Did the U.S. Choose the Wrong Allies in the Global Fight Against Terrorism?

Troubling reports find alleged ties between Pakistani government and terror groups.

(Photo: Mohammad Ismail/Reuters)

Mar 24, 2014· 3 MIN READ
Scott Johnson is a regular TakePart contributor who has headed Newsweek’s Mexico and Baghdad bureaus and is the author of The Wolf and the Watchman: A Father, a Son, and the CIA.

Taliban forces in Afghanistan hit hard last week, unleashing three separate attacks across the country that left at least 37 people, including two dozen civilians and several women and children, dead. The most high-profile attack occurred Thursday evening when four pistol-wielding men ran through Kabul’s upscale Serena Hotel killing nine people before Afghan police gunned them down. Two more attacks—one in the eastern city of Jalalabad and the other in the northern Faryab Province—left 10 police officers and 18 civilians dead.

The attacks, part of a threatened increase in assaults in the weeks leading up to national elections, came even as senior Taliban officials in neighboring Pakistan continued to negotiate with the Kabul government. Pakistan, which for years served as a sort of rearguard base from which Taliban fighters fought the Soviet Union during the 1980s, and later as a refuge for various factions during the Afghan civil war that culminated in the misguided Islamicists' harboring of al-Qaida as it planned and carried out 9/11, has in recent years become its own battleground as rival Islamist groups violently vie for power and influence there.

It has never been easy to unravel the myriad tribal, cultural, political, and religious ties that bind the two countries. But one thing that's been strongly suspected, if not entirely clear, is support for the Taliban from factions within Pakistan's own government. These suspicions culminated last week when Carlotta Gall, a New York Times reporter who spent the last decade reporting from both countries, published a scathing account alleging that Pakistan’s intelligence service, the ISI, has not only been supporting the Taliban for years but probably knew about Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts long before he was killed by Navy SEALs in 2011.

I spent almost a year as a reporter in Afghanistan and Pakistan right after 9/11. Even then, suspicion about the ISI’s involvement with the rise of the Taliban al-Qaida was brewing. I wanted to hear how things had developed since, so last week I called Latif Afridi, whom I used to visit regularly when I lived in Peshawar in 2002. Afridi is a prominent leader in Pakistan’s National Party, which has long been outspoken in its opposition to the Taliban in both countries.

“I’ve been talking about this for 10 years,” Afridi told me. “Unfortunately, the Americans have failed to either convince the ISI to stop, or have failed to persuade them to cooperate.” Apparently both, I thought.

Afridi told me that the vast majority of support for the Taliban is rooted in Pakistan, something Gall’s reporting from both countries also revealed. “The only support for them is from Pakistan,” Afridi said. “They're being trained, supplied with weapons. Every person, every man and woman in this province, is convinced that it’s the army, the ISI, which has been doing all this, that they’re behind the destruction in Afghanistan and in Pakistan.”

A key figure in the rise of the Taliban in both Afghanistan and Pakistan is Hamid Gul, a former head of the ISI and outspoken critic of American foreign policy in the region. Gul has for years, openly or covertly, supported efforts to strengthen the Taliban.

Back in 2002, I spoke with Afghan General Rahim Wardak, who just last week withdrew from the presidential race. At the time, Wardak told me this of Gul: “When Hamid Gul was the head of the ISI, he had a lot of Arab fighters under him, including Osama bin Laden, so maybe they have some friendly contacts.”

Gul denied this when I later interviewed him at his home. But Gul’s power within Pakistan and now, by extension, Afghanistan, is well established. In 2011, he helped establish the Defense of Pakistan Council, a coalition of right-wing, conservative, and mostly Islamist groups and individuals who advocate closing NATO supply routes through their country to Afghanistan, among other policies. Among its members is Maulana Sami ul Haq, called “the Father of the Taliban” and believed to be a close friend to Mullah Mohammed Omar, the fugitive leader of the Afghan Taliban and onetime friend and adviser to Osama bin Laden.

“Hamid Gul is probably the biggest supporter of al-Qaida in Pakistan right now,” says one well-placed Pakistani source who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal from terror groups. The source is familiar with the politics of Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province, where the Taliban harbors a good deal of support and U.S. drone strikes have targeted Taliban members while stoking resentments against America. Having worked with senior American officials on military and intelligence operations in the region, he adds about Gul: “He's still very, very powerful.”

Taliban foe Afridi, who says that huge portions of his ancestral tribal land and villages were overrun by ISI-supported al-Qaida and Taliban fighters last year, says America has pursued a wrongheaded policy in Pakistan for so long, and so intensively, that it may be too late.

“It’s very unfortunate that the Americans have always been supporting dictatorships and the army here,” he told me. “They have made Pakistan into a mother of terrorism.”