COLUMN ONE : Behind an Afghan Whirlwind : The Taliban, a rebel band chiefly composed of Islamic students, credits its stunning battlefield success to its creed and Allah. But a Pakistani intelligence agency is providing crucial training and materiel.
It has been one of the most breathtaking advances in the annals of modern warfare: Master of little more than a single city in Afghanistan a year ago, the Taliban now controls more than half the country.
And standing at Kabul’s doorstep, the Muslim fundamentalists over the weekend used tanks, missiles, artillery and rockets to launch what they called a final assault to overrun the capital and chase President Burhanuddin Rabbani from office.
Many observers believe that it is only a matter of time before the political map of a country mauled and exhausted by more than a decade and a half of warfare will be changed decisively.
The Taliban, a motley band of fighters chiefly composed of inexperienced but courageous Islamic students, credits its lightning-like successes to its creed and God. “The only real superpower is Allah,” declared one Taliban commander, Mulvi Abdul Samad.
But in the rugged countryside of Baluchistan, the sparsely populated Pakistani province of mountain and desert that runs parallel to southern Afghanistan for 670 miles, other, more worldly, reasons for Taliban’s recent blitzkrieg gains have come to light.
First, attracted by the sacred Islamic ideal of a jihad, or holy war, young Pakistanis in droves, along with Afghan refugees, have been rushing over the border to embrace Kalashnikov rifles and the Taliban’s cause.
And despite repeated official denials, the Islamic Republic of Pakistan has been massively supporting the Muslim Afghan fighters over the past year, The Times has learned.
From Pakistan have come gasoline for the Taliban’s tanks, aircraft and armored vehicles, truck convoys filled with munitions and other supplies, and telecommunications equipment, experts and advice.
“This is the work of the Lawrence of Arabias of the ISI [Inter-Services Intelligence],” said opposition Sen. Abdur Rahim Khan Mandokhel of Baluchistan, who accuses his country’s government of trying to play the puppet master in Afghanistan.
Numerous interviews indicate that officers from the ISI, Pakistan’s mysterious and powerful military intelligence agency, now regularly escort supply convoys to the Afghan border from Quetta, the sprawling capital of Baluchistan that is also an important Pakistan army garrison town and home of one of the largest munitions dumps in the country.
Last month, ISI Director General Gen. Nasim Rana visited Kandahar, Afghanistan’s old royal capital in the country’s southeast, and expressed interest in reviving trade links, U.N. relief workers in the city said.
Some Afghan Talibs--Muslim religious students--say they have been trained by Pakistanis inside Afghanistan itself.
“There were 10 to 15 of them, all [Pushtu] speakers,” 18-year-old student Abdul Hakim recalled, referring to the language of Afghanistan’s majority Pushtun ethnic group, during a recent visit to a wounded comrade in arms in Quetta. “They taught us to shoot Kalashnikovs and ‘hundred bullets’ [machine guns].”
Tilting the Balance
Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Pakistani boys and men have been streaming over the frontier to fight with the Taliban, arguably tilting the balance in Afghanistan’s 3-year-old civil war against Rabbani and his fellow Tajik, the wily and heroic moujahedeen commander Ahmed Shah Masoud, both of whom Pakistan now opposes.
Frequently, the Pakistani recruits have been enlisted at madrasas , or religious schools, operated by the fundamentalist Pakistani Islamic party Jamiat-ul-Ulema-e-Islam, or JUI, whose legislators support Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s coalition government.
“They don’t teach the Koran or religion in the madrasas. They involve boys in politics and fighting,” said a disapproving Hedyatullah Khan, the hereditary leader of 9,000 Pushtun households in a 30-mile stretch of Baluchistani mountain and valley near the border.
During recent weeks, a single JUI madrasa in Quetta has seen 22 of its students become shuhada , or martyrs, in battles around the western Afghan city of Herat and Meydan Shar southwest of Kabul.
Viewed against the backdrop of the region’s tumultuous history, Pakistani involvement in Afghanistan is simply the latest chapter in the “great game” that once pitted the European imperial powers of Britain and Russia against each other in a contest for control of Afghanistan and its strategic environs.
For a decade, the remote, landlocked and grindingly poor country was transformed into one of the flash points of the Cold War as the United States bankrolled Islamic moujahedeen who were battling a Kremlin-installed regime backed by 110,000 Soviet troops.
After the Soviets left for good in February, 1989, and the Marxist regime they had installed collapsed three years later, the moujahedeen leaders fell to warring among themselves.
Meanwhile, the Soviet empire itself disintegrated, spawning five new and resource-rich independent nations in Central Asia: Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan.
Under the Western-educated Bhutto’s leadership, Pakistan has come to see itself as the natural “gateway” for international trade and commerce with these new, fellow Muslim countries. But unfortunately for Pakistan, all of its land routes with the region cross Afghanistan--to Termez in Uzbekistan and Kushka in Turkmenistan.
Without peace in the territory of its unruly northwestern neighbor, Pakistani trade with the region remains limited and dangerous. And Islamabad’s rivals--Iran, Turkey, Russia--could end up beating it out in the contest for influence in Central Asia.
Pakistan is far from being the only country now striving for influence in Afghanistan. According to Islamabad-based diplomats, Iran has begun supplying aid to the beleaguered Rabbani government by air. And in August, Taliban jets forced a Russian Ilyushin-76 cargo plane to land in Kandahar. It was carrying 3.4 million rounds of ammunition meant for the government.
India, Pakistan’s regional nemesis, also is reportedly aiding the rump government in Kabul, which makes Rabbani and his allies doubly hateful to the Pakistanis.
Last November, a band of Talibs took control of Kandahar in an apparently spontaneous outburst of popular anger and disgust at the brutality and corruption of local moujahedeen commanders.
A Beguiling Message
The white-turbaned youngsters and the older, bearded mullahs who led them called for the disarming of the Afghan population and the establishment of a single and strictly Islamic government in the country. It was a simple and beguiling message for a populace weary of division and war.
Aid flowed in from expatriate Afghan traders in Pakistan, who sensed that the crusading students could become a pacifying force and open the roads again for commerce.
At some point, it appears, Pakistani officials--weary of the feuding between pro-Rabbani forces and Islamabad’s erstwhile favorite moujahedeen leader, Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar of the fundamentalist Hezb-i-Islami--seized on the new faction as the key to ending the deadlock.
“We tease our Interior minister [retired Maj. Gen. Nasirullah Khan Babar] that he has become commander in chief of Taliban,” said Muhammad Ijaz ul-Haq, son of the late military dictator Zia ul-Haq and a member of the National Assembly from the opposition Pakistan Muslim League.
But the Taliban, which now may have as many as 50,000 fighters, fiercely defends itself as a home-grown and purely Afghan movement. “No country helps us--except the ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross],” Sayeed Ahmad Ghafori, a member of the Taliban’s shura , or council, said in a recent interview in Kandahar. “They bought us two cars.”
Westerners who have frequent contacts with Taliban say they doubt its members are anyone’s puppets. “They have too much moral sense for that,” one Kandahar-based official of the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said. Yet Afghans’ legendary and fierce nationalism and their suspicion of foreigners make it imperative that any assistance from outside be thoroughly camouflaged. Otherwise, it could boomerang against the donor.
“We don’t have to talk about the Russians--we won’t let even foreign Muslims take over in Afghanistan,” said Haji Muhammad Barich, a former moujahedeen commander in Kandahar province.
Earlier this year, the Taliban drove 370 miles up the potholed and bomb-pitted road from Kandahar to the outskirts of Kabul but was beaten back in March by the forces of Masoud, now Afghanistan’s defense minister. By this fall, they had rallied sufficiently to seize and hold all 13 provinces in the south and west--and were standing again at the gates of Kabul.
Hunkered down in the ruins of the Afghan capital for what looks like the fight of their lives, Rabbani and Masoud showed that they had no doubt who is aiding their enemies. On Sept. 6, allegedly with official encouragement, a mob of more than 1,000 people stormed and razed the Pakistani Embassy, killing one employee and injuring other staff members, including Ambassador Qazi Humayun.
Prime Minister Bhutto, who espouses a pro-U.S. foreign policy and neutrality toward Afghanistan, has said Pakistan has “no favorites” in Afghanistan.
“Only a madman ready to commit suicide would think of meddling in Afghanistan under the present circumstances,” Bhutto told the Iranian Parliament this month. Iran, an overwhelmingly Shiite Muslim country, supports the embattled government of Rabbani and has expressed alarm at the gains of the Sunni Taliban.
Residents of Quetta scoff at such official Pakistani declarations. Recent interviews indicate that the city, located 120 miles from Kandahar, has become a major staging area for support to the Taliban.
The provincial capital with a dry, desert-like climate had been one of the most popular postings in the British Indian army. Flattened by an earthquake in 1935 that killed an estimated 50,000 people, it rebuilt itself to become home to the military Staff College of Pakistan and many army and paramilitary units.
In the 1980s, after the Kremlin sent tanks and troops into Afghanistan, the border city of more than 280,000 people became an important logistics center for funneling huge amounts of U.S. and other foreign-financed weaponry to the Afghan jihad. According to Quetta residents, shipments have now resumed.
Until recently, Alam Gul, a laborer in his mid-30s, worked in the early mornings loading coal into trucks across from Quetta’s ISI compound. About a year ago, or about the time the Taliban took over Kandahar, Gul was surprised to see civilian trucks entering and leaving the walled-in complex before dawn with military escorts.
“I talk to the drivers, and they tell me they are going to take ammunition to Afghanistan,” he said. “To Taliban.”
Outside central Quetta, at the bulk storage depot of Pakistan State Oil Co., workers said that ISI officers now regularly requisition fuel for Afghanistan-bound truck convoys and also fill tank trucks with gasoline to take to Afghanistan.
En Route to Frontier
The road from Quetta winds northwestward through arid and bleakly beautiful terrain into the dun-colored Toba Kakar mountain range. It crosses Khojak Pass and then descends to wind-whipped desert, the town of Chaman and the Afghan border.
Twenty miles from the frontier, at the Chaman octroi, or toll station for commercial goods being transported by truck, workers can count the number of vehicles heading out of the country. They report that Pakistan is shipping large quantities of secret goods into Afghanistan daily.
“Every day, more than 18 or 20 trucks head into Afghanistan,” said Gul Achakzai, who has been in charge of the checkpoint since July. “A major from the ISI accompanies them. They are usually in a blue or red pickup and show their identification. They say, ‘We have so many trucks for Afghanistan; you have to let us through.’
“Sometimes the trucks are covered with tarps. We don’t know what is in them: men, munitions, petrol, whatever. And the ISI doesn’t let us close,” Achakzai said.
Interviews indicate that Pakistan also appears to be deeply involved in rebuilding Afghanistan’s war-shattered communications infrastructure, which presumably would be vital to revived trade. On Sept. 22, reportedly under the escort of an ISI major, a convoy of Japanese-built light trucks and all-terrain vehicles formed in Quetta, employees from the government’s Telegraph and Telephone Department said.
Speaking on condition they not be identified by name, the employees said the vehicles were carrying 100 telephones, two 50-unit switchboards and a VHF telephone relay station and antenna to provide a wireless link with the Pakistani telephone center at Chaman.
Also in the convoy were 50 Telegraph and Telephone engineers and linesmen.
The convoy’s destination, Kandahar, was confidential, they said.
“When we went, I didn’t tell my family where I was going. We were told it was supposed to be a secret job,” one Telegraph and Telephone employee said. In Kandahar, the Pakistanis’ presence was also carefully concealed. “The Taliban would not let us go into the city,” the employee said. “We were taken from the governor’s rest house to the [telephone] exchange and back again.”
As for the Taliban’s ranks, there is no doubt that many Pakistanis have enlisted with the group out of personal conviction and without coercion or encouragement from their government. But in Afghan refugee circles in Quetta, some claim that there is an organized effort to get them in the Taliban’s fighting ranks.
Speaking on condition he not be identified, one 32-year-old former officer in the army of ousted Communist President Najibullah said he was kidnaped last month from Quetta, taken to the Islamabad-Rawalpindi area and confined for three days in a cellar. There, he said, he was questioned by men speaking Urdu, Pakistan’s official language, about the military situation in Afghanistan. He also claimed he was tortured.
On Oct. 5, he said, a Pushtu-speaking man tried to enlist him as an adviser and instructor to the Taliban. When he refused, he said, he was blindfolded, put into a car and dumped on the street--after being warned that if he talked he would be killed.
The Afghan said he has no doubt that his interrogators worked for some Pakistani intelligence agency.
“I’m talking now to tell people that Pakistani agencies have relations with the Taliban,” he said. “They are interfering in the affairs of Afghanistan.”