan province just across the border from North Waziristan. "We fired rockets inside Afghanistan whenever we could get supplied," said Muhammed. He did not tell me what he hit with the rockets. In late 2006, he began to consider defecting, and in 2007 he made the leap, fleeing to Kabul and the protection of the National Directorate for Security, or NDS, the Afghan government's intelligence agency.
On a second meeting in the same Central Kabul office, Muhammed and I again sat cross-legged on the red rug and drank tea. This time I spread before him some maps of Pakistan's Tribal Areas, so he could help me understand where he had been and what he had done.
He pointed out the mountain range where he used to fire rockets into Afghanistan, and the village where one of the training camps was situated, and from which he and Abu Layth led an attack on a small American fire base
across the border.
I asked Muhammed why he really left the Taliban, why he had abandoned his friends and colleagues after 15 years. He sighed and looked at his feet for a few moments, suddenly looking much older than his years.
I joined the Taliban when I was young," he finally answered, "very young. They wanted to get rid of corruption and to end the fighting between the warlords. Afghanistan needed this and I wanted to help. I became a soldier, but when we fled to Waziristan we relied too much on the Pakistanis. And we were corrupted. Land disputes inside Afghanistan were settled by Pakistanis, and by the man with the most money. This isn't just. And fewer Afghans made decisions about how and where and when to fight inside Afghanistan."
Muhammed has come to terms with his new station in life. "I worked many years with Arabs, Uzbeks and Chechens. I have accepted that they must be killed for Afghanistan's sake. I don't feel bad." But he still draws the line at helping those other foreigners. "I won't work for the Americans. Twice NDS has asked me to meet with them. I said no. If I do that I am surely a dead man."
While Muhammed was contemplating defection, U.S. intelligence officials were growing frustrated with the duplicity of a supposed ally in the war on terror, and with the limitations placed on them by Islamabad and Washington. But much of the problem was due, initially, to the way the CIA conducts its business, and to the rules of engagement in the Afghan-Pakistan border region.
The CIA rotates most of its officers in the area every three to six months, giving them insufficient time to learn the contours of Pakistan's problems. Virtually no operational officers speak Pashtun, nor can they travel without an official Pakistani escort.
Also, until recently, the CIA division of labor has made officers in Afghanistan responsible for attacking and thwarting Taliban inside Pakistan. Officers based in Pakistan are primarily tasked with tracking al-Qaida and Arab terrorists inside Pakistan.
Since the war began the general rules of engagement for U.S. forces -- be they CIA or other -- was that military attacks inside Pakistan could extend only six miles from the border, and only in pursuit. Attacking or even surveying training camps and any insurgent movements aided by Pakistan army units more than 20 miles inside the border was an impossibility.
Simply understanding the political dynamics of the Tribal Areas and the rest of Pakistan's frontier region to the north was therefore slow and laborious for American officials. Interference from the Pakistanis has made it still more difficult. CIA officers in Pakistan, who outnumber those stationed in Afghanistan, are not allowed to travel in Pakistan's frontier areas without ISI accompaniment. A retired CIA officer, who still works on contract for the agency, told me that in early 2006, he was based in Dir, a restive area north of North Waziristan in Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province, and not far from several U.S. bases in Afghanistan. The contractor was part of a joint CIA-ISI team hunting for bin Laden and al-Zawahiri. Before his rotation ended he asked the ISI brigadier if they could fly still farther north to the town of Chitral to watch some of the region's famed polo tournaments. "This guy told me straight up, 'I ain't letting you go north.'" The American persisted and was again rebuffed. "I realized that the only two reasons he wouldn't let me travel north was because he either was afraid of what I would see, or he was afraid of what he would see."
The Americans were quickly aware that the Pakistanis had no enthusiasm for fighting the Islamist insurgency. Gary Schroen, a former senior CIA official who led the first U.S. team into Afghanistan days after 9/11 and a former station chief in Islamabad, told me recently that where the Pakistan army does engage in battle against militants, they do so without vigor. "The Pakistanis don't want to fight a counter-insurgency inside their own country," he said. "They don't want to fight against Muslims, they want to fight against India."
According to a former senior government official responsible for U.S.-Pakistani policy, many American policymakers took for granted Musharraf would work harder going after al-Qaida than going after the Taliban. "I always assumed that, strategically, Pakistan would want to hedge its bets for the day the U.S. decided to pull out of the region." Pakistan had helped create the Taliban years earlier as an element of its regional security plan, meaning, in part, as an additional Muslim counterweight against perennial foe India. The U.S. expected a certain lack of enthusiasm from the Pakistanis for pursuing the Taliban, or at least a greater enthusiasm for dealing with al-Qaida. But Pakistan actually remained committed to keeping the Taliban active inside Afghanistan. What's more, said the former senior official, the White House had no mechanism for determining whether the ISI or other factions within the Musharraf regime were aiding the Taliban. Washington was conducting a "see no evil" foreign policy.
Ultimately, the Americans came to realize that the ISI was not just avoiding conflict with the insurgents, or shielding them, but actively abetting them. The senior American policy advisor told me that U.S. intelligence concluded that the ISI support -- often in the form of medical aid, signals intelligence and military strategy -- is not the work of rogue officers within Pakistan intelligence. "Injured Taliban fighters have been sent to military hospitals for good medical care," he said. "That doesn't happen inside Pakistan unless the military knows." Some ISI agents were attempting to help the Americans catch insurgents, but the most powerful faction within the agency was doing precisely the opposite.
The ISI has two main divisions. The CIA works primarily with Directorate C, the ISI's version of a counter-terrorism branch. According to a former senior CIA official who still reads intelligence reports from the region, Directorate C has been penetrated by American intelligence and its leader vetted by the CIA.
A second and much larger division of the ISI, however, is Directorate S, which is responsible for external operations, such as Afghanistan, Kashmir and India. It takes precedence over Directorate C, and often works at cross-purposes. The CIA has no working relationship with Directorate S, and no means to assess the loyalty of its personnel. A retired CIA officer who once served in the Tribal Areas recounted an exchange with his ISI partner from Directorate C. "He told me that he had just gone to a tribal shura in Peshawar and sat across from a man he'd arrested and imprisoned a few weeks earlier. He was convinced the man was a Pashtun terrorist. He said that one of his peers from Directorate S had released him within a few days -- with no notice or paperwork.
"This guy was trying to commiserate with me about how difficult it was to get anything done in the Tribal Areas," said the CIA officer. "He was truly frustrated. A few weeks after nabbing a bad guy, he had to sip tea and negotiate with him."
But the Americans discovered that the ISI was able to create some plausible deniability for its role in promoting the Taliban insurgency by relying on a Pakistani version of Blackwater. After 9/11, some ISI officers who were deemed too sympathetic to Islamic extremism were purged from the agency as a condition of American aid. These officers were never truly purged, however, and with other former and retired ISI agents form an extra-governmental conduit for ISI aid to the anti-American insurgents in the border area. Newsday reported last year that "the ISI offers the insurgents tactical advice and information about the deployment of U.S. forces."
As an example, the CIA learned that since 2005, a retired ISI officer who lives within 10 miles of the Afghan border, not far from a U.S. fire base, and who helped arm Afghan jihadists against the Soviets in the 1980s, was again working for the ISI -- this time on contract. According to U.S. and Afghan sources, this man, whom the CIA refers to as "General Yusef," recruits and organizes Afghan men to fight in Afghanistan's Nuristan and Kunar provinces. He is officially retired but reports to an ISI office in Chitral and receives a monthly stipend. For the ISI, General Yusef and his privatized peers are the perfect tools to help destabilize Afghanistan, since they don't officially work for the ISI.
General Yusef was responsible for procuring some of the fighters based at a training camp in Chitral that was the source of a spate of attacks on U.S. bases. The ISI, meanwhile, was responsible for the camp's very existence. In late 2006, Taliban and insurgent attacks on U.S. forces were escalating along the northern Afghan-Pakistani border. CIA officers stationed in northeast Afghanistan began to receive raw intelligence that a small but effective training camp had opened across the border in Chitral. The camp was run by the terrorist group Laishka-e-Taiba (LeT), which had been formed in the late 1990s by the ISI as a proxy force of jihadists to fight hundreds of miles to the east against the Indian government in Kashmir, the province over which India and Pakistan have been fighting for 60 years.
After the U.S invaded and occupied Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11, it demanded that Islamabad stop supporting LeT. The fighters, many of them Afghans from Nuristan Province, filtered back from Kashmir to their homes in Nuristan or settled just across the border from Nuristan in Pakistan's Chitral and Dir districts. By 2005, however, the LeT network was alive and well again, this time in Chitral, and the Pakistanis were apparently redirecting their old proxies at the new foe right next door. Insurgents were being driven at night from the Chitral training camp to a Pakistan army outpost in Pakistani trucks, their flatbeds covered and the headlights turned off. Once at the outpost, they were given Chinese-made weapons, mostly small arms and automatic rifles, and sent on separate mountain trails into Afghanistan to attack Americans.
Despite the mounting evidence that their Pakistani counterparts could not be trusted, American intelligence attempted to take action against insurgents sheltering on the Pakistani side of the border. But on at least two occasions, they were apparently thwarted by interference from elements within the Pakistani military or the ISI who were sympathetic to the insurgents.
In December 2006, a few months after reports about the LeT camp in Chitral had begun trickling in, a team of roughly 20 CIA and Afghan paramilitary officers drove pickup trucks from a CIA base in Chitral to an Afghan border post. They parked their vehicles and struck out on foot through small goat trails back over the border into Pakistan. It was nearly 2 a.m and all the men were outfitted with night-vision goggles, Kevlar helmets and vests, and plenty of automatic weapons. Their target was a Pakistani mullah named Hari Yusef. The CIA believed he was an IED expert, and used his compound in the Pakistani border town of Arandu as a safe house for dozens of insurgents.
But when the team kicked in the front gate to Mullah Yusef's mud-walled compound and entered, they found nothing. Neither Yusef nor any fighting-age men were there. They conducted a search, but left empty-handed within a half-hour. All they accomplished was burning a small footbridge that Yusef's men had used to cross the Kunar River into Afghanistan out of sight of the official border post.
Also in 2006, while Haji Muhammed was still with Taliban leader Siraj Haqqani, CIA officers at a Pakistani military garrison in Miran Shah, North Waziristan, attempted to capture Haqqani. Siraj's father, Jalaluddin, had grown too sick and weak to lead an insurgency. His son, however, had developed into a dangerous Taliban commander. Much as his father had done to the Soviets 20 years earlier, Siraj, with Haji Muhammed's help, was punishing foreign troops inside Afghanistan with effective guerrilla attacks. The CIA had long known about a mosque and madrassa that the Haqqanis used as a headquarters in Miran Shah. The CIA readied a plan to raid the mosque when surveillance indicated Siraj Haqqani was present.
The CIA plan required approval of a Pakistan Army commander in Peshawar. But there was never any Pakistani response, which killed the plan.
This refusal to cooperate, however, was no longer a surprise to American operatives. A year earlier, it had been. The CIA's first attempt to raid Haqqani, in 2005, had netted nothing. CIA officers discovered that an ISI officer had warned Haqqani in advance about the raid.
"Our guys couldn't believe it," the former CIA officer told me. "CIA had worked on this thing for some time, and the son of a bitch tipped Haqqani off." They presented their evidence to the ISI general in charge, who responded with embarrassment and apologies. "He told us that they were punishing the officer, but all we could verify is that he was no longer working with us. He could have been thrown in prison, or he could have been sent to another field office. We had no way of knowing."
The frustrated intelligence officers of Afghanistan and Pakistan may finally be getting some traction in Washington. While they have long been telling their superiors back home that there is a problem, their bosses seem to have chosen to believe that any Pakistani aid to the Taliban was the work of a few rogue officers and not policy. But the recent disclosure that the White House was considering giving CIA officers based in Afghanistan more freedom to operate unilaterally -- that is, without Pakistani approval -- is a result of accumulating intelligence reports such as the one about the LeT camp and reports about retired officers such as Yusef.
The U.S. recently announced plans to send 100 military trainers to the Pakistani frontier to aid the Pakistanis in the fight against al-Qaida. But recent American proposals to enter the Tribal Areas with U.S. troops, and to increase CIA efforts inside Pakistan, have been rebuffed by Pakistan's President Musharraf. He told Newsweek in January that Americans would "curse the day they came here" if they crossed the border without Pakistani permission. He continued, "I know American troops. I know our troops. This is not easy. American troops don't have any magic wands. Our troops, who are the locals, who understand groups and customs, are very hardy. Our troops can go on roti and water. American troops would need chocolate."
The outlook seems bleak for any real cooperation from the Pakistanis in stopping cross-border attacks. But in the end the Americans actually derive some benefit, however small, from the fact that the Musharraf regime is pursuing its own agenda. Sometimes the needs of the Americans and the Pakistanis coincide.
Haji Muhammed explained to me that when fighting rekindled along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in late 2002, the two main branches of the Taliban had slightly differing goals. The foreign-led fighters, though they were aiding the Afghan fighters looking to take back their country from the U.S., were really focused on the "Far-Enemy," training for terrorism missions against the West. The ISI-led Taliban were focused primarily on attacking the Americans inside Afghanistan, the "Near-Enemy."
Of late, however, the foreign-led Taliban factions in the Tribal Areas, the ones believed to shelter al-Qaida's Arab leadership, have begun focusing more attention on destabilizing Islamabad than Kabul. Now Pakistani intelligence has reason to work with the Americans, at least when it comes to some jihadis, including those known locally as "the Arabs."
Many of these insurgents were once aligned with the ISI, but no more. "The Arabs no longer trust the ISI," Muhammed told me. "They refuse to let the ISI know where they are because they are afraid the ISI will sell them out to the Americans." So while the ISI continues aiding Pashtun Taliban insurgents in North Waziristan, as long as those insurgents keep focusing their activities across the Afghan border, they are now simultaneously fighting other Talibs farther to the north.
The Pakistani government is particularly concerned with Baitullah Mehsud, whom both Musharraf and the CIA have identified as responsible for Benazir Bhutto's assassination in December. Mehsud, who operates in South Waziristan, is, like Haji Muhammed, a former lieutenant to Jalaluddin Haqqani. When he fought under Haqqani, he received ISI aid. He became the head of a Taliban group with branches in five of the seven Tribal Areas, which the ISI allowed to operate unimpeded as long as their military actions were directed at Americans in Afghanistan. Now, however, since Mehsud has become a threat to Islamabad's stability, Pakistani authorities are far more dedicated to killing him than they are to catching Osama bin Laden. The ISI and the Pakistani army are now at war with a powerful, many-tendriled insurgent band they helped to create. The ISI's history of double-dealing has come back to haunt it.
Last updated 20/03/2008