When Osama Met the Taliban

Who introduced them? Our intelligence “allies,’ Pakistan’s Interservices Intelligence Agency.

As commandos and U.S. infantry enter Afghanistan and fan out in search of Osama Bin Laden and members of his al-Qaida group, they’ll need timely and accurate intelligence to complete their mission. Most agree that their best source will be agents of the Interservices Intelligence Agency, Pakistan’s powerful spy organization.

Yet the ISI is such an utterly unreliable ally that on Sunday, just hours after U.S. and British planes launched their first attacks on Afghanistan, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf sacked the head of the agency, who he apparently suspected of being too close to militant Islamic groups. Indeed, the reason the ISI is in a position to lead American troops to Bin Laden’s tent is that it has longstanding ties to al-Qaida’s leader. It was the ISI that initially introduced Bin Laden to the Taliban, and at least until very recently the agency has remained close to both.

That’s only the beginning of the ISI’s awful résumé. The agency has also sponsored heroin smuggling and a variety of militant organizations that have committed acts of terror in the Indian state of Kashmir, which Pakistan claims. More troubling from a practical standpoint, many ISI officers are deeply hostile to the West and make no secret of their friendship with Bin Laden. As one person familiar with the agency, and who asked to remain anonymous, says, “If the ISI is going to be our eyes and ears in Afghanistan, I suggest that we watch our back.”

Established by the British in 1948, the ISI has a long and checkered history of dirty tricks, leading one Pakistani newspaper to call it “our secret godfathers.” During the 1977-88 dictatorship of Gen. Zia ul-Haq, the agency played a key role in crushing internal dissent. The ISI is widely believed to have played a role in Pakistan’s efforts to procure foreign nuclear and missile technology from China and North Korea. Pakistan’s success in that endeavor led Congress in 1990 to bar military and economic aid to Islamabad—sanctions that the United States dropped in late September in return for support from Musharraf, who took power in a coup two years ago.

The ISI worked with the CIA during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan to distribute weaponry to the anti-Soviet mujahideen fighters. Since Pakistan’s goal was to have an Islamic state on its northern border, it made sure that the most radical elements got most of the goods.

The ISI’s favorite freedom fighter was Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the Islamic militant who in 1991 supported Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War and who as prime minister of Afghanistan in the early 1990s oversaw the destruction of Kabul. “Pakistan began employing Islamic extremism as a tool during the jihad,” says Charles Santos, a former political adviser to the U.N. Special Mission to Afghanistan. “They’ve been refining it as an approach ever since, but they lost a handle on it. You can’t refine extremism.”

When Tony Blair presented his case against Bin Laden to Parliament last week, he accused al-Qaida’s leader of drug trafficking in collaboration with the Taliban. What he didn’t mention was that the ISI has also been a partner in the trade, another practice that dates to the anti-Soviet jihad. In his book Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil & Fundamentalism inCentral Asia, Ahmed Rashid says that in one instance, the agency’s entire staff in the border town of Quetta was fired because it had turned to heroin trafficking to finance the war and enrich themselves.

The ISI’s involvement in the drug trade has apparently decreased in recent years, but elements within the agency still have dirty hands. The same goes for members of the armed forces. In 1997, a Pakistani air force officer was arrested in New York after he tried to sell $2 million worth of heroin to an undercover DEA agent. He smuggled the heroin into the country on a Pakistani military plane that had come to the United States to fetch spare parts for F-16 fighters.

In recent years, the ISI has devoted much of its time—and a $1 billion budget—to backing the Taliban. It played a key role in the group’s rise to power, culminating in its capture of Kabul in 1996, and since then has supported the Taliban’s war against the Northern Alliance, the group Washington hopes to use as front-line troops in Afghanistan. According to a July 2001 report from Human Rights Watch, the ISI has been “bankrolling Taliban military operations … arranging training for its fighters, planning and directing offensives, providing and facilitating shipments of ammunition and fuel, and on several occasions apparently directly providing combat support.”

Through its ties to the Taliban, the ISI developed deep links to Osama Bin Laden, who first came to Afghanistan to fight the Soviets and funded some of the agency’s training camps for mujahideen fighters. According to Rashid, the ISI introduced Bin Laden to Taliban leaders in 1996—the same year that the Taliban took power and that Bin Laden issued his first jihad against the United States. By his account, Pakistan’s goal was to convince the Taliban to let Bin Laden run training camps for ISI-backed Kashmiri militants. The Taliban agreed. In return, Bin Laden built a home for its leader, Mullah Omar, and funded some of its other top officials.

The ISI’s other chief preoccupation has been Kashmir, which both India and Pakistan claim. Kashmir is Hindu India’s only majority Muslim state, and New Delhi’s heavy hand has sparked legitimate grievances. However, most Kashmiris seem to oppose Pakistani control as well, instead favoring an independent state.

For the past decade, Pakistan has fought a proxy war in Kashmir, using rebels—mostly locals but with a healthy contingent of Arab radicals—trained in Afghanistan to attack military and civilian targets. Though Islamabad maintains that it offers only moral and diplomatic support to the Kashmiri radicals, few take such claims seriously. “Pakistan’s military government, headed by Gen. Pervez Musharraf, continued previous Pakistani Government support of the Kashmir insurgency, and Kashmiri militant groups continued to operate in Pakistan, raising funds and recruiting new cadre,” says the State Department’s Patterns of Global Terrorism report released last April.

Other observers are more forthright in describing Pakistan’s relationship to the militants. “The ISI is the source of support for some of the groups,” says Patricia Gossman, a human rights consultant who has traveled widely in Kashmir. “It’s an ISI operation.” And in early October, former CIA counterterrorism chief Vincent Cannistraro told a House committee that ISI personnel are directly training separatist fighters at camps in Afghanistan that are used to provide Islamabad “plausible deniability” about its role in Kashmir.

On Oct. 1, terrorists believed to be backed by the ISI carried out a suicide attack at the state legislature in Kashmir that killed 38 people. Four days later, the State Department named a militant group called the Harakat ul-Mujahidin as one of 28 “Foreign Terrorist Organizations,” along with groups such as al-Qaida, the Abu Nidal Organization, Algeria’s Armed Islamic Group, and Hezbollah. The State Department says the HUM is “active in Pakistan without discouragement by the Government” and charges that its secretary-general, Fazlur Rehman Khalil, signed one of Bin Laden’s fatwas that “call[ed] for attacks on U.S. and Western interest.” In 1998, weeks after Bin Laden’s operatives bombed U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the United States fired 70 cruise missiles at terrorist training camps in Afghanistan run by Bin Laden and his allies. One of the primary targets was a facility run for the HUM (then known as the Harakat ul-Ansar) in the province of Khost.

Beyond its own nasty history, many in the ISI loathe the United States. They view America as an unreliable and duplicitous ally, being especially resentful of the 1990 sanctions, which came one year after the Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan. Furthermore, the ISI is dominated by Pashtuns, the same tribe that is the Taliban’s base of support across the border in Afghanistan. Partly because of its family, clan, and business ties to the Taliban, the ISI, even more than Pakistani society in general, has become increasingly enamored of radical Islam in recent years.

The ISI has occasionally assisted the United States—for example, it turned over to American authorities Ramzi Yousef, who fled to Pakistan after he planned the 1993 World Trade Center bombing—but it has repeatedly refused to cooperate in apprehending Bin Laden. In an interview in 1999, Bin Laden obliquely expressed gratitude to his ISI friends, saying, “There are some governmental departments, which, by the Grace of God, respond to the Islamic sentiments of the masses in Pakistan. This is reflected in sympathy and cooperation. However, some governmental departments fell into the trap of the infidels. We pray to God to return them to the right path.”

In an interview in Islamabad a few weeks ago, Hamid Gul, a former head of the ISI and ardent Taliban supporter, suggested that his old agency won’t be offering much help to the United States in the days ahead. “If you can’t even find the terrorists in your own country, what makes you think you can find Osama in Afghanistan?” he gloated. “Your soldiers are going to come out of Afghanistan bloodied and empty-handed.”