With Friends Like These…

By Ron Moreau for Newsweek

The Afghan Taliban say they have one thing in common with the Americans: they’re both getting played by Pakistan. 

The Afghan Taliban logistics officer laughs about the news he’s been hearing on his radio this past week. The story is that a Web site known as WikiLeaks has obtained and posted thousands of classified field reports from U.S. troops in Afghanistan, and hundreds of those reports mention the Americans’ suspicions that Pakistan is secretly assisting the Taliban—a charge that Pakistan has repeatedly and vehemently denied. “At least we have something in common with America,” the logistics officer says. “The Pakistanis are playing a double game with us, too.”

Pakistan’s ongoing support of the Afghan Taliban is anything but news to insurgents who have spoken to NEWSWEEK. Requesting anonymity for security reasons, many of them readily admit their utter dependence on the country’s Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) not only for sanctuary and safe passage but also, some say, for much of their financial support. The logistics officer, speaking at his mud-brick compound near the border, offers an unverifiable estimate that Pakistan provides roughly 80 percent of the insurgents’ funding, based on his conversations with other senior Taliban. He says the insurgents could barely cover their expenses in Kandahar province alone if not for the ISI. Not that he views them as friends. “They feed us with one hand and arrest and kill us with the other,” he says.

The militants say that most often they’re dealing with middlemen who appear to be merchants, money-changers, or businessmen, although the assumption is that they’re working for Pakistani intelligence. Some provide money, some motorbikes; others supply contacts for sources who can provide weapons. One smuggler who funnels much of his profits to the insurgency claims that Pakistani forces reserve one remote border crossing in Baluchistan for the Taliban and force civilians to divert to far-off posts.

But many insurgents still blame the Pakistani government for its cooperation in the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11. “We can’t forget or forgive Pakistan for turning against us nine years ago,” says a senior Taliban intelligence operative, also speaking with NEWSWEEK along the remote border. And the betrayals didn’t stop there. Every Taliban can recite a long list of insurgent leaders who have been arrested in Pakistan or who were killed in Afghanistan with assumed Pakistani complicity. One of the biggest losses was Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Osmani, a driving force in the Taliban’s revival whose hideout near Quetta was raided by Pakistani forces in 2006. He fled across the border, where he was killed in a U.S. airstrike. Another was Mullah Dadullah Akhund, one of the insurgency’s most feared commanders, who died in a coalition raid in Helmand—with the help of the ISI, the Taliban suspects. The insurgents say he was too brazen, too independent, and too close to Al Qaeda for Pakistan’s comfort.

The militants say that most often they’re dealing with middlemen who appear to be merchants, money-changers, or businessmen, although the assumption is that they’re working for Pakistani intelligence. Some provide money, some motorbikes; others supply contacts for sources who can provide weapons. One smuggler who funnels much of his profits to the insurgency claims that Pakistani forces reserve one remote border crossing in Baluchistan for the Taliban and force civilians to divert to far-off posts.

But many insurgents still blame the Pakistani government for its cooperation in the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11. “We can’t forget or forgive Pakistan for turning against us nine years ago,” says a senior Taliban intelligence operative, also speaking with NEWSWEEK along the remote border. And the betrayals didn’t stop there. Every Taliban can recite a long list of insurgent leaders who have been arrested in Pakistan or who were killed in Afghanistan with assumed Pakistani complicity. One of the biggest losses was Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Osmani, a driving force in the Taliban’s revival whose hideout near Quetta was raided by Pakistani forces in 2006. He fled across the border, where he was killed in a U.S. airstrike. Another was Mullah Dadullah Akhund, one of the insurgency’s most feared commanders, who died in a coalition raid in Helmand—with the help of the ISI, the Taliban suspects. The insurgents say he was too brazen, too independent, and too close to Al Qaeda for Pakistan’s comfort.

Some leading Taliban even suspect that Mullah Mohammed Omar, the leader and symbol of their jihad, may also be in ISI custody. He has appeared in no videos and issued no verifiable audio messages or written statements since he disappeared into the Kandahar mountains on the back of Baradar’s motorcycle in late 2001. “I wouldn’t be surprised if the ISI arrested us all in one day,” says a former cabinet minister. “We are like sheep the Pakistanis can round up whenever they want.”

On top of the years of grudges, there’s a persistent strain of ethnic animosity between the Taliban’s overwhelmingly Pashtun membership and its mostly Punjabi patrons from Pakistan’s security forces. The insurgents refer contemptuously to the ISI as “blacklegs,” for their supposedly darker skin. “Any commander who is more or less self-sufficient and independent of Pakistan becomes more popular with his fighters,” the intelligence officer says. Nevertheless, the insurgents see little choice about accepting any help they can get from Pakistan.

The Pakistanis, for their part, continue to resist U.S. pressure for strikes against Taliban sanctuaries. “Their aim seems to be to prolong the war in Afghanistan by aiding both the Americans and us,” says the logistics officer. “That way Pakistan continues to receive billions from the U.S., remains a key regional player, and still maintains influence with [the Taliban].” And which side is Pakistan on? “That’s a foolish question,” says Anatol Lieven, a professor in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. “Pakistan is on Pakistan’s side, just as America is on America’s.” Nobody knows that better than the Taliban.

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