(CNSNews.com) – Pakistan’s government and military have angrily rejected new claims about close collaboration between Islamabad’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and the Afghan Taliban. Behind the allegations, some Pakistani commentators detect an agenda aimed at forcing their country to act against militants it has been reluctant to target up to now.
The claims of an “official ISI policy” of training, financing and provision of sanctuary to the Taliban were made by a Harvard University researcher in a report for the London School of Economics (LSE), based on interviews with nine Taliban commanders and former Taliban ministers and officials.
Afghan and Indian government officials have long accused the military intelligence agency, which helped to set up the Taliban in the 1990s, of playing a destabilizing role in Afghanistan. They see this as part of Pakistan’s long-term strategic agenda for the region, which involves dominating Afghanistan and countering Indian influence there.
Report author Matt Waldman asserted that the collaboration runs so deep that the ISI is represented on the Taliban’s leadership body, the so-called “Quetta shura,” which the U.S. says is based in the Pakistani city. Quetta, the capital of Balochistan province and Pakistan’s ninth-largest city, is located near the border with Afghanistan, a little more than 100 miles from Kandahar.
The report says the ISI also supports and gives sanctuary to the Haqqani network, an al-Qaeda-allied quasi-Taliban faction based in the North Waziristan district of Pakistan’s tribal belt.
While Islamabad regards the Pakistan Taliban, known as the Tehrik-i-Taliban, as a threat to the Pakistani state, the Haqqani network’s focus is fighting U.S., NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and Afghan forces across the border.
Headed by veteran Pashtun fighter Jalaluddin Haqqani and his son Sirajuddin, the network has been linked to major terror attacks in Kabul.
After one such bombing, targeting the Indian Embassy in July 2008, the U.S. reportedly confronted Pakistan with intercepted communications proving ISI involvement in the Haqqani attack. The Bush administration then approved special operations incursions across the border into Pakistani territory, and Islamabad under U.S. pressure appointed a new ISI head.
The U.S. last year offered a $5 million reward for information leading to Sirajuddin Haqqani’s capture and has stepped up drone attacks against targets in North Waziristan.
It has also been pressing Pakistan to act against the Haqqanis – as it is against Pakistan Taliban elsewhere in the tribal belt – but without success. Long before the LSE report allegations, analysts in Pakistan, India and beyond attributed Islamabad’s reluctance to comply to the ISI relationship with the network.
In a paper last month, Pakistan’s independent Center for Research and Security Studies said that “most of these [North Waziristan-based] militants have had good working relationship with the Pakistani security establishment, something that has apparently restricted the army from an all-out crackdown against the Haqqanis and his Pakistani affiliates.”
In the LSE report, Haqqani commanders are cited describing very close relations between the network and the ISI, ranging from training at small bases “staffed by serving or former Pakistani military officials” to the provision of weapons including grenades and IEDs, and the payment of salaries. The ISI is also represented on the Haqqani command council.
“Pakistan appears to be playing a double game of astonishing magnitude,” Waldman concluded, predicting that unless Pakistan changes its behavior “it will be difficult if not impossible for international forces and the Afghan government to make progress against the insurgency.”
Pakistan’s government denied the claims contained in the report, describing them as “malicious and baseless” and part of an attempt to smear the army and ISI.
Government spokesmen pointed to the army’s offensives against militants in north-west Pakistan, and the casualties sustained in the campaign.
Pakistan’s The News said a Taliban official, Zabihullah Mujahid, had contacted it “from an undisclosed location” to deny the claims of ISI collaboration.
“Our movement is indigenous and has been launched for the liberation of our country from the clutches of the occupying forces,” it quoted Mujahid as saying. “There is no doubt we are receiving financial assistance from kind-hearted Muslims from across the world, but we never got any help from the ISI.”
But a former Canadian ambassador to Afghanistan, Christopher Alexander, was quoted as telling a parliamentary committee in Ottawa Monday that the Taliban would have collapsed long ago were it not for the ISI’s support.
Alexander, who was ambassador from 2003-2005 and then served until last year as a U.N. envoy in Afghanistan, said the world should be open about Pakistan’s continuing role, the Toronto Sun reported.
“These networks, whose leadership, fundraising, training, bomb-making, supply and planning centers are based overwhelming on the territory of Pakistan, constitute the primary threat to peace and security in Afghanistan today,” he said.
Amrullah Saleh, the Afghan who on June 6 vacated his post as director of intelligence, has long accused the ISI of involvement in Taliban violence inside the country.
Pakistan had long urged President Hamid Karzai to remove Saleh, and his departure prompted speculation in Afghanistan that the president forced him out to curry favor with Islamabad and facilitate his efforts reconcile with the Taliban.
Trying to twist Pakistan’s arm’
ISAF commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal held talks on Monday with Pakistan’s army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, himself a former ISI head.
The U.S. Embassy in a brief statement said McChrystal visits regularly to consult on ISAF activities. “ISAF and the U.S. continue to collaborate and partner with Pakistan to achieve our mutual goals of defeating violent extremists and establishing peace and security in Pakistan and the region,” it said.
The Pakistan army press office gave even less detail, saying only that the visitor had “remained with [Kayani] for some time and discussed matters of professional interest.”
Some Pakistani media outlets said the claims of ISI involvement with the Taliban were designed to force Islamabad to act against the Haqqani network.
Islamabad’s Daily Mail in an editorial saw in the LSE report “a malicious bid to twist the arm of Pakistani military to commence operations in North Waziristan.”
“NATO is poised to launch a major offensive against the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar and is certain that it cannot achieve success unless Pakistan commences simultaneous operations in North Waziristan,” it said.
“Since cajoling and requesting has not worked, now blackmail and coercive tactics are being resorted to.”
Peshawar’s Frontier Post attributed the LSE report to increasing desperation by “the U.S.-led occupiers of Afghanistan” who were sensing defeat and intended to blame Pakistan for their “failures” in Afghanistan.
It urged the Pakistan government to speak out forcefully against “the double game” being played against the country by Western intelligence agencies in collusion with their Afghan and Indian counterparts.
“There may be some element of truth in these allegations,” conceded an editorial in another paper, the Daily Times. “As we have argued time and again, Pakistan should abandon its dual policy inherited from the previous government.”
But, the paper raised questions about the timing of the report, saying that with “endgame” approaching in Afghanistan all actors, including Pakistan, were trying to position themselves for “maximum advantage.”
“For its part, Pakistan should make every effort to support a stable Afghanistan, instead of getting mired in another murky game of power and influence.”
The ISI served as a conduit for U.S. aid to Islamist mujahideen fighting the Soviet Union in Afghanistan during the 1980s. It later helped to set up the Taliban, and when the militia seized control of most of Afghanistan by the mid-1990s, Pakistan was one of just three countries – the others were Saudi Arabia and the UAE – to have diplomatic relations with its “emirate” in Kabul.
Pakistan also formally severed the ties with the Taliban under U.S. pressure after 9/11. A U.S.-led coalition toppled the regime in late 2001.