KABUL, June 13 (Reuters) – Pakistani military intelligence not only funds and trains Taliban fighters in Afghanistan but is officially represented on the movement’s leadership council, giving it significant influence over operations, a report said.
The report, published by the London School of Economics on Sunday, said its research strongly suggested support for the Taliban was the “official policy” of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency.
Although links between the ISI and the Taliban have been widely suspected, the findings, which it said were corroborated by two senior Western security officials, could raise more concerns in the West over Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan.
The report also said Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari was reported to have visited senior Taliban prisoners in Pakistan earlier this year, where he is believed to have promised their release and help for militant operations, suggesting support for the Taliban “is approved at the highest level of Pakistan’s civilian government”.
For more on Afghanistan click [ID:nAFPAK]
or see link.reuters.com/syx62d
Afghan blog: blogs.reuters.com/afghanistan/
In Islamabad, a Pakistani presidential spokeswoman, Farah Ispahani, dismissed the allegations in the report as “absolutely spurious”. She said there “seems to be a concentrated effort to try to damage the new Pakistan-American strategic dialogue”.
Militants were feeling the pressure, she added, because “we will rout them from every area of Pakistan we find them in”.
“Pakistan appears to be playing a double-game of astonishing magnitude,” said the report, based on interviews with Taliban commanders, former senior Taliban ministers and Western and Afghan security officials.
In March 2009, Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, and General David Petraeus, head of U.S. Central Command, said they had indications elements in the ISI supported the Taliban and must end such activities.
Western officials have been reluctant to talk publicly on the subject for fear of damaging cooperation from Pakistan, a nuclear-armed state Washington has propped up with billions of dollars in military and economic aid.
“The Pakistan government’s apparent duplicity — and awareness of it among the American public and political establishment — could have enormous geo-political implications,” said the report’s author, Matt Waldman, a fellow at Harvard University.
“Without a change in Pakistani behaviour it will be difficult if not impossible for international forces and the Afghan government to make progress against the insurgency,” Waldman said in the report.
The report comes at the end of one of the bloodiest weeks for foreign troops in Afghanistan — more than 30 were killed — and at a time when the insurgency is at its most violent.
More than 1,800 foreign troops, including some 1,100 Americans, have died in Afghanistan since U.S.-backed Afghan forces overthrew the Taliban in late 2001. The war has already cost the United States around $300 billion and now costs more than $70 billion a year, the report said, citing 2009 U.S. Congressional research figures.
ISI, GULF FUNDING
The report said interviews with Taliban commanders “suggest that Pakistan continues to give extensive support to the insurgency in terms of funding, munitions and supplies”.
“These accounts were corroborated by former Taliban ministers, a Western analyst and a senior U.N. official based in Kabul, who said the Taliban largely depend on funding from the ISI and groups in Gulf countries,” the report said.
Almost all of the Taliban commanders interviewed in the report believed the ISI was represented on the Quetta Shura, the Taliban’s supreme leadership council based in Pakistan.
“Interviews strongly suggest that the ISI has representatives on the (Quetta) Shura, either as participants or observers, and the agency is thus involved at the highest level of the movement,” the report said.
The report also said Zardari, and a senior ISI official, allegedly visited some 50 senior Taliban prisoners at a secret location in Pakistan where he told them they had been arrested only because he was under pressure from the United States.
Afghanistan has been highly critical of ISI involvement in the conflict, while analysts believe Pakistan will be unwilling to cooperate fully against the Taliban without reassurances about a reduction in India’s large presence in country.
The report’s author, said some, but not all, the commanders he spoke to said the ISI support was given so as to undermine Indian influence in Afghanistan.
The main focus of those he interviewed was on driving out foreign forces, restoring sharia law and obtaining justice and security. “They didn’t talk about the Taliban regaining the reins of government,” Waldman told Reuters in London.
Nor was there any sign of al Qaeda being a significant influence. None expressed any affection for al Qaeda and some acknowledged its role in the Taliban’s downfall in 2001.
He said those he spoke to wanted peace, but not at any cost.
While he detected some reluctance to see an immediate withdrawal of all foreign forces — which could precipitate a civil war — the massive presence of troops was a major problem.
They wanted clean and honest government and the separation of men and women, including at work. They were happy to see girls’ education, but only up to a certain age.
They were also well aware of factors running in their favour, including the unpopularity of the government and divisions in the international community about the Afghan war.
“Although they are tired and war-weary, they feel a level of confidence in the eventual outcome,” he said. (Additional reporting by Myra MacDonald in London and Chris Allbritton in Islamabad, Editing by Matthew Jones) (For more Reuters coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan, see: here)