Place a phone call to Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban in Kabul, and you begin to understand the complexity of the ties this outlaw nation has with Pakistan. Afghanistan has its own area codes, of course, but the Taliban ministries all start with Pakistani codes. The phones are just the beginning. From the guerrilla war in Kashmir to heroin smuggling to a mutual suspicion of Russia and Iran, these two countries have marched in lock step for half a decade. As the United States tries to pry Pakistan free of these ties, it will find similarly complex wiring between Islamabad and terror suspect Osama bin Laden.
THE CAR BOMB that exploded outside the state legislature of India’s portion of Kashmir on Monday is another example of the morass that Washington has marched into. The bomb in Kashmir, the disputed border region between India and Pakistan, killed at least 38 people and responsibility was claimed by a Pakistan-based Islamic militant group. This sparked India’s Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to write an angry letter to U.S. President George W. Bush warning “incidents of this kind raise questions for our security which ... I have to address in our supreme national interest.”
Such atrocities in Kashmir are not uncommon, and India’s police in Kashmir, the country’s only Muslim majority state, are roundly condemned by international human rights groups for their own behavior. But the sudden American embrace of Pakistan’s military regime raises more than eyebrows in India, and Kashmir is only one of the problems that will complicate this tenuous new friendship.
THE AFGHAN ADVANTAGE
Pakistan’s tangled history of involvement in Afghanistan has roots that go back centuries, but more recently to the U.S.-backed guerrilla war to oust the Soviet Army from Afghanistan in the 1980s. That CIA-backed effort flooded Pakistan with weapons and zealous Afghan and Arab fighters. When the Soviet Union left the region in 1989, the CIA pulled out, too. But the zealots remained, and Pakistan’s own intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence bureau or ISI, took over as their sponsors. They helped put the Taliban in power and trained militants fighting to end India’s rule in Kashmir.
Troubled by the prospect of another war in neighboring Afghanistan, the Pakistani government has labored intensively to convince the Taliban to turn over bin Laden. Yet even at this late date, Pakistan continues to recognize the Taliban as Afghanistan’s legitimate rulers - the last nation in the world to do so.
Days after the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States, Islamabad dispatched a high-level diplomatic delegation to Kandahar, the Taliban militia’s stronghold in southern Afghanistan. After the talks failed to secure the handover of bin Laden, Pakistan tried another approach — sending a group of its top Islamic leaders to reason with Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban’s deeply religious commander.
The special government planes that flew the delegations low over the rugged and parched Pakistan-Afghan border toward Kandahar were packed with VIPs — but one passenger wielded more power than all the other delegates combined: Gen. Mahmood Ahmed, the head of the ISI.
A POWER THAT SURVIVES
For half of its 53 years of independence, Pakistan has been ruled by the military. For the intervening years, stunningly corrupt elected governments have bathed in billions of dollars looted from state coffers. As would-be democratic reformers, kleptocracies and military regimes have come and gone, the ISI has only strengthened its grip on power.
The appearance of Ahmed at the helm of Pakistan’s effort to avert a crisis in Afghanistan comes as no surprise. 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 Afghanistan’s current rulers, 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.
To this day, the ISI is one of the Taliban’s biggest backers. Beyond the visible signs — like connecting the Taliban to Pakistan’s phone grid and leading high-level talks with Afghanistan — the intelligence services have funneled arms, fuel and expertise to the radical Islamic government.
“The Afghans are tough negotiators,” said Brigadier Mohammed Yousaf, head of the ISI’s Afghan Bureau from 1983-1987, of Pakistan’s attempts to get the Taliban to turn over bin Laden. “The friendship (between the ISI and the Taliban) makes a major difference.”
In an effort to win a key ally in the region since the Sept. 11 terror attacks, the Bush administration has lavished attention on Pakistan, swiftly restructuring its U.S. debt and dropping three-year-old economic sanctions. But some observers question whether the country’s current military government can fulfill its promise to get tough with Afghanistan, especially when the ISI pulls many of the levers of power in Pakistan — and enjoys such a cozy relationship with the Taliban.
“It’s messy. It’s difficult,” said Husain Haqqani, a Pakistani political analyst, of the politics awaiting the U.S. government. “This is going to take longer than the United States thought. It has elements and components that U.S. policy makers have not fully comprehended.”
A former U.S. intelligence officer based in the region agreed. “The ISI is an inner circle of an inner circle of an inner circle,” he said on condition of anonymity. “You can’t get rid of these people, because they’re all related by family ties and marriage.”
The ISI’s connections start at the top of Pakistan’s government — President Pervez Musharraf appointed Ahmed head of the ISI after the intelligence chief helped him topple Pakistan’s democratic government in 1999.
As demonstrated by Ahmed’s most recent trip to Afghanistan — leading the peace mission of Pakistan’s top Islamic scholars — the ISI’s ties to Pakistan’s hard-line religious organizations are also deep. And Pakistan’s vocal Islamic clerics are ardent Taliban supporters.
It’s that murky world of Pakistan’s politics that could hobble Washington’s war on terrorism. Even the former ISI chief doubts Washington will be able to navigate Pakistan’s internal rivalries. In the worst-case scenario — one that terrifies India — there are fears the country’s own Islamic militants could rise and overthrow the government, control of nuclear missiles and all, if Pakistan allows attacks on Afghanistan from its soil.
InsertArt(1956876)“I would not be sure that the rank-and-file in the ISI would fully cooperate with the United States,” said former ISI director, retired Gen. Hamid Gul, who stressed the importance of the Kashmir issue. In that regard, Afghanistan has become a convenient ally in Pakistan’s regional power game with India.
When the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan 12 years ago, Pakistan, and the ISI, saw Washington’s attention drift elsewhere as the Cold War drew to a close. Analysts say that “abandonment” by the United States caused Pakistan to look elsewhere for its power base.
“Pakistan needed a friendly government in Afghanistan, and it needed a way to counter the power of India,” said Islamabad-based analyst Haqqani. “In both cases, the answer has been Islamic militants.”
InsertArt(1956877)The Taliban has been effective in beating back the armed opposition, made up mainly of the Northern Alliance, a group of ex-mujahedeen rebel commanders that Pakistan associates with India’s backing of Soviet’s puppet regime. In the event of a Taliban overthrow, Pakistan views a Northern Alliance government as unacceptable.
The Bush administration is treading lightly around this issue, although Washington is using Northern Alliance intelligence in its efforts to track suspected terrorist bin Laden.
Rounding out this political maze are the commercial interests of the ISI, which has been accused of using profits from Afghanistan’s opium crop to fund covert operations and the Kashmir rebel movement.
In the dozen years since the CIA was an active player in the region, Pakistan’s intelligence services may have surpassed their U.S. counterparts in South Asia’s high stakes political game, said former ISI director Gul.
“The ISI is a very efficient organization, and that scares America.”
MSNBC.com’s Preston Mendenhall is on assignment in Pakistan.