When Osama Met the Taliban

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Oct. 9 2001 9:00 PM

When Osama Met the Taliban

Who introduced them? Our intelligence "allies," Pakistan's Interservices Intelligence Agency.

As commandos and U.S. infantry enter Afghanistan and fan out in search of Osama Bin Laden and members of his al-Qaida group, they'll need timely and accurate intelligence to complete their mission. Most agree that their best source will be agents of the Interservices Intelligence Agency, Pakistan's powerful spy organization.

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Yet the ISI is such an utterly unreliable ally that on Sunday, just hours after U.S. and British planes launched their first attacks on Afghanistan, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf sacked the head of the agency, who he apparently suspected of being too close to militant Islamic groups. Indeed, the reason the ISI is in a position to lead American troops to Bin Laden's tent is that it has longstanding ties to al-Qaida's leader. It was the ISI that initially introduced Bin Laden to the Taliban, and at least until very recently the agency has remained close to both.

That's only the beginning of the ISI's awful résumé. The agency has also sponsored heroin smuggling and a variety of militant organizations that have committed acts of terror in the Indian state of Kashmir, which Pakistan claims. More troubling from a practical standpoint, many ISI officers are deeply hostile to the West and make no secret of their friendship with Bin Laden. As one person familiar with the agency, and who asked to remain anonymous, says, "If the ISI is going to be our eyes and ears in Afghanistan, I suggest that we watch our back."

Established by the British in 1948, the ISI has a long and checkered history of dirty tricks, leading one Pakistani newspaper to call it "our secret godfathers." During the 1977-88 dictatorship of Gen. Zia ul-Haq, the agency played a key role in crushing internal dissent. The ISI is widely believed to have played a role in Pakistan's efforts to procure foreign nuclear and missile technology from China and North Korea. Pakistan's success in that endeavor led Congress in 1990 to bar military and economic aid to Islamabad—sanctions that the United States dropped in late September in return for support from Musharraf, who took power in a coup two years ago.

The ISI worked with the CIA during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan to distribute weaponry to the anti-Soviet mujahideen fighters. Since Pakistan's goal was to have an Islamic state on its northern border, it made sure that the most radical elements got most of the goods.

The ISI's favorite freedom fighter was Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the Islamic militant who in 1991 supported Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War and who as prime minister of Afghanistan in the early 1990s oversaw the destruction of Kabul. "Pakistan began employing Islamic extremism as a tool during the jihad," says Charles Santos, a former political adviser to the U.N. Special Mission to Afghanistan. "They've been refining it as an approach ever since, but they lost a handle on it. You can't refine extremism."

When Tony Blair presented his case against Bin Laden to Parliament last week, he accused al-Qaida's leader of drug trafficking in collaboration with the Taliban. What he didn't mention was that the ISI has also been a partner in the trade, another practice that dates to the anti-Soviet jihad. In his book Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil & Fundamentalism inCentral Asia, Ahmed Rashid says that in one instance, the agency's entire staff in the border town of Quetta was fired because it had turned to heroin trafficking to finance the war and enrich themselves.

The ISI's involvement in the drug trade has apparently decreased in recent years, but elements within the agency still have dirty hands. The same goes for members of the armed forces. In 1997, a Pakistani air force officer was arrested in New York after he tried to sell $2 million worth of heroin to an undercover DEA agent. He smuggled the heroin into the country on a Pakistani military plane that had come to the United States to fetch spare parts for F-16 fighters.

In recent years, the ISI has devoted much of its time—and a $1 billion budget—to backing the Taliban. It played a key role in the group's rise to power, culminating in its capture of Kabul in 1996, and since then has supported the Taliban's war against the Northern Alliance, the group Washington hopes to use as front-line troops in Afghanistan. According to a July 2001 report from Human Rights Watch, the ISI has been "bankrolling Taliban military operations … arranging training for its fighters, planning and directing offensives, providing and facilitating shipments of ammunition and fuel, and on several occasions apparently directly providing combat support."

Through its ties to the Taliban, the ISI developed deep links to Osama Bin Laden, who first came to Afghanistan to fight the Soviets and funded some of the agency's training camps for mujahideen fighters. According to Rashid, the ISI introduced Bin Laden to Taliban leaders in 1996—the same year that the Taliban took power and that Bin Laden issued his first jihad against the United States. By his account, Pakistan's goal was to convince the Taliban to let Bin Laden run training camps for ISI-backed Kashmiri militants. The Taliban agreed. In return, Bin Laden built a home for its leader, Mullah Omar, and funded some of its other top officials.