Al Qaeda and Taliban airlifted out of Afghanistan to Pakistan
By Seymour M. Hersh, New Yorker
In Afghanistan last November, the Northern Alliance, supported by American Special Forces troops and emboldened by the highly accurate American bombing, forced thousands of Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters to retreat inside the northern hill town of Kunduz. Trapped with them were Pakistani Army officers, intelligence advisers, and volunteers who were fighting alongside the Taliban. (Pakistan had been the Taliban’s staunchest military and economic supporter in its long-running war against the Northern Alliance.) Many of the fighters had fled earlier defeats at Mazar-i-Sharif, to the west; Taloqan, to the east; and Pul-i-Khumri, to the south. The road to Kabul, a potential point of retreat, was blocked and was targeted by American bombers. Kunduz offered safety from the bombs and a chance to negotiate painless surrender terms, as Afghan tribes often do.
Surrender negotiations began immediately, but the Bush Administration heatedly—and successfully—opposed them. On November 25th, the Northern Alliance took Kunduz, capturing some four thousand of the Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters. The next day, President Bush said, “We’re smoking them out. They’re running, and now we’re going to bring them to justice.”
Even before the siege ended, however, a puzzling series of reports appeared in the Times and in other publications, quoting Northern Alliance officials who claimed that Pakistani airplanes had flown into Kunduz to evacuate the Pakistanis there. American and Pakistani officials refused to confirm the reports. On November 16th, when journalists asked Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld about the reports of rescue aircraft, he was dismissive. “Well, if we see them, we shoot them down,” he said. Five days later, Rumsfeld declared, “Any idea that those people should be let loose on any basis at all to leave that country and to go bring terror to other countries and destabilize other countries is unacceptable.” At a Pentagon news conference on Monday, November 26th, the day after Kunduz fell, General Richard B. Myers, of the Air Force, who is the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was asked about the reports. The General did not directly answer the question but stated, “The runway there is not usable. I mean, there are segments of it that are usable. They’re too short for your standard transport aircraft. So we’re not sure where the reports are coming from.”
Pakistani officials also debunked the rescue reports, and continued to insist, as they had throughout the Afghanistan war, that no Pakistani military personnel were in the country. Anwar Mehmood, the government spokesman, told newsmen at the time that reports of a Pakistani airlift were “total rubbish. Hogwash.”
In interviews, however, American intelligence officials and high-ranking military officers said that Pakistanis were indeed flown to safety, in a series of nighttime airlifts that were approved by the Bush Administration. The Americans also said that what was supposed to be a limited evacuation apparently slipped out of control, and, as an unintended consequence, an unknown number of Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters managed to join in the exodus. “Dirt got through the screen,” a senior intelligence official told me. Last week, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld did not respond to a request for comment.
Pakistan’s leader, General Pervez Musharraf, who seized power in a 1999 coup, had risked his standing with the religious fundamentalists—and perhaps his life—by endorsing the American attack on Afghanistan and the American support of the Northern Alliance. At the time of Kunduz, his decision looked like an especially dangerous one. The initial American aim in Afghanistan had been not to eliminate the Taliban’s presence there entirely but to undermine the regime and Al Qaeda while leaving intact so-called moderate Taliban elements that would play a role in a new postwar government. This would insure that Pakistan would not end up with a regime on its border dominated by the Northern Alliance. By mid-November, it was clear that the Northern Alliance would quickly sweep through Afghanistan. There were fears that once the Northern Alliance took Kunduz, there would be wholesale killings of the defeated fighters, especially the foreigners.
Musharraf won American support for the airlift by warning that the humiliation of losing hundreds—and perhaps thousands—of Pakistani Army men and intelligence operatives would jeopardize his political survival. “Clearly, there is a great willingness to help Musharraf,” an American intelligence official told me. A C.I.A. analyst said that it was his understanding that the decision to permit the airlift was made by the White House and was indeed driven by a desire to protect the Pakistani leader. The airlift “made sense at the time,” the C.I.A. analyst said. “Many of the people they spirited away were the Taliban leadership”—who Pakistan hoped could play a role in a postwar Afghan government. According to this person, “Musharraf wanted to have these people to put another card on the table” in future political negotiations. “We were supposed to have access to them,” he said, but “it didn’t happen,” and the rescued Taliban remain unavailable to American intelligence.
According to a former high-level American defense official, the airlift was approved because of representations by the Pakistanis that “there were guys— intelligence agents and underground guys—who needed to get out.”
Once under way, a senior American defense adviser said, the airlift became chaotic. “Everyone brought their friends with them,” he said, referring to the Afghans with whom the Pakistanis had worked, and whom they had trained or had used to run intelligence operations. “You’re not going to leave them behind to get their throats cut.” Recalling the last-minute American evacuation at the end of the Vietnam War, in 1975, the adviser added, “When we came out of Saigon, we brought our boys with us.” He meant South Vietnamese nationals. “ ‘How many does that helicopter hold? Ten? We’re bringing fourteen.’ “
The Bush Administration may have done more than simply acquiesce in the rescue effort: at the height of the standoff, according to both a C.I.A. official and a military analyst who has worked with the Delta Force, the American commando unit that was destroying Taliban units on the ground, the Administration ordered the United States Central Command to set up a special air corridor to help insure the safety of the Pakistani rescue flights from Kunduz to the northwest corner of Pakistan, about two hundred miles away. The order left some members of the Delta Force deeply frustrated. “These guys did Desert Storm and Mogadishu,” the military analyst said. “They see things in black-and-white. ‘Unhappy’ is not the word. They’re supposed to be killing people.” The airlift also angered the Northern Alliance, whose leadership, according to Reuel Gerecht, a former Near East operative for the C.I.A., had sought unsuccessfully for years to “get people to pay attention to the Pakistani element” among the Taliban. The Northern Alliance was eager to capture “mainline Pakistani military and intelligence officers” at Kunduz, Gerecht said. “When the rescue flights started, it touched a raw nerve.”
Just as Pakistan has supported the Taliban in Afghanistan, Pakistan’s arch-rival India has supported the Northern Alliance. Operatives in India’s main external intelligence unit—known as RAW, for Research and Analysis Wing—reported extensively on the Pakistani airlift out of Kunduz. (The Taliban and Al Qaeda have declared the elimination of India’s presence in the contested territory of Kashmir as a major goal.) RAW has excellent access to the Northern Alliance and a highly sophisticated ability to intercept electronic communications. An Indian military adviser boasted that when the airlift began “we knew within minutes.” In interviews in New Delhi, Indian national-security and intelligence officials repeatedly declared that the airlift had rescued not only members of the Pakistani military but Pakistani citizens who had volunteered to fight against the Northern Alliance, as well as non-Pakistani Taliban and Al Qaeda. Brajesh Mishra, India’s national-security adviser, said his government had concluded that five thousand Pakistanis and Taliban—he called it “a ballpark figure”—had been rescued.
According to RAW’s senior analyst for Pakistani and Afghan issues, the most extensive rescue efforts took place on three nights at the time of the fall of Kunduz. Indian intelligence had concluded that eight thousand or more men were trapped inside the city in the last days of the siege, roughly half of whom were Pakistanis. (Afghans, Uzbeks, Chechens, and various Arab mercenaries accounted for the rest.) At least five flights were specifically “confirmed” by India’s informants, the RAW analyst told me, and many more were believed to have taken place.
In the Indian assessment, thirtythree hundred prisoners surrendered to a Northern Alliance tribal faction headed by General Abdul Rashid Dostum. A few hundred Taliban were also turned over to other tribal leaders. That left between four and five thousand men unaccounted for. “Where are the balance?” the intelligence officer asked. According to him, two Pakistani Army generals were on the flights.
None of the American intelligence officials I spoke with were able to say with certainty how many Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters were flown to safety, or may have escaped from Kunduz by other means.
India, wary of antagonizing the Bush Administration, chose not to denounce the airlift at the time. But there was a great deal of anger within the Indian government. “We had all the information, but we did not go public,” the Indian military adviser told me. “Why should we embarrass you? We should be sensible.” A RAW official said that India had intelligence that Musharraf’s message to the Americans had been that he didn’t want to see body bags coming back to Pakistan. Brajesh Mishra told me that diplomatic notes protesting the airlift were sent to Britain and the United States. Neither responded, he said.
Mishra also said that Indian intelligence was convinced that many of the airlifted fighters would soon be infiltrated into Kashmir. There was a precedent for this. In the past, the Pakistani Army’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency (I.S.I.) had trained fighters in Afghanistan and then funnelled them into Kashmir. One of India’s most senior intelligence officials also told me, “Musharraf can’t afford to keep the Taliban in Pakistan. They’re dangerous to his own regime. Our reading is that the fighters can go only to Kashmir.”
Kashmir, on India’s northern border, is a predominantly Muslim territory that has been fiercely disputed since Partition, in 1947. Both India and Pakistan have waged war to support their claim. Pakistanis believe that Kashmir should have become part of their country in the first place, and that India reneged on the promise of a plebiscite to determine its future. India argues that a claim to the territory on religious grounds is a threat to India’s status as a secular, multi-ethnic nation. Kashmir is now divided along a carefully drawn line of control, but cross-border incursions—many of them bloody—occur daily.
Three weeks after the airlift, on December 13th, a suicide squad of five heavily armed Muslim terrorists drove past a barrier at the Indian Parliament, in New Delhi, and rushed the main building. At one point, the terrorists were only a few feet from the steps to the office of India’s Vice-President, Krishan Kant. Nine people were killed in the shoot-out, in addition to the terrorists, and many others were injured. The country’s politicians and the press felt that a far greater tragedy had only narrowly been averted.
In India, the Parliament assault was regarded as comparable to September 11th. Indian intelligence quickly concluded that the attack had been organized by operatives from two long-standing Kashmiri terrorist organizations that were believed to be heavily supported by the I.S.I.
Brajesh Mishra told me that if the attack on the Parliament had resulted in a more significant number of casualties “there would have been mayhem.” India deployed hundreds of thousands of troops along its border with Pakistan, and publicly demanded that Musharraf take steps to cut off Pakistani support for the groups said to be involved. “Nobody in India wants war, but other options are not ruled out,” Mishra said.
The crisis escalated, with military men on both sides declaring that they were prepared to face nuclear war, if necessary. Last week, Colin Powell, the Secretary of State, travelled to the region and urged both sides to withdraw their troops, cool the rhetoric, and begin constructive talks about Kashmir.
Under prodding from the Bush Administration, Musharraf has taken action against his country’s fundamentalist terror organizations. In the last month, the government has made more than a thousand arrests, seized bank accounts, and ordered the I.S.I. to stop all support for terrorist groups operating inside Kashmir. In a televised address to the nation on January 12th, Musharraf called for an end to terrorism, but he also went beyond the most recent dispute with India and outlined a far-reaching vision of Pakistan as a modern state. “The day of reckoning has come,” he said. “Do we want Pakistan to become a theocratic state? Do we believe that religious education alone is enough for governance? Or do we want Pakistan to emerge as a progressive and dynamic Islamic welfare state?” The fundamentalists, he added, “did nothing except contribute to bloodshed in Afghanistan. I ask of them whether they know anything other than disruption and sowing seeds of hatred. Does Islam preach this?”
”Musharraf has not done as much as the Indians want,” a Bush Administration official who is deeply involved in South Asian issues said. “But he’s done more than I’d thought he’d do. He had to do something, because the Indians are so wound up.” The official also said, however, that Musharraf could not last in office if he conceded the issue of Kashmir to India, and would not want to do so in any case. “He is not a fundamentalist but a Pakistani nationalist—he genuinely believes that Kashmir ‘should be ours.’ At the end of the day, Musharraf would come out ahead if he could get rid of the Pakistani and Kashmiri terrorists—if he can survive it. They have eaten the vitals out of Pakistan.” In his address, Musharraf was unyielding on that subject. “Kashmir runs in our blood,” he said. “No Pakistani can afford to sever links with Kashmir. . . . We will never budge an inch from our principled stand on Kashmir.”
Milton Bearden, a former C.I.A. station chief in Pakistan who helped run the Afghan war against the Soviet Union in the late nineteen-eighties and worked closely with the I.S.I., believes that the Indian government is cynically using the Parliament bombing to rally public support for the conflict with Pakistan. “The Indians are just playing brinkmanship now—moving troops up to the border,” he said. “Until September 11th, they thought they’d won this thing—they had Pakistan on the ropes.” Because of its nuclear program, he said, “Pakistan was isolated and sanctioned by the United States, with only China left as an ally. Never mind that the only country in South Asia that always did what we asked was Pakistan.” As for Musharraf, Bearden said, “What can he do? Does he really have the Army behind him? Yes, but maybe by only forty-eight to fifty-two per cent.” Bearden went on, “Musharraf is not going to be a Kemal Atatürk”—the founder of the secular Turkish state—”but as long as he can look over his shoulder and see that Rich Armitage”—the United States Deputy Secretary of State—”and Don Rumsfeld are with him he might be able to stop the extremism.”
A senior Pakistani diplomat depicted India as suffering from “jilted-lover syndrome”—referring to the enormous amount of American attention and financial aid that the Musharraf government has received since September 11th. “The situation is bloody explosive,” the diplomat said, and argued that Musharraf has not been given enough credit from the Indian leadership for the “sweeping changes” that have taken place in Pakistan. “Short of saying it is now a secular Pakistan, he’s redefined and changed the politics of the regime,” the diplomat said. “He has de-legitimized religious fundamentalism.” The diplomat told me that the critical question for Pakistan, India, and the rest of South Asia is “Will the Americans stay involved for the long haul, or will attention shift to Somalia or Iraq? I don’t know.”
Inevitably, any conversation about tension between India and Pakistan turns to the issue of nuclear weapons. Both countries have warheads and the means to deliver them. (India’s capabilities, conventional and nuclear, are far greater—between sixty and ninety warheads—while Pakistan is thought to have between thirty and fifty.) A retired C.I.A. officer who served as station chief in South Asia told me that what he found disturbing was the “imperfect intelligence” each country has as to what the other side’s intentions are. “Couple that with the fact that these guys have a propensity to believe the worst of each other, and have nuclear weapons, and you end up saying, ‘My God, get me the hell out of here.’ “ Milton Bearden agreed that the I.S.I. and RAW are “equally bad” at assessing each other.
In New Delhi, I got a sense of how dangerous the situation is, in a conversation with an Indian diplomat who has worked at the highest levels of his country’s government. He told me that he believes India could begin a war with Pakistan and not face a possible nuclear retaliation. He explained, “When Pakistan went nuclear, we called their bluff.” He was referring to a tense moment in 1990, when India moved its Army en masse along the Pakistani border and then sat back while the United States mediated a withdrawal. “We found, through intelligence, that there was a lot of bluster.” He and others in India concluded that Pakistan was not willing to begin a nuclear confrontation. “We’ve found there is a lot of strategic space between a low-intensity war waged with Pakistan and the nuclear threshold,” the diplomat said. “Therefore, we are utilizing military options without worrying about the nuclear threshold.” If that turned out to be a miscalculation and Pakistan initiated the use of nuclear weapons, he said, then India would respond in force. “And Pakistan would cease to exist.”
The Bush Administration official involved in South Asian issues acknowledged that there are some people in India who seem willing to gamble that “you can have war but not use nuclear weapons.” He added, “Both nations need to sit down and work out the red lines”—the points of no return. “They’ve never done that.”
An American intelligence official told me that the Musharraf regime had added to the precariousness of the military standoff with India by reducing the amount of time it would take for Pakistan to execute a nuclear strike. Pakistan keeps control over its nuclear arsenal in part by storing its warheads separately from its missile- and aircraft-delivery systems. In recent weeks, he said, the time it takes to get the warheads in the air has been cut to just three hours—”and that’s too close. Both sides have their nukes in place and ready to roll.”
Even before the airlift from Kunduz, the Indians were enraged by the Bush Administration’s decision to make Pakistan its chief ally in the Afghanistan war. “Musharraf has two-timed you,” a recently retired senior member of India’s diplomatic service told me in New Delhi earlier this month. “What have you gained? Have you captured Osama bin Laden?” He said that although India would do nothing to upset the American campaign in Afghanistan, “We will turn the heat on Musharraf. He’ll go back to terrorism as long as the heat is off.” (Milt Bearden scoffed at that characterization. “Musharraf doesn’t have time to two-time anybody,” he said. “He wakes up every morning and has to head out with his bayonet, trying to find the land mines.”)
Some C.I.A. analysts believe that bin Laden eluded American capture inside Afghanistan with help from elements of the Pakistani intelligence service. “The game against bin Laden is not over,” one analyst told me in early January. He speculated that bin Laden could be on his way to Somalia, “his best single place to hide.” Al Qaeda is known to have an extensive infrastructure there. The analyst said that he had concluded that “he’s out. We’ve been looking for bombing targets for weeks and weeks there but can’t identify them.”
Last week, Donald Rumsfeld told journalists that he believed bin Laden was still in Afghanistan. Two days later, in Pakistan, Musharraf announced that he thought bin Laden was probably dead—of kidney disease.
A senior C.I.A. official, when asked for comment, cautioned that there were a variety of competing assessments inside the agency as to bin Laden’s whereabouts. “We really don’t know,” he said. “We’ll get him, but anybody who tells you we know where he is is full of it.”
India’s grievances—over the Pakistani airlift, the continuing terrorism in Kashmir, and Musharraf’s new status with Washington—however heartfelt, may mean little when it comes to effecting a dramatic change of American policy in South Asia. India’s democracy and its tradition of civilian control over the military make it less of a foreign-policy priority than Pakistan. The Bush Administration has put its prestige, and American aid money, behind Musharraf, in the gamble—thus far successful—that he will continue to move Pakistan, and its nuclear arsenal, away from fundamentalism. The goal is to stop nuclear terrorism as well as political terrorism. It’s a tall order, and missteps are inevitable. Nonetheless, the White House remains optimistic. An Administration official told me that, given the complications of today’s politics, he still believed that Musharraf was the best Pakistani leader the Indians could hope for, whether they recognize it or not. “After him, they could only get something worse.”