Pakistan puppet masters guide the Taliban

The Sunday Times

THE Taliban commander waited at the ramshackle border crossing while Pakistani police wielding assault rifles stopped and searched the line of cars and trucks travelling into Afghanistan.

Some of the trucks carried smuggled goods — DVD players, car stereos, television sets, generators, children’s toys. But the load smuggled by Taliban fighter Qari Rasoul, a thickset Pashtun from Afghanistan’s Wardak province, was altogether more sinister.

Rasoul’s boot was full of remote-control triggers used to detonate the home-made bombs responsible for the vast majority of Nato casualties in Afghanistan. The three passengers sitting in his white Toyota estate were suicide bombers.

The policemen flagged down Rasoul’s car and began to search it. They soon found the triggers, hidden beneath a bundle of clothes in the back of the estate. They asked him who he was and who the triggers belonged to. “I’m a Taliban commander. They belong to me,” he told them.

Two policemen took Rasoul into their office in Chaman, a small town that borders Kandahar province in southern Afghanistan, and sat him down on a wooden chair.

Instead of arresting him, the elder policeman rubbed his thumb and index finger together and, smiling, said: “Try to understand.”

Rasoul phoned a Pakistani friend. Two hours later he was released, having paid the policemen 5,000 Pakistani rupees, the equivalent of about £40, each.

“That was the only time I ever faced problems crossing the border with Pakistan,” said Rasoul, who is responsible for delivering suicide bombers trained in Pakistani camps to targets in Afghanistan.

Pakistani support for the Taliban in Afghanistan runs far deeper than a few corrupt police officers, however. The Sunday Times can reveal that it is officially sanctioned at the highest levels of Pakistan’s government.

Pakistan’s own intelligence agency, the ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence), is said to be represented on the Taliban’s war council — the Quetta shura. Up to seven of the 15-man shura are believed to be ISI agents.

The former head of Afghanistan’s intelligence agency, Amrullah Saleh, who resigned last week, said: “The ISI is part of the landscape of destruction in this country, no doubt, so it will be a waste of time to provide evidence of ISI involvement. They are a part of it.”

Testimony by western and Afghan security officials, Taliban commanders, former Taliban ministers and a senior Taliban emissary show the extent to which the ISI manipulates the Taliban’s strategy in Afghanistan.

Pakistani support for the Taliban is prolonging a conflict that has cost the West billions of dollars and hundreds of lives. Last week 32 Nato soldiers were killed.

According to a report published today by the London School of Economics, which backs up months of research by this newspaper, “Pakistan appears to be playing a double game of astonishing magnitude” in Afghanistan.

The report’s author, Matt Waldman, a Harvard analyst, argues that previous studies significantly underestimated the influence that Pakistan’s ISI exerts over the Taliban. Far from being the work of rogue elements, interviews suggest this “support is official ISI policy”, he says.

The LSE report, based on dozens of interviews and corroborated by two senior western security officials, states: “As the provider of sanctuary and substantial financial, military and logistical support to the insurgency, the ISI appears to have strong strategic and operational influence — reinforced by coercion. There is thus a strong case that the ISI orchestrates, sustains and shapes the overall insurgent campaign.”

The report also alleges that Asif Ali Zardari, the president of Pakistan, recently met captured Taliban leaders to assure them that the Taliban had his government’s full support. This was vigorously denied by Zardari’s spokesman. Pakistani troops have launched offensives against militants in North and South Waziristan.

However, a senior Taliban source in regular contact with members of the Quetta shura told The Sunday Times that in early April, Zardari and a senior ISI official met 50 high-ranking Taliban members at a prison in Pakistan.

According to a Taliban leader in the jail at the time, five days before the meeting prison officials were told to prepare for the impending presidential call. Prison guards wearing dark glasses served the Taliban captives traditional Afghan meals three times a day.

“They wanted to make the prisoners feel like they were important and respected,” the source said.

Hours before Zardari’s visit, the head warder told the Taliban inmates to impress upon the president how well they had been looked after during their time in captivity.

Zardari spoke to them for half an hour. He allegedly explained that he had arrested them because his government was under increasing American pressure to end the sanctuary enjoyed by the Taliban in Pakistan and to round up their ringleaders.

“You are our people, we are friends, and after your release we will of course support you to do your operations,” he said, according to the source.

He vowed to release the less well-known commanders in the near future and said that the “famous” Taliban leaders would be freed at a later date.

Five days after Zardari’s visit, a handful of Taliban prisoners, including The Sunday Times’s source, were driven into Quetta and set free, in line with the president’s pledge.

“This report is consistent with Pakistan’s political history in which civilian leaders actively backed jihadi groups that operate in Afghanistan and Kashmir,” Waldman said.

According to the source, during his visit to the prison Zardari also met Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban’s former second in command, who was arrested by the ISI earlier this year with seven other Taliban leaders.

Baradar, who is from the same tribe as Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, had allegedly approached the Afghan government to discuss the prospect of a peace settlement between the two sides.

Baradar’s arrest is seen in both diplomatic and Taliban circles as an ISI plot to manipulate the Taliban’s political hierarchy and also to block negotiations between the Kabul government and the Taliban leadership.

Shortly after Baradar’s arrest the ISI arrested two other Taliban members — Mullah Abdul Qayyum Zakir and his close associate and friend Mullah Abdul Rauf. Both men were released after just two nights in custody.

Following his release, Zakir, who spent years in custody in Guantanamo Bay, assumed command of the Taliban’s military wing, replacing Baradar. Rauf, also a former Guantanamo inmate, was immediately appointed chairman of the Quetta shura.

“To say the least, this is compelling evidence of significant ISI influence over the movement and it is highly likely that the release was on ISI terms or at least on the basis of a mutual understanding,” the LSE report states.

The promotions of Zakir and Rauf will give Pakistan greater leverage over future peace talks, Taliban and western officials said.

To ensure that the Pakistani government retains its influence over the Taliban’s leadership, the ISI has placed its own representatives on the Quetta shura, according to these officials.

Up to seven of the Afghan Taliban leaders who sit on the 15-man shura are believed to be ISI agents. However, some sources maintain that every member of the shura has ISI links.

“It is impossible to be a member of the Quetta shura without membership of the ISI,” said a senior Taliban intermediary who liaises with the Afghan government and Taliban leaders.

The LSE report states: “Interviews strongly suggest that the ISI has representatives on the shura, either as participants or observers, and the agency is thus involved at the highest levels of the movement.”

The two shura members who receive the strongest support from the ISI are Taib Agha, former spokesman for Mullah Omar, the Taliban supreme leader, and Mullah Hasan Rahmani, the former Taliban governor of Kandahar, according to the Taliban intermediary and western officials.

Strategies that the ISI encourages, according to Taliban commanders, include: cutting Nato’s supply lines by bombing bridges and roads; attacking key infrastructure projects; assassinating progovernment tribal elders; murdering doctors and teachers; closing schools and attacking schoolgirls.

ISI agents hand chits to Taliban commanders who use them to buy weapons at arms dumps in North Waziristan.

The Taliban’s “plastic bombs” — the low metal content improvised explosive devices (IEDs) that kill the majority of British soldiers who die in Afghanistan — were introduced to the Taliban by Pakistani officials, according to Taliban commanders, the Taliban intermediary and western officials. The materials allow Taliban sappers to plant bombs that can evade Nato mine detectors.

Rasoul, the Taliban commander from Wardak province, also alleged that the ISI pays 200,000 Pakistani rupees (£1,600) in compensation to the families of suicide bombers who launch attacks on targets in Afghanistan.

“They need vehicles, fuel and food. They need ammunition. They need money and guns. They need clinics and medicine. So who is providing these things to the Taliban if it’s not Pakistan?” a former Kabul police chief said.

In the eastern province of Khost, one commander described how Pakistani military trucks picked his men up from training camps in Pakistan and ferried them to the Afghan border at night.

Once at the border, Pakistanis dressed in military uniform gave the commander a list of targets inside Afghanistan. Taliban fighters then ferried the weapons and ammunition into Afghanistan using cars, donkeys, horses and camels.

“We post our men along our supply routes to protect the convoys once they are on Afghan turf,” said the Khost commander. “The [US] drones sometimes bomb our convoys and many times they have bombed our ammo stores.”

Camps within Pakistan train Taliban fighters in three different sets of skills: suicide bombing, bomb-making and infantry tactics. Each camp focuses on a different skill.

Pakistan’s support for the Taliban has sparked friction between the home-grown Taliban groups and those who are bankrolled to a greater extent by the ISI.

Many lower-level commanders in Afghanistan are angered by the degree to which the ISI dictates their operations.

“The ISI-backed Taliban are destroying the country. Their suicide bombings are the ones that kill innocent civilians. They are undoing the infrastructure with their attacks,” said a Taliban commander from Kandahar province.

Most commanders said they resented their comrades who received the largest slice of ISI support. They also said they knew about the ISI’s influence over their senior leadership. “There is already mistrust among the low-level fighters and commanders,” the Taliban intermediary said. “But they don’t really know the extent of it. They don’t believe that our leaders are ISI spies.”

Major-General Athar Abbas, Pakistan’s senior military spokesman, called the claim that the ISI has representatives on the Quetta shura “ridiculous”. He said: “The allegations are absolutely baseless.”

Farhatullah Babar, a spokesman for the Pakistani president, said: “There’s no such thing as President Zardari meeting Taliban leaders. This never happened.”

To see the full London School of Economics report, go to thesundaytimes.co.uk/world

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