Head of Afghanistan's National Security Directorate (NSD), the country's intelligence service, Saleh previously served as an intelligence aide to the legendary Northern Alliance leader Ahmed Shah Massoud, who was assassinated by Al Qaeda operatives on Sept. 9, 2001. In this rare interview, Saleh accuses "proxy forces created by Pakistan" of trying to destabilize Afghanistan. He recounts an incident in which he gave Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf a list of Taliban commanders, their addresses and phone numbers; he says Pakistan did not act on the intelligence. Saleh tells FRONTLINE he does not believe the Taliban will succeed in undermining the legitimacy of the new Afghan government. "This nation has tasted the Taliban," he explains. "They were here. They do not, in their vision, promise anything bright for the future." This is an edited transcript of an interview conducted on June 6, 2006.
So let's just begin by talking about who you're fighting. Who are the Taliban? Who is Al Qaeda? Is it indigenous? Is it foreign? …
Obviously, we are fighting proxy forces created by Pakistan in addition to Al Qaeda.
Proxy forces created by Pakistan? What do you mean?
First of all, the ongoing insurgency along our borders, and particularly in southern Afghanistan, has its command headquarters in Pakistan, not inside Afghanistan. They have their financial networks there; they have their training camps there; and the leadership are based in Pakistan. So therefore, although there can be a factor of indigenous support for the insurgents, it largely depends on what it gets from Pakistan.
When you say this to your Pakistani counterparts in the ISI [Inter-Services Intelligence], what do they say to you?
We have tried in the past four years to work closely with our Pakistani counterparts toward eliminating terrorism and toward achieving mutual objectives. I have had a number of meetings with my counterpart, the director of ISI, and there have been meetings between political leaders of both countries and government officials of both countries. They deny this. We have confronted them with facts and figures and actual intelligence, but they deny it.
Can you give me an example of that, where they see where you present hardcore evidence and they simply say it's not true?
Well, I have piles and piles of evidence to give you. I would like to cite the most recent one. Yesterday we arrested a cell leader in Kandahar who was planning a bombing of Kandahar City, and immediately, based on his confessions, we arrested more people.
We found a small cache of explosives and weapons and remote control and other devices used for bombing. Again, in their confessions, they made it very clear that they were tasked by Taliban council operating out of Quetta [in] Pakistan.
… You find a consistent pattern that they're getting their orders and their money and their materiel from Pakistan?
Yes. As you see, I don't not say they are getting it from government of Pakistan, although it may be a source, but they are based in Pakistan.
Give me a sense of the order of battle along the border. …
The insurgents, the terrorists and those who want to undermine the legitimacy of Afghan government, and who want to stop reconstruction in this country, and who are opposing democracy in Afghanistan, politically they are split into three pillars: They have the Quetta council, a shura, which is evolving around Taliban Defense Minister Mullah Obaidullah and his senior lieutenants. Their area of operation is Zabul, Kandahar, Helmand, sometimes Nimruz.
Then we have [the Jalaluddin] Haqqani network based in Waziristan, and their area of operation is Paktika, Paktia, Khost, Logar sometimes. Also they try to have activities in Kabul.
Then we have the Peshawar council, which revolves around [Gulbuddin] Hekmatyar and his senior lieutenants. They have most of their activities in Kunar and Nuristan and Nangahar and Laghman, of course, with efforts to protract their activities in northern Afghanistan as well as the capital.
And who's most active now?
Currently, in this year, 2006 the most active one has been the Quetta council. They seem to be more resourced than last year.
[In 2002] there was an Afghan intelligence report that made it into the press, and it stated that [Osama] bin Laden was believed by Afghan intelligence to be operating somewhere around the Upper Dir area. ... This was your report.
Still the case?
You want to tell me where you think he is?
At this point, I don't know.
… But at that time, you had specific intelligence that --
We know Al Qaeda networks are still active in Pakistan.
Do you know where they're most active?
Well, it depends. They have subcells operating in the cities of Pakistan, and they have cells operating in the tribal areas.
[Ayman al-]Zawahiri was suspected to be in Bajaur back in January.
It was not our intelligence. …
Did you work on that air strike? Did you did you participate in any way with the coordination?
We of course provide a lot of intelligence to our American partners and counterparts regarding Al Qaeda and terrorism and insurgency and aspects of their activities. I am not sure how much our contribution mattered in that attack. …
We have intelligence about Al Qaeda networks, and we constantly share this intelligence and information with our international friends, particularly United States, because they have the will and the determination and the resources to act upon that intelligence. We have hardly come across credible intelligence about the location of bin Laden specifically.
You've hardly come across it, or you mean by that, never?
Well, we receive lots of reports finding a credible piece in it. Acting based on it is very different.
But other operatives of Al Qaeda you're able to track at times.
You broke down the three pillars of the Taliban effort. ... Where does Al Qaeda fit into that?
Well, we have to look at it in two contexts: the global jihad, which is now loosely attributed to bin Laden; and the insurgency and terrorism in Afghanistan, which is led by Taliban and Haqqani networks and Hekmatyar.
So therefore, at the theatre level, there is an alliance between Al Qaeda and these groups, and Al Qaeda does provide them financial support. Sometimes they transfer experience and bomb-making and other activities. At the tactical [level], within the Afghan geography, we mainly fight these groups, whose leadership is based on Pakistan.
And those are Taliban groups?
Taliban and Hekmatyar and others.
And do you find more Al Qaeda in one of those areas than another?
Well, initially -- when I say initially, I refer to 2003, 2004 and even early 2005 -- the Al Qaeda networks were scattered in Waziristan area with the Pak military deployment, with the intense pressure from United States on the government of Pakistan. Some of those networks were dislodged; some people were arrested; some were killed. So they have gone into hiding, and they have gone into other areas.
Now we see more and more of their activities in Quetta and Baluchistan, but it doesn't mean they are completely eliminated from Waziristan area.
When you say intense American pressure, what do you mean?
Well, as you know, with the facilitation and cooperation of Americans, we have [a] tripartite commission which comprises U.S., Afghan and Pakistan military. They talk regularly; they have meetings regularly.
Of course, we provide our findings to the American intelligence with the assumption that they go back to Pakistan and seek their cooperation. And there have been numerous meetings between [Afghanistan and Pakistan] with presence of American officials. Of course, we hear in the press that United States puts pressure on Pakistan.
But have you been in these meetings where people have had to bang the table to get the attention of the Pakistanis?
I have been in meetings where we have confronted our Pakistani counterparts with actionable intelligence -- actionable. This has been done in presence of American officials.
And the Pakistanis in many cases simply say it's not true.
Well, in a couple of those meetings, they have not said, "It's not true." They have said: "Give us time. We will look into this intelligence and act upon it." But we have not received satisfactory feedback.
The Pakistanis said: "Look, we're doing all we can. We've got more troops in there on our side of the border than the Afghans have, and we're losing men. We've lost over the last several years more than 700 people."
This is a war which can more effectively be fought with strong will than with resources.
What do you mean?
They do not have the strong will and determination to fight it.
There is [a connection] between Pakistani extremist groups and Afghan Taliban. The breeding ground for insurgents is the militant madrassas of Pakistan, so it requires a very strong political will to crack down on all those networks, which [is] not happening. For example, if you look at the pattern of propaganda in the Pakistani media against Afghanistan -- and some of the papers are state-sponsored papers -- they clearly try to undermine the Afghan government.
So if Pakistan would shut down all its madrassas and root out the use of their territory [for] sanctuary, how would things look different in Afghanistan?
This war has two ways to be fought. We have a quick route to solution, and we have a long route to solution. To fight it at the strategic level, we have to hit the leadership, and the leadership is not in Afghanistan. To fight it tactically, we need more time. Currently we are fighting it tactically.
Insurgency is like grass. Two ways to destroy it: You cut the upper part, and after four months, you have it back; you poison the soil where that grass is, then you eliminate it forever.
And that soil is Pakistan. … That's what you're saying.
And that soil is the madrassas in Pakistan.
So you can't win this war without more performance on the part of your neighbors.
I am saying if we want to have a quick strategic solution, [it] is to hit the insurgency leadership in Pakistan.
Now, in 2004 and 2005, the Pakistan military was actually cutting deals with these militant leaders.
Well, how did you react when you saw that going on?
First of all, we are very interested to see the end result. If the infiltration is stopped, if the cross-border raids are stopped, if Taliban do not receive supplies from Pakistan, if they do not receive training in Pakistan, that is what we are interested to see. What [that] means [for] Pakistan to reach there, whether they achieve it through politics, through negotiations or through soft maneuvering, it's up to them. We are interested in the end result. …
First of all, the level of Taliban activities in Khost has decreased compared to what we see now in southern Afghanistan.
You think that's permanent?
Well, we are seeing no signs of aid drying up completely on Pakistan soil to these insurgents, so therefore I cannot say with confidence that it's permanent or it's temporary.
As far as you're concerned, the front lines in this war could shift north from Helmand and Kandahar at any time? Is that what you're saying, that you're not confident that Pakistan has really stemmed the insurgency at any point?
… I am not satisfied with the cooperation we get from Pakistan vis-à-vis counterterrorism and counterinsurgency in Afghanistan. So it fluctuates. There are times when we see more activities in our southeast, and there are times when we see more activities in our south.
We would like Pakistan to close down the madrassas where Afghan Taliban are trained in militancy. We would like to see our Pakistani counterparts arrest Taliban commanders who go for rest, treatment, training, resupply to the soil of Pakistan. We would like Pakistan to trust us -- we are not against them -- and consider us their partners in this war.
Tell me the story of the list and how that came about that was presented by your president, [Hamid Karzai], to [Pakistani] President [Pervez] Musharraf. … How did the list come to be?
When I was tasked by my president in that meeting to hand over the list to the put it on the table, I did.
And where did the list come from?
It was my work.
So you developed a target list … of commanders.
It was not only commanders -- locations, training camps, telephone numbers and everything.
And President Musharraf said, "Hand over the list"?
I put it on the table, and the president [of Afghanistan] gave the file to President Musharraf.
What did Musharraf say?
He said everything on record a couple of days later. … The thing is some of that intelligence we gave them was actionable.
[But he suggested], "This intelligence is old news; this is old and irrelevant."
Well, we still hoped that they would cooperate.
You must have been disappointed.
No. No, I am not. My job is not to be disappointed. I try to enlarge the circle of my influence. So I was not disappointed. I still work hard. …
Editor's Note: Pakistani officials vigorously deny this charge; Pakistani Ambassador to the United Nations Munir Akram says the list was six months old and contained "false" names and phone numbers. President Musharraf questions why the Afghans waited for a presidential visit to hand over the list and describes the incident as "nonsensical."
Pakistan has deployed 80,000 troops, mostly in South and North Waziristan. They have not deployed troops in those areas where you're saying the real operations are now going on.
What is the utility of this force? That's what I am questioning. …
Are you frustrated [by] the fact that they've concentrated their troops in one area and have not yet moved them when clearly you're suffering a lot from cross-border raids down in Kandahar and Helmand Province?
I wish we were closer. I wish we were more friendlier. I wish there was more trust between the two sides and there was more confidence in this relationship. I am not frustrated.
This is my country. I will defend it under any circumstances with whatever resources I have. If they do not cooperate, it doesn't mean that I lose hope of defending my country.
It's such a sacred job, it will never frustrate me. It's full of events; it is full of adventures. We are sitting in the cockpit of our history. And I'm not frustrated. …
Well, it depends what time of the year and for what purpose. For example, this year, initially they did bring resources from Pakistan with themselves, but they also collected tax from narco dealers and from opium producers in Afghanistan. But they came with resources from Pakistan as well.
When you say they brought resources from Pakistan --
Well, when I say they brought resources, they brought ammunition; they brought weapons; they brought explosives. And they brought expertise. …
Do you have any idea where they're getting the money to buy that stuff?
Yes. … There are a number of undercover charities which provide them funding. In order to conceal the official hand, there are these charities which provide funding for Taliban and for other insurgents and for terrorists. There is some money from other circles beyond tribal areas, beyond Pakistan, about which we have limited information -- not a lot -- that help these groups.
Is this coming out of the Gulf, most of this money?
I don't want to comment.
Is it coming out of the madrassas in Pakistan?
I did mention madrassas. Yes, we have evidence of these madrassas helping the Taliban, yes.
So they collect money from sympathizers and --
Well, collecting money from sympathizers is not significant enough to support a group like the Taliban with the scope of activities they have. There is more than that.
You talked about the narcotics, that they tax the narco dealers to raise funds for their efforts. So is that the extent of the cooperation between narco traffickers and Taliban, Al Qaeda?
They try to diversify their base of income, so by providing protection to direct convoys sometimes and by creating disturbance in some major poppy areas in return, they collect money from narco dealers.
How significant is that?
Depends from area to area. It is significant.
But what would you say is the largest source of their funding?
Foreign assistance. …
We are seeing a resurgence of the Taliban right now, a kind of return of the Taliban. Why now?
Absolutely not. I won't say this is return of the Taliban, because for the first time in our history, this is a government which enjoys diffuse legitimacy. Undermining this legitimacy is not an easy job for anyone, be it a state or a group, a proxy group or an insurgent movement. They are, however, creating problems in some parts of our country. The reason they are not posing a threat strategically to Afghanistan is they lack vision to congregate the people of Afghanistan around that.
This nation has tasted the Taliban. They were here. They do not, in their vision, promise anything bright for our future. So if we dry up foreign assistance for these groups, they do not have indigenous support in Afghanistan or enough support to undermine legitimacy of this government or to undermine the rule of Afghan government in this country.
But if one just looks at the statistics, you're facing more and more bombings, more and more IEDs [improvised explosive devices], suicide attacks; you're facing more death. The numbers are moving up rather rapidly over the last couple of years.
Absolutely. If you look at the targets, mostly these are soft targets, which means the Taliban have lost hope of breaking the will and determination of the security forces, so now they are targeting the civilians in order to weaken the will of the Afghan people. The more they attack the civilians, they may win a battle for a day, but they do not win the will of the people permanently.
The best example is what happened in Panjwai in Kandahar recently. As security forces of Afghanistan and the coalition went there to hit the Taliban, civilians were killed in the action. We were very worried about the reaction of the communities about that operation, but they said, "We are ready to give more sacrifices in order to be safe from the Taliban." So we are not losing the fight for winning the will of the Afghan people.
I didn't say you were losing, but a small group of people can cause you a lot of problems, and if Pakistan is supporting them, that can continue to be a serious problem. … When one looks at the insurgency, there's a lot of people both in your government and in the American government who are very worried.
Well, of course. You know, those worries and concerns gave us direction what to do. Of course we are worried. Any government on the face of this earth, they have worries and concerns.
What are you going to do about Pakistan?
We are fighting it through different means. We are fighting it tactically within the Afghan geography to kill the insurgency by using force, by using other means, reconstruction, reaching out to the population [with] information, operation, etc., etc. And we are fighting it strategically by providing intelligence to the international community, thus convincing them to put more pressure on Pakistan.
We are ready to have dialogue and negotiations and talks with Pakistan with any frequency. We are ready to do whatever measure is necessary to convince them that Afghanistan is not posing a threat to their stability and integrity. So this is what we are doing. And we have not lost any hope. …
What would you like to ask Pakistan's leadership?
Well, forget what is my position. I think there is a huge potential to be exploited for economic progress and development if Pakistan was to stop a geopolitical game of undermining Afghanistan and turning it into a state basically obeying Pakistan. We can be their best friends; we can be their best neighbors. But it's not in our blood and nature to be their subordinates.
So it's going to continue to be an uneasy relationship.
Of course. It's not us who have initiated this. It's them who have initiated this, and I hope they will stop it.
American troops are going to be drawn down, are going to be pulling out, going home. … How do you feel about it?
We are very grateful for what they have done, for their achievements here. My prayers [are] with those who lost their lives here. As an Afghan I send my condolences and sympathy for the families of all those American men and women in uniform who lost their lives here. It's coming from the bottom of my heart.
We have learned a lot from them. They have helped our Ministry of Defense, and they are helping our Ministry of Interior. They are committed to assist Afghan security and institutions develop and mature and stand on their feet. For us, that commitment is very important that they support us in institution building. …