Don’t Blame The ISI

It didn’t create the Taliban. The elected government of Pakistan did

Written by Vappala Balachandran | Published: September 19, 2015 12:32:37 am
taliban, afghanistan An Afghan security force aim his weapon during a battle with Taliban insurgents in the Chahardara district of Kunduz province northern of Kabul. (Source: AP file photo)

Some commentators have described the late General Hamid Gul as the father of the Taliban. Gul was no doubt the most virulent anti-Indian face among all ISI chiefs.

But it is not true that he created the Taliban, which was the brainchild of General Naseerullah Babar, Benazir Bhutto’s interior minister during her second tenure as prime minister (1993-96). Benazir did not trust the ISI. She tried to cut it down to size by firing Gul during her first tenure (1988-1990) for the ISI’s failure to oversee mujahideen operations to capture Jalalabad after the 1989 Soviet withdrawal.

Also, contrary to conventional wisdom, it is not the Pakistan army that first introduced the deadly cocktail of religion and terrorism to inflame its neighbourhood. This was done by popularly elected governments. In 1973, PM Zulfikar Ali Bhutto asked Babar, then chief of the Peshawar Frontier Corps, to train an Afghan Islamic students’ group to undermine the Daud Khan regime in Kabul. Among those trained by Babar were future mujahideen leaders like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Habibur Rahman, Burhanuddin Rabbani and Ahmad Shah Massoud.

The ISI was not kept in the loop according to Babar’s own admission.

Babar replicated this strategy in 1993-94. He trained religious students from border seminaries and unleashed them as the “Afghan Taliban”. There was American pressure on Benazir to find an alternative to the fractious Afghan mujahideen, who continued infighting even after President Mohammad Najeebullah’s fall in April 1992 — Hekmatyar was fighting with Massoud; diverse militias were controlling the highways. The Kabul government, first headed by Sibghatullah Mojaddidi, later by Rabbani, was unable to control the hinterland. Also, commercial considerations to open the Afghan highways to connect Central Asia were overwhelming. In 1994, this anarchy was checked by a group of mysterious young men who suddenly appeared as sentinels to maintain order by rendering instant punishment to the repressive warlords.

In the beginning, we did not know the identity of this group. Towards the second half of 1994, we received an enigmatic visitor from war-torn Afghanistan, Abdur Rahman, then civil aviation minister, he was also a close ally of Massoud. Rahman revealed that the young sentinels were Pashtun students from Af-Pak border seminaries. We naturally thought they were created by the ISI. Late in 1994, we were in for a surprise when chatter was picked up between Pakistan President Farooq Leghari and Babar. We heard Leghari congratulating Babar for taking the young religious soldiers to open up the Afghan highways. We initially wondered why Leghari should congratulate the interior minister for a suspected foreign intelligence operation, but later found out that Babar was doing this through his ministry’s “Afghan cell”.

Former US foreign service official Dennis Kux’s 2001 Disenchanted Allies prominently mentioned Babar’s role. In 2003, the US National Security Archives published a heavily redacted secret telegram of December 6, 1994 from the US embassy in Islamabad. It quoted a source saying the Taliban was supported by the interior minister. The source told the embassy’s political officer he had accompanied then ISI chief General Javed Ashraf Qazi to Kabul, where he had “vehemently denied that his agency had any role in supporting the Afghan Taliban movement”. The source added Qazi had strongly recommended to Benazir not to support the Taliban as it “could become a dangerous and uncontrollable force which could harm both Afghanistan and potentially Pakistan”. But neither Benazir nor the US paid heed.

Kux describes the US enthusiasm to support the Taliban for commercial interests. In October 1995, Babar personally led a convoy of trucks from Quetta to Turkmenistan, passing through Kandahar and Herat, with a Taliban escort. Several foreign envoys, including US Ambassador John Monjo, were in the party. Oil company Unocal was trying to lobby with Pakistan, the US government and also the Taliban for the Central Asia pipeline project. Robin Raphel, then assistant secretary of state for South Asia, reportedly believed that the Unocal pipeline could help bring peace and jobs to Afghanistan and gas to India-Pakistan.

The US changed its strategy only after the deadly 1998 Tanzanian and Kenyan embassy bombings. The FBI found evidence that al-Qaeda was fully in the picture over Taliban-US government negotiations. Since then, the Taliban has splintered into more deadly groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan, some threatening regional peace by aligning with the IS. Who would have thought that democratically elected governments would have laid the foundations of these sanguineous movements?

The writer is a former special secretary, cabinet secretariat

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