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1 October 2001

A game of smoke and mirrors

War on Terror: Pakistan - Pakistan finances the Taliban, and provides essential supplies -

By John Elliott

A very senior member of the Bush administration is said to have told a European colleague a few days after 11 September: “We have taken this crap from Pakistan about its lack of involvement in terrorism for long enough. Now is our chance to sort them out.” Yet just a couple of weeks later, Pakistan and the United States have cosied their way into another love-in, their first since the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in 1988. Pakistan is winning substantial economic and political concessions from the US, including the lifting of economic sanctions, in return for helping the fight against Osama Bin Laden and his terrorist cells.

Who is leading whom by the nose? Is the US planning to play Pakistan along for all it can get to mount its Bin Laden campaign, and then clamp down on Pakistan’s support for the Taliban’s militant Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism in Afghanistan, Indian Kashmir and, to a lesser extent, central Asia? A recent remark by Colin Powell, the US secretary of state, that “we might also strike against Kashmiri militant targets”, suggests the answer might be “yes”. But Islamabad has pulled the wool over Washington’s eyes many times in the past, and no doubt intends to carry on its involvement in terrorist activities, once Bin Laden has been dealt with.

Pakistan has been closely involved with the Taliban since it helped create the movement in 1994. The Taliban’s founders set out laudably to replace Afghanistan’s squabbling warlords with a regime that restored peace and Islamic sharia law. Within a couple of years, however, they turned into the ruthless, repressive and fundamentalist regime of today. The US backed early Pakistani support, helping the world to see the Taliban romantically as a band of crusading students out to save their country. Students many of them certainly were – from Pakistan-supported madrasas where they trained, and still do, in militant Islamic ideology.

Regional analysts see Pakistan’s support for terrorism as part of its attempt to build strategic depth by stretching its influence across its borders to the east (Kashmir) and the west (Afghanistan, with a longer-term and probably unrealisable ambition to grab a share of central Asia’s oil and gas reserves). In the best survey of this tale, the writer Ahmed Rashid says in his book Taliban that Pakistan’s former interior minister General Naseerullah Khan Babar privately told journalists in 1994 that the Taliban were “our boys”.

Initially, Pakistan wanted the Taliban to facilitate a trade route across to central Asia, but gradually its ambitions grew, and it has been providing essential funds and supplies for years. Officers from its InterServices Intelligence (ISI) and the regular army have been working alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan. Reports suggest that General Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s military ruler turned president, delayed declaring support for the US after 11 September so that he could get his generals and other officers out of Afghanistan before the US struck.

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“In the field of military affairs, the Taliban is mainly controlled by Pakistani advisers and generals. In the foreign affairs department, it is basically run on the advice of the Pakistanis,” Ahmed Shah Massoud, the legendary Afghan warlord, told me a month ago. In his last television interview before the suicide bomb attack that led to his death, Massoud named Pakistani officers involved in Taliban activities; he said the Pakistan army had assumed a bigger role, displacing the ISI, since Musharraf’s coup two years ago. “I am sure that if Pakistan is restrained, Osama Bin Laden cannot bring money and a single Arab inside Afghanistan,” he said.

Islamabad denies any such involvement. It has also become increasingly concerned about the spin-off at home of its Afghan adventures, with increased drug use, arms smuggling and corruption, plus the risk of the “Talibanisation” of Pakistan itself. It was partly such fears that gave Musharraf’s 1999 coup a respectable veneer: secular Pakistanis worried that Islamisation would fill the political vacuum left by a decade of corrupt governments.

Musharraf has been trying to restrain Pakistan’s militant mullahs for months. Assuming he survives the domestic upheaval caused by supporting the US, he might welcome the chance to distance himself from the Taliban. But more fundamentalist army and ISI officers will want to continue their terrorist activities over the country’s borders, as well as maintain the training camps in Afghanistan that attract militants from Chechnya, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, China and other parts.

Another issue is whether the US will back a pro-Pakistan regime in Kabul if the Taliban fall. Pakistan may have a say in the formation of any future Afghan government but, logically, the group to back is the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, of which Massoud was the leading commander.

How can the US curb Pakistan’s activities in the future? It should not trust Islamabad on the issue of regional terrorism; nor should it regard ISI intelligence as foolproof, because the ISI is almost certain to be biased. Perhaps the most effective step would be to persuade China – which has problems with Islamic fundamentalism in its far north-western province of Xinjiang, and provides much of Pakistan’s nuclear and conventional military capability – to force its Pakistani allies to toe the anti-Taliban, anti-terrorism line.