Links between the Taliban and al Qaeda have grown stronger

Rahimullah Yousufzai, the well-known Peshawar editor of The News International, has been covering Afghanistan and Pakistan for the past thirty years. Rare interviews with Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar to his credit, he offers a deep insight into the evolution of the Taliban. Kaustav Chakrabarti spoke with him recently on the Taliban, terrorism and the future of India-Pakistan relations.
Kaustav Chakrabarti
24 November 2009

The current state of the Taliban

Kaustav Chakrabarti: Mr. Rahimullah Yousufzai, you have been following different armed movements in the region, particularly the Taliban, for several decades now. What do you think about the Taliban?

Rahimullah Yousufzai: The Taliban are an inward looking group. They are indigenous and they have been consistently saying and proving that they are only concerned about Afghanistan. But circumstances have placed them in such a position that they can't help it. Before they came to power in Afghanistan, Osama Bin Laden was already in Afghanistan. Bin Laden had returned to Afghanistan in 1996. Earlier, he was there till 1991 after the Soviet forces pulled out. After that he went first to Saudi Arabia and then to Sudan. So he arrived in Afghanistan before the Taliban captured Kabul. He was living in Jalalabad under the protection of the Mujahideen government headed by Prof Badruddin Rabbani and his defence minister, Ahmed Shah Massoud.

Osama Bin Laden was given refuge by the Jalalabad shaura (council) of the Mujahideen headed by Haji Qadir. The Taliban inherited these Arabs and Osama Bin Laden. I am witness to the fact that they were initially suspicious of each other. Osama thought that the Taliban was a US-Pakistan creation and that he could not work with them. The Taliban thought that since Osama was working with the Mujahideen earlier he must still be friendly to them.

They had a few meetings, and they resolved their differences; he was allowed to stay on in Jalalabad. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan militants and other Central Asian groups were also allowed to stay. They were already there before the Taliban came to power. But their presence in Afghanistan increased after the Taliban came to power because Taliban gave refuge to everyone who wanted to come; Arabs, Central Asians, Chinese Muslims, and Indonesians.

The Taliban's links with al Qaeda, however, have grown over the years, since they have been fighting together for long. They have fought a common enemy in a common trench, given blood to each other; so now the bonds are much stronger. The Taliban would still like to confine themselves to Afghanistan. Maybe they would not be very happy to give refuge to people like Osama. But now that the bonds have been strengthened, I do not know if they can push them out.

KC: Mullah Omar regarded Bamiyan Buddha as an Afghan heritage and wanted to protect it. Then why did he allow it to be destroyed? Was there a change in his outlook?

RY: Regarding the destruction of Bamiyan Buddha, the radical elements within the Taliban movement had their way. Mullah Omar, in spite of being the leader, did not have the power to stop this. What they did was something very unwise; it was a heritage, why destroy them. One incident provoked them. A famine had exasperated the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan. People had been displaced because of the fighting. The Taliban had appealed to the world for help including the UN. No one was forthcoming as the Taliban was like a pariah. And this got them angry. They thought that while the world was concerned about the statues, no one was concerned about the Afghans. That there was more concern for the dead than for those who were still alive and could have survived if they were given help.

KC: Saudi Arabia maintains that the Taliban would become moderate in due course of time. Do you agree with it?

RY: I think that's a good point. You know, if you interact with these radical groups and bring them into the mainstream, I think it can moderate their policies. I know at that time [late 90's], there were some NGOs – Danish, Swedish, the Red Cross – they were interacting with the Taliban and they were influencing them. In fact, Swedish NGOs were allowed to run girl schools. The security situation in Afghanistan was very good during the time of the Taliban.

KC: I understand that the Taliban were hugely popular when they came to power. But what was their popularity among the Afghans in later years?

RY: They emerged in the autumn of 1994. I was the first one to go to Kandahar and tell the world about the Taliban. In fact I was there in Kabul immediately after Najibullah [the Soviet -backed president who had taken shelter in a UN compound prior to his execution by the Taliban], was hanged. I did not see the execution but I saw their bodies hanging from the electricity pole. I spent the previous night in Jalalabad. I was told by the Taliban commanders that the next day Kabul will fall. I was with the BBC team. We left Jalalabad at four in the morning, we got special permit to leave before the curfew was relaxed. And there was jubilation, people were happy. It was the grape season and people were distributing grapes to everyone.

The Taliban were able to stop lawlessness in a very short time. During the rule of the Mujahideen, there were about 42 check posts between Chaman (border town in Balochistan) and Kandahar. Under the Taliban there were only three. The security was excellent. I traveled at night and nothing happened. Under the Mujahideen robberies were common, I too was robbed.

They brought peace after so many years of war. Those who claim that the Taliban were a Pakistani creation were missing the whole point. I was there when the Taliban came to power. The people welcomed them since they were tired of the excesses of the Mujahideen. The people thought that they would bring peace, and they wanted nothing of the Mujahideen. A term was used at that time in the Kandahar region ? Topakayan, which is Pashto for gunmen. The Mujahideen were called the gunmen. Things had become to such a pass that Kandahar was divided into five different regions. Kabul was also like that; Dostum was controlling the northern parts, the Palace area was controlled by Ahmed Shah Masood and Rabbani, the south was controlled by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, western Kabul was in the hands of the Hazara-Shiite groups led by Mazari, and the North west was controlled by Abdul Rasul Sayyaf. And this was true of every city in Afghanistan. These groups set up numerous checkpoints which made life miserable for the people. That's why the people welcomed the Taliban. Earlier there were at least five to six centres of power. With the Taliban there was only one centre of power. They controlled ninety percent of the land.

Their third achievement was ending drug trafficking. They did it with very few resources, no international help and no alternative crops for the farmers. They simply issued a decree banning poppy. And look now; it is feeding the insurgency and has increased manifolds under the watch of the Americans and their allies. And today, it's not only the Taliban which is benefiting from narcotics trade but others in power also have a share in it.

But this security came at some costs. Their laws were very tough. The non-Pashtuns were a bit apprehensive. The Taliban's biggest criticism was that the fighting never ended. The Taliban in due course of time became like any other armed group. They were unable to transform themselves from an armed group into a political organisation. So the Taliban became another armed faction which wanted power at all costs, especially since they were in war with the Northern Alliance. They never held any peace talks. They wanted to rule alone, there was no effort made to forge alliances. They really never had any socio-economic policies to improve the life of the people.

KC: What was Pakistan's relationship with the Taliban?

RY: The Pakistanis were initially not even aware of the Taliban movement. I was in Kandahar, and in my presence a phone call came from the ISI office in Rawalpindi. The ISI wanted to exchange some pleasantries. Mullah Omar spoke in Pashto and the ISI guy spoke in Urdu. Mullah Omar's response was clear: "I don't know you, I don't have any work with you, I cannot communicate with you in Urdu, and I don't want to talk with you". This was in 1995. People who write about these things have never been to these places, they have never met Mullah Omar or his Shaura. When I came back, the ISI debriefed me about the Taliban. Officers of the rank of Brigadier asked me: “Who are the Taliban, who is Mullah Omar, what kind of person he is.” Had they known, why would they ask me?

At that time, the Taliban were very popular, the movement was spreading like wildfire. And that phone call was the first attempt at contact between the Taliban and the ISI. And then, they thought- wait, hang on, we can offer them support.

The belief that the Taliban were a Pakistani creation is not true, although eventually there were contacts. Pakistan asked the Taliban not to bomb Bamiyan Buddha, they refused. Pakistan asked them to hand over Osama Bin Laden, they refused. Pakistan asked Taliban to hand over Pakistani criminals and militants who had taken refuge in Afghanistan and some of them were with the Taliban, they refused to hand over even one Pakistani. The Taliban were very angry with the transit trade conditions placed on Afghanistan by Pakistan. Pakistan had declared many items as negative which Afghanistan could not longer import through the Pakistani territory since these items, like tires and gadgets, were being smuggled back into Pakistan. This created problems between the two.

Current Situation in Afghanistan

KC: Let us talk about the present situation-How popular is the Taliban now?

RY: Among the Pashtuns they are the strongest group. Western polls suggest that the Taliban control only eleven percent support, I don't believe that. When the Americans wanted to defeat the Taliban initially, they sided with the wrong people, they befriended these warlords. The same warlords who were defeated by the Taliban were brought back to power. These warlords were hated, that's one reason why the people turned against the government in the first place.

However, for many reasons, they are not the most popular movement, majority of Afghans don't like the Taliban. You must understand that it's a very fragmented tribal society. The Taliban militias are heavily armed, well funded and enjoy the requisite manpower. What has the other side [government troops] got? Hamid Karzai, and the Afghan Army is not a very well organized force. There is no organised military force in Afghanistan.

If you live in places like Kandahar or Helmand, the most powerful group are the Taliban. You have no choice, if you want to live in peace and survive, then you have to agree to cooperate with the Taliban. When the government displays authority in some area, the people will support them. The government is not powerful, and that's where the problem lies. The tide will turn if the people realise that now the government and the Americans are winning, and the Taliban are weakening. That can happen.

KC: What do you think of the counterinsurgency strategy suggested by Gen Stanley McChrystal?

RY: The Americans are faltering. They have lost the way; they do not know what to do. They are moving from one disaster to another. Obama came up with a new policy when he came to power. He inserted 21000 new troops and changed the commander. He also started focusing more on Pakistan. Now they are doing another review since the first policy has obviously failed. Now the second review is going on. The Americans are actually trying to extradite themselves from the problem. The memories of Vietnam are still fresh, that is the problem. Obama has been asked for 40,000 more troops, which is going to push Obama deeper into the Afghan problem. Afghanistan is known as a graveyard of empires for a reason.

KC: The counter argument could be that Afghans have got the wrong end of the stick from all those who tried to invade Afghanistan. No one ever really did hearts-and-minds in Afghanistan. Can such a strategy work?

RY: How do you do a hearts-and-minds policy with people in uniform. And that too with foreign troops! The foreign presence is not liked- the way they behave, their cultural and religious ignorance. The way they carry out their search operations, the way they bomb people which cause civilian casualties-- all cause deep resentment.

It's too late. Hearts and minds means that you go out of your camps and heavily-guarded fortresses and you interact with the locals on a very regular basis. You ask them for their problems and help them with money and other assistance. But they can't go out like that, wherever they go, the roads are mined. Children have been taught how to explode the bombs; IEDs are planted by the Taliban and the remote is given to a child and when they see the vehicle coming, they push the trigger. They might be living in areas under the control of the government but they are not for the government. Because people have lost family members, they have suffered. Their family members have been arrested and they have been jailed in Baghram and Guantanamo Bay. So there are many issues involved here. I think that it's a bit late in the day to revive the policy of wining the ?hearts and minds'.

What they can do is perhaps to buy some people. Which I think is the new policy-- 'to buy' the insurgents. The Americans have come up with a very insulting term ? 'ten dollar a month Taliban'-- the notion that 10-15 percent are committed Taliban and the rest are fighting for money.

The Pakistan Taliban

KC: Can you explain the Taliban's meteoric rise in Pakistan.

RY: Many tribal militant groups were tolerated by the Pakistan army when they took refuge in the tribal areas as they were attacking foreign troops in Afghanistan and not the Pakistani forces. Such arrangements began changing in early 2004 when the Taliban started fighting inside Pakistan . In January 2004, the army launched military operations in Waziristan. That was the turning point. The operation was conducted under the American pressure, hoping to dislodge al Qaeda. It was a shock, the fighting was very tough and the army lost many men. Since then the Taliban's influence has been spreading. Instead of being controlled, it has spread. After every military operation we have seen that the Taliban presence has expanded - from South Waziristan to North Waziristan and then to Bajaur, Mohmand and Swat. The Taliban is spreading in Pakistan largely because the army is using heavy weapons against the people.

KC: Why did Baitullah Mehsud turn against Pakistan Army?

RY: As long as he was concentrating on Afghanistan, Baitullah Mehsud was being tolerated. He told the Pakistan government, "I won't fight you, but you must not stop me". He wanted to send his people to Afghanistan and continue to maintain his base. He could not afford to lose his own centre of power in Waziristan. Under the American pressure, the army acted against him. Subsequently, when he turned against Pakistan, the state's whole focus fell upon his group.

Baitullah was not an al Qaeda member. You can say that Baitullah was pushed into the laps of al Qaeda. Even in the last days of his life he maintained that Mullah Omar was his leader because he was fighting a genuine jihad against the US. He had fought in Afghanistan as a Taliban member. He was very close to the Afghan Taliban. Al Qaeda is asking its fighters to fight on two fronts--If they lose their territory in Waziristan, then where will they find refuge?

KC: Many experts in India and the US feel that Pakistan is still supporting former proxy groups.

RY: The Haqqanis are from Afghanistan, they have been living in Waziristan since 1979. If the Taliban is not interfering in Pakistan, then Pakistan will not like to harm them. I don't know how much support the Taliban are getting from Pakistan, I don't think that the Taliban need much support. They get a lot of money from the Arab countries. But even tolerating them is a support. This is the bone of contention between the US and Pakistan; the US wants Pakistan to take them out.

You know, the jihadi groups like Jaish-e- Mohammad were being tolerated by the Pakistan government. Some of them were being used by the State in Kashmir. Musharraf changed the policy in 2004; it was a turning point. When he made the commitment to root out terror groups, he actually meant it. The backlash after the Lal Masjid operation was also a significant turning point. However, you don't really snap all your contacts. The disengagement has to be gradual. Pakistan has suffered so much, I don't think that there will be any tolerance for these groups. At one time, they were allies. They were used in Kashmir, and Afghanistan. But I think that that policy is now a thing of the past.

If Pakistan is still supporting the Haqqanis and Afghan Taliban, it is because they want to retain some influence in Afghanistan. Pakistan is very suspicious of the Northern Alliance and vice versa; its mutual hatred. Pakistan will like to have friends in Afghanistan after having invested so much in Afghanistan.

India-Pakistan Relations

KC: What do people in Pakistan think about India now?

RY: I think that there has been a big change in people's views towards India. People don't have the stomach for any more wars with India or with any body else. There are so many issues ? security, poverty, unemployment. They know that if they have another war, the problems will become even more acute. I don't think that there is any support for any hostility with India. People would want the Kashmir issue to be resolved, that would be a huge sign of relief.

KC: If Pakistan agrees to convert the Line of Control into the International Border, what will be the reaction?

RY: I think anything that is a face-saving solution for both the countries and it will be acceptable. Both will have to give and take. I think there will be greater support for such a move this time around -- we may not get the whole of Kashmir, but still it will be acceptable. Trade, economic relations have taken a priority.

KC: What does the average Lieutenant and Captain of the Pakistan army think?

RY: Their whole training is geared towards India as the enemy. The soldiers and officers who were asked to fight in Waziristan did not like that. They had to obey orders, they have their careers and they can't say no. A very few refused, some were even court-martialed. Privately they say that this [counterinsurgency] is not what they were trained to do. They don't want to fight their own people; they don't want to bomb their own villages. They don't want to become martyrs fighting their own people, that too Muslims and Pakistanis. Their whole orientation was against India. But that is changing now. There has been no war since Kargil. Also, they have a very big fight at hand. This is also affecting their orientation- Ok, India is not the only enemy, we have another enemy.

KC: What can India can do to normalise relations?

RY: India is much bigger, India is much stronger, it has more resources. It can absorb all this. It can put a lot of money on the defence. It can also create a lot of problems for Pakistan. We know that. We realise that if we try to match India, we will actually harm ourselves since we have lesser resources. India has to reassure Pakistan; act like a big brother, like an older brother. I realise that post-Mumbai it was very difficult; Mumbai was actually a very dangerous development.

KC: Who was behind Mumbai?

RY: I have no doubt that it was the Lashkar-e-Tayeeba. Not al Qaeda. I tell you, al Qaeda is not that strong or big [in Pakistan].

KC: Who controls Lashkar-e-Tayeeba?

RY: I don't know. Lashkar-e-Tayyeba had links with the Pakistan Army. I don't know how much of that still persists. But they are not backed the way they were earlier. LeT has been fighting in Kashmir, and it is a very efficient organisation. It has been getting a lot of funds from various people who think that it is fighting a jihad. I don't think that al Qaeda is behind LeT. It has different Islamic beliefs from al Qaeda.

KC: Do you think that it is right to accuse India of supporting the Taliban as Rehman Malik has been suggesting?

RY: We don't have any evidence. But India being a bigger power, why will it sit idle and not take revenge [for Pakistan's support to Kashmiri militants]. There is a feeling that India is supporting the Baloch separatists. I don't know whether India was supporting Baitullah Mehsud, there is no evidence of that, but Baitullah himself would not be willing to get any support from India.

Pakistan Counterinsurgency

KC: Post-Swat operations, do you think Pakistan's counterinsurgency efforts are improving?

RY: Where is the success? There is no proper counterinsurgency policy. Only military means are being employed. I think that they are committing a big mistake by using only the army. They are using the army since the Taliban are very strong. They should have instead used Frontier Corps. The army is not trained for counterinsurgency. Frontier Corps, being Pashtun dominated, are better suited. Besides, the use of heavy weapons and air bombing has caused deep resentment. They are not taking prisoners, they are killing all the Taliban, and their bodies are being dumped. They are creating more Talibans. All these people who are losing family members, and their houses, they will never reconcile. There is no policy for reintegration- that's the weakest link.

They are forcing them to form lashkars. Salarazai lashkars in Bajaur was being sustained by the army. Their family members have been killed and they cannot sleep in peace. They are always at risk. I keep asking the big landlords in Swat, " how can you hope to go back and live in your previous grandeur".They can't have soldiers guarding them all times. For how long can you have the lashkars? Nobody is talking about the lack of justice. All the forest land is owned by the landlords, most members of the Parliament are feudal Khans. All the shelter-less, landless and jobless have joined the Taliban. Class war is not the only factor but it is one of the factors.

Many people who are being branded as the Taliban are those who think that they cannot get their political rights peacefully. That's why the army cannot stay there forever. The more it stays there, the more it bombs, more enemies it will create. The army was attacked in its own backyard in GHQ. There is no end to this.

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