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the taliban-pakistan alliance

Examining how the Taliban took power in the 1990s with the help of Pakistan and whether, today, Pakistan's army and intelligence service are ready to fight their old ally. These excerpts are drawn from FRONTLINE's interviews.

Author, Ghost Wars

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Steve Coll

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.

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. …

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. … 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.

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?

U.S. special envoy and ambassador on Afghanistan, 1989-1992

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Peter Tomsen

The ISI was trying to create a puppet state in Afghanistan?


And they created the Taliban in order to facilitate that?

That's right. … We should remember that the Taliban leaders grew up in Pakistan, and they went to Pakistani schools. … They had ration cards distributed by the Pakistani government. They went to madrassas, and their teachers were clerics from radical Muslim parties in Pakistan. So when they went into Afghanistan, they had spent most of their life in Pakistan. The Taliban movement more or less moved across the border from Pakistan to Kandahar first and then up to Kabul.

Throughout this whole period, the ISI played the major role in military matters, from organizing offenses to equipping the forces that were fighting, and even putting out public statements. ...

We should add here, of course, Osama bin Laden. When he arrived from Sudan, you then had a ménage à trois. You had an unholy alliance combining ISI, Al Qaeda and the Taliban. But then [and] right up until 9/11, this unholy alliance was dominated, directed, guided mostly by ISI in Pakistan.…

Why did they bet on extremists to take over Afghanistan? Why the bet on the Taliban rather than a bet, say, on some other warlord -- a Pashtun, like an [Afghan resistance commander] Abdul Haq, for instance?

There were two reasons. One was ... the ISI and the Pakistanis wanted to emphasize the Islamist Afghan side over the nationalist Afghan side, secular tribal leaders in Afghanistan that had come out of the ruling establishment that was running the country for the previous 300 years, ... because the nationalist side, the secular side, had always stressed the need to recapture Afghanistan as it existed in the last part of the 18th century and part of the 19th century, which included the Pashtun areas of Pakistan.

The tribal areas?

And Pakistan had lost Bangladesh -- one wing of the country -- in 1971. They were very worried that if this impulse returned in Kabul, and especially if it linked up with the Indian government, they would be caught in a squeeze by which the Afghans would be pushing to pursue a reclamation. …

So all of Afghanistan would be a client state of Pakistan, a large Muslim resistance to Indian encroachment.

Hindu Indians, that's right. And that has been, of course, the major geopolitical goal of Pakistan since partition is to confront India.

Pakistan's ambassador to the United Nations

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Munir Akram

We were one of the few governments which recognized the Taliban. One has to understand the strategic context in which we did so. Post the departure of the Soviets, there was chaos in Afghanistan -- warlords, internecine fighting -- which affected us. Therefore the Taliban, when they emerged, were able to impose order on most of Afghanistan. For us, any government which was there in Kabul which had control of the territory was the criteria. And that is the political and legal criteria in most cases for recognition of a government. So we did recognize them.

They had links with the tribals on our side. They were friendly. Therefore, we had relations with the Taliban. And of course we tried to help Afghanistan, as we're doing now. ...

But they had a difficult ideology. We didn't agree with the ideology, but we were not in a position to judge that ideology. It was a decision taken on cold-blooded national interests for Pakistan. …

[After 9/11] you're asked to switch your position 180 degrees from being an ally of the Taliban to being an enemy of the Taliban.

I don't think it's that cut-and-dried. We were engaged, even previously, in efforts with the Taliban to have them give up Osama bin Laden. We made tremendous efforts. We sent our intelligence chief. We cooperated with the Saudis to try and persuade the Taliban to give up Osama bin Laden, and they did not respond. We told them that this was not in the interest of their government and not in the interest of Afghanistan, but they refused to give up Osama bin Laden.

When 9/11 happened, it was inevitable that the U.S. would then use force to get these objectives. It was clear to us that they would do so, and we told the Taliban. Even then, at the last moment, we said, "Cooperate; respond to the demands to give up Osama." They still refused. And therefore the intervention became inevitable. ...

One of the problems you faced was that many of the people in the army have cousins or brothers even who are actually inside the Taliban, that there's a close relationship from Pashtun to Pashtun. … It's a challenge, is it not, to get an army to fight their own relations?

I think that you will not find one instance where our army has refused orders to fight, and the fact that they may or may not have relatives is not relevant to our army. It's a disciplined army with fighting orders. They follow the chain of command. ...

So the idea that there are officers within the ISI or within the military of Pakistan who have divided loyalties, you reject that out of hand.


Lt. Gen. Asad Durrani

Former director, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI)

Lt. Gen. Asad Durrani

No one can create a surrogate group in Afghanistan and hope that it will wield the type of power and influence that the Taliban did. It had to be an indigenous movement.

When it came, when it was seen to have some potential, and initially they were doing a good job, we probably hooked onto them and said, "Well, this seems to be a good group." The Americans came and thought that that was a group that one could do business with on the gas pipeline. The Saudis came along, perhaps for the same reasons. So for our own reasons, we found that the Taliban were a good group to deal with.

Senior fellow, Center on International Cooperation, NYU

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Barnett Rubin

The Taliban is not a creation of the ISI. The Taliban started as an indigenous -- Afghan, Pakistani -- type of movement. Taliban -- that is, students, religious students -- existed in the area for a long time, but the Taliban were made into an effective political and military unit by the Pakistan government, the ISI and other parts of the Pakistan government.

Would the Taliban have been able to come to power without Pakistan's help?

Of course the Taliban could never have come to power without the help of Pakistan. But of course, I should say in fairness, no group has been able to come to power in Afghanistan without foreign association of some kind for quite some time because the institutions of the state in Afghanistan have become so weakened.

But clearly, the Taliban took power with the help of Pakistan. Pakistan was one of only three countries that recognized them, and by the time that they were overthrown, Pakistan was the only country that still [had] good relations with them.

Now, on 9/11, Richard Armitage calls in Gen. Mahmood Ahmed, [director] of the ISI, and says: "You've got to meet certain conditions. You're either with us or against us. You have to stop supporting the Taliban." What did it mean to Pakistan to have to make what essentially is a 180-degree policy switch overnight?

It was a huge shock to them, but they had seen it coming to some extent, because they knew that the presence of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan was going to create problems for them, and how to deal with that had already become a rather contentious issue within the Pakistani military. They did not have full control over the Taliban by any means. There were lots of tensions between the Taliban and Pakistan. …

How difficult was it for [Pakistani President Pervez] Musharraf to sell this new policy down the line?

… Certainly they stopped their active support for the Taliban. … There were people in the ISI who were very loyal to the Taliban. They had been working with the Taliban and with the mujahideen for decades before that. Their whole lives were tied up with it. They owned property; they had investments; they're making money out of it; they had intermarried with Afghans and so on. And a number of those high ISI officials actually went to Kandahar to help the Taliban prepare to resist the United States.

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posted oct. 3, 2006

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