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WikiLeaks: the Taliban, the ISI and U.S. strategy in Afghanistan

Analysis: Pakistani intelligence fooled only those who didn't pay attention.

Camp Nathan Smith
A resident of Kandahar City walks past the outer perimeter of Camp Nathan Smith, July 11, 2010. (Ben Brody/GlobalPost)

NEW YORK — Back in November 2001, just a week after Kabul fell to the U.S.-led invasion forces in Afghanistan and just as the city of Kunduz began to capitulate, the air filled with the steady drone of C-130 transport aircraft landing at the dusty airstrip.

The planes, American-built but flown by the Pakistani Air Force, ostensibly arrived to pick up a few dozen diplomats and their families ahead of the final onslaught on the city. In fact, the transports were stuffed full of agents of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), along with as many as 4,000 Taliban leaders and foot-soldiers.

It was an outrage I wrote about at the time, but amid the rubble of 9/11, most people shrugged it off. Now, in the wake of this week’s revelations about the extent of continued ISI contacts with the Taliban, you have to wonder how many of those who flew out of Kunduz courtesy of the ISI (and with the tacit permission of the George W. Bush administration, since we controlled the skies) have filtered back to kill American soldiers.

The leaking of a small library of classified documents on the Afghan War should put an end to this lie once and for all. Among the revelations found in the documents is that ISI agents meet regularly with Afghan Taliban commanders to help plot attacks and assassinations of selected Afghan officials.

Not all of this may be true, of course — if the last decade has taught us anything it’s that intelligence is rarely all that intelligent. But the fact that Washington tried hard to prevent this information from coming to light speaks volumes, as does the fact the writers of these leaked reports clearly understand that a debate rages within U.S. and NATO circles about how best to confront Pakistan’s duplicity.

A cable filed about a Taliban meeting at which plans for an attack on NATO troops was discussed, noted the fact that Hamid Gul, the highly visible former ISI director, was in attendance. A comment inserted into the field report warned against undue assumptions.

"Hamid Gul was director general of ISI from 1989-1989 and, according to ISI, has not been an official with ISI since that time. It was not known whether Hamid Gul was acting with the knowledge or consent of ISI, or whether any portions of ISI were aware of his activities," a section of the report read.

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Substitute, say, “George Tenet” for “Hamid Gul” and ask yourself whether the CIA would have known he was there.

Another hint: Several of the cables end with this ominous note: “This information MUST NOT be disseminated to the GoA” — the government of Afghanistan, or other ostensible “allies.”

Deeply ensconced in Afghanistan ever since the anti-Soviet guerrilla war of the late 1970s, Pakistan’s ISI cultivated, trained and armed the Taliban, helping it oust Afghanistan’s post-jihadist government and, ultimately, to ensure the maniacally fundamentalist faction it backed held sway over most of the country. Its expertise was honed by CIA agents during the anti-Soviet jihad and fueled by Saudi money (and, inevitably, Saudi Wahhabist ideology, too).

When the United States wrote Afghanistan off following the Soviet withdrawal, the Pakistanis took a longer-term view. They live next door, after all, and live on a constant and paranoid war footing against their historic rival, India.