Pakistan’s War Within a War

A main reason for the U.S. inability to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan is that parts of Pakistan’s military and intelligence agencies are supporting the Taliban and allied militant groups.  The Pakistani military has managed to keep this support fairly hidden, but  journalists have uncovered bits of it.  Newsday published this article in 2007. . . 

Shekhanandeh, Pakistan (2007)

The Pakistani village of Shekhanandeh lies below the ridge, at top, that forms the Afghan border. A local operative of Pakistan’s intelligence agency runs guerrillas through the village into Afghanistan to attack U.S. troops, sources say. (Photo by James Rupert)

Newsday, 7 October 2007

By James Rupert — Staff Correspondent

SHEKHANANDEH, Pakistan –  The stocky, bearded man they call the Subidar is an encyclopedia of the jagged mountains and insular tribes here along Pakistan’s northwestern border. As a retired career officer now on contract to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI), he would be just the man to enforce his government’s declared policy: to stop Taliban and allied guerrillas from crossing into Afghanistan to attack U.S. troops.
But the Subidar’s mission is just the opposite, say U.S., Afghan and Pakistani sources. Working from his home in this village, and reporting to the ISI office in the nearby town of Chitral, he recruits and organizes guerrillas to make those attacks, the sources say. In Afghan districts just over the border, guerrilla attacks have escalated this year, killing at least six U.S. soldiers since June.
President Pervez Musharraf and senior Bush administration officials say Musharraf is America’s best friend in the war against al-Qaida and its Islamic extremist allies in this region. But the case of the Subidar (the Urdu-language title means “captain”) appears to illustrate assertions by many scholars that Pakistan is deeply divided and playing a double role. Its ruling army denied any knowledge of the Subidar, whose name is being withheld by Newsday because he could not be reached directly to comment on this story.
While Musharraf is allied with Washington, many in his army and security services are wedded to the Taliban, say independent analysts including Boston University’s Husain Haqqani. Parts of the ISI, the army and political and religious elites form a support network to help the Taliban and allied guerrillas recruit and train fighters, raise money and infiltrate Afghanistan, the analysts say.
In this shadowy war, the Taliban’s main bases and support networks are hidden in rugged mountains of Pakistan’s ethnic Pashtun tribal areas, along the border south of here. A U.S. National Intelligence Estimate report said in July that the same tribal districts are “a safe-haven” for al-Qaida. Those districts are closed to foreigners, except on occasional, army-escorted trips.
In the other main Taliban stronghold, around the southwestern city of Quetta, Pakistani authorities have harassed, arrested or attacked journalists who inquire into Taliban activities.
History of backing jihadists
Pakistan’s support for jihadist guerrillas is an old cornerstone of its national security policy, Haqqani and other scholars say. Working largely through the ISI, Pakistan’s army cultivated the Taliban and backed their fight for power in Afghanistan as a way to keep Pakistani influence there. The ISI sponsored groups such as Jaish-e-Muhammad (Army of Muhammad) and Lashkar-e-Toiba (Army of the Pure) to battle India in the disputed territory of Kashmir, scholars say.

The Subidar was one of hundreds of men who served as “handlers” for the ISI’s guerrilla clients. In the 1980s, he helped provide U.S.-supplied weapons and logistical support to Afghan, Pakistani, Arab and other mujahideen fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, according to residents in Chitral. After the Soviets withdrew in 1989, he oversaw camps over the border in Afghanistan that trained Jaish-e-Muhammad guerrillas, they said.

After Sept. 11, 2001, the United States leaned on Musharraf to shut down the ISI’s guerrilla clients, which also were allied with al-Qaida. The ISI retired dozens of its guerrilla handlers, most of them junior officers, said Hassan Abbas, a Harvard analyst of the Pakistani military and a former Pakistani police official. The Subidar was among them.

But Musharraf’s anti-jihadist purge of the ISI and the army has not been effective, especially among lower-level officers, Abbas and other analysts say. For example, militants linked to al-Qaida used army connections twice to bomb Musharraf’s highly secured motorcades in 2003, coming close to killing him.

Interviews with dozens of former and current army and intelligence officials make clear that many officers of Pakistan’s covert security agencies remain emotionally committed to jihad and hostile to the U.S. role in the region. This is especially true of officers like the Subidar who worked clandestinely to arm and train Taliban and other jihadist guerrillas, said a Pakistani military analyst who asked not to be named.

Even if such officers were not religious militants at the outset, “they have been working for years with young men who go and die in Kashmir or Afghanistan, and they often come to believe in the cause,” he said.

Animosity toward U.S.

In part, anti-Americanism in Pakistan’s army and the ISI simply reflects the public mood in a country that feels Washington has repeatedly abandoned it as an ally. Especially in Pashtun border areas far from Islamabad’s chain of command, officers of the ISI and other security forces face cultural and even physical pressures to help – or at least tolerate – the Taliban and their allies, analysts and serving officers say.

Officers in charge of jihadist operations hesitate to fully dismantle them because they still believe Pakistan needs covert guerrilla groups to project power in the region and because they reckon a future leader may revive that policy, said Haqqani.

The Subidar, who is about 58, is helping fight the Americans “because he believes in jihad,” or religious war, against non-Muslims holding power in Muslim lands, said a Pakistani source who has talked to the Subidar. “He is not getting rich from this. He has only a little land, and doesn’t even have a car.”

The source asked not to be named for fear of retribution from security forces.

Musharraf has at times denied and at other times acknowledged that a support network for the Taliban operates in Pakistan. Last October, he conceded on NBC’s Meet the Press that retired – but not active – intelligence officials might be involved.

But like the Subidar, many ISI jihadist “handlers” who were retired after 2001 now appear to be back in the network, whether on contract to the ISI or operating independently, said a Pakistani security analyst who asked not to be named discussing what is a sensitive subject here.

“They’re given a wink by ISI, and are told … ‘if you get caught, we won’t acknowledge you,'” he said.

“About two years ago, [the Subidar] again began working full time for the agency,” said a Pakistani ex-official familiar with security matters.

Seen visiting ISI office

The Subidar is seen at least weekly at the regional ISI office in Chitral town, and has been seen meeting the office’s director, an army major, said the ex-official. That source, and an officer of the Afghan National Security Directorate, interviewed separately over the past four months, said the Subidar is on contract to the ISI.

In all, six sources – Pakistanis in Chitral, a U.S. military officer in Afghanistan and Afghans, including intelligence officials – described the Subidar, his work and his status as an active ISI agent.

“We know that he is sending men and material for ISI and is responsible for their cross-border work,” said Matiullah Khan Safi, a former police chief of Afghanistan’s Kunar province, which abuts Chitral.

Asked about the Subidar’s role, Pakistan’s chief military spokesman, Maj. Gen. Waheed Arshad, said the army doesn’t know of “any such fellow” and “can’t find any information on him.”

But in the Chitral and Bumburet valleys of northwestern Pakistan, the Subidar was easily located. Residents and local officials discreetly directed a visiting journalist to the last farming village in the Bumburet valley – the serene hamlet of Shekhanandeh, which nestles at the head of a lush, green valley where children play in a mountain stream or tend cows. Just beyond the village, a looming wall of mountains carries the Afghan border on ridgelines 15,000 feet high.

Thick forest and deep ravines on the mountain flanks make this good guerrilla country.

In recent fighting across the border, “we have seen the American jets flying above the mountains and firing rockets,” said a village resident. “We hear the explosions.”

Neighbors of the Subidar declined to discuss him. “He is not here,” said one man, standing within sight of the Subidar’s single-story home of timbers and mud brick. He jerked his head toward the border, a five-mile hike up the mountains. “Subidar went up,” the man said. “We don’t know where.”

From here, the Subidar rides his motorcycle to visit safe houses that the ISI maintains in nearby valleys of Pakistan for guerrillas planning to cross and attack U.S. and Afghan forces in Nuristan or Kunar provinces, said the Pakistani ex-official. The Subidar “is working hard to infiltrate people” across the border, said an official who sees intelligence reports at the U.S. military base in Asadabad, Kunar’s capital.

Through narrow valleys

The Subidar ushers guerrillas toward the border at night, said residents on the Pakistani side, but the valleys are so narrow – sometimes little more than 100 yards wide – that villagers can’t miss the passage of outsiders.

This far north, many anti-U.S. guerrillas are affiliated with Afghan militant leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar rather than with the Taliban, who are mainly ethnic Pashtuns from more southerly areas. Many guerrillas brought in by the Subidar fight under Mullah Rahmatdin, a Hekmatyar ally based in Afghanistan’s Pitigal Valley, just over the ridgeline from here.

Rahmatdin’s forces and others have stepped up attacks on U.S. bases in Nuristan and Kunar provinces, killing at least six U.S. Army soldiers since June at Naray, Kamu, Kamdesh and Gowardesh. On Aug. 31, U.S. forces attacked compounds in the Pitigal Valley, but failed to catch Rahmatdin, Afghan journalists said.

The Subidar is believed to help Rahmatdin recruit fighters from villages on both sides of the border, and to help the ISI send them for training elsewhere in Pakistan, said an official at the U.S. base in Asadabad. The ISI offers the insurgents tactical advice and information on the deployment of U.S. forces, Afghan officials said.

The Bush administration has avoided publicly criticizing Musharraf about the Pakistani support network for the Taliban, but increased pressure on him over the summer. And Congress passed a bill that would constrict U.S. aid to Pakistan unless Bush certifies that it is making progress in rooting out Islamic extremist groups.

Analysts debate whether actions of men like the Subidar reflect Musharraf’s inability to control his intelligence service, or whether it is his policy to double-cross Washington. Musharraf’s expressed policy is sincere, but he may lack full control over the ISI and army forces on the border, said retired Gen. Talat Masood, a prominent military analyst in Islamabad.

In Musharraf’s administration, “there has been a readiness to ignore the damage caused” by lower-ranking officers who may help the guerrillas, he said. But in recent months, as the Bush administration has privately talked tougher to Musharraf, “Pakistan has understood the dangerous implications for its relations with the United States and the international community,” Masood said.

Frederic Grare disagrees. A French former diplomat in Islamabad who analyzes the region for the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Grare said ISI support for the Taliban “absolutely cannot be anything other” than Pakistani policy.

“We simply have too many reports” like the story of the Subidar, he said.

© Newsday 2007


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