Pakistan and the Taliban
The Nation (Lahore-Pakistan), April 11, 1998
by Ahmad Rashid
Just hours after they seized Kandahar on November 4, 1994, the Taliban were accused of being mere surrogates of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI). Other Afghan warlords, regional countries, Western wire services and the PakistaniPress suggested strongly that the Taliban had been created, launched and armed by Pakistan in order to fulfill the government's 'manifest destiny' of opening up trade routes to Central Asia via Afghanistan.
However, the truth was and remains far more complicated than that. The Taliban have never been anyone's puppets and their strings are certainly not pulled in Islamabad. Yet their links to Pakistan are all-encompassing, forged through nearly two decades of war devastation and life as refugees. The fact that the Taliban leadership is entirely indigenous to Afghanistan and fiercely independent does not detract from their social, economic and political links to Pakistan's own tribal milieu on the Pakistani-Afghanistan border. The shared Pushtun culture of this border region has never been better reflected than in the phenomenon of the Taliban.
Since 1994 Pakistan has rarely defined its Afghan policy - a reflection of the confusion, conflicting interests and rivalries of the various factions in government - but in a speech at the United Nations in November 1996, Foreign Secretary Najmuddin Sheikh spelt out the government's analysis of the Taliban's success. The Taliban phenomenon was a reaction to the state of anarchy in Afghanistan. It was neither the ideology the Taliban propounded, nor the religious fervour of the people that accounted for their subsequent success. Rather it was the war weariness of the populace which stood ready to welcome any force that promised the disarming of the local brigands, the restoration of peace, the semblance of an honest administration, no matter how rough and ready its system of justice.
Most of the Taliban are the children of the Jehad against the Soviet Union. Many were born in Pakistani refugee camps, educated in Pakistani madrassas and learnt their fighting skills from Afghan Mujahideen parties based in Pakistan. Their families continued to live in Pakistan as refugees even after the fall of Kabul to the Mujahideen in 1992. While all Taliban speak their mother tongue Pushto, for many their second language is not Persian, the lingua franca of Afghanistan, but Urdu, the language of Pakistan.
Many Taliban carry Pakistani identity cards, as they spent years in refugee camps in Pakistan, and thousands voted in the 1997 elections in Balochistan for their favourite Pakistani party - the Jamiat-e-Ulema-i-Islam (JUI). Moreover the Taliban recruited hundreds of Pakistani Islamic fundamentalist students to fight for their cause and were closely linked to Pakistan's fundamentalist Islamic parties such as the JUI led by Maulana Fazlur Rahman. None of these links made them Pakistani; instead they contributed to the Taliban's unique interpretation of being Afghan. Nevertheless, the rootlessness of the Taliban and the ease with which they cross two cultures could become a troubling factor for Pakistan in the future. As children of the Jehad their emergence stemmed from their deep disillusionment with the factionalism and criminal activities of the once Islamically-pure Mujahideen. They saw themselves as the cleansers and purifiers of a social system gone wrong.
Their social history also allowed them to be extremely well connected to many Pakistani state institutions, political parties and business groups in what was already an extremely fragmented Pakistani power structure. Thus the Taliban were never beholden to one exclusive Pakistani lobby. Whereas in the 1980s Gulbadin Hekmatyar and other Afghan Mujahideen leaders had exclusive relationships with the ISI and the Jama'at-e-Islami (JI), they had few linkages with other powerful political, economic or social groups in Pakistan.
The Taliban's unprecedented depth of contacts and support in Pakistan enabled them at times to defy the ISI, by enlisting the help of government ministers or the transport mafia. At other times the Taliban could defy the federal government by enlisting the support of the provincial governments in Balochistan and the North West Frontier Province (NWFP). Thus the Taliban's main advantage was that they never depended upon an exclusive relationship with just one Pakistani lobby. They had access to more influential lobbies and groups in the border regions than most Pakistanis. The Taliban's linkages with these groups are what constitute the nature of their 'support' from Pakistan.
Many of today's Taliban warriors were too young to fight against the Soviet occupation of their country. Instead they grew up in Afghan refugee camps in Balochistan and Several Taliban leaders, such as Muhammad Omar, fought in the latter stages of the war against the regime of President Najibullah. But after Kabul fell to the Mujahideen in April 1992, these warriors expected the war to be over and went back to their families who were living in refugees camps in Balochistan, or to the southern Afghan provinces of Kandahar, Helmand and Uruzgan.
Remaining in Balochistan after 1992 had an added attraction. Dozens of madrassas run by the JUI offered young Afghans the chance of a free education, studying the Holy Quran and Islamic Law. Thus for thousands of young Afghans, home became Pakistan rather than Afghanistan. It was here that their families lived, their children were educated, and they received international refugee assistance or worked as day labourers. Moreover, many had leased land in Balochistan to grow fodder for their flocks and herds.
In this Pakistani tribal milieu there were several major influences on the Taliban. The primary religious and ideological influence was the JUI, even though during the previous decade of Jehad the JUI had played virtually no role. In the 1980s Pakistan's Afghan policy was conducted with the help of the JI, the main rival of the JUI inside Pakistan, and the Afghan Hezb-e-Islami, led by Gulbadin Hikmatyar. For a decade the ISI's connection with JI and Hezb were the government's main instruments of policy, which for example ensured that armaments from the US and Arab countries went largely to the Ghilzai Pushtun warlords, who lived in central and north eastern Afghanistan. In comparison, the Durrani Pushtuns, who dominated the south and Kandahar and who generally backed the return of the former Afghan monarch Zahir Shah, were largely ignored by the ISI and the American CIA.
After 1992, Pakistan continued to back Hekmatyar, first in his refusal to legitimise the Kabul regime and then his strategic alliance with General Rashid Dostum in 1993, that led to the bloody two-year-long assault on Kabul which virtually destroyed the city. However by 1994 it was self-evident that Hekmatyar had failed not only to conquer the capital but also to unite the Ghilzai Pushtuns against the Tajik dominated regime of President Burhanuddin Rabbani. The majority of Pushtuns loathed Hikmatyar as much as they disliked Rabbani. Thus for much of 1994, Pakistan's Afghan policy was stranded like a beached whale, directionless and without powerful surrogates in Afghanistan.
Throughout the war in the 1980s the JUI had quietly built up a support base amongst the Durrani Pushtuns living in Balochistan and the NWFP, opening up madrassas and carrying out relief work in the refugee camps. In contrast the JI had little leverage in Balochistan. The Pushtuns that belong to the JUI have a great deal in common with the Taliban. Both come from the Durrani tribes that straddle the porous border between Afghanistan and Balochistan. The activists of the JUI are Deobandis, followers of a fundamentalist reformist sect which interprets Islam, particular its injunctions against women, extremely strictly. The Deobandi tradition is also opposed to the tribal and feudal structures of Pakistani society and there is a strong belief in egalitarianism. Moreover, there is a deep-seated Deobandi antipathy to Shiite Muslims, who are viewed as unbelievers, and consequently to Iran. The Taliban, with their limited exposure to the world and arriving in the JUI madrassas with only the imparted knowledge of the narrow-minded village mullahs at home, were soon turned into ardent Deobandis.
Thus the Taliban's interpretation of Islam, tempered as it was with Pushtunwali - the tribal code of the Pushtuns - was primitive in the extreme. While the JUI forbade any political role for women, the Taliban were to ban women from both education and work. And whereas the JUI was to rail against Iran and Shias, the Taliban were to kill Abdul Ali Mazari, the principal Shiite leader in Afghanistan, and in June 1997 close down the Iranian embassy in Kabul.
In the late 1980s the JUI's influence over the southern Durrani Pushtuns was ignored by the ISI. Kandahar remained a backwater for Pakistani policy-makers, allowing for the mushrooming of dozens of petty Afghan warlords in the region. Moreover, the JUI was politically isolated at home, remaining in opposition to the first Benazir Bhutto government (1988-90) and the first Nawaz Sharif government (1990-93). But in 1993 a new political situation arose for the JUI. For the first time the party allied itself with the winning Pakistan People's Party (PPP) led by Benazir Bhutto, so becoming a part of the ruling coalition. The JUI's newfound access to the corridors of power allowed it to establish close links with the army, the ISI and the Interior Ministry under retired General Naseerullah Babar. Thus the JUI could influence the central government's attitudes towards the Durranis and the Taliban. Meanwhile Bhutto had gained a useful 'Islamic' ally in combating the JI and the Muslim League (ML), which were now in Opposition.
Maulana Fazlur Rahman was made Chairman of the National Assembly's Standing Committee for Foreign Affairs - a position that enabled him to influence foreign policy. After 1994, Maulana Rahman visited Washington and European capitals to lobby for support for the Taliban. More importantly he went often to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states to enlist their financial and military help for the Taliban, which was forthcoming. After Prince Turki al-Faisal Saud, head of the Saudi General Intelligence Agency, visited Pakistan secretly in July 1996, Saudi Arabia was to become the principal financial backer of the Taliban.
Fazlur Rahman organised the first bustard hunting trips for Gulf Arab princes to Kandahar in January and February 1996, thereby creating the first contacts between the Taliban and Arab rulers. The Arab hunting parties flew into Kandahar on huge transport planes bringing dozens of luxury jeeps, many of which they left behind for their Taliban hosts. The JUI remained the most vocal advocate for the Taliban even after the fall of the Bhutto government in November 1996 and continued to exert pressure on Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to recognise the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan.
The JUI also benefited from the Taliban. Camps used for military training of non-Afghan Mujahideen inside Afghanistan (particularly Arab radicals) and which were run by either Pakistan's JI or Hikmatyar, were taken over by the Taliban and handed over to JUI fringe groups. Thus Harakatul Ansar, led by Fazlur Rahman Khalil, a JUI ally and a key Pakistani Islamic militant group sending recruits to Kashmir, Chechnya and Yugoslavia was given Camp Badr near Khost on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
Another major Pakistani influence on the Taliban was the truck transport smuggling mafia based in Quetta and Chaman in Balochistan. Made up largely of Pakistani but some Afghan Pushtuns, drawn from the same tribes as the Taliban leadership and closely knitted to them through business interests and intermarriage, this mafia had become frustrated by the warring warlords around Kandahar, who prevented the expansion of their traditional smuggling between Pakistan and Afghanistan further afield into Iran and Central Asia. By contrast, the transport mafia based in Peshawar had been relatively successful in being able to trade between Pakistan, northern Afghanistan and Uzbekistan, despite the continuing war around Kabul.
The Quetta-Chaman mafia funded the Taliban handsomely. Initially the mafia gave the Taliban a monthly retainer, but as the Taliban expanded westwards they demanded more and more funds - and received them. In March 1995, witnesses said the Taliban collected Rs 6 million (US $150,000) from transporters in Chaman in a single day and twice that amount the next day in Quetta as they prepared for an attack on Herat. Meanwhile the one-time, all-inclusive customs duty the Taliban charged trucks crossing into Afghanistan from Pakistan became the Taliban's major source of official income.
The cross-border smuggling trade has a long history, but never has it played such an important strategic role as under the Taliban. In 1950, Pakistan gave landlocked Afghanistan permission to import duty free goods through the port of Karachi under an Afghan Transit Trade (ATT) agreement. For decades Afghan truckers would drive their sealed goods up to Jalalabad or Kandahar and then turn around some of the goods to re-enter Pakistan, where they were sold in smugglers' markets. However, after the fall of Kabul in 1992, the smuggling of foodstuffs, fuel, building materials and other goods into Afghanistan began to cripple Pakistan's own economy as Afghanistan became virtually a fifth province for Pakistan in economic terms. In Pushtun tribal terms this form of commerce is legitimate 'trade and business', even though it is completely out of any government's jurisdiction.
The Central Board of Revenue estimated that Pakistan lost Rs 3.5 billion (US $87.5 million) in customs revenue in the financial year 1992-93, Rs 11 billion (US $275 million) during 1993-94 and Rs 20 billion (US $500 million) during 1994-95 - a staggering increase. However, these figures appear to be only the tip of the iceberg. In a 1995 study the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics estimated that the smuggling trade had an annual turnover of Rs 100 billion (US $2.5 billion) or almost one third of Pakistan's estimated black economy of Rs 350 billion (US $8.75 billion). A 1995 UN study estimated that Afghanistan-Pakistan's total illicit drugs exports, which use the same routes and carriers as the ATT, were worth another Rs 50 billion (US $1.25 billion) per annum.
Within a few weeks of the Taliban takeover of Kandahar, not only had the volume of smuggling expanded dramatically but also the area. From Quetta, truck convoys were travelling to Kandahar and then southwards to Iran, westwards to Turkmenistan and from there onwards to other Central Asian republics and even Russia. Within a few months the Quetta transporters were urging the Taliban to capture Herat in order to take full control of the road to Turkmenistan. Ismail Khan, the warlord who controlled Herat and was allied to the Kabul regime was charging exorbitant customs fees, having raised his customs duty from Rs 5,000 (US $125) to Rs 10,000 (US $250) per truck for onward movement to Turkmenistan.
The ISI advised the Taliban not to attack Herat, because Pakistan had developed close relations with Ismail Khan and hoped that he might soon rebel against the Kabul government. Moreover, the ISI's own assessment was that the Taliban were unprepared militarily to meet the trained forces of Ismail Khan. Nevertheless, the Taliban rejected the ISI's advice and under the influence of the JUI and the transport mafia launched a major attack on Herat in May 1995. The attack turned into a rout. It was the Taliban's first military defeat and they were pushed back all the way to Kandahar with over 3,000 casualties.
Despite this setback, as business opportunities grew for the Taliban families, so did the clout of the transport mafia that now expanded in Spin Boldak, Kandahar and Herat. Many Taliban bought trucks themselves or had a relative who was directly involved in trucking. Moreover, by 1996 influential heroin smugglers also began willingly to pay a 'zakat' tax of 10 per cent to the Taliban exchequer for permission to transport heroin out of the region. The heroin trade was officially condoned by the Taliban in contrast to the hashish trade, which they banned. With heroin traders now contributing substantially to the Taliban via the transport mafia, the influence of the Pakistan-based transport mafia became enormous.
Ever since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Pakistan's natural allies inside Afghanistan had been the Pushtuns who made up 40-45 per cent of the population, rather than the non-Pushtun minorities. This was largely because of their ethnic affinity with their own Pushtuns, the influence of Pushtuns in the upper echelons of the Pakistan Army and bureaucracy, and General Ziaul Haq's conviction that the JI would eliminate the appeal of a 'Greater Pushtunistan' advocated by traditional Pushtun nationalists such as Wali Khan. But after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1992, successive Pakistani governments were desperately keen to open up direct land links for trade and business with the five Central Asian republics of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrghyzestan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan. The only hindrance to this was the continuing civil war in Afghanistan. Pakistan's policy-makers were thus faced with a strategic dilemma. Either Pakistan could carry on backing one or the other Pushtun Afghan factions in its continued strategy of trying to bring to power in Kabul a Pushtun group which would be pro-Pakistan. Or Pakistan could radically alter its former policies and pursue a power-sharing agreement between all the Afghan factions at whatever the price for the Pushtuns, so that relative stability would allow the opening of the northern land route to Tashkent via Peshawar, Kabul and Mazar-e-Sharif.
This stark and simple strategic choice - in effect a policy reversal to sacrifice a pure Pushtun government in Kabul in favour of a broad based government that would allow greater trade and goodwill in Central Asia - did not appear attractive enough for the Pakistani military in 1992, which first backed Hekmatyar in his bid to capture Kabul and later the Taliban. As an alternative, and well before the advent of the Taliban, Pushtun elements in the Bhutto government and the military mooted the idea of securing a southern trade route to Central Asia via Quetta, Kandahar and Herat. Later the Taliban would become the guarantors of this route along which Pakistan planned to build oil and gas pipelines and a railway line to Central Asia.
In October 1994, one month before the Taliban captured Kandahar, Bhutto's Interior Minister Naseerullah Babar took a party of six Western ambassadors to Kandahar and Herat. The delegation included senior officials of the Departments of Railways, Highways, Telephones and Electricity. Babar said he wanted to raise US $300 million from international agencies to rebuild the highway from Quetta to Herat and another US $800 million for a railway track and satellite phone system linking 100 towns. Ismail Khan assured the delegation that work could start as soon as there was peace and security.
However, in Kandahar, where nearly a dozen petty warlords competed for influence, the situation was much more complex and difficult. Warlord Amir Lalai, who on November 2, 1994, would lead the gang that stopped a Pakistani truck convoy outside Kandahar, issued a blunt warning to Babar. 'Pakistan is offering to reconstruct our roads, but I do not think that by fixing our roads, peace would automatically follow. As long as neighbouring countries continue to interfere in our internal affairs, we should not expect peace,' said Lalai. Nevertheless Babar urged Bhutto to push ahead. On October 28, Bhutto met with both Ismail Khan and General Rashid Dostum in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan. Along with President Saparmurad Niyazov, she urged them to come to a settlement so that Pakistan could implement these projects.
By then Pakistan, determined to bulldoze its policy through, was already planning to send a 30 truck convoy of goods through Kandahar to Turkmenistan. The story of that convoy is now a critical part of both the legend and history that surrounds the origins of the Taliban. The advance of the Taliban from Spin Boldak to Takht-e Pul outside Kandahar, where the Pakistani convoy had been halted by Amir Lalai, its subsequent release by the Taliban and the Taliban's capture of Kandahar were to change the political map of Afghanistan. Just before he was hanged by the Taliban, Amir Lalai told people that JUI students were behind the attack on the city. The Taliban were prompted to move at that moment by Pakistan. A small group of Taliban led by Mullah Muhammad Omar were already preparing to attack the Kandahar warlords because of the breakdown of law and order in the province. The fact that the Taliban would not just free the convoy but then capture Kandahar within 24 hours was beyond any Pakistani or even Afghan expectation. Subsequently the Taliban leaders have expressed surprise at their own initial success, which was achieved with so little bloodshed.
Within days the Taliban demonstrated their independence from Pakistan, as well as their willingness to deal with the Rabbani regime in Kabul. A Taliban founder member and later Foreign Minister, Mullah Muhammad Ghaus, said on November 16 that Pakistan should not bypass the governments in either Kabul or Kandahar by trying to send convoys in future and should not cut deals with individual warlords. He also warned that the Taliban would not allow goods bound for Afghanistan to be carried by Pakistani trucks.
Nevertheless, the Taliban capture of Kandahar was wildly celebrated by the JUI and the Bhutto government, but created an uproar amongst other political parties who felt directly threatened. Mehmood Khan Achakzai, head of the Pushtoonkhwa Milli Awami Party in Balochistan, publicly warned Bhutto and the ISI not to interfere in Afghanistan by trying to promote the JUI. Other Baloch and Pushtun politicians issued similar warnings. Qazi Hussain Ahmed, leader of the JI, suggested an imperialist plot was underway as the US and Britain were backing the Taliban.
But the Taliban were now unstoppable. By December 7, just four weeks after taking Kandahar, they had captured the provinces of Helmand and Uruzgan and were advancing on Farah in the west and Zabul and Ghazni to the north. In Helmand they pushed out drug-traffickers and for a few weeks declared opium growing to be illegal - a declaration that led to a flurry of activity and excitement at the US Embassy in Islamabad, followed by clear signals that US diplomats were supportive of the Taliban.
Meanwhile thousands of young Pushtun Afghans studying in madrassas in Balochistan and the NWFP rushed to Kandahar in trucks and coaches to join up with the Taliban. They were soon followed by Pakistani volunteers from madrassas in all four provinces. By early January 1995, some 12,000 madrassa-educated Afghan and Pakistani students had joined the Taliban in Kandahar. Trade now flourished. In December the first regular Pakistani convoy of 50 trucks carrying raw cotton from Turkmenistan arrived in Quetta, after paying the Taliban over Rs 200,000 (US $5,000) in customs duties.
Pakistan had helped the Taliban decisively by allowing them to capture a crucial arms dump outside Spin Boldak. The dump previously belonged to Hikmatyar, but was guarded by troops of Pakistan's Frontier Corps who were under the command of the Interior Ministry rather than the regular army. These soldiers were ordered to walk away when the Taliban arrived. The Taliban took control of some 18,000 Kalashnikov rifles and 120 artillery pieces as well as large quantities of ammunition.
As international and domestic pressure mounted on Pakistan to explain its position, Ms Bhutto issued the first formal denial of any Pakistani backing for the Taliban in February 1995. 'We have no favourites in Afghanistan and we do not interfere in Afghanistan,' she said while visiting Manila. Later she said Pakistan could not stop new recruits from crossing the border to join the Taliban. 'I cannot fight Mr Rabbani's war for him. If Afghans want to cross the border, I do not stop them. I can stop them from re-entering but most of them have families here,' she said. 'We can't just shut down the schools (madrassas) and allow these people to spread all across the country. We would rather they be confined. Because of the Afghan war, people were taught that to be a Muslim means to spread Islam by armed struggle,' she added.
Pakistan then tried for several months to broker an agreement between the Taliban and General Dostum. After the Taliban finally captured Herat in September 1995, General Dostum sent down Uzbek technicians to help the Taliban repair the ten MiG aircraft and helicopters they had captured. But these efforts never led to an agreement. Pakistan was still trying in February 1996 when Islamabad hosted a meeting between Hikmatyar, General Dostum and the Taliban in Islamabad in order to try to forge an alliance. At the same time Foreign, Minister Sardar Aseff Ali was in Washington trying to persude the United States to put its weight behind the Taliban. Pakistan failed to persuade the Taliban that if they linked up with Dostum, their credibility would be much higher in Western capitals; even at this stage the Taliban refused to share power with their rivals.
By now it was clear to everyone except the Pakistan government that the Taliban movement as a whole would not be consistently manipulated or guided by Pakistan. Thus when the Taliban captured a seven-man Russian aircrew in August 1995, they refused to release them despite considerable pressure from Islamabad. After Kabul fell to the Taliban in September 1996, Pakistan's attempts at shuttle diplomacy to persuade the Taliban to link up with Dostum also failed.
The Taliban and Pakistan's provincial governments
During the 1980s, Pakistan's military regime had widened the scope of an already well-established system of patronage for the Pushtun tribal chiefs, politicians and mullahs living on the Pakistan side of the border in Balochistan and the North West Frontier Province. It was prompted to ensure the loyalty of the Pushtun tribes straddling the border, because there were similar overtures of money, weapons and bribes coming from the Kabul regime and the Soviet occupation forces in Afghanistan.
The British Raj began the system of paying stipends to the tribal chief or Maliks along the border to keep their loyalty. Pakistan had continued this practice after 1947. But under General Ziaul Haq the system became much more extensive. Maliks received payments and weapons from the ISI, the provincial governments and Mujahideen parties for granting permission to Mujahideen fighters to cross their territory to carry supplies for those fighting inside Afghanistan. The Maliks also received payment for hiring out their pack animals, guides and manpower. The North West Frontier Province and Balochistan provincial governments received a windfall as they were authorised to issue permits to the Maliks to buy foodstuffs on the Pakistani market and then supply the Mujahideen inside Afghanistan. With the end of the war against the Soviets in 1989, these sources of income dried up for the Maliks, but the permit system boomed as Afghan cities were liberated, tens of thousands of refugees returned to Afghanistan and the need for food supplies increased dramatically.
In 1994 the Pakistan People's Party government in the North West Frontier Province, established under Chief Minister Aftab Sherpao, remained politically fragile. Sherpao used the permit system as a major source of patronage to retain the loyalty of MPs, politicians and tribal chiefs, Moreover Sherpao was often in competition with the Governor of the North West Frontier Province who had the power to issue his own permits to Maliks in the Federal Administered Tribal Areas - the no man's land of Pushtun tribes that straddle the border. Those around the Governor and the Chief Minister made a bonanza in the permit business and they were often supplying goods to rival warlords or in opposition to the declared policy emanating from Islamabad. Thus Sherpao continued to issue permits for the supply of food to the Rabbani regime, even though Pakistan was trying to isolate it internationally.
In Balochistan the provincial government under Chief Minister Zulfiqar Ali Magsi was a complex coalition of political parties, which was largely in opposition to the federal Pakistan People's Party government. Here there was a constant tussle over who benefited from permits. This infighting allowed the Taliban to gain the maximum advantage from the permit system, by playing off one Pakistani faction against another.
The Taliban were part of this lucrative system of patronage. With their own deep links with the border tribes, the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam, the Maliks, refugee camp officials and the transport mafia, the Taliban had an enormous advantage over other Afghan factions. Their ties with the provincial governments were closer than those of any Afghan faction that preceded them. And the Taliban soon developed close relations with several businessmen close to Asif Ali Zardari, the husband of Benazir Bhutto, who in turn were given the highly lucrative permits to export fuel to Afghanistan. As the Taliban's war machine expanded, permits for fuel supplies from Pakistan became a major money earner for Pakistani politicians and the Taliban, and a key element in the Taliban's military successes.
The permit system thus created a stratum of Pakistani politicians and middlemen who had a vested interest in backing the Taliban and ensuring that the Taliban were able to conquer other cities. As the Taliban expanded, the greater the demand for Pakistani food and fuel in Afghanistan. The role of Provincial governments only further fragmented Pakistan's policy debate on Afghanistan. The permit issue also created periodic shortages of key foodstuffs in Pakistan and contributed to the rise in inflation. In February 1997, the Nawaz Sharif government faced a crisis over wheat shortages, because of excessive wheat smuggling to the Taliban. Provincial governments thus played a major role in actually blocking the peace process and influencing the Bhutto government and the military to back the Taliban. 'There is a vested interest now amongst the leaders of the two provinces to maintain the present status quo and block the peace process in Afghanistan because there is so much money to be made,' said the former Afghan Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Dr Najibullah Lafraie in 1996.
The Taliban and the ISI
Before the Taliban's capture of Kandahar in 1994, Pakistan and in particular the ISI's Afghan policy were facing serious problems. The ISI's main proteges, Hikmatyar and Dostum, had failed to capture Kabul and unlimited support for them was proving to be too expensive. Rabbani could not be ousted from Kabul, but he could not be trusted by Islamabad either as he expanded his links with Iran, Russia and India. Moreover, since the end of the Cold War, the ISI, due to the severe economic crisis in Pakistan, had been stripped of the substantial funds to which it had access in the 1980s. Most significantly, the ISI's resources were directed towards another war of attrition - this one against India for the hearts and minds of the Kashmiris.
After 1992 the ISI Chief Lieutenant-General Javed Nasir, appointed by Nawaz Sharif and an advocate of jehad, had continued the agency's backing of Hikmatyar while trying to micro-manage other warlords. The agency's operatives in Afghanistan were Pushtun and Islamic fundamentalist officers - a leftover from the military regime of General Ziaul Haq. After Sharif's dismissal by President Ghulam Ishaq Khan in 1993, the army under considerable American pressure cleaned up the ISI. General Nasir was retired and dozens of Zia era officers were removed from the agency in July 1993. The ISI's new Chief Lieutenant-General Javed Ashraf Qazi was more cautious than his predecessors. For much of 1994 the ISI had retreated into a shell as far as Afghanistan was concerned. The military stalemate inside Afghanistan explains the ISI's reluctance to start any new policy initiatives.
When the Taliban captured Kandahar, the ISI were initially more sceptical than the government about their chances of further success. While General Babar and the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam pushed for support to the Taliban, the ISI took a back seat, preferring to watch developments rather than act prematurely in giving the Taliban military backing. Thus Babar had a free hand in 'civilianising' the initial support to the Taliban. He created an Afghan Trade Development Cell in the Interior Ministry, which ostensibly had the task of coordinating ministries to facilitate a trade route to Central Asia. The principal spinoff was considerable logistical and infrastructure support for the Taliban. Thus Pakistan telecom set up a microwave telephone network for the Taliban in Kandahar, which became part of the Pakistan telephone grid. Kandahar could be dialled from Pakistan as a local call using the prefix 081 - the same prefix as that for Quetta. Civilian engineers from the Public Works Department and the Water and Power Development Authority carried out feasibility studies for road repairs and electricity supply in Kandahar city. The paramilitary Frontier Corps were used to help the Taliban set up an internal wireless network for their commanders in the field. Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) and the Air Force sent in technicians to repair Kandahar Airport and the MiG fighter jets and helicopters the Taliban had captured.
After the capture of Herat, Pakistani efforts intensified. In January 1996, a ten-man team led by the Director-General of the Afghan Trade Development Cell travelled by road from Quetta to Turkmenistan. Those who accompanied him included officials from Civil Aviation, Pakistan Telecom, PIA, Pakistan Railways, Radio Pakistan and the National Bank of Pakistan. These ministries and government corporations were encouraged to help the Taliban from their own ministerial budgets. After Kabul fell to the Taliban in 1996, Pakistan said it would start building the first 100 kilometres of the Chaman-Kandahar road at a cost of US$2.5 million. Pakistan estimated the total cost of a new road to Torgundi, on the Turkmenistan border, at US$10 million. Pakistan's infrastructural support to the Taliban was farmed out to various government departments.
During 1995 the ISI continued to debate the issue of greater support for the Taliban. The debate centered around those largely Pushtun officers involved in covert operations on the ground, who wanted greater support for the Taliban, and other officers who were involved in longer-term intelligence gathering and strategic planning, who wished to keep Pakistan's support to the minimum so as not to worsen tensions with Central Asia and Iran.
The Pushtun grid in the army high command eventually played a major role in determining the military and ISI's decision to give greater support to the Taliban. Both the Army Chief General Abdul Waheed and the head of Military Intelligence Lieutenant-General Ali Kuli Khan were Pushtuns, as were all operational ISI field officers involved with the Taliban. The military appear to have decided by the summer of 1995 that the Taliban were the only possible alternative for Pakistan's own strategic interests in Afghanistan, especially as President Rabbani appeared to be getting too close to Pakistan's rivals - Russia, Iran and India. Another major factor was the ISI's reluctance to trust Rabbani's commander Ahmad Shah Massood, who had a running battle with the ISI since the 1980s.
When the Taliban launched their second attack on Herat, the ISI weighed in with a limited amount of military support. This included providing ammunition for large-calibre machine guns and artillery shells, of which the Taliban were short; extending their military wireless network; and helping the fledgling Taliban air force, which doubled in size after the capture of Herat. But the ISI's ability to provide sustained military support was severely hampered by serious financial and logistical restraints and a continuing debate within the ISI and between the army and the ISI as to the benefits of long-term support to the Taliban.
The ISI also helped the Taliban by providing them with hundreds of ex-Afghan army officers and technicians who had sought shelter in Pakistan after 1992. Many of these officers were linked to General Shahnawaz Tanai, the former second-in-command of President Najibullah's armed forces, who led an abortive coup attempt against him in March 1990. Tanai's coup was backed by Gulbadeen Hikmatyar and the ISI, but its failure forced Tanai and his men to flee to Pakistan where they were given refuge. Tanai belonged to the Khalq faction of the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan. Khalq was predominantly Pushtun and many of its officers were ardent Pushtun nationalists. These officers saw Taliban as a possible vehicle for a Pushtun resurgence in Afghanistan and thus were willing to join up with the students, even though they had little else in common with them. By the time the Taliban captured Kabul, their entire air force and a large section of their armour and heavy artillery were being manned by former Khalqis. By then Hikmatyar had fallen out with Tanai and in a bitter rebuttal of his former ally, Hikmatyar claimed that over 1,600 Khalqis were now working for the Taliban.
In Islamabad the involvement of several ministries, corporations, provincial governments and the ISI effectively sidelined the Pakistan Foreign Ministry, which had less and less to do with policy formulation towards the Taliban. The competition within the government only further fragmented Pakistan's decision-making on Afghanistan. The Foreign Ministry's ineffectiveness reduced Pakistan's ability to counter the hostile criticism from neighbouring countries of Islamabad's support for the Taliban. After the capture of Herat by the Taliban, Iran, Russia and the Central Asian Republics became openly hostile to Pakistan. And after Kabul fell to the Taliban in 1996 all the regional states again made it clear to Pakistan how they opposed the Taliban's expansionist aims.
The ISI played a leading role in helping the Taliban's capture of Jalalabad and Kabul, by first helping subvert the Jalalabad Shura and offering its members sanctuary in Pakistan and then allowing the Taliban to reinforce their assault on Kabul by fresh troops drawn from Afghan refugee camps on the border. Pakistani diplomats and ISI officials arrived in Kabul promising all-out support to the Taliban and the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam sent a delegation to help the Taliban write a new Afghan Constitution.
The ISI had became deeply concerned that an unholy alliance had sprung up between the regional states that would soon include India. But efforts to defuse the tension, such as the secret visit to Moscow in November by ISI Chief Lieutenant-General Naseem Rana and the Prime Minister's Special Envoy Ijlal Zaidi's visits to Iran and Central Asia, did little to defuse regional tensions. The more Pakistan demonstrated its support to the Taliban, the greater the anger and frustration amongst the regional states.
By May 1997, when the Taliban launched their abortive bid to take over Mazar-e-Sharif, the military and the ISI had calculated that a recognised Taliban government which controlled the entire country would be easier to deal with than a Taliban movement. Moreover the ISI estimated that all the regional states would then have to deal with the Taliban reality and these states would look to Islamabad to demonstrate leverage over the Taliban and improve their own relationships with them. It was a gamble that seriously misfired when the Taliban were pushed back from Mazar-e Sharif after suffering thousands of casualties.
For many experts in and out of government, especially for Pakistan's frustrated diplomatic corps, it was another classic example of Pakistan's overreaching foreign policy aims and ambitions, which were set in the Zia era when the country could at least claim lavish support from the USA, China and Saudi Arabia. But in the post-Cold War era, Pakistan had neither the resources, nor the domestic economic and political stability, to sustain such an ambitious foreign policy. Yet the fact remains that with the constant infighting and overlap on Afghan policy within the Pakistani establishment and the lack of any serious attempt to create a high-level decision-making body that could make and implement policy, Pakistan's strategy towards the Taliban was characterised as much by drift as by determination. Islamabad's policy was as much driven by corruption, infighting and inefficiency as it was a concerted attempt to push forward a Pushtoon agenda in Afghanistan.
And the Taliban had become masters at using these differences within the Pakistani establishment to their advantage, extracting the maximum benefits from Pakistan without giving any political concessions in return. Thus instead of using its clout with the Taliban to exert leverage on them for key political and social issues, Pakistan appeared to fritter away its authority and respect amongst many Afghans-a respect that had been built up over two decades of support for the Afghan Mujahideen and the Afghan nation.
The Taliban movement has extremely serious political implications for Pakistan, which the military and the political elite in the country first ignored and only began to grasp after the battle for Mazar-e Sharif. The Taliban's close links with Pakistani society, their uncompromising stance on their version of Islamic values and the fact that they represent a new form of Islamic radicalism which is admired by a younger generation of Pakistani madrassa students, give them far more clout inside Pakistan than other Afghan Mujahideen groups. For many Pakistanis the Taliban are an inspiration.
Moreover, after the battle for Mazar, the Taliban had virtually won over all those more traditional Islamic parties in Pakistan such as the Jama'at-e-Islami, who at first viewed them with suspicion. As Nawaz Sharif's government slipped into inertia six months after being voted into power in February 1997, most major Islamic parties publicly declared that they had lost faith in parliamentary politics and aimed to mobilise a mass movement for an Islamic revolution by the end of the year. Any such movement will almost certainly be joined by thousands of Pakistani madrassa students who have fought alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan. Armed, trained and motivated, these students would be a formidable force for any state apparatus to encounter.
With Pakistan's civil state machinery eaten away by corruption and ineffectiveness and growing public disillusionment with the political system, the law and order agencies would be unable to cope with an Islamic movement which would be violent and self-sacrificing. Almost immediately, such a movement would come up against the army. But the middle and lower echelons of the army's officer corps are themselves now full of fervent fundamentalist officers, many of them having graduated from a madarassa-style education rather than the public schools of the ruling elite. In any future prolonged confrontation with Koran-waving Islamic youths, the army's more secular high command would be hard-pressed to order their troops to open fire. The threat of an Islamic revolution in Pakistan has never been greater.
This is a chapter from the book, Fundamentalism Reborn?, by William Maley (Vanguard, Lahore, 1998).
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