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A Brief Refresher on the Taliban's Worst-Kept Secret

Wikileaks' papers are just the latest Afghan military shockers to surface. Remember Reagan and the Pakistani spooks?

| Fri Jul. 30, 2010 8:31 PM EDT

The "most damning collection of data" in Wikileaks' massive trove of secret documents from Afghanistan are 180 files that show the Pakistani intelligence service helping Taliban insurgents in their fight against US forces. The documents are dark reading indeed: They describe Pakistani agents meeting directly with the Taliban, supporting commanders of the insurgency, and even training suicide bombers. But for anyone versed in the contemporary history of Afghanistan, they are hardly news. The Wikileaks data dump is just the tip of the iceberg; ISI black ops and double-crosses date back at least three decades. Pakistan's Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, is merely feeding a monster it helped create back in the 1990s—with the full knowledge of the United States. Indeed, in concert with the CIA, the Pakistani spy agency also helped create Al Qaeda, and continued to support it long after it had gone astray of US interests.

That context is especially useful now. I explored the Taliban's history in my 2005 book The Five Unanswered Questions About 9/11, which asked, did US 'allies' help make the attacks possible?" Most of what follows is adapted from that book.

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After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, the Pakistani intelligence service became a key part of the CIA's strategy in the country, where a full-scale covert war was carried out under Ronald Reagan, with hundreds of millions in funding eventually provided by Congress.

As meticulously described by Steve Coll in his Pulitzer Prize-winning 2005 book Ghost Wars, the covert operation took place under the zealous leadership of then-CIA Director William J. Casey, to whom Afghanistan represented an opportunity to fight the Soviets right on their own border. It was an opportunity for Pakistan, as well: As Soviet journalist Artyom Borovik wrote in his 1990 book The Hidden War, Pakistan's leader General Mohammed Zia-ul-Haq "saw in the Afghan conflict a unique opportunity to obtain a sharp increase in US military and financial aid to Pakistan. The Pakistani generals regarded the entrance of Soviet troops into Afghanistan as 'Brezhnev's gift.'" Over the next seven years, Reagan would engineer more than $7 billion in aid to Pakistan.

The result was a deadly troika joining the Pakistani secret service, the Taliban, and Al Qaeda.

Zia was more than willing to support Casey's strategy, which included both funding the Afghan mujahaddin and attracting an international force of Islamic militants to fight the Russians in Afghanistan. According to Ahmed Rashid's 2000 book Taliban, Pakistan issued standing orders to all its embassies to grant visas to anyone who wanted to come and fight with the mujahaddin. As a result, a growing force of Muslims from around the world gathered in camps in easternmost Afghanistan, just across the Pakistani border. These camps, Rashid notes, became "virtual universities for future Islamic radicalism."

One of those in attendance was a wealthy Saudi named Osama Bin Laden. "I settled in Pakistan in the Afghan border region," he said in a 1998 interview with Agence France-Presse. "There I received volunteers who came from the Saudi kingdom and from all over the Arab and Muslim countries. I set up my first camp where these volunteers were trained by Pakistani and American officers. The weapons were supplied by the Americans, the money by the Saudis." Later, he said, "I discovered that it was not enough to fight in Afghanistan, but that we had to fight on all fronts, communist or western oppression."

In his 1992 book Afghanistan The Bear Trap, Mohammad Yousaf, the ISI operations chief for the Afghanistan campaign, wrote that most of the US money and supplies for the militant forces were channeled right to the ISI, which then made the decisions as to which commanders in Afghanistan got what weapons. The ISI maintained four base commands within Afghanistan, and they in turn reached out to smaller units, organized around clans and villages.

As reported in the Asian edition of the Financial Times, in the early 1980s, the ISI even "started a special cell for the use of heroin for covert actions"—initiated, according to the article, "at the insistence of the Central Intelligence Agency." This cell "promoted the cultivation of opium and the extraction of heroin in Pakistani territory as well as in the Afghan territory under mujahideen control for being smuggled into the Soviet controlled areas in order to make the Soviet troops heroin addicts. After the withdrawal of the Soviet troops, the ISI's heroin cell started using its network of refineries and smugglers for smuggling heroin to the Western countries and using the money as a supplement to its legitimate economy. But for these heroin dollars, Pakistan's legitimate economy must have collapsed many years ago....Not only the legitimate State economy, but also many senior officers of the Army and the ISI benefited from the heroin dollars."

By the time Mikail Gorbachev pulled Soviet forces out of Afghanistan in 1989, reports and complaints about the growing force of militant Islamic volunteers began to come back to the CIA. But with the Soviet withdrawal, and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union and demise of the Cold War, the United States lost all interest in Afghanistan. It left behind a heavily armed, heavily mined, and destitute country in a state of virtual anarchy. As the leaders of former mujaheddin factions fought one another for control, Afghan and Pakistani students were building a new political movement, which would call itself the Taliban. This movement grew up around the thousands of madrassahs, or religious schools, that had taken root within Pakistan along the northwestern Afghan border. The founders of the new Taliban had no trouble finding recruits in the madrassahs, and in the crowded refugee camps on the Afghan-Pakistani border, and they soon became a force to reckon with within the warring factions in Afghanistan.

Among those keeping their eye on the growing Taliban movement was the ISI, long a major instrument of Pakistani foreign policy. The jihadists within the Pakistani government, and especially within the intelligence service, were unstinting in their support of the Taliban, and the ISI as a whole looked upon the Taliban with increasing favor. The ISI would be instrumental in bringing the Taliban to power, and would continue to provide them aid and advice in managing the country once they had assumed control. As Ahmed Rashid describes, it, at times, Afghanistan almost seemed to be an administrative appendage of Pakistan.

At the same time, the cadre of militant Islamic guerrilla fighters who had converged from across the Islamic world were determined to maintain Afghanistan as a headquarters for future jihads. The time was ripe for the completion of what would prove a deadly troika joining the Pakistani secret service, the Taliban, and Al Qaeda.

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