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Inside the Pakistan-Taliban Relationship: Six Questions for Ahmed Rashid, Author of Descent Into Chaos


The CIA, we learned in a report today, has compiled damning evidence of the Pakistani military’s complicity with the Taliban. But this is hardly news. Indeed, one analyst has repeatedly warned that Pakistani dictator Pervez Musharraf and his intelligence service have been taking America for a ride, pretending to support U.S. counter-terrorism operations while sheltering and supporting the Taliban and numerous other extremist organizations. That analyst is Ahmed Rashid, and he is the most articulate of the observers of the region between the Oxus and the shores of Karachi. Based in Lahore, Rashid combines scholarly excellence with popular appeal, as demonstrated by his book on the Taliban, which is Yale University Press’s all-time best-seller. Rashid’s latest book, Descent into Chaos pulls back the cover on American operations in Afghanistan, which were hampered from the outset by chronic bad judgment on the part of Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney.

1. You see Americans as hopelessly naïve in their dealings with Pakistan. The Americans did not fully appreciate the patron-client role between Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence Directorate (ISI) and the Taliban, and they seemed prepared to accept President of Pakistan Pervez Musharaff’s various assurances at face value. You note that the Bush Administration did not see the important role played by democratic political groupings like the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), which came to power on a groundswell of anger brought about by behind-the-scenes conniving between the military and terrorist organizations and the Taliban. Later, Condoleezza Rice’s State Department did advocate a strategic shift towards open elections and at times seemed somewhat partial to the PPP–but it doesn’t seem that Rice’s voice always carried the day. Why was the Bush Administration so blind to these problems?


The problem was that after the war ended in 2001 the U.S. focus was entirely on Al Qaeda. The United States did not really care what happened to the Taliban, who in large numbers, including the leadership, came to seek shelter in Pakistan. U.S. diplomats kept telling me they were not interested in the Taliban until 2006 when the insurgency was well under way. The Pakistani military was stunned at the lackadaisical attitude of the Americans in mopping up Al Qaeda, and the U.S. failure to commit ground troops in the south and then at Tora Bora convinced the Pakistani army that the Americans were not serious, that they preferred that the Northern Alliance militias do their fighting for them. Pakistani officers told me they were amazed that Rumsfeld would not put even one thousand U.S. soldiers into battle. The ISI sent memos to Musharraf stating that the Americans would not stay long in Afghanistan and that the Taliban should be kept alive.

This lack of U.S. interest coincided with the interests of the Pakistani army: to go after Al Qaeda, but to allow the Taliban to resettle in Pakistan. Quite soon the Taliban was once again patronized by the ISI. The reason was that the Pakistani army was deeply offended by the Bonn agreement, which actually gave all power to the Northern Alliance–who were deemed the enemies of Pakistan and the Taliban because they had been backed in the civil war by India, Russia, and Iran (the regional opponents of the Taliban and Pakistan during the 1990s decade-long civil war in Afghanistan). Later, India asserted itself in Afghanistan by opening an embassy and four consulates in Afghanistan and then announced a large reconstruction program in Pakistan. Pakistan’s military told the West that Indian influence was undermining Pakistan’s interests in Afghanistan and also subverting Pakistan by funding and supporting the Baloch insurgency in Balochistan province. Today India’s presumed influence in Afghanistan is the principle gripe of the military. I think the Americans knew quite early what was going on between the military and the Taliban, but were prepared to ignore it as long as Musharraf helped out with Al Qaeda and as long as the United States remained bogged down in Iraq.

That was the principle blindness of the Bush Administration. I describe the ISI’s two-tracked approach in my book: While part of the ISI assisted the Bush Administration, furnishing it with self-serving but at times useful intelligence, the ISI created another, covert section to run its Taliban-support operations. Those who carefully studied the situation were onto this for some time, and I detail it in my book, but the U.S. intelligence agencies have only now issued their study reaching these fairly obvious conclusions—dangerously late in the game.

In 2006-2007 the United States started to realize that the Musharraf system was unsustainable in the long term, and began to tilt towards some kind of transition of power away from Musharraf and the Pakistani army. The United States desired a transition to a limited degree of civilian rule as long as Musharraf stayed on to oversee the army and continued to chase Al Qaeda. That is when the State Department opened a dialogue with Benazir Bhutto, and with the PPP, which it had studiously ignored until then.

Until then the Bush Administration’s major policy decisions were run out of Vice President Dick Cheney’s office with the help of Donald Rumsfeld. Cheney had a warm and personal relationship with Musharraf and did not want to see the United States take on the Pakistani army when the United States was so preoccupied with Iraq. I write about a key incident in 2001, when Cheney cleared a secret Pakistani airlift of ISI personnel from Kunduz who had been helping the Taliban and who were stuck in northern Afghanistan. That was a big plus for Musharraf with the army–that he could get the Americans to save the lives of ISI personnel even in the midst of the U.S. attack on Afghanistan. And when Musharraf held a rigged referendum to become president in 2002, followed by rigged elections, the Americans did not say a word.

A year after 9/11 it was clear to many Pakistanis that Musharraf’s support of the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan was not the promised strategic U-turn that would end the army’s long-standing support to Islamic extremists but rather a short-term tactical move to appease the United States and offset India’s hegemony. The near-war with India in 2002, the freedom given to the Kashmiri and Pakistani militant groups, and the refusal to grapple with homegrown terrorism created serious misgivings among liberal Pakistanis about Musharraf’s ultimate intentions. The Bush Administration did not question Musharraf as long as the Pakistani army cooperated.

—From Descent Into Chaos by Ahmed Rashid.
Reprinted by permission of the publisher, The Penguin Group. Copyright (c) 2008 Ahmed Rashid

Even when NATO troops began to deploy in Afghanistan in 2005–2006, and asked the United States to rein in Pakistan’s support for the Taliban, the United States continued to promise that they would get tough with Pakistan but never did. A big change came when the U.S. military became much more assertive in criticizing the links between the Taliban and ISI, but that happened only after Rumsfeld was replaced by Robert Gates, who allowed U.S. generals a much greater say.

Then the positions of both the Defense and State Departments converged–there was a need for some kind of political transition away from the military–but perhaps it was too late, because the Taliban were too well ensconced in Afghanistan and in their bases in Pakistan. Moreover, by then the Afghan Taliban and Al Qaeda had helped radicalize the Pashtun tribesmen on the Pakistani side of the border. That led to the creation of the Pakistani Taliban and complicated the picture even further.

2. Musharraf may not have been an effective ruler for Pakistan, but he certainly was an extraordinarily effective manager of the relationship with the United States. He persuaded Americans that he was the only man who could hold Pakistan together and keep the radicals at bay, all as ISI was clearing the way for the Taliban’s return to Afghanistan. You write that between 2002 and 2006 Pakistan received $10 billion in U.S. aid, of which $5.5 billion went to the military. As the Bush Administration winds down to its final days it is busily shifting funding from counterterrorism assistance to upgrades for Pakistan’s F-16s. You write that “for five decades, Pakistan’s army… used the threat from India as the principal reason for building a national security state.. and to justify long bouts of military rule and large expenditures on the army.” Do you think that an aid budget to Pakistan that strongly favors the military undermines the prospects for democratic development in Pakistan?

The U.S. aid figure to Pakistan since 2001 now stands at around $11.8 billion, of which, it appears, about 80% went directly to the military. There is also a large sum that went directly to the ISI, and another in the form of reward money for catching Al Qaeda elements, but that sum remains secret. The U.S. Congress is today extremely unhappy about this situation, which has prompted it to consider a large package of aid to the newly elected civilian government. Democrats have put forth a resolution asking for $15 billion to be given to the civilian government for the next five years on two conditions: that Pakistan pursues terrorists and that democracy remains. Moreover, the Democrats have embraced what many Pakistanis have been saying for some years: that this U.S. aid to the military has not been used to retrain or rearm troops in fighting counterinsurgency on the western borders, but rather has been used to continue the arms build-up with India. This remains a major conundrum–for example the U.S. is now willing to give some $300 million to the paramilitary Frontier Corps for rearming and retraining the 100,000 man force that guards the border with Afghanistan, but Pakistan was supposed to have spent other, earlier aid money to accomplish this, rather than spending it to re-equip its regular troops on the Indian border.

The Bush Administration’s more recent offer to pay for the upgrades of F-16 fighter jets is a reflection of its desire to continue the same policy, but it is also a sop to persuade the army to go after the extremists–which it has been refusing to do. It is also part of a complicated deal to make sure that Pakistan does not attempt to derail the recent U.S.–India nuclear deal.

The United States has never had a balanced relationship with both Pakistan’s civil society and the military, and that is why this new bid by Congress is so important. If passed now, before the U.S. presidential elections, it will require the next administration to address the question of providing aid to Pakistan’s civilians. Moreover, it will help overcome the huge trust deficit between the Pakistani people and the United States and help the civilian government with its otherwise tense relationship with the army. If a civil government can demonstrate in real terms to the army that it has United States and Western support, that will have a positive impact on the military and perhaps help prevent further coups.

3. You clearly see the current problems that Afghanistan faces as a result of a series of short-sighted policy decisions made by Donald Rumsfeld during the invasion and early occupation of Afghanistan. You fault Rumsfeld for failing to deploy ground forces, for failing to apprehend key Al Qaeda and Taliban figures, and for lavishly funding warlords and thereby undermining the authority of the central government in Kabul. I’d like you to focus on one of Rumsfeld’s policies in particular. Near the outset of the conflict Rumsfeld revised rules dealing with collateral damage assessments. Under the rules as revised a bombing mission estimated to kill thirty civilians or fewer did not require high-level approval; field commanders were given authority to accept these levels of civilian death. You chronicle the thousands of deaths linked to this change in the rules. Did Rumsfeld’s change in the collateral damage rules affect counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan?

Clearly this decision affected the success of the counterinsurgency. The high level of civilian casualties has made the Afghan government unpopular, provided the Taliban with instant propaganda materials, and has cost the Western forces the support of the Afghan people. It has directly contradicted every counterinsurgency policy that you can think of, and of course directly refutes General Petraeus’s recent revision of the U.S. Army’s Counterinsurgency Manual, which puts a great deal of emphasis on the minimum use of force and the winning of hearts and minds.

It is important to understand why these rules were revised. The United States never deemed it necessary to provide enough ground troops in the first place, so it became necessary to use excessive air power to avoid U.S. casualties—the force Rumsfeld had committed was far too small to secure Afghanistan after 2001, much less to deal with the Taliban insurgency after 2003. Rumsfeld refused to deploy more troops because of the need for more troops in Iraq. Even when NATO forces came in the use of air power only became more excessive because many of the NATO countries imposed caveats which either prevented their troops from actually fighting or demanded close air support from the Americans for every patrol.

The Taliban and Al Qaeda turned the city of Kunduz into their last redoubt, but for Pakistan the stalemate in Kunduz was turning into a disaster as hundreds of ISI officers and soldiers from the Frontier Corps aiding the Taliban were trapped there… Musharraf telephoned Bush and asked for a huge favor—a U.S. bombing pause and the opening of an air corridor so that Pakistani aircraft could ferry his officers out of Kunduz. Bush and Vice President Cheney agreed, and the operation was top-secret, with most cabinet members kept in the dark… a large number of Taliban had been airlifted out with them.

—From Descent Into Chaos by Ahmed Rashid.

I find it amazing that the Afghans, with their enormous capacity to undergo suffering and death after 30 years of almost continuous war, did not actually rebel much earlier against their own government and the Americans. Even in the early years after 2001, when there was not much of an insurgency, the level of civilian casualties was very high.

In recent months U.S. and NATO forces have become much more careful about civilian casualties and I don’t think Rumsfeld’s order still stands. The other determining factor has been that since the insurgency began the Taliban have become very adept at exploiting and exaggerating civilian casualties, which they often cause themselves by using civilians as shields–especially when they know that bombing is going to take place. Moreover, the Taliban propaganda machine has become fast and effective, and that has forced Western forces to change their policies.

4. You note that the effort to rebuild Afghanistan after the invasion had the benefit of many of the “best and the brightest,” but you’re also sharply critical of U.S. efforts, which you describe as incompetent or perhaps corrupt. You contrast the USAID you remember from your childhood, when it was very active in Pakistan, with the current USAID, which seems to exist to dole out contracts to cronies and which places millions of dollars in the hands of a group from California that wants to build California-style schoolhouses in Afghanistan, where the weight of the snowfall would crush them. The Bush Administration argues that contracts are more cost-efficient and more reliable than a government-run effort. How do you rate the performance of USAID in Afghanistan?

USAID has been one of the biggest disappointments in the entire effort to combat extremism and it has contributed to the way many people see the United States in the Muslim world today. It’s sad to say this of an organization that is supposed to do good around the world. In Afghanistan it has made few friends amongst any of the important stakeholders: the Afghan government; the UN; other international donor and aid agencies; NGOs–almost anyone else. The Bush Administration has essentially run USAID into the ground, even though the rot started much earlier in the Clinton administration when it was merged into the State Department, its staff and budget were drastically cut, and it ceased to house any kind of professional staff in the field of development. Today it is a bureaucracy that signs checks–usually to “for profit” beltway bandits–consultancies and companies that have no essential knowledge about countries like Afghanistan or Pakistan, and sub-contract their work to others. In the past USAID was filled with committed professional engineers or water or agricultural specialists who devised projects, implemented them, and then monitored their progress. Those people are gone now. This is not to criticize some of the very good people who work for the organization, but its role has essentially been destroyed by this administration. Help could be on the way, for U.S. think tanks, Congress, and leading Democrats have been up front in criticizing the performance of USAID and demanding change. I hope the next administration will take these criticisms seriously.

There have been acute problems for donor agencies in Afghanistan. The failure to coordinate with each other, the duplication of efforts and projects, the over-spending on projects, the hiring of too many Western consultants who eat up a large percentage of the project money–these are just some of the problems. Another problem has been: how does an aid agency carry out development in the midst of an insurgency? This is what the British and the Canadians aid agencies have faced in the south of Afghanistan where the fighting is most fierce. The United States has brought its military into small reconstruction efforts. U.S. officers now have money to spend on winning hearts and minds through drilling for water, or building a school, or paving a road, but these are essentially short-term solutions. The U.S. army is not supposed to be a development agency.

5. Barack Obama and his advisors have argued forcefully that U.S. counterterrorism efforts should be more focused on Afghanistan and Pakistan. This seems to accord with your analysis. But the Democrats are also advocating a more assertive posture for the U.S. in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), which, as you note, have provided safe haven to the Taliban and Al Qaeda. The U.S. has already launched a number of predator drone attacks in this area. How do you think a more intrusive American effort would effect U.S.-Pakistani relations?

FATA is now almost entirely controlled by the Pakistani Taliban militias who in turn provide cover, protection, and sanctuary to the Afghan Taliban and to Al Qaeda. FATA consists of seven tribal agencies, is about the size of Belgium, and has a population of about 3.5 million people, mostly Pashtun tribesmen. Over the last few years the Army has failed to protect tribal elders, civil society professionals like teachers and doctors, and local people who were all opposed to the Taliban. As a result these people have either been killed by the Taliban or they have fled. Today there are about 400,000 refuges from FATA scattered in other parts of Pakistan and even some in neighboring Afghanistan (which ironically is considered safer than FATA.) The result is that the Pakistani Taliban are in total control and at present it is impossible to carry out any kind of development work.

Now the Pakistani Taliban are expanding their area of control in the settled areas of the North West Frontier Province. They have reached Attock on the Indus river, which is really the cultural and social dividing line between Afghanistan-Central Asia and Punjab and the Indian subcontinent. This is a very dangerous development for Pakistan and the world.

What FATA needs is, first of all, a more comprehensive plan to bring the tribal agencies into Pakistan’s political mainstream under the constitution. The Taliban have a vision for a future FATA: to create a sharia state. The new Pakistani government has not expressed any competing vision, although Benazir Bhutto had promised just such a visionary change before she was killed. FATA’s laws and status need to be normalized, and a slow but comprehensive aid package which deals with development issues, jobs, and so forth, needs to be delivered–but none of this is possible without the Pakistani army protecting the people of FATA, which it is, so far, declining to do. This cannot happen overnight or happen by just passing a law. It requires a comprehensive economic, social and military commitment to the region and the money to bring about changes–but let’s have the vision and an expression of will from the government first.

In the United States there is now bipartisan support for such a plan, and the United States has indicated it will provide funds. The European Union and the World Bank are also putting aside money for this. But until Pakistan takes some radical political steps in FATA, this development money should be held back. At the moment, any aid money would end up either with the army or the Taliban. At the same time it would be ruinous if U.S. troops were to cross the Durrand Line and attack FATA. It would unleash a storm of unrest in the Pashtun belt which could lead to major destabilization of the government through suicide bombings and so forth. Instead, the United States should use drones and long-distance attacks effectively if it has the intelligence to go after specific targets. At the same time, so far the U.S. forces in Afghanistan have not targeted Taliban leaders living in Pakistan–so far U.S. forces have deliberately targeted only Al Qaeda members. That could be a next step.

6. Your writing has consistently seen the crisis in Afghanistan and along the Afghan-Pakistani frontier in the larger context of Central Asian politics and of the tenuous politics of post-Soviet states. In particular, you have identified Uzbekistan as a state that you suggest is vulnerable to radical organizations, like the Al Qaeda-aligned Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. Why do these terrorist groups consider Uzbekistan to be so ripe a target? How do you expect their efforts to unfold?


Uzbekistan is the fulcrum, the key to stability, in Central Asia. It may not have vast quantities of oil and gas like Turkmenistan or Kazakhstan does, but it has half of Central Asia’s fifty million people and contains a mixed population with all of the myriad ethnic groups of the region represented. Geographically, everything–whether roads, or pipelines, or water–has to pass through Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan also has large and well-organized organized Islamic movements; they go back to Tsarist and Soviet times and are deeply rooted in the people. President Islam Karimov has run a highly repressive, corrupt and totalitarian political system and he has refused to carry out even the basic economic and political reforms that other post-Soviet states have done. There is no democracy and no opposition, and as a result the opposition tends to become radicalized quickly, and then forced underground. Many young people are subsequently lured to Islamic militancy, which today means going to FATA and Afghanistan for training with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and other such radical groups allied to Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Such groups have now become pan-Central Asian in that they take in recruits from Xinjiang in China and Chechens in the Caucasus. The U.S. relationship with Uzbekistan has been complex, but under Bush it has come to focus entirely on the need to use Uzbekistan as a support base for military operations.

A real crisis in Uzbekistan is likely to develop over the succession to Karimov. He is old and ill. There is infighting between the power brokers of his regime over who would succeed him, while he is trying to secure his family’s wealth by insisting upon his daughter Gulnara as his successor. Any succession crisis that would divide the regime would be immediately exploited by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and other such groups because there is no democratic opposition in the country. These militant groups are in the process of creating an underground Islamist movement in Central Asia–what is now being termed the “Central Asian Taliban.” The shock waves from a destabilized Uzbekistan will be felt throughout the region.

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