Newly declassified intelligence documents reveal the depth of U.S. officials’ concern that Pakistan was providing funds, arms — and even combat troops — to the Taliban regime in Afghanistan for years before the Sept. 11 attacks.
They also show rising frustration at what U.S. officials called Pakistan’s “resistance and/or duplicity” toward Washington’s repeated requests for help in getting the Taliban to hand over Osama bin Laden. A top official at one point said hauling Pakistan before the U.N. Security Council should be considered.
The documents, released under a Freedom of Information Act request by George Washington University’s National Security Archive and posted on its Web site, add detail to what is already generally known about U.S. intelligence on Pakistan’s links with the Taliban as it surged to power in Afghanistan in the mid-1990s.
The cables and letters between senior U.S. officials — most of them stamped “confidential” and heavily redacted for public release — lay out those concerns in language stripped of diplomatic niceties.
All but one of the 35 documents deal with the period between December 1994 and September 2000. Sensitive details, including what appear to be names, have been blacked out in many places.
Pakistan denies claims
They show that U.S. officials as early as 1994 believed Pakistan’s intelligence services were deeply involved with the Taliban and its takeover that year of the southern Afghan city of Kandahar. It was the first major victory for the then-obscure religious militia that went on to capture the capital, Kabul, in September 1996 and then gain control of almost all of Afghanistan by mid-1997.
Responding to the new documents, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Tasnim Aslam reiterated Pakistan’s previous strong denials that the country ever gave military support to the Taliban. She also denied Pakistan ignored U.S. requests to use its influence to persuade the Taliban to surrender bin Laden.
In 1996, U.S. intelligence officials concluded Pakistan’s Interservice Intelligence was more involved with the Taliban than Pakistani officials had been telling American diplomats. An Oct. 22 cable to Washington said the service was supplying the Taliban with food and fuel, adding that “munitions convoys depart Pakistan late in the evening hours and are concealed to reveal their true contents.”
Two weeks later, another cable to Washington said large numbers of Pakistan’s Frontier Corps were being “utilized in command and control; training; and when necessary — combat” in Afghanistan. The Frontier Corps were comprised mostly of ethnic Pashtuns, who would not stand out among the Taliban, who were also mostly Pashtuns.
Aslam denied the cable’s claims. “That’s absolutely baseless. Our troops have never been involved inside Afghanistan,” she said.
The Taliban regime imposed a version of Islamic rule that was among the world’s strictest — subjugating women, banning music and chopping off the hands of thieves. But the Taliban won support inside and outside Afghanistan because its rise quelled fighting among regional warlords whose battle over power after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989 killed countless civilians.
“There was a time when everyone supported them, because after the civil war everyone thought that they would bring stability and peace to Afghanistan and they might unify the nation,” Aslam said. Pakistan gave diplomatic recognition to Taliban rule in May 1997; recognition followed from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
'An intrinsic enemy'
Bin Laden moved to Afghanistan — from Sudan where diplomatic pressure had forced him out — in the chaotic years before the Taliban came to power, and began setting up terrorist training camps. The warlords who let bin Laden in later combined into the Northern Alliance, which with U.S. military support ousted the Taliban in late 2001.
Among the Taliban’s early backers was Hamid Karzai, a Pashtun leader asked by the Taliban to become their U.N. representative before he became disillusioned with their extremism. Washington later supported Karzai as Afghanistan’s post-Taliban president, a post he still holds.
In March 1999, Karl F. Inderfurth, Washington’s senior diplomat for South Asia, wrote to then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in pessimistic terms about the prospects of peace in Afghanistan. Washington, he wrote, “may have to consider the Taliban to be an intrinsic enemy of the United States and (Afghanistan to be) a new international pariah state.”
Concerns about the Taliban included its links to opium crops, rights abuses and protection of bin Laden, who at the time was wanted in the United States in connection with the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya that killed more than 200 people.
“Pakistan has not been responsive to our requests that it use its full influence on the Taliban surrender of bin Laden,” Inderfurth wrote. “We should demand that Pakistan help us meet our core goals in Afghanistan and foster a political settlement compatible with Pakistan’s own long-term interests.”
If not, the United States should consider taking Pakistan before the U.N. Security Council, where military action could be among the options, Inderfurth wrote.
“If we see continued Pakistani resistance and/or duplicity, we should begin to seriously consider seeking Security Council backing ... to ensure that Pakistan and the outside players abide with pledges to cease outside support,” he said.
Cooperation increased after 9/11
Aslam said the idea that Pakistan did not respond to U.S. requests on bin Laden was a “baseless allegation.”
“We tried out best,” she said. “I think the U.S. intelligence agencies have exaggerated Pakistan’s influence, in their own interests.”
Washington had stepped up efforts to get bin Laden after the African embassy bombings, posting a $5 million reward for the terrorist leader. In 1999, President Clinton met Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who soon afterward began talking of withdrawing Pakistan’s support for the Taliban unless bin Laden was handed over or expelled from Afghanistan, according to reports at the time.
Cooperation between Islamabad and Washington on bin Laden lapsed after Musharraf ousted Sharif in a coup in October 1999.
Musharraf made an abrupt shift in policy after the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S., withdrawing support for the Taliban and becoming a key U.S. ally in the Afghan war by providing logistical support and launching military action in the lawless border region to root out militants.
Bin Laden and top Taliban leaders escaped the U.S.-led war, and U.S. intelligence officials warned last month that al-Qaida might be regrouping in tribal zone on the border. In Afghanistan, the Taliban have stepped up attacks in the past two years trying to destabilize Karzai’s government and reassert themselves as a force in the country.