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On August 27, The Wire carried a video interview of Rana Banerji, retired special secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat incharge of RAW, by Karan Thapar. In this comprehensive interview of 45 minutes, Banerji sheds light on how Taliban came to be what it is today from its formative years, and how Pakistan has aided its rise for its own strategic purposes.
Banerji, based on his nuanced reading and observation, covers a broad sweep of the Taliban’s history and the people who run it. His insights offer a useful framework to strategically predict how the Taliban would operate in the days to come, now that they have seized power in Afghanistan.
Below is the full transcript of the interview. It has been edited lightly in places. Watch the full interview here.
Karan Thapar: Hello and welcome to a special interview for The Wire. The speed and the drama with which Kabul collapsed on the fifteenth of August has raised two fundamental questions that as yet have not been answered: What exactly was Pakistan’s role, and what do we know about the personalities and factions that make up the Taliban. My guest today is perhaps one of the few people in the country who has answers to these critical questions. The retired special secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat incharge of RAW. He’s Rana Banerji.
Mr. Banerji, let me start with a simple question, and then we’ll build from there. Everyone knows that Pakistan’s ISI has played a critical role in funding and also in militarily assisting the Taliban. Most people believe that Pakistan also played a role in creating the Taliban. The problem is no one has precise details. So can you begin by giving people an idea of the sort of concrete help the ISI gave the Taliban in these three critical respects?
Rana Banerji: Thank you, first of all, Karan for having me on your show. The Taliban actually came into existence in the autumn of 1994 in a mosque known as the White Mosque. It’s about 50 kilometres from Kandahar. And it was a set of religious devotees who decided to stop certain criminal extortionist gangs which were operating on the highways and harassing a lot of innocent people. There were cases of kidnapping, rape, extortion of goods. So this was effectively stopped by Mullah Omar’s gang. Mullah Omar was authorised as the commander of Maulana Abdul Samad who was technically the first emir of what later became the Taliban. So they started operating and were fairly successful.
KT: So at this stage, the Taliban was the creation of Afghan people themselves in Kandahar. There was Pakistani involvement in the creation of the Taliban.
RB: That’s right. In fact, when Pakistanis heard about it, there was an official convoy of the Pakistani government, consignment of trucks, which had been halted by a similar gang. And General Naseerullah Babar, who was interior minister of the Benazir government then, he decided to take their help and was able to succeed in getting this help. Out of gratitude then, they decided to give Mullah Omar a further bigger role, to expand his influence northwards towards Kabul and also eastwards, which was encouraged also by the then Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani.
KT: So the Pakistan connection with Taliban began as a result of a fortuitous event. Pakistani trucks were held up, they wanted to be cleared, they used Mullah Omar and his people to clear it, and in gratitude, they began the relationship.
RB: Yes. They made available a cache of arms which were hidden in tunnels near Kandahar, which had been intended for use against the Russian invaders. So this was given to Mullah Omar. And also he got money from President Rabbani according to a well-known Pakistani author.
KT: Why did he get money from Rabbani?
RB: To discipline Hekmatyar, who was nettling Rabbani too much. And Rabbani was dependent for survival on Ahmad Shah Massoud who was his defence minister. So the whole thing was cracking up already in Kabul.
KT: So in its early days, the Taliban was getting support from Pakistan through Naseerullah Babar (Pakistan’s interior minister) but it also was getting funding from the Afghan government of the day, which is Rabbani’s government, or Rabbani himself.
RB: There was a report that there was initial funding of three million dollars, of which the Taliban, Mullah Omar’s group, got only two million. One million was kept away by an intermediary.
KT: But the interesting thing is that in the beginning days, the early days of the Taliban, it was funded both by Pakistan and by Rabbani. And Rabbani was by the way the head of the old Northern Alliance. And Massoud was his defence minister.
RB: That’s right. So thereafter the ISI help can be seen in three or four phases. The Taliban, or Mullah Omar had come across Colonel Sultan Amir Tarar, who was a former army officer, trained by the Americans and also a member of the Pakistani special services group. After retirement, he had become the Consul General of Herat. He was roped in to guide and train the Taliban…
KT: By the Pakistanis?
RB: By the Pakistanis. And the entire military training was given by Colonel Sultan Amir Tarar who got the mystical name of ‘Imam’.
KT: So Colonel Tarar actually did give military training of a pretty formal sort?
RB: Yes. Absolutely. And then there was funding continuously by the ISI because they felt in the first phase that they would be able to install the Taliban with some popular support in governance in Kabul. And this is the phase ‘94 to ‘96.
KT: When did the Pakistanis move from simply being grateful to the Taliban and militarily training them, and then beginning to think that maybe they could create a government out of Taliban. How long did that take?
RB: A few months only. 1994 to 1995 I would think. And then 1996, the Taliban were ready to move into Kabul. And they were funded and they were assisted militarily with convoys, with actual special services men in commoner garb accompanying their motorcycles and jeeps when they moved into Kabul.
KT: So when the Taliban actually first in 1996 began their campaign to go straight to Kabul, they were funded by the Pakistanis, they were given equipment by the Pakistanis, they were given, I presume, weapons as well.
RB: Yes. And by that time the ISI had lost faith in Hekmatyar who was their earlier protégé. Because Hekmatyar was not able to fight sufficiently well.
KT: And the Taliban now got the Pakistan backing instead.
RB: Yes, yes.
KT: And Pakistan, therefore, in a sense could have, you could say, funded, militarily trained the Taliban conquest in the 1996 period of Kabul.
RB: Yes. And then we come to the second phase, where the actual governance of Taliban was also assisted by Pakistanis in a very big way. Officers, plain clothes assistants, bureaucrats, they all went there and helped the Taliban to consolidate normal bureaucratic governance.
KT: So there were Pakistani officers and bureaucrats actually sitting in Kabul from 1996 to 2001 during the five years that the Taliban was ruling.
RB: Yes. Not only in Kabul but in the outlying provinces. And when 9/11 happened and the Americans decided to bomb the hell out of Taliban and the governance system there, there was the infamous Kunduz airlift, where almost thousand to two thousand – the number varies – Pakistani officials, both serving army officers as well as civilian bureaucrats, had to be airlifted out in sorties by the Pakistani air force, in the knowledge of the American move.
KT: Absolutely. I remember that period very clearly. We saw pictures on television of Pakistani soldiers now dressed in civilian clothes actually being airlifted out of Kunduz.
RB: That’s right.
KT: In other words, for the five years of Taliban rule, from 1996 to 2001, much of the military spine, much of the administrative spine were supplied by Pakistan.
RB: That’s right.
KT: So you could say that not only did Pakistan finance the first “conquest” of Kabul by the Taliban in ‘96, but then they in a sense provided the backbone for the government.
KT: So the Taliban could not have ruled for that five year period without all the help and support they got from Pakistan.
RB: That’s right. And of course there were figurehead leaders, religious leaders, who were put in positions as defence minister or any other minister. So there was a shura which actually was seen to be governing the country.
KT: But the real governance was Pakistani officials?
RB: Well they also learned their ropes, the Taliban leaders.
KT: But the Pakistanis were there behind closed doors.
RB: Yes. To guide them, yes.
KT: Tell me, what sort of support did the Pakistanis give the Taliban from 2001, when they were thrown out by the Americans from Kabul, right up till 2021.
RB: Again, this has to be seen in three phases, if I may put it. The first phase was the withdrawal phase, when they were determined to save as many assets of theirs and ask them to lie low and settle down in various places in Pakistan. And these were the places which were not so much in the limelight, the federally administered tribal areas, from where the Miran Shah Shura took shape. And then there were the Peshawar refugee camps, where the Peshawar Shura of the Taliban was set up. And then there were outskirts of Quetta, there was another refugee camp there were the Quetta Shura was set up.
KT: So in each of these three instances the Pakistan government found sanctuaries and helped the Taliban settle there and create a second life for themselves now that they’ve been thrown out of Kabul.
RB: In this work, also they helped the escape of Osama bin Laden, first from Kandahar to Tora Bora caves, and from Tora Bora into Pakistan. And in this transition, Jalaluddin Haqqani, the Haqqani network head or tribal chief, came to their assistance in a major way. And Jalaluddin Haqqani, many people forget, was also an American asset, acknowledged to be a CIA asset earlier.
KT: And he just changed sides?
RB: No he remained with the Americans.
KT: So he was a double agent in a sense.
KT: Fascinating. Tell me something, in the first phase after 2001, the Pakistani found sanctuaries and helped the Taliban settle in Miran Shah, in Quetta, in Peshawar. What did they do in the second stage and the third stage?
RB: In the second stage you see Musharraf had come to power and the double dealing with the Americans started in real earnest. There were also a lot of Arabs, Uzbeks, Chechen rebels, Tajik islamic rebel outfits which had come along with Osama bin Laden. And Ayman al-Zawahiri. And Jalaluddin Haqqani himself had an Arab wife apart from his Afghan wife. One of his sons, Nasir, who was later killed, was in charge of handling all the funds, the hawala funds which used to come from…
KT: So you’re saying in the second stage the Pakistanis provided protection not just to the Taliban but to this collection of Uzbek, Arab, Tajik militants and jihadis who had come across with Taliban.
RB: Yes. That’s right. And that is when also the phenomenon of the Tehrik-i-Taliban developed particularly in the FATA, the tribal areas which were ruled at the time by the frontier crimes…
KT: But this should have worried the Pakistanis.
KT: This should have worried the Pakistanis, that the Taliban from Afghanistan were now, under their protection, creating a Tehrik-i-Taliban in Pakistan.
RB: It didn’t worry them initially because they felt they had everything under their control…
KT: Which they didn’t eventually.
RB: Which they didn’t eventually because in the process of what happened, the Maliki system — which stood from the British time, where there used to a tribal elder as the Malik in the area and he was assisted by a civil servant who was designated a political agent in these areas — their reich stopped running. And it was the Maulanas and the well-funded clerics in these areas who became more power brokers. They had guns and they started to—
KT: Now the first stage you’ve established is when Pakistan found sanctuaries and settled the Taliban in Quetta, in Miran Shah, and in Peshawar. What sort of financing did they give them thereafter? What sort of facilities or military training did they give them? What sort of protection? Can you tell me about that quickly?
RB: Well there aren’t too many details about the funding, how it went, but one thing is for certain, the drug smuggling from these areas, both by the land route through Karachi and also by the land route into Iran and then into Western Europe, was manipulated by the Taliban to collect funds on their own.
KT: But protected by the Pakistanis?
RB: To a certain extent. In terms of, you know, custom and excise, etc. There is documentation of this in a BBC documentary called Traffic.
KT: So, in other words, the Pakistanis did not stop it from happening.
RB: Did not stop it happening.
KT: What sort of other financial facilities did they give Taliban from 2001 to 2021?
RB: Well again, you see, mainly these were hawala transactions to which they turned a blind eye. But 2004 onwards the Taliban started resurging in a major way because of malgovernance in Afghanistan by the Karzai regime.
KT: And what did the Pakistanis do then?
RB: They assisted them to go into these areas which were ungoverned, particularly in the…
KT: So the Pakistanis were then pushing the Taliban across the border, back into Afghanistan.
RB: Yes. They had them to control these areas. And there were local field commanders who were fighting the Afghan National Security Forces.
KT: Did the Pakistanis supply food, equipment, weapons?
RB: Everything. And also rest and recreation facilities. If the commander used to get injured they would take them to hospitals in Pakistan, in Karachi or Balochistan.
KT: So, in other words, the Pakistani government or the Pakistani authorities allowed the Taliban to use Pakistan as their deep base.
RB: Safe haven.
KT: As their safe haven, from which they could go back, get supplies, get treatment if they were injured, and then with Pakistani assistance, go back to carry on fighting.
RB: New towns, boom towns, developed outside Peshawar known as the university town in Peshawar and similarly I think Jafarabad or Pashtunabad in Quetta. There was another township developed almost in Quetta, just outside Quetta, where they bought up properties, new houses, etc. The leaders…
KT: Now tell me Mr. Banerji, did this sort of assistance continue from 2004 all the way to 2021, or were there stages when it got stepped up, when Pakistani involvement, ISI involvement, funding and training became more and more.
RB: It’s difficult to say that happened. But what is of relevance is that the Americans were all too aware that this was happening. And the Americans were trying basically to attain their own objective, to find where Osama bin Laden is hidden. Or has disappeared into. And the Americans tried to interact with the Taliban, to cause defections from within the senior Taliban leadership, in collaboration with, or in the knowledge of the Pakistan ISI.
KT: So the Americans were well aware that the Pakistanis were funding, supporting, equipping and giving weapons to the Taliban, pushing them across the border, allowing the Taliban to use Pakistan as a safe haven when they get injured but did nothing. They just winked at it right through the period.
RB: Well there was supposed to be intelligence cooperation to find out high-value assets and the understanding was that the Pakistanis would tell the Americans about the movement of high-value assets, Arabs, Syrians and so on and then they would be eliminated by…
KT: Which Pakistan occasionally did, but nowhere near sufficiently since Osama remained protected right until…
RB: The Americans found out that the information that was being given to them was being leaked, a few days in advance, to the terrorists themselves.
KT: I don’t want to get lost in the detail of this section, but I think this section is very important because it explains the 20-25 year background of Pakistani support and involvement with the Taliban. However, let me now get to the present time. When the Taliban on the fifteenth of August literally dramatically swept into Kabul and took over, there are some people who say that that was the culmination of a second Pakistani invasion or conquest of Kabul. Once again fronted by the Taliban. You agreed that when the Taliban took power in 1996 this description applied. Does it apply again in 2021?
RB: This time everybody was a little surprised at the manner in which the Afghan National Security Forces collapsed. Nobody expected it to happen with the speed that it did.
KT: But could the Taliban have done it and certainly at the speed at which they did it without the support, assistance, training from Pakistan?
RB: They may not have, but what contributed more was the morale loss of the Afghan National Security Forces. The announcement of the American ground forces withdrawal.
KT: So that description, a Pakistani invasion fronted by the Taliban applied in 1996. You don’t think it applies equally in 2021.
RB: Perhaps not equally, yes.
KT: Okay. Let me put this to you. On the very day that the Taliban entered and swept through Kabul, the fifteenth of August 2021, some of the most important leaders of the Northern Alliance, who were opponents of Pakistan, flew to Islamabad to seek safety, security and assurances from the Pakistan government. And these included Ahmad Shah Massoud’s brothers and important Hazara leaders like Khalili and Mohaqiq. If opponents of Pakistan are going to Pakistan to seek its support, sanctuary and safety, isn’t that a sure sign that Pakistan has become very important and very powerful in this part of the world?
RB: Well yes, that’s a way of looking at it. And it included also Yunus Qanuni, a former speaker of the parliament. Now all these players were very relevant actors of the Northern Alliance in 1997. But this time they could see the writing on the wall, in the manner in which they had no other option.
KT: And they sought support and succour from someone who was their “enemy”.
RB: Basically survival and safety of their lives. And there was the fig leaf of wanting to have Pakistani intercession for having inclusive governance.
KT: But this is what I’m making: At the end of the day, opponents of Pakistan, the Northern Alliance, were seeking safety and security for their own lives from Pakistan. This is why I say to you, isn’t this a sign of how influential and powerful Pakistan has become, once the Taliban took over for the second time.
RB: Yes. That is why there is so much of triumphalism. Because both the Pakistan army and the Pakistan, due to strategic terms, Pakistan civilian leadership believe that they have achieved the primary objective of their entire policy of supporting the Taliban, that is to keep Indian influence out of Afghanistan for the foreseeable future.
KT: And proof of that is that their opponents, Ahmad Shah Massoud’s brothers, the Hazara leaders Khalili and Mohaqiq are now knocking on Pakistan’s doors to say help us, support us, save us.
RB: Yes, that could be one way of looking at it.
KT: Let me at this point come to the second big issue I want to talk with you about. Until now we’ve talked about Pakistan’s role in funding, in training, in militarily supporting the Taliban right through the 25 years from 1995-96 to 2021. Let me now talk to you about the personalities and factions that make up the Taliban. Its present emir is a man called Hibatullah Akhundzada. What do we know about him, and why is he never seen?
RB: Well he’s a Nurzai from Panjpai, which is a district in Kandahar. His father was a religious cleric, head of a mosque in Kandahar. He himself was a middle low-level official in the judicial qazi court system of the first Taliban dispensation. Known to be a fairly religious, modest low-profile person. He was selected as a sort of patchwork unity among various factions and to be kept firmly under the control of the ISI. Because the previous emir Mullah Mansoor had become too high-profile.
KT: So this is very interesting. Akhundzada was chosen as a patchwork choice, both by different factions— in other words, I presume he was everyone’s number two and no one’s number one choice — but he was also chosen because he was acceptable to the ISI. His predecessor had stood up to the ISI and the ISI didn’t want someone like that again.
RB: That’s right. Though it’s not been clearly established, Iran had meddled with the Taliban and former emir had become friendly with the Iranians, which was not to the liking of the…
KT: Akhundzada’s predecessor. That was another reason why the ISI didn’t like him. So in other words, this was the lowest common denominator choice. Is that right?
RB: That’s right.
KT: Why is he never seen?
RB: He is by temperament like that. And he adopted a very consensual style of leadership among various factions, so nobody really complained much. And also there was an incident two years into his tenure, when his brother, who was also a preacher in a mosque in Kuchlak near Quetta, was killed in a bomb explosion. And the story goes that maybe there were some of his rivals who were trying to get at Akhundzada himself, because he used to go there to pray also.
KT: But tell me. He was the, as you say, the lowest common denominator. He was everyone’s number two and no one’s number one choice. But now he’s been there 5-6 years. Is he accepted and acknowledged as the head, as the emir, or are there still people who question his position.
RB: No, he’s more or less not questioned as an emir because he’s kept to a very proper and religious profile, which is similar to that of Mullah Omar himself. Though Mullah Omar had a different stature.
KT: So his religiosity has helped secure his position.
KT: What role will he play when the Taliban form a government in Kabul. Will he head the government or do you believe he will seek a role above the government as supreme leader, something similar to Ayatollah Khamenei in Iran?
RB: Well the parallel doesn’t quite apply, but the parallel of Mullah Omar himself might be used.
KT: Which is?
RB: Mullah Omar never took power himself. He preferred to remain in Kandahar. He left the governance to a leadership council. Now similar type of thing may happen, with three deputies parcelling out actual real political power among themselves.
KT: If this happens, in whose hands will be, to use that Indian phrase, the remote control? Who will actually have power?
RB: Well the ISI will. And the major exponent of implementing that power would be Sirajuddin Haqqani.
KT: So regardless of who is president and regardless of who is the supreme leader (if they create that post), the ISI will have real power, and they will operate through Sirajuddin Haqqani, their favourite faction of the Taliban.
RB: That’s right. But this could change, you see. These calculations could change because of the ambitions of both Mullah Baradar himself and Mullah Yaqoob, the son of Mullah Omar.
KT: Let’s come to Mullah Baradar first, we’ll come to Mullah Yaqoob after that. Now he’s one of the three deputy commanders. He has spent eight years in detention in Pakistan, but he was also the critical key interlocutor for the talks with the Americans in Doha. Tell me more about him.
RB: That’s right. He’s a Popalzai which is one of the blue-blooded tribes of the Afghan dynasty, the Durrani society. So in the caste system that they have in their tribal society—
KT: He’s at the top
RB: He’s among the people at the top. Whereas Mullah Omar himself was a Hotak, a slightly lower in the pecking order of Ghilzai. But there is a story, not confirmed, of Mullah Omar’s wife and Mullah Baradar’s wife being co-brothers-in-law. And that why he called him ‘Baradar’ and that is where he got his name of ‘Mullah Baradar’.
KT: So the name ‘Baradar’ which is Farsi for ‘brother’ is actually a name given by Mullah Omar to someone who you think might have been a brother-in-law.
RB: Yes. That’s right. It’s never been proved because—
KT: Tell me more about Mullah Baradar.
RB: Yes. Now in 2008, he tried to establish links with President Karzai and also was amenable to the idea of talking to the Americans. And this was not to the liking of the ISI.
KT: Is that why he was detained?
RB: That’s right.
KT: And he spent roughly eight years in detention?
RB: Almost 10 years. Well, 2010 to 2018.
KT: Khalilzad apparently pressed on the Pakistanis to release him and he then became the head of the talks at Doha.
RB: Not immediately. Initially, he was in a drugged stupor state and he seemed to have been allowed to recover from that, because while in detention he was supposed to have been very much in a depressed and drugged state. He couldn’t make out his bearings and things like that.
KT: Drugs because he was being given drugs by the Pakistanis—
KT: Or because he had become a druggie himself
RB: No, no. Maybe because he was being given drugs to keep him in good humour or whatever.
KT: Now the Western press often speculates that Mullah Baradar could be the president whenever the government is set up. Do you think that is likely?
RB: That is possible yes. Because now he has been fairly savvy in the diplomatic dialogue that has gone on in Doha, where there are very many others, both hardliners and retainers of the ISI who are closely under their supervision but who are also in the dialogue team
KT: But he’s handled this well
RB: He’s handled it very well
KT: So he’s shown the ability to keep together different factions of hardliners and softer people who exist within the Taliban framework.
KT: What about Mullah Yaqoob, who is the other deputy commander and is in fact Mullah Omar’s son?
RB: Yes. He’s much younger, and he has been in touch with some other field commanders who have actually been involved in the fighting. People like Ibrahim Sadr who has now been made Interior Minister and Mullah Zakir who has now been made the Defence Minister.
KT: Is he a rival of Baradar or do they get along with each other?
RB: That’s not known. Ultimately because he’s younger to Baradar, and he has the lineage of Omar, he would like to be anointed heir eventually, but he also has to contend with Sirajuddin Haqqani’s ambition.
KT: You’re also suggesting that Mullah Yaqoob has better links with the fighting branches of the Taliban. Baradar has better links with the political, negotiating branches.
RB: Well, yes. You can say that in a way.
KT: Where into all of this does Zahyabuddin Masjid fit in?
RB: Zabiullah Mujahid
KT: Yeah. Where does he fit in? He’s clearly the television face of the Taliban as a result of his press conferences and it’s his comments that have led people to talk about the possibility of Taliban 2.0. But is he critical and important, or is he just a spokesman?
RB: He’s just a spokesman. One of three, in fact, who have been used by the Taliban in the past.
KT: The other being Suhail Shaheen?
RB: Suhail Shaheen and one other person. They had been parcelled different areas to which they would deal. But Zabiullah possibly has the most photogenic face and he seems to have become more politically savvy of late. So that is why now he has been entrusted with the initial forays.
KT: But he’s not one of the critical top leaders?
RB: No. He was a middle-level or junior-level official in the culture ministry of the first Taliban dispensation.
KT: So he’s a middle-level Taliban person who’s acquired a lot of prominence because he’s fronting the press conferences and because he has a manner and perhaps, as you put it, a photogenic face that attracts attention and gets remembered.
RB: And an example of this is when he was asked the ticklish question in the press conference about visit of CIA chief William Burns. He stepped aside and asked the foreign office official of the Taliban to answer the question, which was of course replied to in a very non-committal manner.
KT: Now the faction that is perhaps of great interest to India is what’s called the Haqqani faction. Tell me about them. The Haqqanis are often considered the brutal, tough fighting wing of the Taliban. Mike Mullen, the former American chairman of the joint chiefs of staff calls them the veritable arm of the ISI…
KT: And as you said, not only do they have connections with the ISI, but Jalaluddin Haqqani was once upon a time, your words were, almost an agent of America.
RB: That’s right.
KT: So they play the game of both sides?
RB: Perhaps not anymore, because they have designated Sirajuddin as a terrorist in their own 2012 order.
KT: Sirajuddin is also the third of the three deputy commanders of the Taliban, along with Mullah Yaqoob and Mullah Baradar.
RB: That’s right. The other two are not designated so far.
KT: So tell me more about the Haqqani group.
RB: Yes. Now, Jalaluddin’s sons—they have many sons, seven sons. Three or four of them got killed in the US reprisals, drone attacks or in actual fighting. But Nasir and Siraj and Badruddin, these were the most important sons. Now Badruddin got killed. Siraj also got killed in an ordinary crime in 2013 in Islamabad. But the Islamabad police was not allowed to make any investigations about the murder. His body was carried in a VIP convoy to the tribal areas and given a decent burial.
KT: This is further proof of the link between Pakistan ISI and the Haqqani
RB: Yes. So he’s touch-me-not. And there is of course the fictional serial, the Homeland 4 serial where you have the Haqqani group attacking the US embassy in Islamabad and going into their cipher room and all that.
KT: And as you said in the beginning, the Haqqani group is the favoured, preferred faction of the Taliban for the ISI
RB: For the ISI. And we have suffered at their hands, for example, the attack on our embassy in Kabul, where we lost one diplomat and one defence personnel, was directly planned and executed by them.
KT: So does most of ISI funding, most of ISI military equipment that goes to the Taliban go to the Haqqani group within the Taliban.
RB: There is no definite evidence of that
KT: But you suspect so?
RB: I would think so yes.
KT: But the interesting thing is that the Haqqani group only merged with the Taliban in the mid-1990s, after the Taliban had come to power the first time around. And there are also stories that although Jalaluddin Haqqani was a minister in the first Taliban government, Karzai is reported to have tried to reach out to him and involve him in Karzai’s government. Karzai didn’t succeed but it’s reported that the attempts were made. How close are the bonds that bind the Haqqani group to the rest of the Taliban? Or are there differences and cracks there?
RB: Well there are individual ambitions and differences but everybody’s afraid of the Haqqani faction. Even the Taliban leaders themselves may be afraid of them. Because of the patronage they enjoy from the ISI and because of the use of suicide bombs with great facility by them which is well known to exterminate their opponents instead Afghanistan. So most of these bombings etc were being done by the Haqqani faction.
KT: So the Haqqani faction has in a sense intimidated other leaders in the Taliban.
RB: That could be. In time, you see, the families and children of the other leaders come out of Pakistan and they no longer require rest and recreation, this relationship could change.
KT: That could change. That would be in the future, because up till now the relationship has been one in which Haqqanis, because of the support, funding from Pakistan, has somewhat intimidated the rest of the Taliban.
RB: That’s true. One other reason is that they are Zadrach. They are from an area called Zadran which is lower eastern Paktia, Khost. In the tribal, again, caste systems, the Zadran are the lowest among the…
KT: Why would that help them intimidate others?
RB: No, not intimidate. But to be looked down upon by other blue-blooded Afghans.
KT: But now you’re contradicting yourself—if they’re looked down upon they won’t intimidate and frighten people.
RB: At a later date I said. It could happen.
KT: Let me put this to you. It is reported that two Haqqani brothers, Khalil and Anis, are now responsible for security in Kabul today. If that’s true, then what does it suggest?
RB: Khalil is said to be an uncle. Also not perhaps direct uncle. A cousin of Jalaluddin. Much younger, of course, than Jalaluddin. Anis of course is one of his younger sons. And he was under detention for a while.
KT: But if security is in their hands what does it suggest?
RB: This could have been a temporary measure. Now they have appointed a new acting governor, mayor, and also an intelligence chief.
KT: So this story that security was in the hands of the Haqqanis, Anis and Khalil, is not a worrying factor. It was built up by the press as a moment of concern, but you’re saying it’s not necessarily so.
RB: Possibly. I mean, you have now an appointee, unless he has aligned now with the Haqqanis—Najibullah who has been appointed Intelligence Chief of this new government. And he was known to be closer to the Dadullah faction, which was not close to the Haqqanis in the old days.
KT: You’re confusing us with details, what is the point you’re making?
RB: We don’t know whether the intelligence chief appointee is definitely a Haqqani man.
KT: Okay. So in other words, the regime that is forming, to the extent that we can see, is not necessarily under Haqqani control—
RB: It could be an eclectic regime.
KT: It could be an eclectic regime. And the point you’re therefore reinforcing is that the initial belief that because Anis Haqqani was in Kabul, Khalil Haqqani was in Kabul, it was reported that the Haqqanis controlled Kabul’s security. That initial belief is questionable.
RB: Yeah. It could change.
KT: Let’s come very briefly to the situation in Afghanistan as it’s begun to emerge during the last 10-11 days. I believe the director general of the ISI flew to Kandahar when Mullah Baradar was there and they were seen together praying at a Mosque. There are also reports that Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi spent a day or two in Kabul, but he himself has denied it. What does all of this suggest about the role Pakistan is playing in helping put together a Taliban government?
RB: Well they would definitely like to remain very close to whatever leadership emerges among the Taliban.
KT: And are they pulling the strings?
RB: They would definitely be pulling the strings. They’re trying to make it a pleasant phenomenon. Particularly Mullah Baradar having had this experience of detention in a Pakistani jail, he would be very sensitive to such, you know, behaviour.
KT: But then that…
RB: They’re going the extra mile.
KT: But then therefore there would be problems. Pakistanis want to pull the strings and ensure that their chosen people have critical posts. But Mullah Baradar, who has been in detention for eight years, will want to ensure that Pakistan’s role is limited. There are tensions here now.
RB: They could develop later. In the sense that Pakistan…The Taliban leadership will not immediately put a red rag to the Pakistani bull.
KT: They have already appointed Acting Minister of Defence, Acting Minister of Interior, as well as, I believe, an Acting Foreign Minister. They’ve also appointed a Finance Minister. They’ve also appointed an Acting Governor and an Acting Mayor. Now are these people, you suspect, the Pakistanis have put in place, or are they independent credible people who have support within Taliban? Which of the two?
RB: I think it is the latter because they have already played a reasonably well-known role in the actual fighting on the ground. And earlier they had not been accommodated to the extent that they had committed in the actual fighting.
KT: So they’re getting their rewards now?
RB: Possibly. But this is something one cannot assert for certain.
KT: But you’re also saying something else. Your sense, your hunch is that these are not Pakistani puppets being put in place. These are people with credible track records of their own.
RB: Yes. And the Taliban must have convinced the ISI that they have to accommodate them or the unity of whatever leadership—
KT: Not so long ago you were talking about how the remote control will be in ISI hands.
RB: It will still be.
KT: But now what you’re saying suggests that that remote control isn’t working because the Taliban is convincing the ISI that the people who they’re placing in acting positions are not necessarily all chosen ones. They’re people they’re rewarding because they’ve done good work.
RB: Well you see ISI would know much more about the inner factions and pressures and pulls that the Taliban are faced with. So they would concur only with those things they are comfortable with. So they would know more than us what is happening within the Taliban.
KT: So what you see may not necessarily be the truth. The surface—
RB: This is an analysis from a distance from a person who has retired from intelligence analysis ten years down the line.
KT: Let me put this to you. We’ve seen last week. Images of Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah talking to Anis Haqqani, talking to the Pakistani Ambassador in Kabul, and there were reports in the Western press that Abdullah and Karzai could play some sort of role in shaping a government, perhaps smoothening the way for the Taliban. Is that your understanding as well?
RB: They may have tried to give that impression but the Taliban went through the motions of engaging with them and these impressions have since been dispelled despite efforts still being made by Karzai, maybe not so much by Abdullah Abdullah, to give this impression. Because Karzai at one stage, if you recall, had been the Deputy Foreign Minister for the Mujahudeen. He fell out because his father was murdered in a Kandahar Mosque, in a plot which he believed had been hatched by the ISI.
KT: So in other words, this initial impression of last week, that Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah were playing a role in trying to shape or help the Taliban is actually one that Abdullah and Karzai were fostering. The Taliban were simply going through the polite motions of meeting former leaders as a courtesy, nothing more.
RB: Yes. Trying to give an impression to the West that maybe they are serious about having an inclusive set up. And they wouldn’t mind that if your recognition was on the way. But after that we’ve had the visit of the American CIA chief who had a direct one-to-one meeting with Mullah Baradar.
KT: And Karzai and Abdullah were not there?
RB: They were definitely not there. His guards were disarmed in the palace where he was staying, in the Presidential palace. So he had to move with his family to Abdullah’s house.
KT: What does that suggest? That move from his own house to Abdullah’s house?
RB: Insecurity. That maybe, why my guards have been disarmed…
KT: So that entire picture that was presented both in the Western press and the Indian press that Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah were playing a critical role was actually done more by Karzai and Abdullah to build their own image. The Taliban were simply being respectful, they were getting in touch out of politeness, because they don’t treat these people as serious.
RB: I don’t think they are going to share power easily with them.
KT: Now it’s roughly 11-12 since the Taliban came to power and they still haven’t formed a government. I know they’ve set up acting ministers—Finance, Defence, Interior—they’ve got an Acting Governor and Mayor of Kabul. They say they will only form a proper government after the 31st when foreign soldiers have left. Do you believe that? Or are there problems in forming a government and is this just an excuse?
RB: No, I think they are playing for time, for international recognition. Once they get that then they will actually declare the emirate and then the leadership council
KT: But can they get international recognition if there isn’t a government to recognise?
RB: They want to have an emirat and they’re still toying with the idea of what sort of constitution they’re going to accept. The 1964 Constitution is being held out to them as a possible compromise document.
KT: But that is a Zahir Shah Constitution.
RB: Yes. But it’s a work in progress. If they add some Islamic clauses into that—
KT: But the Zahir Shah Constitution had a kingship. Do you see the emirate becoming a kingship?
RB: No. The emirate will have to be given some recognition in whatever form, sharia law in the emirate. So that is what they are working at.
KT: So this delay in forming a government is playing for time. It’s not an indication that they are having problems.
RB: Initially that seemed to be so, but now with the announcement of these designations I would tend to agree.
KT: My last question: How seriously do you take the resistance in the Panjshir? Can Amrullah Saleh, Ahmad Shah Massoud’s son actually threaten the Taliban. Or is it only a matter of time before the Taliban vanquishes them?
RB: Yes. They cannot really threaten but surrender may not happen immediately.
KT: What about defeat?
RB: Defeat also may not happen immediately because Panjshir has always been well defended. Their capability to attack and take on more areas from where they are, that’s in dispute. That’s why the Taliban feel it’s not a serious problem.
KT: So Panjshir because of its geographical location surrounded by these mountains can defend itself, but it’s very unlikely that the resistance in Panjshir will be able to spread beyond the borders of Panjshir.
RB: There could be some political accommodation also with Ahmad Massoud because he has the sort of charisma which the Taliban may not want to totally ignore. But his deputy, the former vice-president, the acting President, Amrullah Saleh is never going to make his peace with the Taliban.
KT: We end now with me repeating to you one question: You do believe, no matter what government is formed, at the end of the day, the hand of the ISI will be there behind? Even if the Taliban find credible faces of their own, the strings will be in ISI hands?
RB: For a considerable while, yes.
KT: How long is a considerable while?
RB: Anything between six months to a year at least.
KT: But after a year, the government could begin to break free?
RB: It would depend on the safe havens, where their children are, where their families are. What they do with their properties in Pakistan. If they can have better sanctions or options available to them inside Afghanistan then—
KT: So in other words, if the world wants the Taliban to loosen the strings that attach them to the ISI, we need to find ways of helping them with their sons and their properties so they can establish independence and separation.
KT: Thank you very much indeed. This has been a comprehensive interview, you’ve given us incredible detail. I’m not sure everyone will be able to follow all of it, but for those who care, both about the history and the details of the Pakistani involvement and the ISI in particular with the Taliban, and those who also want to know who are the factions and who are the personalities within the Taliban, you’ve been like an encyclopedia.
RB: Thank you.
KT: Thank you very much indeed, Banerji. Take care, stay safe.
RB: Thank you.