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msnbc.com
updated 12/13/2003 8:09:59 AM ET 2003-12-13T13:09:59

The Northern Alliance, the Afghan militia that controls most of the country, continues to maintain that Pakistan was allowed to airlift thousands of Pakistani troops who were fighting alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan — with the acquiescence of the United States.

The controversial airlift from Kunduz, which reportedly took place during the siege of the northern city in late November, was further evidence of the cozy relationship between Islamabad and the former Afghan rulers, according to the alliance.

Otilie English, public affairs representative for the United Front/Northern Alliance in Washington, it was no surprise that the United States denied the airlift took place.

The State Department “has forever been an apologist for the Pakistanis hegimonistic behavior in Afghanistan — and they continue to take their cue from them when it comes to Afghanistan,” she said.

The alliance’s Gen. Mohammed Daoud, the commander of the opposition forces that eventually seized Kunduz, said that “several” planes had landed in Kunduz airport and that “several hundred” high-echelon Pakistani officers had boarded them.

Daoud expressed anger over what he suggested was a deal between Washington and Islamabad in return for Pakistan’s support for the “war on terrorism.”

But his charge was denied by the United States. Last week, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld again rejected the reports.

“I have had no evidence … that there have been airplanes rescuing people or that had there been airplanes, that Pakistan had done it,” he said Thursday during the Pentagon briefing.

Pakistan has also denied any involvement. A spokesman for the embassy in Washington described the reports as a “fabrication,” disputing the accounts and noting that the only reported eyewitness was Daoud.

PAKISTAN ROLE

The dispute has highlighted some of the deep-rooted problems at issue in Afghanistan, partially obscured by the freshly minted agreement on a new broad-based government, sponsored by the United Nations.

Foremost is Pakistan’s schizophrenic role as the most important Muslim ally in the U.S.-led war on terrorism while maintaining links with the Taliban — which it nurtured since the group’s birth in 1994 — even during the waning days of its reign.

For example, The New York Times reported that twice in early October, convoys laden with rifles, ammunition and rocked-propelled grenade launchers for the Taliban drove over the border into Afghanistan.

According to the Northern Alliance’s English, Pakistan had nearly 20,000 regular troops in Afghanistan fighting alongside the Taliban.

The public affairs officer said that prisoners of war she interviewed in May, Muslims from China and Chechnya, told her that the Al-Qaida training camps were run by the Inter-Services Intelligence, Pakistan’s notorious security agency.

Pakistan has rejected reports of the ISI’s involvement. “The ISI is not in the business of sending people to countries to fight other people’s wars,” the embassy spokesman said.

But for more than two decades, the ISI has been the agent of Pakistan’s Afghan policy: during the 1979-1989 Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the ISI was the CIA’s chief conduit for weapons and funding destined for the anti-Kremlin mujahedeen fighters. When the Taliban emerged from the embers of the civil war that followed the Soviet withdrawal, the ISI provided advice and logistical support that enabled the Islamic militia to handily gain control of 90 percent of the country.

In his book, “Taliban,” journalist Ahmed Rashid reported that in 1997/98 cash-strapped Pakistan paid salaries for senior members of the Taliban government as part of $30 million in aid.

At the same time, Islamabad denied supporting the hard-line Islamic regime, which was shunned by most of the world, and the focus of increased U.S. attention because of the presence there of Osama bin Laden.

THE AFTERMATH

Now three months after the terrorist attacks on the United States, Pakistan is bracing for a Kabul government that’s guaranteed to be less friendly than the Taliban.

InsertArt(1297307)Its former foe, the Northern Alliance, won a large chunk of the Cabinet posts and has shown no inclination to kiss and make up.

But Pakistan, which shares a 1,200-border with Afghanistan, will maintain a keen interest in its neighbor.

The Kunduz airlift may have scooped up the obvious remnants of its presence in Pakistan, but Islamabad has too many strategic and ethnic ties to ignore Kabul.

There also are signs that Islamabad may already have chosen its latest Afghan “partner.” According to some Alliance officials, quoted by the Times, hundreds of more Al-Qaida fighters left encircled Kunduz by pickup trucks in November.

Their protection was provided by the maverick Uzbek warlord, Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, ostensibly a member of the Northern Alliance but a wildcard in the political landscape of a future Afghanistan.

(NBC’s Jim Maceda in Kabul contributed to this story.)

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