Return of the Taliban [home page]
  • home
  • watch online
  • pakistan
  • tribal areas
  • interviews
  • site map
  • discussion

steve coll

photo of steve coll

A correspondent for The New Yorker, Coll is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan and Bin Laden, From the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001. Here, he recounts how the Taliban organized and gained power in Afghanistan with assistance from Pakistani intelligence, and how some in Pakistan's intelligence community were reluctant to switch their allegiance after President Musharraf made the decision to ally with the U.S. after 9/11. He also describes the complicated balancing act that has resulted from this decision, describing Musharraf as a "weak" U.S. ally. "The next attack against the United States may well have roots in this failed state or emerging failed state," he warns. "What are the U.S. and its allies going to do about this problem then, and why isn't it being addressed now?" This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on July 20, 2006.

Musharraf gets up every morning, and he thinks about how to manage his relationship with the United States. � The United States does not get up every morning thinking about how to manage its relationship with Musharraf more successfully.

How do we understand the relationship between the ISI [Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence] and the Taliban?

The Taliban arose in the fall of 1994 and sort of presented themselves as a fact on the ground in southern Afghanistan and rather quickly made contact with the Pakistan army and with the chief of its intelligence service.

There was a meeting at ISI headquarters with some of the early leaders of the Taliban -- not Mullah Omar, but some of his aides -- and the ISI chief in the late autumn of 1994. It was a get-to-know-you, introductory meeting. From that beginning, the ISI became more and more involved with the Taliban as the Taliban increased its ambitions in southern Afghanistan.

Throughout 1995, the collaboration between ISI and the Taliban increased, and it changed character. It became more and more of a direct military alliance. The ISI was itself divided in this period of the Taliban's emergence about how to conduct its policy in Afghanistan, who to favor. The ISI, during a long period of the anti-Soviet war, had been closest to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a Pashtun commander, an Islamist. But by the 1990s, Hekmatyar was no longer effective, at least in the judgment of many within ISI. ...

The Taliban gradually proved themselves as the better client. They became more effective militarily, and it became increasingly clear that something about their austere discipline appealed to ordinary Pashtuns, at least in the south and east of Afghanistan.

You describe them as a client of the ISI.

They received guns; they received money; they received fuel; they received infrastructure support. They also, we know, had direct on-the-ground support from undercover Pakistani officers in civilian clothes who would participate in particular military battles.

Is it a fair characterization to say that the Taliban were an asset of the ISI?

They were an asset of the ISI. I think it's impossible to understand the Taliban's military triumph in Afghanistan, culminating in their takeover of Kabul in 1996, without understanding that they were a proxy force, a client of the Pakistan army, and benefited from all of the materiel support that the Pakistan army could provide them, given its own constrained resources.

So where does the ISI stand vis-à-vis the Taliban just prior to 9/11?

The Taliban remained an important client of the ISI right up until 9/11. They were an ally of the Pakistan government, and the ISI maintained contact with them to support their governance, but also their military campaign in the Afghan civil war that persisted despite the Taliban's takeover of Kabul.

The Taliban were important to the ISI in the late 1990s for another reason. The ISI also promoted a rebellion against what it regarded as Indian occupation in Kashmir. The Taliban in Afghanistan provided logistical support, training and other bases that the ISI could use to train and develop its Kashmir rebellion as well.

And Al Qaeda had a hand in that as well?

Some of the camps that were used by the ISI to train Kashmiri militants were managed on the ground by Al Qaeda.

And ISI's relationship with Al Qaeda, therefore, is what?

It's a less intimate relationship than ISI's relationship with the Taliban. The ISI had a sort of transactional relationship with Al Qaeda that was mostly focused on training of Kashmir militants. There were some sources of collaboration at the sort of colonel level of ISI, but there was not a strategic partnership between ISI and Al Qaeda, certainly not prior to 9/11. There were also sources of tension between ISI and Al Qaeda.

So on 9/11, the United States, the president says, "You're either with us or against us." Suddenly it puts [Pakistani President Pervez] Musharraf and his military and his ISI in a very difficult position. Can you describe that?

The Pakistan army is a very disciplined organization. But within that army, ISI has always enjoyed a kind of autonomy, and it's sort of a division that is quite different from anything else in the Pakistan army. When Musharraf decided to change policies after 9/11, he had to bring ISI under control. While he enjoyed support from many senior generals in the Pakistan army, down in the ranks of ISI, he had to deal with an organization that had been so close to the Taliban and was, in many cases, sympathetic to Al Qaeda that he couldn't be sure of its loyalty.

Describe that. ...

Well, it's interesting. ISI is essentially a division of the Pakistan army, and it's organized on military lines. ... Typically, in the Pakistan military, as in other militaries, officers rotate through assignments every two or three years. But within the Afghan bureau of ISI, some of the key figures have been assigned to this work for 10 or more years.

The reason is that they have the relationships with key Pashtun and Afghan militants that are essential to Pakistan's statecraft in Afghanistan. So a lot of these colonel-level, major-level, captain-level ISI officers working on the Afghan frontier have been left in place for long periods of time. They have developed close relationships with their clients. They seem, in some cases, to have come to identify with their clients' causes.

So when Musharraf decided to clean up, he had to deal with these loyalties down in the middle of the ISI bureaucracy. And if he moved too aggressively and alienated those officers and their sympathizers in the army, he could create a real problem for himself.

Well, how deep did he go?

He started at the top -- that was the easiest thing to do -- and he removed the director general of ISI. As he installed leaders who were in tune with his new policies, those leaders began to evaluate personnel down through the ranks, and they did make some changes, certainly at the brigadier general level.

However, as I understand it, in the Afghan bureau, there are still officers on the front lines working on the Afghan problem who were there back in the good old radical days of the 1990s, and in some cases earlier -- men who have worked with Islamists, the Taliban, some of their predecessor groups, for a long time. They're still there doing that work.

Why? I think it's a mystery. Does Musharraf want to have it both ways? Does he leave these officers in place because he appreciates the work that they're doing, or is he unable to really clean house in ISI right down to the bottom?

What's the answer?

It's always been a question about ISI right back to the early '80s. Does the commander of the Pakistan army really have the power to control ISI's agenda? Or is, in fact, ISI an instrument of a kind of double game that Pakistan plays in which at the very top a leader like Musharraf can manage a relationship with the United States and take the benefits of that relationship -- the military aid, the aircraft, the weapons systems, the economic aid -- but then down in the ranks on the Afghan frontier carry out a very different policy without ever being held accountable for that policy?

What happens to those guys down in the ranks who are on the Afghan frontier, in the tribal areas, after 9/11, and they understand that their president is asking for their policies to be reversed?

There was a great deal of disagreement within the Pakistan army and ISI about Musharraf's decision to wage war against the Taliban. This was for many officers a shock. After all, the Taliban had been, while sometimes ornery and independent-minded and not so easy to manage and control in the field, nonetheless, they'd been friends of Pakistan. And they had carried out a series of military and even diplomatic campaigns that had isolated the Taliban, but which had been in tandem with Pakistan's own policies. So to betray them at the instigation of the United States would have come as a shock to certainly some portion of the front-line officers in ISI who were working on the Afghan frontier.

Can you speak about it anecdotally? ...

I think the most interesting anecdote in the fall of 2001 involves Jalaluddin Haqqani. Jalaluddin Haqqani is a very important figure still in the world. He was a very important figure in the 1980s. He was a late convert to the Taliban, and he has had a long and very close relationship with ISI and particularly with the Afghan bureau of ISI.

During the 1980s, Haqqani received an extraordinary share of the CIA-funded and Saudi-funded war materiel that were shipped to the Afghan front. During the 1990s, he remained a very important commander and also a fund-raiser because of his connections in the Persian Gulf. He was an independent-minded fighter, and the Taliban wanted him on their side. At some stage in the 1990s, he agreed to sort of fly under the Taliban flag, and he became, eventually, interior minister in a Taliban government.

But there was always a question about whether Haqqani was really Taliban, because he hadn't come out of Kandahar; he wasn't part of the core group. And it was quite reasonable to believe after 9/11 that maybe he could be flipped.

At the moment that the United States and Pakistan began to think about, well, how are we going to defeat the Taliban militarily, the idea of persuading Haqqani to change sides quickly occurred to them. They summoned him to Pakistan, and they had a series of meetings with him, the content of which is unknown. There was some hope that he would, for money or for the sake of Pakistan's new policy, change his loyalty. But he didn't. He left unmolested, went back to the Afghan frontier, and has been waging war ever since, in some sense, against both Pakistan and the United States.

Now, the ISI officers who worked with Haqqani, who had been his partners over a long period of time, their loyalties were clearly divided at the same time that Haqqani himself was trying to make a decision. I think it's quite reasonable to assume that the decision that Haqqani made to reject these treaties, to in effect betray the Taliban, that his feelings were shared by many of his collaborators within the ISI. ...

After 9/11 and the bombs start to fall on Afghanistan, there are a large number of Pakistanis, aren't there, that go across the border to fight?

The Taliban drew, with ISI's support, on a large number of volunteers who came often out of madrassas that were located near the Afghan frontier, sometimes out of Karachi, [Pakistan]. The ISI had quite systematically built up an identification of fervent interest between these young Pakistanis and the Taliban cause. And of course after 9/11, many of these young Pakistanis saw not that there was a reason to change sides, but that there was more reason than ever to defend the Taliban against the United States.

So it's just another superpower, in their view?

It was just another superpower, but also it was a superpower that was coming from outside into this land to destroy what many of these Pakistanis regarded as a righteous Islamic government. ...

The Taliban depended, right up until 9/11, on an infrastructure that was rooted in Pakistani religious parties that were themselves managed in some important way as clients by ISI. If you were a volunteer to join the Taliban, whether you were a Pakistani or a foreign Arab, you arrived in Karachi and you passed through infrastructure that was quite striking in its size and robustness. Schools, bus companies, guesthouses -- the whole system was a war-fighting system, because many of these volunteers prior to 9/11 were needed to wage war against the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan.

That was why there was such a broadly based infrastructure when the Taliban themselves came under assault after 9/11. I think another thing that's important … just to throw into the mix about ISI: On the Afghan frontier, ISI's work is inseparable from the role of the religious parties.

These religious parties have been competing for power in Pakistan since its birth, and the wars in Afghanistan, beginning in the 1980s and again in the 1990s, strengthen them. They strengthen them by allowing them to raise money they could never raise before, by discrediting old secular leaders. Gradually, these parties have come to dominate social and political infrastructure that they used to only look at from the outside.

These religious parties are crucial because they have money; they have schools; they have buses; they have political office now. And particularly since 9/11, they have gained political power both in the North West Frontier Province [NWFP] and in Baluchistan, where they share power.

And they had access to all the infrastructure of regional government in Pakistan, so they control ministries; they control budgets; they control cars. ISI, while a formidable organization, may not even have the resources now that some of these religious parties enjoy, particularly in the North West Frontier Province.

And some of the players in the ISI were very close [to] or involved with political parties, right?

One of the ISI's functions since the 1970s has been to manage and in some cases manipulate political elections in Pakistan. In particular, the election that brought the religious parties to power on the Afghan frontier was one where, at least in the view of many Pakistanis, the ISI was heavily involved.

It's a question as to whether Musharraf wanted these religious parties to come to power as a check on his rivals in secular Pakistan politics or whether their victory in the North West Frontier and also in Baluchistan was [to] some extent a kind of Frankenstein accident where ISI was trying to build them up to a certain level, but then it turned out that they were even more popular than ISI believed. It would be very interesting to hear the conversation that ensued after election day between Musharraf and his ISI chief as to whether it was "Job well done" or "What have you gotten me into? I asked you to strengthen them a little bit, but not so much."

[What happened after the Americans started air attacks in Afghanistan?]

Increasingly in the south and east, it became impossible for remnant Taliban and Al Qaeda to hold ground. They were being overtaken not only by air attacks when they gathered in one place and exposed themselves, but also increasingly by the combination of new tribal militias that were funded by the United States and American ground forces as they began to roll out in small teams. It became increasingly dangerous for remnant Taliban, Pakistani volunteers and Al Qaeda Arabs to remain in Afghanistan. Tora Bora was essentially the end of their effort to hold ground outside of perhaps Oruzgan [Province].

They withdrew that December into the Federally Administered Tribal Areas [FATA] of Pakistan, where they could be sure that if they gathered together in one place, they would not immediately attract American air strikes if they were identified.

But the Americans asked the Pakistanis to block the border.

The Pakistanis have on the border a light force, a constabulary really, that is drawn from local tribes. This Frontier Corps, as it's called, was never a very reliable blocking force, and in the context of radicalization and division within Pakistan about the war against the Taliban, it was even less reliable. If the Pakistan-Afghan frontier was going to be blocked in any effective way, [a] difficult job under any circumstances, it was going to require the Pakistan army, the regular army.

But in December, just as Tora Bora was raging, the Pakistan army was focused on India to its east, because a terrorist attack in New Delhi had caused India to mobilize its entire military to the Pakistan frontier. Pakistan began to pull divisions off the Afghan frontier to face India in a war that it thought might well be coming at the first of the year. ...

The Americans understood that December that Pakistan had reason to believe that it faced an existential war against India and that it required these divisions. It was difficult to argue with them, but the fact was -- and it wasn't announced at the time -- that the blocking force, such as it was, that Pakistan had promised, was being redeployed to face India. ...

And so our chance to nab [Osama] bin Laden and [Ayman al-]Zawahiri was lost.

It was lost because the blocking force that was up there to begin with was weak, and that force was weakened further by the withdrawals of regular army to the east to face India.

Now, I had some conversations with some of the heads of the Awami National Party, the Pashtun nationalists, who said that the ISI basically whispered in the ear of some of the top Al Qaeda lieutenants and said: "Look, don't come across. There's a blocking force there. Don't come across there. Go into South Waziristan."

It's an enormously long border, and there are many different ways to come across it. It would have been very easy to communicate with Al Qaeda leaders through Islamist tribal groups along the frontier, through ISI, through some combination of the religious parties, to communicate alternative routes, both to the south through Waziristan and also to the north. The intensity of the Pakistani force's ability to block escape routes was very narrowly concentrated.

And then weakened because of the crisis in the east.

Yes.

In your view, is it feasible to believe these stories that they were tipped off and told where to go?

It's quite feasible, because, look, it's not a conspiracy involving a handful of people, as has been amply demonstrated by bin Laden and Zawahiri's ability to remain at large in the ensuing six years.

This is a population that regards them with sympathy and active support. And it's not just a few people -- it is the tribal leadership; it is the tribal population; it is the religious parties. They are in friendly territory. That's not to say that everyone along the frontier sympathizes with the violence that they inflicted in the United States or believes that their presence is good for the local population. But they enjoy broad sympathy, and they also enjoy infrastructure that includes communication and facilities. We see this today; it was certainly true in those hours of crisis in the fall of 2001. ...

Who was Nek Mohammed?

Nek Mohammed was a Taliban and Pashtun Islamist commander who had been very active along the southern frontier in the 1990s. He was regarded, I think, as a bit of a hothead and a little bit of a dangerous figure, which is a useful reputation to have as a commander.

He didn't have a long history with bin Laden and Zawahiri, but he controlled the ground that they needed, and he was sympathetic to their cause. He also seemed to have the view that anyone who the United States and Pakistan army regarded as an enemy had to be a friend of his.

On the other hand, Jalaluddin Haqqani has very long and intimate roots, and a long history with bin Laden personally. When Al Qaeda was formed along the Afghan-Pakistan border in the summer of 1988, its first camps were in Haqqani's territory. The first infrastructure of Al Qaeda was essentially supervised by Haqqani. Haqqani himself raised money repeatedly in Saudi Arabia and had rich contacts with Arab fighters coming to the region. He was their Afghan patron in many ways.

He was an extraordinarily effective fighter, and he also had the benefit of favored support from ISI and the CIA, for that matter, right through the end of the anti-Communist war in Afghanistan.

So bin Laden and Haqqani would have known each other for 15 years by the time bin Laden came across the border after Tora Bora.

So he's running into the arms of a friend?

A brother.

And Haqqani is based in Miram Shah, in North Waziristan?

In that area. He's always been based right around Miram Shah.

Is he Pakistani or an Afghan?

He's an Afghan who has some credibility in terms of social identity in the Miram Shah area, but mostly he's earned his reputation by being an extraordinarily effective, brave and tenacious war fighter. He fought the Communists in that area around Miram Shah ... very effectively.

He was under fire himself, wounded, treated in hospitals in the Persian Gulf, back into the fray. I think for many of the Saudis and other Gulf Arabs who would encounter him at hajj, where he would raise money in tents in Mecca, he was the symbol of Afghan bravery and independence in the face of the Soviet occupation. He came to understand through his own acquisition of Arabic language and his frequent visits to Saudi Arabia that his reputation was something that could lead him to resources that many of his rival commanders could not possess.

The CIA and the ISI in the late '80s also saw Haqqani as an unusually effective commander against Soviet forces. He was willing to fight. He didn't go to a lot of meetings; he might be rough around the edges, but Americans would go up to Miram Shah and sit cross-legged at meetings with him as the cash and the weapons were being directed his way. They came away with an impression similar to the pilgrims at the hajj: This was an Afghan war fighter. This was an independent-minded, dangerous man, but someone we could do business with. Haqqani received a great deal of support.

At the same time, he controlled this area around the south of the Khyber Pass … that was an obvious crossing point for volunteers like bin Laden, who were based in Peshawar. Most of the Arabs who came to the war in the late '80s came through Peshawar, and Miram Shah was a particularly easy place to come and go from, especially if you weren't sure how much time you wanted to spend in Afghanistan.

And not far from the border, and a good road over the mountain.

A good road over the mountain. And here's a local commander, Haqqani, who everybody on the enemy side is scared of, who's well known to Saudis, who speaks a little Arabic, and who credibly controls this ground.

It's not a coincidence that the first camps that bin Laden created in Afghanistan, Lion's Den and some related infrastructure that he started to build, were in Haqqani's territory.

I want to shift back to South Waziristan; we'll come back to the north. Starting in 2002 and 2003, the army is into South Waziristan and is fighting some battles. ... Are we to believe that the Pakistan military was, in fact, down there to root out the Taliban?

The Pakistan army had a complicated agenda when it invaded South Waziristan.

It's their first foray.

It's their first foray; it's the first time any Pakistani army has gone up in this territory for the purpose of trying to change the political equation. It's hard to know exactly what Musharraf had in mind, but I think there's reason to believe that he hoped, perhaps fantasized, that he could change the political equation in Waziristan and ultimately in all of the tribal territories by military action.

This might also have benefits for his alliance with the United States, because he would be pursuing an American agenda at the same time he was pursuing his own agenda.

And he's getting money for it.

And he's getting money for it. But rather quickly he discovered that there was no military solution in South Waziristan, or there certainly wasn't a quick one. When the army started to take these hits after it got up there, he hunkered down and stopped the operations fairly quickly. That suggests that he never really had a vision of a long-term, hard-fought invasion and occupation. I think he was hoping that a short, sharp demonstration of military will would cause tribal leaders and political leaders to switch sides and accommodate the Pakistani agenda up there. Of course that has never happened in the history of this territory.

And then, in fact surprisingly to an outsider, believing that Musharraf is an ally, he begins negotiations with the Taliban.

And with all of the Taliban sympathizers in Waziristan.

Including Al Qaeda.

Including Al Qaeda. You know, the Pakistan army is playing a very weak hand up in this territory. Some Americans who worked with the Pakistanis after 9/11 have told me that after all these years of being locked out by ISI, wondering about the exact texture of ISI's relationship with their Taliban clients, there was, initially in the fall of 2001 among the Americans, a feeling: "Oh, well, now finally we're going to get to see their client list. Finally we're going to get to have the benefit of their infrastructure up there along the frontier. We're going to be able to really get down into the villages and hunt for these guys."

But what turned out -- at least what ISI shared -- was that they weren't very well distributed; they weren't very broadly distributed. They had a relatively narrow base of relationships, and a lot of it was in Karachi and in Quetta and on the Pakistan side of the border.

In the cities.

In the cities. So they didn't really have a network. They had some top-heavy client relationships which they struggled sometimes to manage effectively on their own behalf. Anyway, when the Pakistan army went up to South Waziristan and got whacked pretty quickly, they started to negotiate, in part because they didn't have another card to play.

They're very weak.

They're very weak.

So they're negotiating; they're offering money to Taliban commanders. What do they hope to get for this, and what happened?

The basic idea of Pakistani strategy was to renew the approach to managing the frontier that dated back to the British period, which was essentially to operate through cooption, bribery and the construction of infrastructure, to find political intermediaries in villages and towns on the frontier who would be willing to work with the Pakistan army in order to reap the benefits of the Pakistan army's patronage. That's the way the frontier has been managed, to the extent it's been managed, for a long time.

But they weren't negotiating with tribal elders; they were negotiating with the Wana Five, led by Nek Mohammed, a young, 27-year-old Taliban commander.

What the Pakistanis discovered when they hunkered down in South Waziristan is that the old political intermediaries in Waziristan and elsewhere in the tribal areas had been essentially overtaken by religious commanders and religious networks. Someone like Nek Mohammed represents the new authority in Waziristan.

Pakistanis attempted to negotiate with him the way they used to try to negotiate with the old authority, but it turns out that the Islamists are not as interested in the patronage of the Pakistani state as traditional tribal elders had occasionally been. ...

My understanding is that when the negotiations failed, it was an embarrassment, obviously, for Musharraf with the Americans. He had taken some heat already with the Americans when he stopped his military operations after the early casualties that he faced.

What happened?

I think the Americans were disappointed that the Pakistan army had hunkered down so quickly. They understood that these casualties were political[ly] poisonous in Pakistan; that Musharraf was waging an unpopular war with his own population; that he was incurring risks by undertaking this military invasion. Nonetheless, he was in for a dime. The feeling, I think, on the American side was, well, let's go at least up to 50 cents before we quit.

Instead, Musharraf began to promote this view that he has continued to promote some of the time, which is that you don't understand how political change is effected in this part of the world; I'm going to negotiate and coopt our rivals.

Well, Nek Mohammed and those negotiations were a rather stark failure of that strategy and that argument. So Musharraf, who is a very proud man, I think felt embarrassed by Mohammed.

Look, Nek Mohammed was not a very savvy political figure. He was a kid in a candy shop. He had suddenly been celebrated by his enemies, though he hadn't really offered any concessions at all, and he was himself so reckless that he made himself vulnerable politically and militarily. His assassination was one of the rare times when Musharraf and his commanders were able to target a specific individual and bring him to an end.

Or at least allow the Americans to fire a Hellfire missile from a Predator drone.

Yeah.

Perhaps it's indicative of the deep divisions within the military that you can't go into these areas and push very hard before you have a rebellion on your hands. After all, aren't many of these military officers from families with brothers who are in the Taliban?

... There are family networks that run from the Taliban into the Pakistan army; from the Taliban into the civil service; into the political parties. This is a national struggle that's been going on for 20 or 30 years, and it's enormously complex.

It makes Musharraf's position as a non-Pashtun all the more complicated, because he does not have the credibility of social or political identity that would be necessary to take an especially hard line up in the tribal areas. He is to the tribal leaders, whether they're Islamists or not, he is an outsider, and not a particularly credible outsider in their view.

I was surprised when I talked to Musharraf. He agreed that he had lost South Waziristan, was losing North Waziristan. ...

Yeah. Musharraf's own attitude toward the frontier, I think, changed somewhat after the assassination attempt against him. When he discovered that those attempts had been hatched, it seemed, or there was evidence that they'd been hatched in the frontier, that made it personal for him.

Also, I think he's realistic. He understands that he's now so committed to this policy that half-measures are not going to get him anywhere but deeper into trouble.

The difficulty that he faces is that he doesn't have a strategy in the frontier that looks plausible. ... His attempts to control Waziristan are undermined by the fact that he's fighting another war in a national province of Pakistan, Baluchistan, one that contains [extraordinarily] important natural resources and transportation corridors. He cannot afford to lose in Baluchistan. He belongs to a generation of officers that remembers the Pashtun nationalist wars in Baluchistan and along the frontier from the 1970s. They regard this region as fertile ground for Indian mischief-making and for outside interference with Pakistan's national integrity. But if you ask any Pakistani general what's more important, Baluchistan or the frontier, I think they would answer Baluchistan every time.

So he's simply trying to hold the country together that is threatening to spin apart?

And he would like a little more understanding from his allies in the United States about the complexity and variety of challenges to Pakistan's unity that he is trying to manage, and also about the limits of military force in the frontier -- certainly Pakistani military force -- to change the equation.

Limits of Pakistani force and limits on their loyalty to his policy.

Not only does he have to worry about the integrity of the nation and, for instance, Baluchistan's integration into the Pakistan economy, but he has to worry about the loyalty of his own military and his own officers.

Musharraf has established unity at the top of the Pakistan army, but he knows that that unity depends on continued support for policies that are at odds with the views of the great majority of Pakistanis. In other words, Musharraf has made an alliance with the United States that has benefited the army. He has convinced many of the officers around him that the policies he is following are good for the army, and by being good for the army, ultimately will be good for Pakistan. But it's a tenuous consensus.

And the rank and file are not with them.

And the rank and file are not with them.

And at least divided.

Certainly divided.

So is Musharraf a false ally?

... He's not a false ally; he's a weak ally. And he's weak because he has made commitments that he can't deliver on through the institutions that he commands.

Let's flip it around now and talk about what the Taliban has been able to do to exploit this situation and how that has led to the situation we're now facing in Afghanistan.

The Taliban have a strategy that is very familiar to radical Islamists along the Afghan frontier: patience, political organizing, organizing of insurgency, collection of resources and the mounting of seasonal campaigns that consolidate territory and political support one year to the next.

How important is Pakistan to the Taliban?

The Taliban are utterly dependent upon Pakistan. They're dependent upon its territory; they're dependent upon its infrastructure; and they're dependent upon the links to the outside world, however pressured, that they enjoy through Pakistani territory.

How does the United States develop a policy that can work without attacking the problem in Pakistan?

No policy can succeed in stabilizing Afghanistan without success in Pakistan. The question is, what approach to Pakistan is most likely to produce that success in the medium run? In the long run?

There are some American military officers who argue that the United States is being too passive in its relationship with Musharraf; that if we mean what we say about no sanctuaries for Al Qaeda, that we ought to deploy American forces along the frontier on Pakistani ground; that American forces ought to go into Waziristan; the American forces ought to go into Bajaur more openly. If the Pakistanis can't do it, these officers argue, then the United States should.

So why don't we?

It may come. But the deployment of an American military on the ground in the tribal areas would be an enormously costly event. Certainly the United States would pay a price in casualties, but perhaps more significantly, Musharraf's credibility as the president of Pakistan would be undermined. The insurgencies that he faces in Baluchistan and along the frontiers would be inflamed, and the very tenuous political alliances that he has built to try to hold Pakistan together would be threatened. Now, there's enormous amounts of risk involved. There are also risks involved in doing nothing.

One observation that's easy to make is that before you took the risks and paid the prices that would be required in an American incursion into the tribal areas, you would wish to be convinced that your management of the alliance with Musharraf was producing the best possible result short of the deployment of American troops. I think the evidence is that the American management of this relationship is not producing the best possible result.

Why?

It is far too accommodating of Musharraf's position. It has not been successful in negotiating the balance of carrots and sticks that has been present in American-Pakistani relations for 30 years.

Look, Musharraf gets up every morning, and he thinks about how to manage his relationship with the United States. It's crucial to him. It's the source of weaponry that will help Pakistan retain its independence against India. It's the source of economic and structural support that undergirds Pakistan's 6 percent economic growth rates. It's everything. The United States does not get up every morning thinking about how to manage its relationship with Musharraf more successfully.

Somebody must.

Well, they have able diplomats on the ground and bureau departments in the military and the State Department. But think about it: For the United States, Pakistan competes with Iraq -- an overwhelming foreign policy and military problem; it competes with Iran's nuclear program; it competes with the war in Afghanistan itself; it competes with a crisis in the Middle East. Pakistan does not receive the kind of sustained, intense attention in American diplomacy, in American statecraft, that the United States receives from Pakistan.

But if the battle in Afghanistan cannot be won without addressing the sanctuaries in Pakistan, then what's the point?

Well, as the situation on the ground in Afghanistan deteriorates and as it becomes increasingly obvious to American commanders in Afghanistan that their struggles against the Taliban are rooted in these problems in Pakistan, a debate will rise inside the American system about new approaches to the problems in Pakistan.

The trouble is the problems are really difficult. There is no obvious button to push. And even as the situation in Afghanistan deteriorates, Pakistan is not anywhere near the first priority in American foreign policy.

Right. But it goes well beyond finding or not finding bin Laden. It goes to the fact that we went there to prevent there from being a failed state, and in the process we're seeing the rise of yet another failed state in western Pakistan.

We are. And moreover, Al Qaeda the organization, the Taliban the organization, the movement which had been shattered in December of 2001, have used this territory, this ground in Pakistan to begin to reconstitute themselves. And they're demonstrating new strength, not just in the region -- most notably in Afghanistan, southern Afghanistan, but also globally.

From their base in the tribal areas?

The evidence in the London bombing case is that two of the bombers traveled not necessarily to Afghanistan but to Pakistan, and they may have had contact with Al Qaeda leaders in the tribal areas.

That's a repetition, if true, of the pattern of the 1990s, where volunteers, sometimes spontaneously generated in Europe or elsewhere abroad, would fly into Pakistan and connect with Al Qaeda leaders in order to acquire the resources, training, expertise, motivation they needed to carry out a task in their home countries.

So even if we are able, through force and luck, to solve the problems in Afghanistan, if we've left the area with a failed state in western Pakistan, I guess the question is, what have we gained?

Well, I find myself occasionally thinking about an e-mail that [counterterrorism expert] Richard Clarke wrote to [then-National Security Adviser] Condi Rice just before the Sept. 11 attacks, in which, fearing that such an event was coming, he implored her: Imagine a day when hundreds of Americans lay dead in an Al Qaeda attack, and ask yourself, what would you do in the aftermath of such an attack, and then do it now.

You can ask the same question about the failed state that's emerging in western Pakistan. The next attack against the United States may well have roots in this failed state or emerging failed state. What [are] the United States and its allies going to do about this problem then, and why isn't it being addressed now?

Good question. I mean, we're limited right now. We've decided not to go in. We fire missiles. First of all, they don't admit that they allow such missile strikes, and in the one instance in Bajaur where they did admit it, they faced demonstrations on the streets. This has to be a warning about what would happen if U.S. troops were to cross the line.

... If the United States and some of its Afghan allies crossed into the tribal areas to try to either identify and arrest or kill fugitives or pacify these tribal agencies, they would find it a very difficult mission indeed. At a minimum, it would require a very large force. And even after that force was established, it could expect regular suicide attacks and other sources of violent resistance that would create a very steady flow of casualties. ...

Ultimately the Pakistan army, the Pakistan government, whether it is led by Musharraf or someone else, is going to have to bring this territory into a modernizing, successful Pakistani state. Otherwise, Pakistan itself cannot succeed.

They seem to do better fighting Al Qaeda than the Taliban.

Well, because when they're fighting Al Qaeda, they're fighting foreigners. ... But when the Pakistan army is fighting the Taliban, they're fighting cousins; they're fighting brethren. They're bound by language; they're bound in some cases by tribal identity; and they're also bound by a sense of just broader affiliation. Pashtun identity, tribal identity -- [what's] very complex and difficult for outsiders to fully map is, whenever encountered, a very powerful source of pride and personal identity.

That's true for the Pakistani generals who are loyal to Musharraf, loyal to the state, but also very proud about their own roots in this territory. ...

What is the current situation in Afghanistan?

The Taliban have had a very successful spring and summer. They are demonstrating military and political strength that they have not been able to demonstrate since Sept. 11.

They are organizing in the villages. They are mobilizing attacks. They are using sophisticated tactics that they were not demonstrating before. The geography where the Taliban is showing strength is more worrisome than a year ago or three years ago.

The amount of it?

The amount of it. It now suggests that the Taliban are finding local support, not just in their heartland of Oruzgan and Kandahar, but also in Helmand, elsewhere in the south and along the eastern border with Pakistan.

Like Khost and Nuristan.

Khost, Paktia, Paktika. There have always been pockets of Taliban support in these areas, but the breadth of the Taliban offensive this year is particularly striking.

Taliban still have problems. They can't mass and assemble. Their ability to successfully take and hold territory is questionable. But they are beginning to demonstrate some of the characteristics of the militia that they once were; that is, an ability to organize formal movements in the field, to take and hold at least small towns.

That is a bad sign about the political support that they're enjoying, and also the perception that Afghans in the south seem to be developing about their strength, their resources, their political infrastructure and their inevitability.

There's been a lot of finger-pointing at the Pakistanis for being responsible. ... Is this finger-pointing legit? Is it justified? Or is this blaming the other for a failure of [Afghan President Hamid] Karzai and the Americans?

Both the Afghan government and Pakistan government have done less than they might to stabilize the political situation in southern Afghanistan. Karzai has not been as effective a leader in the south and east as he might have been. And Musharraf has been nowhere near as effective as he might have been in depriving the Taliban of the political and physical space that they have enjoyed as sanctuary, particularly in the last two years.

As to the United States and Pakistan, the United States is beginning to recognize that its project in Afghanistan will fail unless it addresses the sanctuary and support that the Taliban enjoys in Pakistan. But the United States has not yet reached the point where it knows what kind of a new policy it is prepared to carry out in Pakistan and what price for that policy it's willing to pay. ...

Well, sitting here five years from 9/11, are you surprised that we're facing this challenge in Afghanistan the way it's unfolding now?

No, not really. ... I think that convincing Pashtuns in southern and eastern Afghanistan that they want to participate in a new national democracy always looked like a 20- or 30-year project. The problem that I wouldn't have fully predicted is the failure on the Pakistan side of the border to deny a resurgent Taliban the space they need to organize.

And a resurgent Al Qaeda.

And the resurgent Al Qaeda. But even from Afghanistan's point of view, the Taliban are obviously the far more dangerous problem. And the fact that Quetta and the Baluch countryside and the tribal areas have essentially become denied spaces for the Pakistan army is shocking.

I'm sure that Musharraf is aware that if he does not do something about the territory that he is losing in the southwest and along the frontier, that he is going to face a very severe problem five or 10 years down the road. But I don't think he knows what the solution is.

Is Musharraf going to be around five or 10 years down the road?

He thinks he is, evidently. Musharraf continues to believe that he is the indispensable man in Pakistan. ...

The problem with Musharraf's whole strategy -- and it's not just true on the western frontier; it's true nationally -- is that he is trying to weaken parties that any sensible leader would recognize are his natural allies, or at least his natural instruments. The more he weakens the Awami League, the more he weakens the PPP [Pakistan Peoples Party], the more he deprives civilian, moderate Muslim Punjabi politicians of the space to build alliances in Baluchistan and to try to seek power in provincial governments, the more he makes it difficult for his own army to control this ground.

There is no military solution. There is only a combination of military and political measures undertaken over a long period of time that will bring this ground under control for Pakistan. I would add that he is not going to control his western frontier until he also settles his eastern frontier. As long as he tempts India to make mischief in Baluchistan by making mischief himself in Kashmir, he deprives himself of the space in which he could achieve any kind of reasonable solution.

He knows this. The Indians know it, too. Every Indian soldier who dies in occupied Kashmir, there is somebody in New Delhi who is looking at a map of Baluchistan and looking for payback. Musharraf understands this. It's why he feels that this area is an urgent matter of national security even beyond the American agenda.

But he can't get there without political allies, and yet he is unwilling to share power in the way that would produce that flowering of other political forces besides the Islamists along the frontier.

One of the most interesting points I heard when I was over there was from one of the leaders of the Awami National Party. [He] said that "Look, we can't go into the tribal areas because of longstanding rulings that say we can't go in there and have any kind of political organizing take place." No political party can go in. So the only person with political power in these areas is the mullah, who's essentially a political figure.

That is the heart of the problem in these areas. The mullahs have overtaken the politicians. They have overtaken the tribal leaders.

Musharraf belongs to a generation of officers in the Pakistan army who remember the frontier as a problem because of its leftist Awami League, secular tribal leaders, some of whom were subsidized by the Soviet Union. He has an, in my view, irrational fear of secular politics in some of these parties. But he needs these parties even if they're going to make his life more difficult in Islamabad. He needs them to consolidate unity in Pakistan and to control the frontier. He can't do it without them.

Is he going to allow political organizing in --

No, he shows no signs of having a political strategy that would advance these goals.

So the mullah stays in power?

The mullah stays in power, and he continues to try to manage that equation as best he can by some combination of force, cooption and negotiation. But he has been trying this approach since 2002. Here we are in 2006. It ain't working.

home + introduction + watch online + discussion + producer's journey + pakistan + tribal areas
militants + interviews + producer's chat + readings & links + dvds & transcript + site map + teacher's guide
press reaction + credits + privacy policy + journalistic guidelines + FRONTLINE series home + wgbh + pbs

posted oct. 3, 2006

FRONTLINE is a registered trademark of wgbh educational foundation.
photo copyright © corbis
web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation

SUPPORT PROVIDED BY

RECENT STORIES

FRONTLINE on

ShopPBS