Acquiescing to the Taliban?

This is an edited extract from Secret Affairs: Britain’s Collusion with Radical Islam

Mark Curtis

Sponsorship of Islamic militants by Britain’s key ally, Pakistan, went furthest in Afghanistan, where, beginning in 1995, the ISI and Saudi intelligence funded and armed the Taliban movement. This backing enabled the Taliban to win a brutal civil war among mujahideen factions that followed the collapse of the pro-Soviet government in 1992, and eventually to take control of Kabul in 1996.

The first Taliban were mainly students of the Pakistani madrassas, notably those run by the Jamaat Ulema-e-Islam. General Pervez Musharraf later wrote in his autobiography that ‘the Taliban were not a new, post-Soviet phenomenon. They were taught by the same teachers in the same seminaries that had produced the mujahideen.’ He added that ‘we had hoped that the Taliban, driven by religious zeal based on the true principles of Islam, would bring unity and peace to a devastated country.’ This was nonsense: the Taliban were the most extreme militants, consciously forged by Pakistan simply as its proxy force in Afghanistan.

Thousands of students of the Pakistani madrassas crossed into Afghanistan in 1995 and 1996, advised and armed by the Pakistani army as they gradually took control of Afghanistan’s urban centres. The fighters also included cadres of various Pakistani terrorist groups such as the LET and the HUA, also encouraged by the ISI. The US embassy in Islamabad wrote that the HUA was operating camps in Afghanistan under the direction of the ISI. The Saudis played their customary role of bankrollers of the enterprise, and are believed to have transferred hundreds of millions of dollars in direct payments and oil price subsidies to Pakistan’s military during the mid-1990s, helping the ISI build up its proxy forces in both Afghanistan and Kashmir.

The US also supported the Taliban in its rise to power, seeing it as a counter to Iran and a force that would sign lucrative deals with the US oil company, Unocal, the story of which has been told by other analysts and needs no repetition here. A top secret CIA report written once the Taliban gained power in Kabul in September 1996 noted that the ‘Taliban’s leaders espouse a puritanical Islamic state’ and have ‘imposed Islamic law, including punishments such as stoning and amputation’ and ‘rigidly enforced the seclusion of women’. Yet it concluded that ‘there is no evidence that a Taliban government would be systematically unfriendly to US interests’, and that the belief by some Taliban officials that the US has been funneling assistance to them ‘could provide openings for a dialogue on regional issues’. At the same time, the US State Department stated that it wanted to ‘engage the new Taliban interim government at an early stage to: demonstrate USG [US government] willingness to deal with them as the new authorities in Kabul, seek information about their plans, programs and policies, and express USG views on areas of key concern to US stability, human rights, narcotics and terrorism.’

Although the US provided no arms to the Taliban, it tacitly accepted its allies, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, doing so. It was only after the Taliban had been in power for a year, in late 1997, that the US started to break with it, probably due to domestic pressure on the Clinton administration over the Taliban’s appalling treatment of women, its eventual refusal to support the Unocal project and its harbouring of Bin Laden. At this point, the CIA stepped up covert support for anti-Taliban fighters, notably the Afghan commander, Ahmed Shah Massoud.

There is little information in the public domain as to Britain’s stance towards the Taliban. However, what is clear is that London never raised public objections to Pakistan’s sponsorship of these militants, acquiescing in Islamabad’s surge in Afghanistan as surely as it had elsewhere in the region. While the Pakistani army was nurturing the Taliban in 1995–96, Britain was training its officers in Britain and describing the country as a ‘great friend’. Once the Taliban had assumed power, British government statements in parliament were striking in their lack of overt condemnation of the new regime. In October 1996, for example, the Home Office minister in the dying days of the Major government, Ann Widdecombe, was asked whether the Taliban’s capture of Kabul meant a sufficient ‘fundamental change’ for the British government to accept more Afghan asylum seekers. Her reply was that:

‘We do not believe that the recent developments in Afghanistan constitute such a fundamental change in the circumstances so as to justify … declaring that the country has undergone a major upheaval. Afghanistan has been in a state of upheaval for a number of years. The fall of Kabul to Taliban is part of this long-term continuing conflict’.

Thus the Taliban’s assumption to power was no big deal; the Conservatives’ desire to keep out Afghan asylum seekers was deemed more important than recognising the reality of the new rulers. It was true that, in Afghanistan, the Taliban were regarded by many as liberators when they took power, ending a vicious war which had driven hundreds of thousands of people from Kabul and killed tens of thousands. However, they immediately set about violently enforcing their strict Islamic code, closing girls’ schools and imposing harsh punishments such as amputations, as noted in the CIA report referred to above, and all of which the British government was no doubt aware.

In February 1997, Foreign Office Minister Baroness Chalker was asked whether the Taliban government was violating human rights and replied that ‘the Taliban in general appear still to be enforcing their restrictive regulations. We will continue to impress upon them the need to respect the principles of the UN charter and internationally agreed human rights standards.’ This was also an extraordinarily conciliatory statement, issued when it was obvious to all observers that the Taliban cared not one hoot about any human rights standards.

The election of the Blair government in May 1997 made little difference to British policy initially. The new international development secretary, Clare Short, told parliament that British policy was not to cut off aid to the Taliban-controlled areas of Afghanistan, but that ‘all parties should recognise, protect and promote the equal rights and dignity of men and women’. It was only, it appears, in late 1997 or even early 1998 that Britain decided to provide aid only on the condition that it would reach women as well as men. This hardening of position coincided with stronger statements about the Taliban’s abuse of women’s human rights, and fits with the change in US policy at a similar time. The British stance towards the Taliban appears to have followed the US lead, initially regarding them, as did the US, as a force for stability in Afghanistan, protected as it was by its key ally, Pakistan.

British and US policy was to have catastrophic consequences. Not only did Pakistani and Saudi arms and money continue to flow to the Taliban, enabling it to conquer the north of the country in the autumn of 1998, but by now Bin Laden was firmly ensconced in the country, having arrived in Jalalabad, eastern Afghanistan, from Sudan in May 1996, just in time to see the Taliban take Kabul. He was initially protected by Yunis Khalis, one of the mujahideen commanders covertly backed by Britain a few years earlier. It is believed that both Pakistan and Saudi Arabia then struck deals with Bin Laden. Soon after his arrival Bin Laden met representatives of the Pakistani military who encouraged him to back the Taliban in return for protection by the Pakistani government. The ISI then helped Bin Laden establish his headquarters in Nangarhar province and agreed to provide him with arms, a deal which was also blessed by the Saudis. According to US intelligence reports, ISI officers at the level of colonel met Bin Laden or his representatives in the autumn of 1998 in order to coordinate access to training camps in Afghanistan for militants destined for Kashmir.

The CIA suspected that Pakistan was providing funds or equipment to Bin Laden as part of the operating agreements at these camps. Meanwhile, Bin Laden got on with the task of building up his terrorist infrastructure in Afghanistan. The US Defence Intelligence Agency later noted in a now declassified cable that ‘Bin Laden’s Al Qaeda network was able to expand under the safe sanctuary extended by Taliban following Pakistan directives.’ It also noted that his camp in Afghanistan was built by Pakistani contractors funded by the ISI, which was ‘the real host in that facility’. The ISI is also believed to have tipped off Bin Laden about a series of US attempts on his life in the late 1990s in retaliation for the embassy bombings in East Africa.

Meanwhile, that year, 1998, saw high levels of British military cooperation with Pakistan across all three services. Sixteen Pakistani military officers were being trained in Britain, the RAF had an exchange team based in Pakistan, and the Royal Navy conducted exercises with the Pakistani navy in the Indian Ocean. If Pakistan’s support for terrorism was not sufficient to deter British support for its military, neither was its conduct of six nuclear texts in May 1998, which followed those by India. Foreign Secretary Robin Cook expressed his ‘dismay’ to the Pakistan government and lamely recalled the British ambassador in Islamabad for consultations; no further actions were taken.

It has been alleged that in 1998 the Saudis also agreed not to ask the Taliban to extradite Bin Laden to the US in return for the Taliban ensuring that al-Qaida would not target Riyadh; Prince Turki is alleged to have also promised to continue to provide financial assistance to the Taliban. However, this policy changed under US pressure to secure Bin Laden’s extradition, and at a meeting in June 1998 between Turki and Taliban leader Mullah Omar, the latter secretly agreed to hand Bin Laden over to the Saudis for trial for treason. But this was halted by the August 1998 US cruise missile attacks on terrorist camps in Afghanistan in retaliation for the bombing of the US embassies in Africa. When Turki arrived back in Afghanistan following the attacks, Omar reneged on his promise and reportedly accused Turki of acting as an emissary of the Americans. Following this, the Saudis cut funds to the Taliban and suspended diplomatic relations.