How Pakistan Helps the Taliban

Taliban fighters in Afghanistan in December 2009. Ghaith Abdul-Ahad / Reportage by Getty Images

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.

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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.

That illustrates a central point, Taliban say: the only thing Pakistan can be relied on for is a single-minded pursuit of its own national interest. Some ISI operatives may sympathize with the Taliban cause. But more important is Pakistan's desire to have a hand in Afghan politics and to restrict Indian influence there. "They're neither in bed with the [Afghan] Taliban nor opposed to them," says Stephen Biddle, an analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations. "The reality is that they're in between, which is the rational place for them to be."

The insurgents say they, too, never know what to expect from the Pakistanis. "Sometimes they're angry, sometimes friendly," says a district commander in southern Afghanistan. "Sometimes they want to show us who's boss." No Afghan insurgent can be sure he's safe, says the smuggler, a former Taliban subcommander. After all, he observes, some of the Taliban commanders arrested by the Pakistanis were once favorites of the ISI. "They're like psychopaths," he says. "One minute your friend, the next minute your enemy."

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Taliban sources say Pakistan uses catch-and-release tactics to keep insurgent leaders in line. All told, the ISI has picked up some 300 Taliban commanders and officials, the sources say. Before being freed, the detainees are subjected to indoctrination sessions to remind them that they owe their freedom and their absolute loyalty to Pakistan, no matter what. As one example, the sources mention Abdul Qayum Zakir, who spent five years at Guantánamo and is now the group's top military commander. They say the Pakistanis detained him and about a dozen other Taliban commanders and shadow governors earlier this year, soon after having picked up the insurgency's No. 2, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, only to set them free several days later after making sure their priorities meshed with Pakistan's.

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.

With John Barry in Washington