Pakistani Unconventional Warfare Against Afghanistan: A Case Study of the Taliban as an Unconventional Warfare Proxy Force
Douglas A. Livermore
As the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan transitions full responsibility for operations to local forces and prepares to withdrawal the bulk of its forces by the end of 2014, it is important to look to the future of the conflict. The Taliban is far from defeated, and they will definitely remain a formidable foe to the Afghan government in 2015 and beyond. The world will witness a protracted and extremely violent struggle for dominance between the legitimate Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA) and the fundamentalist Taliban insurgency vying to reinstitute the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan which was overthrown by the US-led effort in late 2001. On one side, the Afghan government will do everything in its power to remain firmly entrenched as the central national authority governing from Kabul, the capital city. Opposing them, the Taliban will continue to strike out from safe havens in Western and Southern Pakistan, attempting to undermine the Afghan government and reemerge as the dominant power in Afghanistan. The Taliban seeks to reclaim the central national authority currently held by the Afghan government and once again exercise near-complete political and spiritual control over the entire population of Afghanistan.
What is not entirely clear to casual outside observers is the “hidden hand” that directs and ultimately benefits from the Taliban’s efforts to destabilize Afghanistan. Pakistan, and specifically its Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI), has been engaged in an incredibly long-term unconventional warfare campaign that provides an illuminating view into how such a strategy can be used to indirectly achieve a state’s national objectives. By employing the Taliban as a proxy force, Pakistan has achieved key regional objectives without the bulk of its conventional forces becoming decisively engaged in Afghanistan. While the ISI originally launched an Unconventional Warfare (UW) campaign to destabilize Afghanistan at the direction and with the full backing of then-President Mohammed Zia-ul-Haq after he took power in a bloody coup in 1979, it is unclear if that support continues today under the democratically elected President Asif Ali Zadari. Regardless, evidence that the ISI continues to support and direct the Taliban is voluminous, indicating a continuation of the UW campaign, with or without the direct permission of Pakistan’s elected leaders. When viewed with a critical eye, the Pakistani UW campaign against Afghanistan, with the Taliban acting as an indigenous proxy force, exhibits all of the characteristics and phases codified in the UW model used by the United States Government (USG). By analyzing the campaign through this lens, one can better understand the situation on the ground today as well as predict future Pakistani and Taliban strategies designed to undermine and potentially overthrow the legitimate government of Afghanistan. Perhaps the most important question that should be asked is this: Why would Pakistan want to conduct UW against Afghanistan?
“Pashtunistan.” This word has struck fear into the hearts of Pakistani leaders for generations. Meaning “Land of the Pashtuns”, it is a concept deeply rooted in the psyche of the Pashtun tribes which straddle the Afghan-Pakistani border and poses a potential existential threat to modern-day Pakistan. The modern border, known as the “Durand Line”, is poorly defined and regularly contested. In 1893, the British, represented by Mortimer Durand, forced the Afghan Emir Abdur Rahman Khan to accept a dictated boundary between Afghanistan and Pakistan (then “British India”). This border was intentionally designed by the British to divide the Pashtuns, thereby keeping Afghanistan weak and a perfect “buffer zone” between the encroaching Russian Empire and British India (on which the Russians had designs). Afghan rulers since Abdur Rahman have almost universally rejected the “Durand Line” and the current government of President Hamid Karzai, himself a Pashtun, refuses to recognize this border as legitimate. There are regular skirmishes between Afghan and Pakistani troops all along their shared border as each side jockeys for every slight advantage. The most recent major flare-up occurred in September of 2011, when Pakistan launched more than 340 artillery rockets into Afghanistan, damaging several towns and forcing the evacuation of thousands of terrified Afghans. 
Generally speaking, there is little common understanding among the population of Afghanistan who exactly qualifies as an “Afghan”. In antiquity, the ethnic term “Afghan” was accepted as synonymous with only the Pashtuns. Against this historic framework, and with few exceptions, loyalty in Afghanistan rarely extends beyond the tribal or ethnic level, as Hazaras, Tajiks, Uzbeks, and other non-Pashtun ethnic groups in Afghanistan cautiously eye the Pashtun majority. Given their druthers, the Pashtun majority of Afghanistan would undoubtedly seek reunification with the Pashtun tribes in Western Pakistan under the banner of a “Greater Afghanistan”. Doing so would strip nearly half of Pakistan’s land area as well as its vital Indian Ocean ports of Jiwani, Gwadar, and Pasni. These ports give Pakistan access to the mouth of the Arabian/Persian Gulf and provide further strategic strength. Obviously, the loss of Pashtun lands is unacceptable to Islamabad, which is why the Pakistanis have consistently sought to undermine Afghan unity and maintain a weakened Afghanistan in order to secure their northwest border.Despite its concern about Afghanistan, it is India, not Afghanistan, which Pakistan sees as the greatest regional threat. India and Pakistan have officially fought wars in 1947, 1965, 1971, and 1999, in addition to numerous undeclared skirmishes along their shared borders, particularly near the contested Kashmir province. Because of this constant threat, Pakistan maintains the vast majority of its conventional forces along the Kashmir and Indian borders, poised to blunt Indian aggression or to potentially take advantage of any real or perceived vulnerabilities in India’s defenses. Aside from the direct threat posed by the emergence of “Pashtunistan”, the Karzai administration has also greatly improved relations with India, much to the discomfort of Pakistan. Immediately after the fall of the Taliban and the installation of Hamid Karzai as president of Afghanistan, India, which previously supported the Northern Alliance against the Taliban and Pakistan, opened consulates in Kandahar, Jalalabad, Herat, and Mazar-e-Sharif. Both Iran and India have become heavily invested in both the Afghan private and government sectors, thereby raising for the Pakistanis the specter of regional envelopment by hostile powers. As a result, Pakistan chose to employ the Taliban and other insurgent groups as proxies against Afghanistan as an “economy of force” effort. Without having to commit the bulk of its conventional force to dealing with Afghanistan, which would have left the Kashmiri and shared borders with India weakened, the Pakistanis instead “outsourced” the bulk of its efforts vis-à-vis Afghanistan to the Taliban. The Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) Human Rights Watch reported in 2000:
“Of all the foreign powers involved in efforts to sustain and manipulate the ongoing fighting [in Afghanistan], Pakistan is distinguished both by the sweep of its objectives and the scale of its efforts, which include soliciting funding for the Taliban, bankrolling Taliban operations, providing diplomatic support as the Taliban's virtual emissaries abroad, arranging training for Taliban fighters, recruiting skilled and unskilled manpower to serve in Taliban armies, planning and directing offensives, providing and facilitating shipments of ammunition and fuel, and ... directly providing combat support.”
In the course of this case study, it will become evident that the ISI has conducted and continues to wage unconventional warfare (UW)—defined by USG as “activities conducted to enable a resistance movement or insurgency to coerce, disrupt, or overthrow a government or occupying power by operating through or with an underground, auxiliary, and guerrilla force in a denied area.” —against Afghanistan in order to achieve its own national objectives. This UW campaign, employing the Taliban and other insurgent entities, has alternately been designed to “coerce, disrupt, and overthrow” first the government of the Islamic State of Afghanistan and now the GIRoA. Beginning with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979, the ISI has manipulated and used various insurgent factions in Afghanistan to ensure instability and pursue Pakistan’s own regional ambitions. These efforts came to a head in the post-Soviet era, when the ISI expedited the formation of the Taliban and provided equipment, training, and direction aimed to overthrow the fledgling “Islamic State of Afghanistan” created after the ouster of the Soviet puppet government of Mohammed Najibullah. The Taliban, with considerable Pakistani support, successfully conquered most of Afghanistan by 1996, claiming Kabul and driving the remaining elements of the transitional government, then called “The Northern Alliance” into the far northeastern corner of the country. Al-Qaeda (“The Base”), a terrorist group that also traced its origins to the anti-Soviet mujahedeen movement and which received safe haven under Taliban protection in Afghanistan, conducted a series of coordinated attack on the US in September of 2001. This action nearly undid all of Pakistan’s efforts when the US-led assault quickly overthrew the Taliban and forced the majority of its leadership to take refuge in their original safe havens in Pakistan. For the last eleven years, the Taliban and its associated insurgent groups have waged guerrilla warfare from these Pakistani safe havens, supported by the ISI.
Careful analysis of the Pakistani UW campaign, using the Taliban as an indigenous proxy force, readily reveals the organizational elements and phasing outlined in USG UW doctrine. The definitive work on this subject is Training Circular 18-01 “Special Forces Unconventional Warfare”, published by Headquarters, Department of the Army. This document outlines seven distinct phases within the USG model for UW, though it goes to great lengths to point out that not all phases are necessary or must proceed in a linear fashion to ensure success in UW. Given specific conditions, successful UW can be waged without conducting all phases. The USG doctrinal phases of UW consist of:
- Psychological Preparation –The aggressor state conducts assessments of and employs information operations (formerly psychological/propaganda operations) designed to influence the population of a target country. These steps are necessary to determine the suitability for and set the initial conditions to initiate an insurgency.
- Initial Contact – Intelligence agents or special operations forces from the aggressor state meet with key leaders of the insurgency to begin cooperation and arrange for follow-on support from the aggressor state to the insurgents.
- Infiltration – Agents of the aggressor state and/or indigenous insurgent forces enter, either covertly or clandestinely, into the operational area in order to begin efforts to undermine, coerce, or overthrow the established authority (either a government or occupying power).
- Organization – Agents from the aggressor state assess the composition and capabilities of the insurgency and then advise the insurgent leadership on changes designed to maximize effectiveness of the insurgency. Organizational design is intended to achieve optimal balance between leadership (underground), support personnel (auxiliary), and fighters (guerrillas).
- Buildup – Agents train and advise insurgents while generally avoiding contact with forces from the targeted authority (government or occupying power). This phase is designed to develop insurgent forces and increase the capabilities of the insurgency before undertaking full-scale combat operations. Some limited guerrilla operations can be conducted against lightly-defended targets (“confidence targets”) to build the morale of the guerrilla force and validate training previously given by the agents to the guerrillas.
- Combat Utilization – Insurgent forces conduct guerrilla warfare under the advisement of aggressor state agents. The goal is to gradually increase the frequency and intensity of guerrilla attacks in order to achieve operational objectives while preventing a massive retaliation from the targeted authorities (government or occupying power). These guerrilla operations are designed to achieve insurgent objectives but can also be coordinated with objectives of the aggressor state. Guerrilla operations can facilitate the introduction of conventional forces from the aggressor state or continue without assistance to coerce, disrupt, or overthrow the government or occupying power.
- Transition/Demobilization – Upon the achievement of the aggressor state’s national objectives, the indigenous insurgent forces can either be transformed into the new legitimate authority (in the event of an overthrow of the previous regime) or demobilized (as might be the case if the objective was simply to coerce or disrupt a targeted regime or occupying power). Members of the insurgency can transition into legitimate government, military, or law enforcement entities thereby ensuring the continuation of control within the targeted country.
The Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence, normally referred to as simply the ISI, is an entirely separate entity of the Pakistani government, independent from the Pakistani military and any meaningful civilian oversight. However, the ISI does draw the bulk of its force from the military, estimated by some experts to be around 10,000 personnel. Within the ISI, there exists a “Covert Action Division” (CAD), very much akin in design and purpose to the US Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) “Special Activities Division” (SAD). The CAD/ISI conducts paramilitary and other covert special operations in support of Pakistani national interests, responsibilities into which UW fits perfectly. Within both the CAD/ISI and SAD/CIA reside the expertise and authorities to execute UW campaigns using indigenous forces to pursue objectives of national importance. Previously, the CAD/ISI received training from and cooperated with the SAD/CIA, most visibly during their joint UW campaign, Operation CYCLONE, against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. SAD/CIA and CAD/ISI worked together to train, equip, and direct Afghan resistance forces, known colloquially as the “mujahedeen” (“those who pursue jihad [holy war]”), to undermine and ultimately overthrow the communist, pro-Soviet Democratic Republic of Afghanistan (DRA) and expel the Soviet invaders. The CIA and ISI celebrated the latter outcome when the last Soviet forces withdrew across the so-called “Friendship Bridge” in Balkh Province, Afghanistan in February of 1989. After the Soviets withdrew, the UW campaign against Afghanistan became a purely Pakistani/mujahedeen affair, as the CIA withdrew the vast majority of its support. The fall of the DRA, took a bit longer, finally succumbing to the mujahedeen in 1992. Despite past cooperation with the CIA, the years since 1989 have seen a rapid emergence of radical Islamist sympathies within the ISI, suggesting that, if ISI support of the Taliban is unsanctioned at the Pakistani parliamentary level, it is clearly tolerated within the ranks of the secretive ISI given the ethnic and ideological ties shared between its members and the Taliban. Since the fall of Pakistan’s strongman dictator-turned-president, Pervez Musharraf, the civilian government’s efforts to exert increased control and oversight of the ISI, such as the abortive July 2008 attempt to legislatively place the ISI under the supervision of the interior ministry, have proved futile.
Following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December of 1979, the Pakistanis found themselves in a unique position to influence events in Afghanistan in a manner that would ensure continued instability. By providing safe haven for and a conduit for US/CIA aid to the Afghan resistance, the Pakistanis, specifically the ISI, were placed perfectly to control the “endgame” in Afghanistan. During the Soviet occupation, the ISI carefully managed the relationships between the major mujahedeen groups and funneled CIA aid in order to ensure Afghan disunity in perpetuity. While the Soviet’s occupied Afghanistan, the ISI held a legitimate fear that more drastic efforts, such as direct military intervention, would incite a massive Soviet retaliation against Pakistan. At the same time, the ISI was engaged in Phase 1 (Psychological Preparation) of UW, an intense effort to shape Afghan perceptions and set the conditions for the post-Soviet insurgency planned to install an Afghan government amenable to Pakistani interests. Following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, and with the CIA no longer providing or directing the disposition of aid, the ISI shifted the preponderance of military support to the hardline Islamist mujahedeen, such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Jalaluddin Haqqani, in an effort to keep Afghanistan in an extended state of civil war and ensure the emergence of a mujahedeen faction leader loyal to Pakistan. Hekmatyar, as the head of Hezb-e-Islami, was a Pashtun warlord, fully committed to the pursuit of personal power. So ambitious was Hekmatyar, that he was often accused of spending "more time fighting other Mujahideen than killing Soviets". For his part, Haqqani spent part of the war against the Soviets as a member of Hezb-e-Islami before breaking away to form his own network. During this period, the CIA used Haqqani’s network as an “independent asset” in Afghanistan and US congressman Charlie Wilson, made famous for his own instrumental advocacy of US support to the mujahedeen, referred to Haqqani as “goodness personified”. Conversely, the chief of staff for the Pakistani army reportedly called Haqqani and his network, “a strategic asset”. While Haqqani was always considered a hardline Islamic radical, he fortuitously switched his allegiance to the Taliban just before their eventual victory in 1996. Despite the rise of the Taliban in 1992, Hezb-e-Islami and the Haqqani Network have remained largely independent from the larger group, though they often cooperate on specific goals and the ISI has maintained very active relations with each group for the purposes of waging its UW campaign in Afghanistan.
As the civil war ground on, living conditions for the average Afghan continued to deteriorate as the warlords squabbled bloodily amongst each other. Basic necessities became increasingly scarce as inflation soared. Those who could not flee to Pakistan fell deeper and deeper into squalor. Particularly in the south, amongst the civilian populace around Kandahar, there was a groundswell of demand for stability and an end to the seemingly ceaseless violence. Most importantly, the Pakistani Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (“Assembly of Islamic Clergy”), a religiously conservative political group that advocated for imposition of Sharia law in Pakistan, established schools in the Afghan refugee camps that dotted southern and western Pakistan. These schools, or madrassas, were largely funded by the ISI beginning in the early 1980s, using both Pakistani funds and those provided from private donors in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and other Middle Eastern states friendly to the cause of radical Islam. In these schools, radical clerics preached the virtues of jihad and the establishment of a Sharia-based Caliphate. The first seeds were sown from which the core of the Taliban would eventually spring. UW Phase 1 (Psychological Preparation) was intensified through the radicalization of Afghan refugee youth in the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam madrassas, and the Afghan general population’s desperation caused by the Pakistani-sustained civil war, ensuring that Afghanistan would be ripe for the taking in Pakistan’s larger UW campaign. By 1991, an initial cadre of Taliban, led by a charismatic radical cleric, Mullah Mohammed Omar, moved out of southern Pakistan to set up operations around Kandahar in southern Afghanistan. Omar was a veteran of the mujahedeen campaign against the Soviets, having received considerable training directly from the ISI on multiple occasions during the 1980s. Not even the emergence of a weak transitional government in Kabul, called the Islamic State of Afghanistan, in April of 1992 was enough to dissuade the ISI from its intentions to set loose the Taliban in Afghanistan. The psychological conditions were set for the birth of an insurgency that would, however briefly, achieve Pakistan’s regional goals.
While the Taliban continued to percolate in southern Pakistan and Afghanistan, the ISI amplified its effort to overthrow the newly-formed Islamic State under interim-President Burhanuddin Rabbani through use of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s hardline Islamist militia, Hezb-e-Islami (“Islamic Party”), by providing massive amounts of military aid and other assistance. Amin Saikal, an expert on Afghan affairs, wrote of these efforts:
“Islamabad [Pakistan] could not possibly expect the new Islamic government leaders [the Afghan transitional government]... to subordinate their own nationalist objectives in order to help Pakistan realize its regional ambitions. Had it not been for the ISI's logistic support and supply of a large number of rockets, Hekmatyar's forces would not have been able to target and destroy half of Kabul.”
Hekmatyar was the clear favorite of the Pakistanis to fulfill its purposes as a puppet leader for the Afghans, but his forces proved unable to capture Kabul and were repeatedly defeated by the other warlords now serving the Islamic State, notably Ahmad Shah Massoud. Known as the “Lion of Panjshir” for his defeat of nine separate Soviet assaults into the Panjshir Valley, Massoud was a legendary figure who served as the Minister of Defense for the Islamic State before and during the Taliban/Pakistani invasion. Specifically, Massoud expertly led a counterattack that broke and routed Hekmatyar’s forces besieging Kabul. Massoud, gracious in victory and desiring to end the civil war that ravaged Afghanistan, asked Hekmatyar to accept the post of minister of the interior for the Islamic State, place aside personal ambitions of total power, and bring his Hezb-e-Islami militia into the fold. Blinded by ambition, Hekmatyar vehemently refused and began rebuilding his forces in preparation for another attempt at overthrowing the Islamic State.
Meanwhile to the dismay of Pakistan, the new Afghan government was receiving military and economic backing from both Iran and India, two of Pakistan’s greatest regional rivals. Every day that the government of the Islamic State remained in power was another day with which it could solidify its hold on power. With frustration mounting, the ISI decided in 1992 to change course and withdrew much of its support of Hekmatyar redirecting it to the Taliban Fearing that a unified and powerful Afghanistan would eventually seek resolution of the Pashtunistan “question” through force of arms, the ISI provided funding and training to create the first Taliban formations in late 1992 to serve as a proxy force for the destabilization and conquest of Afghanistan. Consistent with Phase 2 (Initial Contact) of the doctrinal UW model, the ISI approached Mullah Omar sometime in 1991 or early 1992 to offer its services for the achievement of the Taliban’s goals in Afghanistan. Making initial contact with the Taliban was easy for the CAD/ISI, since thousands of adherents remained in Pakistan around Quetta where they continued to receive radical Islamist instruction at the ISI-funded Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam madrassas. Mullah Omar maintained his rear headquarters in Quetta from which he regularly traveled back and forth to Kandahar and where he allegedly met with the ISI several times. As the Taliban was essentially a CAD/ISI creation, it did not take long to coordinate agreements between the ISI and the Taliban to achieve the Pakistani objective of toppling the troublesome Afghan transitional government through a UW campaign using the Taliban as a proxy force. The ISI offered the Taliban the training and equipment it desperately needed to achieve its goal of establishing an Islamist Caliphate in Afghanistan, and all that the ISI asked in return were friendly relations and support of Pakistani regional objectives once the Taliban was in power. UW Phase 2 (Initial Contact) was essentially a foregone conclusion given the extremely close relationship that the ISI had with the Taliban throughout its formative years.
Given the lawless nature of southern Afghanistan between 1992 and 1994, Taliban and CAD/ISI forces were able to freely move between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Because of this, Phase 3 (Infiltration) of the UW model was similarly easy for the ISI to accomplish. The porous border has historically been incredibly difficult to control, as numerous unmapped paths crisscross the mountainous regions between Pakistan and Afghanistan. During the mujahedeen conflict against the Soviets, the ISI had used these trails to push tens of thousands of fighters across the very same routes that it would now use to infiltrate Taliban proxy forces as well as their CAD/ISI advisors. Previously, hardened DRA and Soviet troops had been unable to stem the flow of fighters coming out of Pakistan, even with full control of Kandahar and all of the major routes throughout the country. Now, in 1992, with Kandahar Province in the throes of a local power struggle between competing warlords, the resulting anarchy allowed the Taliban to come and go as they pleased. Though starting with very small numbers, the ISI would eventually direct the infiltration of massive formations of Taliban fighters directly into Kandahar Province after which they spread throughout Afghanistan.
As the ISI had been intimately involved in the initial stages of the Taliban’s formation within the madrassas, the Taliban was easily reorganized from a simple student religious group to a functional military formation, ready to conduct guerrilla operations to undermine and ultimately supplant the Rabbanni government of the Islamic State. Phase 4 (Organization) of the doctrinal UW model, as it was executed by the Pakistani ISI, went through several revisions over the course of the UW campaign. Often, the religious leader, or mullah, of each madrassa would serve as the military commander for the students under his care, a system that lent itself well to paramilitary organization necessary for training/equipping and guerrilla operations. The ISI simply adopted and adapted this organizational structure, providing as much training as possible to overcome the lack of military experience from which many of the mullahs suffered. Of course, in some cases, such as that of Omar, these mullahs were also experienced veterans of the previous insurgency against the Soviets. As part of this phase, the ISI established routes by which it would be able to sustain the Taliban after infiltration during the UW campaign against the Islamic State government. Of particular utility were the opium smuggling routes operated by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e-Islam faction, over which Hekmatyar had transported hundreds of thousands of tons of opium by 1992. The ISI made use of these historic smuggling routes through the porous Afghanistan-Pakistan border, the same ones used during the Soviet occupation to provide military aid to the mujahedeen. These paths offered ready-made resupply routes over which the Pakistanis would push massive amounts of critical supplies into Afghanistan in order to sustain the Taliban insurgency.
Starting in 1992, the ISI began an intensive training regimen for the Taliban in Pakistani camps designed to build up and prepare them for battle against the Afghan transitional government, a clear indication of the ISI engagement in UW Phase 5 (Build-Up). Using recruits from the massive Afghan refugee populations amassed in Pakistan as a result of the Soviet invasion and subsequent Afghan civil war, the ISI established recruitment and training camps while continuing to cultivate leadership elements of the Taliban around the town of Quetta, which today remains the spiritual root of the Taliban. The masses of young, idealistic students in the madrassas, their heads previously filled by radical clerics with utopian visions of jihad, received practical training in the employment of deadly weapons, small unit tactics, and other necessary skills to create an effective guerrilla. In camps scattered throughout southern and western Pakistan, specifically in Quetta and the Federally Administered Tribal Area, Pakistani Army and CAD/ISI forces trained and equipped Taliban units for deployment to Kandahar. The Taliban conducted its first “confidence target” operation in the spring of 1994, in the village of Sangesar, located near Kandahar. Taliban fighters, led by Mullah Omar in a daring raid, captured a local governor whom villagers accused of kidnapping and raping two young girls. Without trial, the Mullah Omar ordered the governor hung from the barrel of a tank.  Mullah Omar initially had only about 50 Taliban adherents in the Kandahar area, but reinforcements would soon arrive. Each raid or ambush on Afghan government troops or other militias built up the Taliban’s confidence in and the ISIs validation of the training completed, while also attracting additional recruits to the cause. With Phase 5 (Build-Up) complete, the ISI was ready to release the Taliban wholesale into Afghanistan for the purposes of achieving Pakistan’s national objectives during Phase 6 (Combat Employment).
When Mullah Omar ordered the Taliban to undertake large-scale offensive operations against the government of the Islamic State of Afghanistan in the spring of 1994, it did not take long to swell his ranks with recent Taliban graduates from the Pakistani training camps. The ISI rapidly pushed large numbers of Taliban across the border and into Kandahar to reinforce Omar, thereby indicating a distinct shift into Phase 6 (Combat Employment) of the UW campaign construct. By the summer, Mullah Omar could count at least 15,000 fighters within his ranks, making him a serious contender to the Afghan transitional government, which was still struggling to form functional ministries and fend off Hekmatyar’s offenses that were again threatening Kabul. Taliban formations advanced northward toward Kandahar City from their intermediate staging bases in Maiwand District, Kandahar Province. Many victories brought additional fighters and heavy weapons into the Taliban fold as the majority of local warlords, with their much smaller militias, chose to join the Taliban rather than futilely resist them. One province after another fell to the Taliban, with many of their inhabitants welcoming them as liberators and hoping for the stability promised by the Taliban’s Sharia law as an alternative to the horrific chaos of the last fifteen years. The psychological preparation that the Pakistanis had established as part of their Afghan conflict-extending measures clearly smoothed the way for their Taliban proxies to conquer large swaths of the countryside. However, there were major setbacks, and the Taliban suffered a number of significant defeats in late 1994 and early 1995. The Taliban attempt to capture Herat in southwestern Afghanistan was thwarted by government forces and the Taliban suffered extremely heavy casualties. By late September of 1995, the Taliban had advanced to the outskirts of Kabul, besieging the city and showering rockets onto military and civilian targets, alike. Once again, Massoud sallied forth leading the armed forces of the transitional government and achieved a miraculous victory over the Taliban, routing them. Ahmed Rashid, a noted Afghanistan scholar, wrote about the impact of these Taliban defeats:
"The Taliban had now been decisively pushed back on two fronts by the government and their political and military leadership was in disarray. Their image as potential peacemakers was badly dented, for in the eyes of many Afghans they had become nothing more than just another warlord party."
Fearing a possible failure of the mission, the ISI pulled the Taliban forces back and undertook a massive effort to reinforce and reequip them. Reinforcements came in the form of a massive new “batch” of Taliban recruits from Pakistan, nearly 25,000, as well as several units from the Pakistani Army intended to steel the resolve of the Taliban. Much of the funding for the new equipment and training came from Saudi Arabia, and the commitment of Pakistani military units signaled the importance which the ISI placed on Taliban success. In 1996, the Taliban went back on the offensive. The US Defense Intelligence Agency reported in 1996 that:
"These Frontier Corps elements [of the Pakistani Army] are utilized in command and control; training; and when necessary - combat. Elements of Pakistan's regular army force are not used because the army is predominantly Punjabi, who have different features as compared to the Pashtun and other Afghan tribes."
The Taliban, now aided directly by Pakistani CAD/ISI and military forces, captured Herat in a surprise attack in September 1995. The siege of Kabul was renewed that same month, though Massoud continued to hold out and was even able to continue the consolidation of power under the transitional government. In addition to Taliban rockets, the Pakistanis added indiscriminate artillery bombardment and even used its ground attack aircraft to pound Kabul and its outskirts. Massoud’s effort to negotiate an inclusive government with Taliban participation was rejected outright. Regardless, Massoud held out for a year before finally withdrawing his forces from the city, still in good order, to prevent more needless death and destruction. The Taliban entered Kabul on 26 September 1996, having successfully overthrown Rabbani and seized power. The capture of Kabul marked the end of Phase 6 (Combat Employment) as the ISI UW campaign entered into the last and possibly most critical phase, Phase 7 (Transition). The remnants of the transitional forces, led by Massoud, conducted a fighting withdrawal to the north after rebranding themselves the “United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan”. This group was factional, at best, with ethnic groups operating under their own commanders but owing some grudging allegiance to Massoud. Massoud’s forces, more commonly known to the West as the “Northern Alliance”, managed to hold onto a small number of Northern provinces despite the best efforts of the Taliban and Pakistanis to crush them. India and Iran provided massive amounts of aid to the Northern Alliance in order to resist the Taliban and their Pakistani masters, estimated at approximately $70 million (and at least five Mi-17 helicopters) between 1996 and 2001. Conservative estimates place the total number of Pakistani military troops who served in Afghanistan between 1994 and 1999, fighting alongside the Taliban at between 80,000 and 100,000. Human Rights Watch reported, "Pakistani aircraft assisted with troop rotations of Taliban forces during combat operations in late 2000 and... senior members of Pakistan's intelligence agency and army were involved in planning military operations.” Clearly, Afghanistan, as a whole, served as an extended proxy battlefield between the major regional powers, much to the detriment of the average Afghan civilian and regional stability.
The Taliban and Pakistanis moved swiftly to consolidate the transition of power during Phase 7 (Transition) at the successful conclusion of the UW campaign. Pakistan, followed only by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, quickly recognized the Taliban movement, their own creation and UW proxy force, as the legitimate government of Afghanistan. Ultimately, the Taliban would extend its influence deep into the lives of nearly every Afghan, banning smoking, dancing, music, alcohol, and a whole litany of other “vices”. Women and girls were banned from working or attending school, and required to wear the traditional “burqa” full-body dress. To enforce these rules, the Taliban established “religious police” who employed draconian measures to punish perceived offenses. Sharia law replaced the existing justice system and Afghanistan witnessed a complete reversal of the democratic processes started under President Rabbanni.
Once in power, the Taliban executed a number of moves intended to solidify their power and support Pakistan’s regional interests. For instance, in 1998, an Iranian consulate in a Northern Alliance area was seized by the Taliban and the Iranian diplomats murdered. Though the Taliban claimed the murders were the work of “rogue elements”. Iran alleges to this day that it collected radio intercepts during the attack proving that Mullah Omar personally approved the execution of its diplomats. Regardless, the attack weakened Iran’s influence and ability to aid the Northern Alliance, benefitting both the Taliban and Pakistan’s efforts in Afghanistan. Despite such “gains”, the Taliban’s success in Afghanistan was ultimately undone because of its relationship with a small but deadly terrorist faction, al-Qaeda. The founder of Al-Qaeda, Osama bin-Laden, had been a low-level financier and facilitator for a small group of Arab mujahedeen during the 1980s. During that time he formed important and lasting relationships, in particular with the head of the Pakistani ISI, Hamid Gul. After the Soviet withdrawal, bin-Laden had returned to Saudi Arabia, only to be infuriated by the US presence in Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War against Iraq. Al-Qaeda evolved slowly, but its headquarters moved repeatedly during the 1990s, being expelled from Sudan before finally finding a home in Afghanistan under the Taliban. Assassins from al-Qaeda, posing as a media crew, detonated explosives hidden in a camera during an interview and killed Massoud at his Northern Alliance headquarters just two days before al-Qaeda’s brazen series of coordinated attacks on the US on 11 September 2011. In response, the US demanded that the Taliban surrender bin-Laden and the leadership of al-Qaeda. The Taliban refused, instead offering to hand al-Qaeda over to a “neutral” third party, such as Pakistan, for trial and eventual punishment. Unsatisfied, the US led an invasion, itself a UW campaign, spearheaded by special operations forces and paramilitary operatives from the CIA who, together with the Northern Alliance, succeeded in toppling the Taliban by November.
Pakistan claims that it severed all ties of support with the Taliban after the September 2001 attacks, though that has not prevented the Taliban from reoccupying the safe havens in Western Pakistan from which it originally sprang in 1992. Taliban and al-Qaeda forces fleeing Afghanistan in November of 2001 allegedly received assistance from ISI, and some were even evacuated on Pakistani Air Force cargo aircraft out of Kunduz to refuge in Pakistan. In 2006, the chief of staff for UK forces in southern Afghanistan, Colonel Chris Vernon, stated, "The thinking piece of the Taliban is out of Quetta in Pakistan. It's the major headquarters." This headquarters, known as the “Quetta Shura”, is located in southern Pakistan while sizeable formations of Taliban train and launch operations into Afghanistan from Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) and the Islamic Emirate of Waziristan. Islamabad granted Waziristan virtual autonomy and has exercised very limited control in the FATA since 2006, allowing the Taliban near-immunity to impose Sharia law and regroup for their continuing operations to undermine the legitimate government of Afghanistan.
The Taliban, allegedly acting on intelligence and with support provided by the ISI, have repeatedly attacked Indian targets in Afghanistan. The Indian Embassy in Kabul was attacked by suicide bombers in July 2008, killing 58 and wounding 141, and again in October 2009, this time killing 40 and injuring more than 100. In both cases, the Afghans, Indians, and US either insinuated or outright accused the ISI of being behind the attacks, though the Taliban claimed responsibility. The US president, George W. Bush, presented evidence of ISI involvement in the 2008 attack to the Pakistani Prime Minister and threatened “serious action”. The Indian national security advisor was much more direct, stating, "We have no doubt that the ISI is behind this [referring to the 2008 suicide bombing]." Rather than refrain from attacking diplomatic targets, the ISI allegedly employed the Taliban to attack the US embassy in Kabul in September of 2011, killing at least seven people and wounding another 19. In response, the US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullins, stated before the US Senate Armed Services Committee that:
"The fact remains that the Quetta Shura [Taliban] and the Haqqani Network operate from Pakistan with impunity. [They are] Extremist organizations serving as proxies of the government of Pakistan [that] are attacking Afghan troops and civilians as well as US soldiers. For example, we believe the Haqqani Network, which has long enjoyed the support and protection of the Pakistani government and is, in many ways, a strategic arm of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Agency, is responsible for the September 13th attacks against the U.S. Embassy in Kabul."
Most recently, the Taliban launched a massive assault on the Indian consulate in Jalalabad, Afghanistan on 3 August 2013. The attack resulted in several deaths and injuries, though the majority occurred at nearby mosque damaged by a suicide truck bomb. Attacks of this nature are well within the modus operandi of the ISI, as demonstrated by the alleged involvement of the ISI in directing and supporting members of the Pakistani hardline Islamist group Lashkar-e-Taiba (“Army of the Righteous”) during the bloody coordinated attacks in Mumbai, India, in November of 2008. Lashkar-e-Taiba conducts operations from bases in the Pakistani-Kashmir region and has sought since 1990 to achieve the “liberation” of Muslims in Indian-Kashmir by way of violence. While Pakistan officially declared Lashkar-e-Taiba a terrorist organization, a study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in 2011 found significant evidence that the ISI employs the group to conduct terrorist attacks in Kashmir and India as part of a larger UW campaign to weaken India’s hold on the contested area. In the 2008 Mumbai attack, Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorists conducted numerous small-arms and bomb attacks against a number of popular Mumbai hotels and shopping centers, killed 166 people and injured at least 308. One of the terrorists was captured alive by Indian security forces and later admitted to receiving direction and support from the ISI. Repeatedly, the ISI employs proxy forces to conduct long-term, low-cost UW against Pakistan’s regional rivals because this strategy presents an irresistible “win-win” outcome. At worst, the Pakistanis can support an indefinite UW campaign that keeps its neighbors destabilized, which in the case of Afghanistan renders it unable to pursue its intentions with regard to Pashtunistan or closer Indian relations. At best, with ISI support the Taliban might regain control in Kabul and be repositioned as a puppet government malleable to Pakistani interests. This outcome would provide Pakistan considerable “strategic depth” on its Western flank, allowing them to focus all of their attention on India without fear of “Pashtunistan”.
The Taliban conquest of Afghanistan provides a fascinating and complete doctrinal example of modern unconventional warfare. The Pakistanis employed a predominantly indigenous force, the Taliban, to overthrow the legitimate transitional government and install a pro-Pakistani regime. Armed with Pakistani weapons, trained by Pakistani advisers, sympathetic to Pakistani interests, and eventually with Pakistani soldiers fighting directly alongside them, the Taliban conquered Afghanistan. Today, with more than thirty years of investment in the destabilization of Afghanistan, it is improbable that Pakistan will abandon these efforts and risk the emergence of a strong, independent Afghan government pursuing reunification with the Pashtun tribes of Western Pakistan. Pakistan’s efforts to undermine Afghanistan and prevent any pursuit of a “Greater Pashtunistan” state by means of a UW campaign is consistent with their world view, in which they are beset on all sides by neighbors laying claim to significant chunks of Pakistan’s sovereign territory. Once Pakistani interests are understood, their continued support to the Taliban becomes understandable, if not acceptable to the international pursuit of regional stability.
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About the Author(s)
Although I am not schooled well enough in Afghanistan and Pakistan issues to judge this article, I do believe that analyzing and understanding the situation from an unconventional warfare perspective is very useful. There is more unconventional warfare being conducted around the world than most of us care to admit or are willing to recognize. And of course there is a need to counter-unconventional warfare against our friends, partners, and allies, when we assess that it is in our interest to do so.