Newsweek, October 13, 1997

Helping Hand

Where did the Taliban come from? How did they finance the drive to impose an Islamic state?

A special Newsweek investigation
By Steve LeVine

Resplendent in his turban, flowing white robe and neatly combed gray beard, Sultan Amir is indistinguishable from a back-country tribal elder. In Afghanistan, where he practices his profession, itís an everyday outfit, the local equivalent of a suit and tie. Within his own specialized field Amir is a legend: a veteran Pakistani intelligence officer, schooled in the arts of weaponry, organization, infiltration and indoctrination by Green Beret experts at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. His admirers call him Imam Ė "spiritual leader". He earned the nickname 15 years ago at a desert outpost on the border, where he trained young mujahedin guerillas to resist the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. This was before the really big CIA money began pouring in. His pupils treated him with an almost religious veneration Ė and they made him proud. Some of his fighters eventually became the nucleus of the Taliban, the armed faction that emerged from obscurity three years ago and now controls most of Afghanistan. "Every Taliban leader personally knows Imam," says Irfan Sidiqqi, a Pakistani writer who knows Amir well. You can say he is their Ďtechnical adviserí."

Amirís students are still putting his lessons to work. Last week Taliban forces intensified their siege of Mazar-i-Sharif, the last major military stronghold of the armed opposition. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan pleaded for a ceasefire to evacuate international relief workers, along with thousands of Tajik war refugees trapped in the cross-fire. The Taliban leaders refused. After months of blood-soaked reversals and advances, they had no intention of jeopardizing the hard-won prospect of a conclusive victory. Meanwhile, at a womenís hospital in Kabul, the Talibanís widely feared religious police arrested a European Commissioner representative, along with 18 other aid workers and journalists, including writer William Shawcross, who later filed a first-hand account of the incident to newsweek.

The history of the Talibanís rise has been largely a matter of public conjecture and rumor. Now a detailed Newsweek investigation has traced the groupís mysterious origins and hidden sources of support. Our reporting exposed the truth behind previously unconfirmed suspicions that the Taliban Ė an Afghan military force unprecedented in its tactics, stamina, sophistication and effectiveness Ė was built by foreign planning, money and arms. The story involves a strategic alliance between a one-eyed religious zealot and one of the worldís most hunted accused terrorists. The tangle also includes a duel between rival builders of a prospective pipeline from Central Asiaís landlocked oil wealth to the sea. Although no direct ties were found between the Taliban and U.S. spy services , the group has enjoyed the full backing of Washingtonís two main friends in the region, Islamabad and Riyadh. But it has evolved into a force that answers to no one outside a small, secretive clique of theocratic Afghans, led by a reclusive mullah named Mohammad Omar.

The Talibanís roots go back into the early 1980s. Many of the most zealous recruits training under Imam, the Pakistani special-ops officer, had enlisted from the traditional village religious schools. Such young men are commonly called taliban: "students." Some of these elite fighters were integrated into existing mujahedin forces. Others formed special fighting units commanded by religious leaders, outside the old tribal system. The CIA, which covertly sent in hundreds of millions of dollars to arm, train and supply the anti Soviet resistance, never discriminated between secular and religious groups in its largesse. As the war continued, Saudi Arabia sent money to build new Koran schools in refugee areas. The religious student-warriorsí ranks had grown to several thousand by 1992, when Kabulís Moscow-backed regime finally fell. The boys went home to their villages and schools. But they kept a sense of special purpose and unity in case they ever again were called to fight.

The summons came abruptly in 1994. The flood of U.S. aid to Islamabad had dried up soon after the Soviets went home in 1989. Pakistan desperately needed new sources of revenue. Benazir Bhutto, then Pakistanís prime minister, hatched a plan to reopen the ancient silk route from Karachi to Central Asia, straight across Afghanistan. She didnít seem worried that much of the intervening countryside was effectively ruled by local bandits. On Oct. 29, a 30-truck convoy of medicine and food set out from the Pakistani border, headed for Turkmenistan via the southern Afghan city of Kandahar. Amir rode at the processionís head. Whether he was expecting trouble isnít entirely clear Ė but he found it. A local warlord named Niyaz Wayand captured the convoy. Amir himself was beaten up. Hearing of their old friendís plight, a vigilante band of armed students sped to his rescue. They routed the warlord and freed the Pakistanis. Then, fed up with such banditry, they rolled on to capture Kandahar. Their leader was a one-eyed Muslim preacher called Mullah Omar.

War widows congregate in a Kabul street to await the arrival of a shipment of food from the International Red Cross.
(Newsweek photo)

The unexpected victory electrified the Afghans. The old Koran-school mujahedin had been dreaming of saving Afghanistan from anarchy. Now they began swarming to Kandahar. Pakistan, eager to exert more influence in lawless Afghanistan, opened an aid channel to the fledgling movement. The reinforcements included scores of experienced tank drivers and pilots and two covert military advisers. One of them was Amir, assigned under diplomatic cover to the western city of Herat. But from the outside, the Talibanís growth appeared almost miraculous. Pakistan kept its lines of support well hidden, and the CIA was nowhere in sight.

Success nearly destroyed the Taliban. Intoxicated with their victories, the warriors began ignoring Islamabadís guidance. In March 1995, against stern warnings from Pakistani intelligence officials, the Taliban set out to capture Kabul. "The march to Kabul was a mob," a diplomat recalls. "They went at it like Mad Max." The Taliban succeeded only in chasing off Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who had also laid siege to the capital with the help of Pakistani arms and supplies. Then Kabulís defenders opened up their artillery. Roughly 400 Taliban fighters were killed before they could flee the shelling.

The Taliban barely survived. But then Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates began sending new aid, equipping Omarís troops with off-road vehicles and other vital gear. Riyadh became the Talibanís main source of funds, and the paymaster was Turki bin Faisal. The Saudi intelligence chief met regularly in Riyadh with senior Taliban emissaries. "It was carrot and stick," says a Western intelligence official. "When the Saudis thought the Taliban were doing what they wanted, they gave. When they didnít think so, they withheld." In mid-1996 the Saudis were withholding. By August the group was broke and desperate.

Yet suddenly they were rolling in cash and confidence. On Sept. 27 the Taliban marched into Kabul. Former mujahedin commanders close to the Taliban say the bonanza arrived courtesy of Osama bin Ladin, a radical Saudi national wanted by U.S. Justice Department officials on suspicion of having bankrolled several major terrorist attacks, including the truck bombing of the U.S. military barracks in Khobar, Saudi Arabia. Afghan and Western sources say bin Ladenís gift to Omar amounted to $3 million. Today, bin Ladin who is said to hold some $300 million of his familyís construction fortune, lives with a 160-member entourage in Kandahar as one of Omarís key intimates. Former mujahedin commanders say the sudden infusion of cash enabled the Taliban to buy the strategic Afghan defections that stripped away Kabulís defenses.

Until Kabul fell, the U.S. administration seemed unconcerned about the Talibanís growth. Some mid-level State Department officials applauded the movementís campaign for law and order, despite the mullahís knuckle-dragging views on womenís rights. Other bureaucrats worried about the groupís role in the regional opium trade. According to senior Western drug officials and Afghans close to the Taliban, opium has always been a vital source of money for the group, which collects millions of dollars in "taxes" and other contributions from local drug lords. Still, drug traffickers and male supremacists are ubiquitous in the region. And what could the United States do to stop them anyway?

So far Washington has withheld recognition of the Taliban government. Despite official contacts, including by the then assistant Secretary of State Robin Rafel and others, business executives have served as the main conduit between Washington and Kabul. The U.S. firm Unocal is determined to build a $4.5 billion set of pipelines to carry oil and natural gas from Turkmenistan into Pakistan via Afghanistan; last week it announced plans to begin training Afghans for the construction job. The Argentine company Bridas is racing for control of the project. Both corporations have hired Saudi firms to help them deal with the Afghans - and both have hired former U.S. diplomats to work as "consultants" in Kabul and Washington. As things stand, U.S. policy in Afghanistan is likely to be shaped significantly by the dictates of pipeline politics.

Meanwhile, U.S. intelligence officials can only stew on the sidelines. "Sure, something is going on," says a CIA hand with years of experience running operations in the region. "And itís being done exactly they way we did it before with the Afghans, with the Saudis and the Pakistanis throwing in support. But this time we arenít doing anything!" His voice rises to a shout. Itís not that he seems angry at the suggestion of the CIA involvement. On the contrary, he conveys a sense of frustration at being kept on the bench. And no one can say for sure when or if the game will have another round.

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