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Sunday Sentiments


    Posted On September 5, 2021

    By Karan Thapar

    The Taliban’s dramatic sweep into Kabul raises two questions: what was Pakistan’s ISI’s role and what do we know of the Taliban leadership? Let me share what I’ve been told by Rana Banerji, a former Special Secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat in-charge of R&AW. Few people know more than him.


    The Taliban came into existence in the autumn of 1994 at the White Mosque, 50 kms from Kandahar. At the time it comprised devout muslims determined to check extortionist gangs operating on Afghanistan’s highways. Mullah Abdul Samad was the first emir. Mullah Omar, a Ghilzai Hotak, was a commander. During the Soviet occupation of the ’80s, Omar was a member of Yunis Khalis’s Hezb-i-Islami. A shrapnel injury left him blinded in one eye. Disgruntled by Mujahideen corruption, he retreated to religion. The Taliban was the next step.


    When a Pakistan convoy was held up in Afghanistan, Gen. Naseerullah Babar, the Interior Minister, sought Taliban help. It worked and in gratitude Pakistan gave its support and aid.


    Initially the Taliban was also supported by Afghanistan’s President Burhanuddin Rabbani. In his unceasing rivalry with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, it was a useful tool. But Pakistani help was more important. Col. Sultan Amir Tarar, a former Special Services Group officer, later Consul General in Herat, provided military training. The ISI provided funds. A cache of arms, reportedly hidden in tunnels near Kandahar, was handed over.


    The Taliban captured Kabul in 1996. Now their dependence on Pakistan grew exponentially. Banerji says Pakistani “officers, plain-clothes assistants and bureaucrats” were the spine of the first Taliban government. “Not only in Kabul but in the provinces as well”. Five years later, when the Taliban were expelled, Pakistan opened its doors.


    At Miran Shah, Peshawar and Quetta refugee camps and Shuras were set up. The Taliban took to drug smuggling and Pakistan looked the other way. When Iraq diverted American attention, the Taliban began returning and Pakistan provided assistance and protection. Their children studied in Pakistani schools, their injured were treated in Pakistani hospitals.


    America knew but didn’t react. Perhaps its dependence on the Karachi-Torkham supply-route is the best explanation. Meanwhile, as Taliban control of the country expanded so too did Pakistani munificence. Sir Richard Dearlove, the former head of MI6, has described the 2021 capture of Kabul as a Pakistani invasion fronted by the Taliban. So when Mullah Baradar flew into Kandahar ISI Chief Faiz Hamid crossed the border to greet him. Together they prayed at the White Mosque.


    Now, to the second question. What do we know of the bearded turban-wearing men who comprise the Taliban leadership? The present emir is Hibatullah Akhundzada, a Noorzai from Panjwayee, a district in Kandahar. His father was head of a local mosque. Initially, in Taliban 1.0, he was head of the Qazi courts. When Mullah Mansoor, the third emir, was killed, Akhundzada was the compromise choice. But, importantly, he was acceptable to the ISI.


    Banerji says he’s a recluse. The BBC says there’s only one picture of him. But another reason for his invisibility could be the killing of his brother, a preacher, in a bomb explosion at a Quetta mosque, where Akhundzada used to pray. May be a low profile is a safe profile?


    Mullah Baradar is a Popalzai. That makes him blue-blooded. He’s one of the Taliban’s three deputy commanders but the principal interlocutor in the Doha talks. It’s said his wife and Mullah Omar’s are sisters. Baradar, which means brother in Farsi, is the name Omar gave him. He spent eight years in Pakistani jails for proposing to speak to Karzai. Has he forgiven and forgotten or does it rankle?


    The other deputy commanders are Mullah Yaqoob, Omar’s son, who’s much the youngest and has close links with field commanders, and Sirajuddin Haqqani, whose group has attacked the Indian embassy.


    The Haqqanis are India’s chief concern. Banerji says their founder, Jalaluddin, a man with several wives and seven sons, was a lowly Zadrach who once worked for the Americans. The Haqqanis only joined the Taliban after it first came to power. Though Jalaluddin served as a minister it’s said Hamid Karzai tried but failed to lure him. Today the group is particularly beloved of the ISI. But the Haqqanis have played all sides and, no doubt, still do.


    Banerji says they “intimidate” the Taliban. Sirajuddin, the present head, is in-charge of security in Kabul. Do the ISIS attacks suggest he slipped-up or is complicit?

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