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Pakistan spy agency accused of arming Taliban in secret

By David Wastell in Washington, Telegraph [UK], 12 Sep 2001


PAKISTAN'S military intelligence agency channelled arms and ammunition secretly to the Taliban for at least a month after President Musharraf declared support for Washington in the war on terrorism, it was reported yesterday.

Military advisers and officers from the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency also helped to strengthen Taliban defences around Kandahar, the regime's southern stronghold, and gave tactical advice, according to Western and Pakistani officials quoted in the New York Times.

On at least two occasions known to Western officials, Pakistani border guards at a checkpoint on the Khyber Pass waved on lorry convoys bound for Afghanistan.

Beneath their tarpaulins were consignments of assault rifles, ammunition and rocket-propelled grenade launchers for Taliban fighters, the newspaper reported.

The convoys, on October 8 and 12, were the last officially sanctioned deliveries, said a senior Pakistani intelligence official.

The report confirms suspicions that Pakistan's largely independent ISI, which backed the Taliban's seizure of power in Afghanistan, still had many officers sympathetic to the defeated regime.

Christina Lamb, The Telegraph's award-winning foreign correspondent, was arrested and deported from Pakistan last month while investigating similar claims.

The ISI and Pakistan's interior ministry claimed at the time that she posed a risk to national security but refused to elaborate.

General Musharraf, who became president of Pakistan after a military coup last year, bowed to an ultimatum from Washington to withdraw support for the Taliban after the September 11 attack.

Although he has been widely praised for his decision, and took steps to replace some suspect officials, it took at least a month for the ISI to begin to come to heel, according to the New York Times.

The paper quotes a Western diplomat as saying that it was only when Pakistani military advisers were withdrawn from Afghanistan during the second half of October that Taliban forces began to collapse.

"We did not fully understand the significance of Pakistan's role in propping up the Taliban until their guys withdrew and things went to hell for the Talibs," he said.

The change came after Gen Musharraf took the risky step of replacing the ISI's pro- Taliban director with a more moderate figure. Later, other intelligence officials were being questioned and their positions reviewed.

Pakistan's government reacted furiously to yesterday's report. Maj-Gen Rashid Qureshi, a military spokesman, said the report was "absolutely false and incorrect".

In fact, he said, Afghanistan was littered with "huge, enormous arms dumps" from previous Soviet and American interventions. The country was more likely to be exporting weapons than importing them.

In Washington, the State Department refused to be drawn into the dispute. "This is a matter for the Pakistanis," a spokesman said. Officials said the Bush administration retained full confidence in Gen Musharraf and was pleased with the steps he had taken since September 11.

The ISI helped channel up to $3 billion of American funds into Afghanistan during the 1980s for the fight against occupying Soviet troops. Many agents regarded their support for the Taliban as a religious duty.

"It will not be so easy for officers to set aside their beliefs and change sides," said Lt-Gen Hamid Gul, a former ISI director, who made plain he was among them.

He told the New York Times: "You Americans will have to support the Taliban one day. They are not going to go away. They are integral, organic, historic."

Gen Musharraf won admiration in Washington for his decision to lead Pakistan in a new direction after the September 11 attack, despite the risk of domestic trouble from Taliban supporters and other Islamic fundamentalists.

In fact, anti-American demonstrations inside Pakistan have dwindled over the past few weeks as the Taliban regime has lost its grip on power.

However, the Taliban's collapse poses a fresh problem for his government. Many Taliban fighters, including Pakistanis, are slipping through the long and porous border to take refuge in Pathan tribal regions of Pakistan where the army's control is limited.

Pakistan said yesterday that it had moved helicopter gunships and more troops to the border to bar Taliban or al-Qaeda fighters. Gen Qureshi declined to elaborate on the deployments but said: "They are substantial. They are enough to do the job."

Many are stationed in areas opposite Osama bin Laden's suspected hideouts in the Tora Bora mountains and near the Chaman crossing in the south.

© 2001 The Telegraph
Reprinted for Fair Use Only.

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