THE PAPER | Origin of Inter-Services Intelligence and Taliban Ties

THE PAPER | Origin of Inter-Services Intelligence and Taliban Ties

By Shaul M. Gabbay
Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver, USA

Image Source: Former Taliban fighters return arms / Source: Wikimedia Commons

Image Source: Former Taliban fighters return arms / Source: Wikimedia Commons


The relationship between Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency and the Taliban took roots during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in 1979. Many nations, particularly the United States and Saudi Arabia, had given billions of dollars to Afghanistan’s mujahedeen, which would later develop into the Taliban, to fight the Soviets. It was Pakistan’s ISI that facilitated the allocation of these hefty funds, although discriminately among the tribes in Afghanistan [1] .

By the time the Taliban was emerging in 1994, ISI was supporting Hezb-e-Islami, which had been led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. In his book, Taliban, Ahmed Rashid describes an interview he had in 1999 with an advisor of Mullah Omar, a warlord in Afghanistan, illustrating the ISI’s financial support of Hekmatyar:

“Hikmetyar had 5 percent of the popular support but 90 percent of the military aid from the ISI. We were never recognized but, with the arrival of the Taliban, the support of the people of Afghanistan fell into our lap” [2] .

However, when Hekmatyar suffered losses in 1994, ISI looked elsewhere for a group to support, all the while, keeping Pakistan’s interests in mind. When the Taliban reached the Afghan-Pakistan border, the group seized Hekmatyar’s bastion: here was the ISI’s new team. The ISI allowed the Taliban to take its depot of weapons and ammunition to continue the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan [1] .

As the Taliban conquered cities in Afghanistan in 1995 and 1996, albeit suffering defeats along the way, Afghanistan’s President at the time, Burhanuddin Rabbani, gained regional support against the Taliban. Neighboring countries did not want to live with a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan next door. In reaction to the regional support of Rabbani, Pakistan bolstered its support of the Taliban. Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto “even tried to convince the U.S., which had an interest in curbing Iran, to support the Taliban”, but with no success [1] . Meanwhile, Pakistan continued to send Pakistani men with weapons to fight alongside Taliban rebels. Additionally:

“Pakistan provided diplomatic support, organized training for Taliban fighters, some of whom it had itself recruited, planned and commanded offensives, delivered ammunition and fuel and on several occasions apparently got directly involved in combat support. Undoubtedly, the Pakistani army and intelligence agencies, with the ISI at the forefront, made a vital contribution to the Taliban becoming a highly effective military force. The covert support of the Taliban by the ISI came from the corps headquarters in Peshawar. To give an example: a contact person deemed trustworthy by the U.S. consulate in Peshawar in October 1996 reported the border crossing from Pakistan into Afghanistan of an ISI convoy, consisting of 30 - 35 ISI trucks and 15 - 20 fuel trucks, at Torkham. The ISI itself in late 1996 estimated the total Pakistani aid to the Taliban to be as high as 20 million rupees. A number that may well be set too low. Two years later, a Pakistani source of the U.S. State Department put the support of the Pakistani government for the Taliban at about a million dollars every few months” [1] .

Even following Pakistan’s change in President in 1999, when Pervez Musharraf led a coup d’état, the Taliban still thrived with the backing of the Pakistani government and the ISI. But after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 in the United States, and a U.S. occupation of Afghanistan to drive out the Taliban, the Pakistani government suddenly switched sides and appeared to be a U.S. ally. On the surface, Pakistan’s ISI pledged to fight the Taliban alongside the U.S. troops, but in reality, the agency continued to send weapons and fuel to the Taliban in Afghanistan. In this conflict, the U.S. was confronting not just Mullah Omar’s Taliban, but also Hek- matyar’s Hezb-e-Islami and the Haqqani network. The U.S. accomplished ousting the groups for a short time; subsequently, Hekmatyar and Jalaluddin Haqqani received sanctuary in Pakistan and were able to restore their groups.

The resignation of President Musharraf in August 2008 added to the uncertainty that Pakistani citizens face with regard to judicial fairness, and guarantees of personal and societal protection by the military or civilian police authorities. The assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in December of 2007 still contributes to the unrest and suspicions of the Pakistani people. It is widely suspected that Baitullah Mehsud, killed by a U.S. drone strike in 2009 [3] , a religious extremist orchestrated her murder. Suspicions of collusion in her murder by ISI security forces, and government cover-ups are nevertheless ongoing at the time of this writing. The same forces are also thought to have planted the bombs, which killed over 130 people when Mrs. Bhutto returned to Pakistan in October 2007. Recently in August 2013, Pervez Musharraf was indicted on charges of murder, conspiracy to murder, and the facilitation of murder in relation to the death of Benazir Bhutto [4] .

Despite or perhaps due to Pakistan’s alignment with the West in the war on terror, Western nations have little or no impact on social behavior in Pakistan. Pakistani society and Muslim societies in general, have been swept by anti-Western sentiments after the September 2001 attacks in the U.S. Examples of this atmosphere in Pakistan include the beheading of American Journalist Daniel Pearl, the numerous assassination attempts against former President Musharraf (because of his perceived ties with the U.S.), and the strict implementation by the government of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. Anger towards the West has been further fueled by developments along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan.

Beginning in June 2008, 11 Pakistanis were killed by U.S. airstrikes as they were caught in a firefight between Coalition Forces and Taliban fighters. In response, the Pakistani government publically condemned the U.S. military, and according to the New York Times, “Local tribesmen with rocket launchers and Kalashnikov rifles gathered Wednesday near the checkpoint that was reportedly attacked by the airstrikes to show their outrage after the attack” [5] .

Amid these examples of extreme violence occurring throughout Pakistan, tensions continue to mount as the U.S. has been embarking on raids inside Pakistan. Since August 2008, there have been over 100 American strikes in Pakistan, most notably on November 1, 2008 when missiles fired by a remotely piloted American aircraft hit two villages near the Afghan border, killing 27 people. According to the Associated Press, “[t]he attacks have angered many Pakistanis and put strains on a seven-year alliance between the United States and Pakistan, where rising violence is exacerbating economic problems and threatening the country’s stability” [6] . U.S. attacks, largely carried out by drone aircraft, continued into 2009 and 2010.

Furthermore, the killing of Osama bin Laden within Pakistani territory has only strained the already weak alliance between the United States and Pakistan. In May 2011, the Pakistani Parliament passed a formal resolution describing the U.S. operation in Abbottabad (which killed bin Laden) as violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty, and called for a review of Pakistan’s relationship with the United States [7] . A few months later, on November 26, 2011, a U.S. led NATO attack resulted in the deaths of 24 Pakistanis along the Afghan border [8] .

Reports over the past few years claiming that the Pakistani government is making progress against Taliban strongholds can be very misleading. By no means should they be taken to mean that the threat posed by the Taliban has significantly subsided. While military forces have moved into volatile regions (particularly the Swat Valley) and have allowed the return of a small number of refugees, the government cannot actually guarantee stability in the region, as demonstrated by the fact that the Taliban has invaded and occupied the Swat Valley twice since 2007.

Moreover, it is clear the Pakistani police and military continue to lack effective control over the Taliban despite claims they have achieved victory in parts of the country. According to the U.S. State Department’s Human Rights Report published in 2014, “Police often failed to protect members of religious minorities, including Christians, Ahmadiyya Muslims, and Shia Muslims, from attacks” [9] . Recent years have only shown that the Taliban has continued to strengthen its forces in spite of claims to the contrary by its opponents. Particularly concerning the Swat Valley, the past few years have proven to be nothing more than a “seesaw” of power between the Pakistani government and Taliban forces resulting in instability and a crumbling infrastructure in the Valley. It is a scenario in which the Taliban thrives.

Over the past several years alone, socio-political conditions in Pakistan have deteriorated to the point that it is a nation in crisis. The government is in turmoil, which has opened wider the doors for other Islamist extremists and terrorists to violently impose their will on Pakistani society. In Pakistan today, religious minorities and apostates are officially discriminated against and persecuted by the government by way of its laws that restrict religious freedom and generally so by Pakistan’s majority Sunni Muslim society. The religious tenets of fundamentalist Islam give support to the powerful socio-political positions of imams in Pakistan and to Pakistan’s various tribes to make and impose their decisions according to their strict interpretations of Islamic law. They are overtly and covertly supported by elements in the military and the ISI, who support the harsh punishment of accused apostates, blasphemers, Muslim “deviants” and individuals perceived to be spies for Western powers, especially the United States.

The United States government has declared Pakistan an ally in the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but many U.S. officials have openly stated that Pakistan’s ISI has a relationship with the Taliban. Although the U.S. is fighting an idea, terror, rather than a sole entity, officials contend that discounting the ISI and Taliban relationship hinders progress. This is especially true as the U.S. downplays the role of the ISI in the growth of the Taliban, providing billions of dollars in aid and military support to Pakistan over the years. Nonetheless, Pakistan is not the only player in its double-game. The U.S. also states one thing, and acts out another. The U.S. deems Pakistan an ally, but has killed innocent civilians with drones in Pakistan. If Pakistan were sending drones to kill militants and the aftermath included destroyed U.S. property and U.S. civilian casualties, Pakistan would never be considered an ally of the U.S. Pakistan would be an enemy. When Robin Lustig, a journalist for the BBC Network, spoke with General Asad Durrani, a former Director General of the ISI, Durrani echoed this actuality:

“Pakistan should be supporting the anti-US opposition in Afghanistan, he said. If the US insists on launching drone strikes against targets in Pakistan, sometimes killing innocent Pakistani civilians, then the US and Pakistan are in a state of what he called ‘low-intensity conflict’” [10] .

And veteran intelligence analyst Bruce Riedel maintains that if the U.S. were to stop the drone program:

“Al-Qaeda will regenerate rapidly in Pakistan. Its allies like the Taliban and Lashkar-e-Taiba will help it to rebuild. The ISI will either turn a blind eye or, worse, a helping hand” [11] .

For the Pakistani public eye, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has criticized the drone program and railed against U.S. drone strikes as an affront to Pakistani sovereignty while advocating for talks with the TTP. Yet, the International Crisis Group notes, “Ample evidence exists of tacit Pakistani consent and active cooperation with the drone program”. Pakistan’s leadership seeks greater say over targeting, the ICG says, “often to punish enemies, but sometimes, allegedly, to protect militants with whom the security services have cooperative relations—in- cluding elements of the Haqqani Network and Taliban” [11] .
Both the U.S. and Pakistan appear to be playing one another at a time when there is no room for games. The Taliban continues to orchestrate and execute attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan and U.S. forces are placed in danger whilst Pakistan is supporting the enemy. The Haqqani network, a semiautonomous group allied with the Afghan Taliban and acting as mediator for the Pakistani Taliban, “presents the greatest threat to security forces”, General Joseph Dunford, the commander of the U.S. Forces in Afghanistan, stated on March 14, 2014 [12] . The U.S. declared the Haqqani network a Foreign Terrorist Organization only one and a half years ago. And one year prior to that designation, in September 2011, the former US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, warned of the Haqqani network, assuredly insisting that the Haqqanis act as a “veritable arm” of the Pakistani military intelligence agency, the ISI” [10] . Pakistan is likely supporting the Haqqani network to create leverage against India and Afghanistan.

Admiral Mike Mullen is not alone in his view of the ISI. Officials in the British government have also made assertions that the ISI has ties with the Taliban. Specifically, British officials have blamed the ISI for bombings in their country:

In fall 2006, a leaked report by a British Defense Ministry think tank charged, “Indirectly Pakistan (through the ISI) has been supporting terrorism and extremism whether in London on 7/7 [the July 2005 attacks on London’s transit system], or in Afghanistan, or Iraq” [13] .

Moreover, a BBC article reported that a London School of Economics paper revealed that Taliban field commanders suggested that ISI intelligence agents even attend Taliban supreme council meetings—and that support for the militants was “official ISI policy” [14] .

While such a claim cannot be confirmed as it is stated by Taliban field commanders, it is not of benefit to the Taliban to falsely state that ISI agents have been attending Taliban meetings. If for no other reason, the Taliban may be revealing the ISI’s commitment to the Taliban to demonstrate that the militants are receiving support from a government agency, legitimizing their purpose. In addition to the British Defense Ministry think tank, current British Prime Minister, David Cameron, has also publicized his concern of ISI’s ties with the Taliban, “He accused the country of ‘looking both ways’ when it came to fighting terrorism and suggested that elements in Pakistan were guilty of promoting the “export of terror” [14] .

Like some U.S. and British officials, the Afghan government is not in the dark when it comes to the reality of ISI and Taliban cooperation. Afghanistan and Pakistan have had a relationship since Pakistan acquired independence in 1947. Two governments have shared intelligence information and have attempted to confront the Taliban together. However, Afghan officials are acknowledging that their neighboring brother has been conspiring behind closed doors. According to Bajoria and Kaplan, of the Council on Foreign Relations:

In June 2008, Afghan officials accused Pakistan’s intelligence service of plotting a failed assassination attempt on President Hamid Karzai; shortly thereafter, they implied the ISI’s involvement in a July 2008 attack on the Indian embassy. Indian officials also blamed the ISI for the bombing of the Indian embassy. Pakistani officials have denied such a connection [13] .

The Pakistani government always incessantly denies any connection to the Taliban. Not surprisingly so, it is in Pakistani’s interest to keep up the charade. If Pakistan were to admit to maintaining ties with the Taliban, the U.S. would cease to provide billions of dollars in aid to Pakistan. Pakistan’s game is in plain sight, especially in Afghanistan. Omer Aziz, of The Diplomat, highlights the game that Pakistan has been playing for years:

For four decades, Pakistan’s spy-generals have played Afghanistan like a powerful chip in a consequential game of poker. They know the important local militants, have open channels to their favorite groups, and regularly play various groups against the Western coalition. The twin justifications for the aggressive intervention in Afghan affairs are India and American withdrawal. Since Pakistan’s humiliating dissection at Indian and nascent Bangladeshi hands in 1971, Islamabad’s doctrine vis-à-vis Afghanistan has been known as strategic depth. For the ISI, Afghanistan is to be a safety net should the delusional prediction that India will invade a weaker Pakistan actually come true [15] .


Pakistan fears India, sometimes making decisions in a state of paranoia, and has been willing to maintain relations with the Taliban to ensure the country has leverage in the future. Maintaining ties with militants that are anti-U.S. and also against the Afghan government may prove disastrous for Pakistan. In a state of turmoil, Pakistan is fighting militants in its own cities. If the Pakistani government allows the ISI to continue waging a false fight against the Taliban, the country may lose support from the rest of the world. Keeping the Taliban as a friend will ultimately create many enemies for Pakistan, placing an already volatile nation on the edge of a cliff.

Publication Details:

Social Networking
Vol.03 No.05(2014), Article ID:51104,9 pages
10.4236/sn.2014.35027
Networks, Social Capital, and Social Liability: The Case of Pakistani ISI, the Taliban and the War against Terrorism

Shaul M. Gabbay
Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver, Denver, CO, USA
Copyright © 2014 by author and Scientific Research Publishing Inc.
This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution International License (CC BY).

Endnotes:

(1.) The Pakistani Godfather: The Inter-Services Intelligence and the Afghan Taliban 1994-2010. Small Wars Journal. http://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/the-pakistani-godfather-the-inter-services-intelligence-and-the-afghan-taliban-1994-2010

(2) Rashid, A. (2000) Taliban: Islam, Oil and the New Great Game in Central Asia. I.B., London.

(3) Pakistanis Are Indicted in Benazir Bhutto’s Killing. NYTimes.com.http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/06/world/asia/7-pakistanis-are-indicted-in-benazir-bhuttos-killing.html

(4) Musharraf Accused of Benazir Bhutto Murder Case. Pakistan Today.http://www.pakistantoday.com.pk/2013/08/20/news/national/musharraf-accused-of-benazir-bhutto-murder-case/

(5) Pakistan Angry as Strike by U.S. Kills 11 Soldiers. NYTimes.com.http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/12/world/asia/12pstan.html?_r=1&hp&oref=slon

(6) Missile Attacks, Apparently by U.S., Kill 27 in Pakistan, Including Qaeda Operative. NYTimes.com. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/01/world/asia/01drone.html?_r=1&scp=39&sq=Pakistan&st=nyt&oref=slogin

(7) BBC News—Pakistan Profile-Timeline.http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/country_profiles/1156716.stm

(8) BBC News—Pakistan Orders Nato and US Review after Deadly Border Strike.http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-15905777

(9) Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2013.http://www.state.gov/j/drl/rls/hrrpt/humanrightsreport/index.htm#wrapper

(10) BBC—World Tonight: US and Pakistan: Allies or Enemies?http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/legacy/worldtonight/2011/09/us_and_pakistan_allies_or_enem.html

(11) Council on Foreign Relations Backgrounder. www.cfr.org/pakistan/pakistans-new-generation-terrorists/p15422

(12) Haqqani Network a Threat to Afghan Election: US Commander. Pakistan. Dunya News. http://dunyanews.tv/index.php/en/Pakistan/215253-Haqqani-network-a-threat-to-Afghan-election-US-co

(13) Kaplan , E. (2011) Council on Foreign Relations. www.cfr.org/pakistan/isi-terrorism-behind-accusations/p11644

(14.) BBC News—Pakistan’s Shadowy Secret Service, the ISI.http://www.bbc.com/news/world-south-asia-13272009

(15) Aziz, O. (2014) The ISI’s Great Game in Afghanistan | The Diplomat.http://thediplomat.com/2014/06/the-isis-great-game-in-afghanistan/

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