New report accuses Pakistan’s ISI of backing Afghan insurgents
According to a new report published by the London School of Economics, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency not only funds and trains Taliban fighters in Afghanistan but is officially represented on the movement’s leadership council, giving it significant influence over operations.
The ISI has long been accused of backing the Taliban – an accusation Pakistan denies, saying this would make no sense when it is already fighting a bloody campaign against Islamist militants at home. But the report is worth reading for its wealth of detail on the perceptions held by Taliban commanders interviewed in the field. You can see the Reuters story on the report here and the full document (pdf) here.
The report, based on interviews with Taliban commanders, former senior Taliban ministers and Western and Afghan security officials, says research strongly suggested support for the Taliban was the “official policy” of the ISI. “Pakistan appears to be playing a double-game of astonishing magnitude,” it says. Interviews with Taliban commanders “suggest that Pakistan continues to give extensive support to the insurgency in terms of funding, munitions and supplies.”
“These accounts were corroborated by former Taliban ministers, a Western analyst and a senior U.N. official based in Kabul, who said the Taliban largely depend on funding from the ISI and groups in Gulf countries,” the report, which was dismissed by Pakistani officials as spurious and unfounded, says.
Almost all of the Taliban commanders interviewed in the report believed the ISI was represented on the Quetta Shura, the Taliban’s supreme leadership council which Washington says is based in Pakistan. “Interviews strongly suggest that the ISI has representatives on the (Quetta) Shura, either as participants or observers, and the agency is thus involved at the highest level of the movement.”
“Pakistan’s apparent involvement in a double-game of this scale could have major geopolitical implications and could even provoke US counter-measures. However, the powerful role of the ISI, and parts of the Pakistani military, suggests that progress against the Afghan insurgency, or towards political engagement, requires their support. The only sure way to secure such cooperation is to address the fundamental causes of Pakistan’s insecurity, especially its latent and enduring conflict with India,” it says.
As discussed many times on this blog, most recently here, Pakistan is unlikely to act decisively against the Afghan Taliban without reassurances of a scaling back of India’s presence in Afghanistan. It may have some ability to convince Afghan Taliban leaders to join peace talks by leaning on those who are based in Pakistan, or whose families live there, as and when it judges the timing is right.
But this influence does not extend to full control over the Taliban – as the book by Abdul Salam Zaeef, the Taliban’s last ambassador to Islamabad, testifies, there is little love lost between the movement and Pakistan. The report itself quoted a political analyst in Kandahar as saying that, ‘The Taliban is obliged to accept Pakistan’s demands – it needs their support, but is not their puppet.”
I caught up with the report’s author, Matt Waldman, in London, for a brief chat to find out what other views he had picked up from his interviews with Taliban commanders in the field.
He said some, but not all, the commanders he spoke to said the ISI support was given so as to undermine Indian influence in Afghanistan. But on the whole they appeared to be relatively unaware of the big geopolitical issues that are believed to drive Pakistan’s alleged support for the Taliban. There had been no mention, for example, of some of the accusations that Pakistan levels against India, of using its presence in Afghanistan to fund separatists in the Pakistani province of Baluchistan, or of working through Afghan intelligence to support the Pakistani Taliban – allegations New Delhi denies.
Rather, the commanders were focused on driving out foreign forces from Afghanistan, restoring sharia law and obtaining justice and security. They did not talk about the Taliban regaining power, or about fighting for them to have the right to run particular ministries; nor indeed about the position they might seek for their leader Mullah Muhammad Omar. “They didn’t talk about the Taliban regaining the reins of government,” he said.
Nor was there any sign of al Qaeda being a significant influence. None expressed any affection for al Qaeda and some acknowledged its role in the Taliban’s downfall in 2001. The United States said it decided to overthrow the Taliban in 2001 after their government had refused to hand over to Washington Osama bin Laden and other al Qaeda leaders blamed for the Sept. 11 attacks.
Waldman said those he spoke to wanted peace, but not at any cost. While he detected some reluctance to see an immediate withdrawal of all foreign forces — which could precipitate a civil war — the massive presence of troops was a major problem. Some analysts say any withdrawal of foreign troops could lead to renewed fighting between non-Pashtuns once grouped in the former Northern Alliance and the Pashtun-dominated Taliban. Waldman however said that, “I never found any sort of hostility towards other ethnic groups.”
The commanders he spoke to wanted clean and honest government and the separation of men and women, including at work. They were happy to see girls’ education, but only up to a certain age. They were also well aware of factors running in their favour, including the unpopularity of the government and divisions in the international community about the Afghan war. “Although they are tired and war-weary, they feel a level of confidence in the eventual outcome,” he said.
He also noted that many of the factors driving the insurgency were domestic – including a sense that the government in Kabul was abusing its power through “predatory and exclusionary policies” and a perception of aggression by foreign forces against the people of Afghanistan. This suggested that taking the ISI out of the equation would not be enough to end the insurgency – although the report also said that any peace talks with the Afghan government would not succeed without ISI support. “If you took the ISI out, it might make it possible to end the insurgency. But it does not end the insurgency.”