Islamabad's Road Warriors
by Yossef Bodansky
Using the ISI's skills
at running covert operations and irregular warfare -- skills honed and
proven during the 1980s in the war in Afghanistan -- Islamabad has launched
a major campaign to consolidate control over the Silk Road's traditional
gateways to China. Fully aware of the major strategic importance of the
regional transportation system, Islamabad sees in its control over these
key segments of the regional road system the key to its future and fortunes.
Beijing's present and near-future grand strategy
considers the revival of the Silk Road as a primary regional strategic
entity. The on-land transportation system -- stretching along the traditional
Silk Road -- is of crucial significance to the consolidation of the Trans-Asian
Axis -- Beijing's key to global power posture and strategic safety. The
PRC's self-acknowledged naval inferiority reduces the strategic use of
the Indian Ocean, thus only increasing the importance of the on-land lines
of communications -- the Silk Road -- for the consolidation and enhancement
of the Trans Asian Axis.
The Silk Road is actually a set of primary axes
of transportation through the heart of Asia. The principal axes run in
parallel between the eastern coast of the Mediterranean and the heart of
China -- roughly from east to west and vise versa. A set of auxiliary axes,
roughly perpendicular to the principal axes, feed into the Silk Road from
the heart of Russia or from the shores of the Indian Ocean. The primary
choke point of the Silk Road and its gateway into China is the Taklamakan
Desert. West of the Taklamakan Desert are the strategic cities of Kashi
(traditional name Kashgar) and Yarkand -- both in Xinjiang in western PRC.
Several axes of transportation -- both the principal axes traversing through
the Balkh and Pamir mountains (to-day's northern Afghanistan and Tajikistan
respectively) as well as a feeder axis from the Indian Ocean through the
lower Himalayas (today's Pakistan and Indian Kashmir) -- converge on Kashi
and Yarkand, from where they proceed into the Chinese interior.
Essentially, whoever controls the access roads
to Kashgar and Yarkand controls the gateways to China on the Silk Road.
There is only yet another overland gateway into
China -- the brand new and fragile Karakoram Highway. Twisting through
northern Pakistan along a narrow corridor and precarious mountain passes,
the Highway enters into western China where it feeds into Kashi (Kashgar)
and the traditional roads encircling the Taklamakan Desert. Work on the
Karakoram Highway started in 1967. A passable road was completed only in
1978, and fully opened for traffic in 1986. The Karakoram Highway was a
tremendous engineering feat of the PRC. More over, the mere existence of
the Karakoram Highway is a strategic breakthrough for Beijing and Islamabad
because it broke the isolation of both Pakistan and the PRC, ensuring a
corridor between them that can withstand blockade even during most intense
Islamabad considers the Karakoram Highway as a
symbol and manifestation of the unique Sino-Pakistani relationship and
strategic unity of purpose. Recently, Islamabad expands this theme to include
the emerging Silk Road. For example, Pakistani officials stressed in late
December 1993 that "the role of China in the construction of the Silk Route
has made the bilateral relations as strong as the Karakoram Highway."
Thus, fully aware of the crucial importance of
the regional road system to the strategic survival of all powers -- both
superpowers and aspirant powers -- Islamabad sees in the road system through
the region -- particularly the western approaches to the Silk Road and
thus the PRC -- the key to its future and fortunes.
The Pakistani strategic calculation is that if
Pakistan is the dominant or hegemonic power over the western gateways to
China -- a crucial component of both the Silk Road (actually) and the Trans-Asian
Axis (strategically, metaphysically) -- Islamabad will be in a position
to exert influence over the entire Trans-Asian Axis. Such a position, reinforcing
Pakistan's already unique position as the linch-pin between the PRC and
the Tehran-led Islamic Bloc, will enable Pakistan enjoy economic and political
benefits in the process way beyond what it could have hoped to gain on
the basis of the country's objective economic, scientific-technological,
and population posture, and even the realistic future potential. Essentially,
the Pakistani strategic logic behind the drive to control the western gateways
to China is to transform Islamabad's strategic position as the linch-pin
between the Islamic Bloc and China into a tangible reality on the ground.
Sophisticated as the Pakistani strategic grand
design may be, it nevertheless confronts a very grim reality -- the tracks
of road Islamabad is determined to control, or at the very least secure
hegemony over, happen to be on the sovereign territory of Tajikistan, Afghanistan,
and India. However, this reality does not seem to deter or restrain Islamabad.
Therefore, in pursuit of these objectives, the ISI has recently launched
a relentless drive to ensure that local Islamist irregular forces -- most
of them already Pakistan's proteges for they are sponsored by the ISI --
will control all key roads and axes in order to create a regional dependence
on Islamabad to ensure safety of traffic -- in other words, recognize Islamabad's
hegemony over the western gateways of China.
Recent ISI operations in Afghanistan can be considered
the trend setter. The accumulating Afghan experience of the ISI convinced
Islamabad of the strategic importance of roads and provided precedents
for using state-controlled irregular warfare -- like the Afghan mujahideen
forces -- as strategic instruments for state policy. By the mid 1990s,
the ISI would support major campaigns of its protege forces in order to
ensure Islamabad's control over strategic sites and assets.
The key event has been rise of the Taliban as
controllers of the Qandahar-Herat and Qandahar-Kabul roads. Decisions made
in Islamabad between late October and early November 1994 concerning means
to achieve Pakistan's control over key roads in Afghanistan would drastically
change the character of Afghanistan, and the region as a whole.
By 1994, in pursuant of Islamabad's self-perceived
role as the road junction for commerce and transportation between Central
Asia and the Indian Ocean, itself part of Islamabad's role in the Trans-Asian
Axis doctrine and the revival of the Silk Road, the ISI embarked on an
ambitious program to consolidate de-facto control over the Kushka-Herat-Qandahar-Quetta
highway. This road is the only strategic artery in relatively good shape
that can be rebuilt and carry massive convoys with relative ease. It should
be remembered that the Dostam-Massud and ISI-Tajikistan fighting have all
but closed the Termez-Salang-Kabul highway.
Thus, Pakistan embarked on an ambitious project
to repair the most damaged sectors of the Kushka-Herat-Qandahar-Quetta
highway in Afghanistan. Work began by tribal contractors with long-established
contacts with Pakistan. However, in order to ensure Pakistan's actual control
over this vital road, the ISI began subverting local leaders and chieftains
by making deals with them (giving weapons and money, providing outlets
for Helmand Valley drugs, etc.).
Ultimately, this program proved to be the unintended
culmination of a lengthy and multi-facetted process begun already in the
early 1980s in the Qandahar area. At first, ISI-sponsored Islamist mujahideen
purged the local pro-Royal Pushtun tribal leadership. In the late 1980s,
this purge led in turn to a series of assassinations of local elders and
chieftains. Then, in the last days of the Communist regime, the Jowzjani-led
WAD [Afghan Intelligence] special forces destroyed the substitute tribal
leaderships pushed in by the ISI in order to ensure Kabul's hold over the
strategically vital Qandahar and Afghanistan's southern regions. By the
time the Jowzjani effort collapsed with Najib's Kabul, the region's indigenous
leadership was already completely destroyed.
Consequently, in 1994, the ISI found only "the
bottom of the barrel" to deal with. Deals were struck with aspiring war-lords
and drug-dealers pretending to be mujahideen commanders. These newly empowered
leaders turned on the population and abused their power and special relations
with Pakistan -- still Afghanistan's sole gateway to Western goods.
Within a few months, the situation exploded, and
a new force emerged on the scene -- the Taliban. The recognized leader
of the Taliban is Mulawi Mohammed Omar from Qandahar. He is a veteran Pushtun
mujahideen commander turned religious student. The legend of his rise to
a leadership position is indicative of the socio-political motivation of
the Taliban movement as a whole.
In the fall of 1994, the legend goes, the Prophet
Muhammad came to Mulawi Mohammed Omar in his dream and told him to cleanse
his tribe from a sinful oppressive warlord. This ISI-installed "local commanders"
was notorious for rapes and pillaging. After receiving permission from
his Mullah, Mulawi Mohammed Omar organized a force of 50 comrades, all
former mujahideen who had served under him in the 1980s. He then assassinated
the warlord, delivering a kind of "people's justice."
Following that, Mulawi Mohammed Omar distributed
the warlord's confiscated property to the poor and needy of the Qandahar
area. Subsequently, Mulawi Mohammed Omar established a local religious
leadership to administer the distribution of the wealth. He accepted the
warlord's weapons and fighters into a fledgling religious movement under
his command. The new command would be known as the Taliban -- students
of religious schools -- in honor of the origin of its leaders.
Reality is more mundane and strategically important.
The Taliban emerged as a result of a calculated organization and activation
of Islamist Pushtun forces then sponsored jointly by Tehran and Islamabad.
As the legend goes, the hard core of the Taliban are indeed Pushtun religious
students and young Islamist clergy. Many of them are veterans of the war,
and all are graduates of training camps and higher schools in Iran and
Pakistan. They are both nationalist and Islamist. They indeed were eager
to rebel against the corrupt ISI-installed warlords and crime-bosses. However,
until they began receiving support from the ISI they were unable to do
anything. Then, once empowered, they initially established themselves in
the Qandahar area where the destruction of the long-established tribal
royalist leadership left a void yearning to be filled. The Taliban's first
success -- the seizure of Qandahar in November 1994 -- is considered the
beginning of their campaign.
Thus, although portrayed as a spontaneous grassroots
movement, theTaliban are actually the result of a strategic turning point
in Tehran and Islamabad. Significantly, their initial rise in the fall
of 1994 was made possible because it coincided with a profound reevaluation
of the situation in the region in both Islamabad and Tehran. Both governments
now accepted the reality of the collapse of the Afghan state. They could
no longer escape the realization that, ultimately, all the regional states
would fracture to a certain degree along ethno-nationality lines. It should
be stressed that for the last decade such a change was the Soviet objective,
and this evolution is indeed the lasting historical impact of the war in
Now, in the late fall of 1994, both Tehran and
Islamabad concluded that it was imperative for their respective intelligence
services to consolidate a certain degree of control over the regional ethno-political
dynamics in order to preserve the power position of their respective governments.
Southern Afghanistan would be the first stage. And so, after the Taliban's
initial success in stabilizing Qandahar in mid November, and the unquestionable
popular support they were enjoying, Islamabad was ready to negotiate with
Tehran the next moves.
However, it was only by mid December 1994, that
the Taliban "proved" to the ISI that they were fully aware of Islamabad's
strategic interests and regional priorities. By then, the Taliban were
moving westward into the Helmand Valley, killing the drug lords associated
with both Hekmatyar and the ISI. The "spark" happened when a local Hekmatyar
commander blocked and hijacked a Pakistani 30-truck convoy on its way to
Central Asia in order to compel the ISI to do something about the Taliban.
However, the ISI "hinted" to the Qandahar elders that the warlord was a
fair game. Immediately, a 2,500 strong force of Taliban materialized out
of the blue in Qandahar. Well equipped and well led, this Taliban force
took on the Hekmatyar warlord and freed the convoy. Significantly, the
Taliban did not extract any booty from the convoy, and even retrieved loot
from local villages and returned it to the convoy. The incident proved
to Islamabad conclusively that they could indeed do business with the Taliban.
Consequently, in late 1994 and early 1995, Islamabad
"saw the light." The ISI began assisting the Taliban in a massive way,
providing new Kalashnikov assault rifles, large quantities of ammunition,
training, logistics, etc. Indeed, in a meeting in Islamabad in December
1994, Hekmatyar complained to then ISI chief Lt.Gen. Javed Ashraf about
the ISI's growing assistance to the Taliban. At the same time, the ISI
was closely monitoring the increasing flow of Pakistani-Pushtun volunteers
to join the Taliban. Significantly, the Taliban's emerging political religious
leadership was made of proteges of the Pakistani (and increasingly regional)
Jamiat-i-Ulema-Islam under the leadership of Maulana Fazlur Rahman. By
mid 1995, the Jamiat-i-Ulema-Islam is increasingly an umbrella organization
for a dozen smaller Islamist organizations including some of the most violent
Indeed, there was a dramatic increase in the size
of the Taliban. By mid December, 3,000-4,000 religious students moved from
madrassas in the NWFP across the border to join the Taliban. By early January
1995, a flood began. Most Taliban come from Sunni madrassas in Pakistani
Baluchistan, from the Afghan refugee camps established in mid 1980s by
the ISI to alter the demographic character of unruly Baluchistan. By February
1995, the Taliban forces reached some 25,000, predominantly Pushtuns. There
were also over a thousand Tajiks and Uzbeks from the Jowzjani special forces
sent to Qandahar in the last days of Najib's regime. These troops would
not only add military skills and expertise, but would soon open channels
of communications to Dostam, their former commander, to build cooperation
with NIM (National Islamic Movement forces of General Abdul Rashid Dostam).
By February 1995, the Taliban forces were deployed
at the gate of Kabul. In late February, they pushed Hekmatyar from his
stronghold in Maidan Shahr (30 km south of Kabul) and closed on Charasiyab,
Hizb-i-Islami's main point of shelling Kabul. Gulbaddin Hekmatyar and a
few close aides had to flee Charasiyab, leaving behind their entire arsenal
and stockpiles. A series of subsequent setbacks in fighting with Rabbani's
forces in the Kabul area and a brief but dramatic rift with Tehran (including
the assassination of Iran's most favorite Afghan mujahideen commander),
did not change the overall strategic posture of the Taliban.
The Taliban are presently controlling about one
third of the territory of Afghanistan and spreading. Some of their elements
reached western Afghanistan and had a few skirmishes with Ismail Khan's
people before Iranian mediators negotiated a deal that includes a virtually
unlimited use of the road between Herat and Kushka. Consequently, the Taliban
secured for Pakistan control over the sole non-Iranian route between the
Indian Ocean and Central Asia -- the Herat-Qandahar-Quetta segment of the
Kushka-Herat-Qandahar-Quetta highway -- the road Islamabad has been yearning
for dominance over.
Emboldened and wisened by the accumulating experience
in Afghanistan, the ISI moved quickly to transform and modify some of its
key subversion and terrorism sponsorship programs from a mere attrition
of hostile governments to also include an effort to establish control over
the strategic axes of transportation.
This evolution of the strategic character of ISI
clandestine operations is best reflected in recent transformation of the
ISI-sponsored Islamist terrorism in Indian Kashmir.
Pakistan did not "discover" the Kashmir issue
as a result of the revival of the Silk Road. Pakistan has always coveted
Kashmir. Since the late 1940s, all Pakistani governments considered India's
control over large parts of Kashmir the unfinished component of the legacy
of Jinnah. However, in recent years there has been a profound transformation
of the Pakistani-supported armed struggle in Kashmir. Initially, as of
the mid 1980s, there has been a gradual Islamicization of the Kashmiri
forces -- a phenomena reflecting the growing importance of, and dependence
on, Pakistani training and supplies. Then, as of the early 1990s, there
has been a marked intensification of the ISI's direct involvement in, and
control over, these operations.
This evolution of the ISI's direct involvement
in the conduct of terrorist operations inside Indian Kashmir was a direct
reflection of a profound change in Islamabad's strategic approach to the
Kashmir question. As of late 1993, Mrs. Bhutto has been stressing the centrality
of the annexation of the entire Kashmir for the long-term development of
Pakistan. This strong position was based on Islamabad's perception of its
vital interests as a key player in the PRC's Trans-Asian Axis design. It
did not take long for Islamabad to realize that opening Central Asia by
using Pakistan as the gateway to the Indian Ocean could become the key
to Pakistan's economic growth.
However, engineering studies on potential routs
for a new rail-line to connect Karachi and Central Asia concluded that
if such a line is to be viable from economic point of view -- both costs
of construction and of operations -- it must pass through Indian Kashmir.
By the fall of 1993, Islamabad had to confront the reality that Pakistan's
true gateway to the PRC and into Central Asia -- the path to the future
and strategic salvation of Pakistan -- was passing through Indian Kashmir.
Islamabad is not willing to accept the situation
where its vital strategic life-line passes through the territory of its
arch-nemesis -- India. As New Delhi began discussing the possibility of
elections in Kashmir -- a process that would legitimize Indian sovereignty
over Kashmir -- it became imperative for Islamabad not only to destabilize
the area to the point of postponement of the elections, but to escalate
the armed struggle to reach a point that would compel an Indian withdrawal.
Considering the crucial importance of Indian Kashmir to Islamabad's emerging
vital interests, Islamabad can see no substitute to the annexation of this
area to Pakistan. Thus, the ISI has embarked on the relentless escalation
of terrorism throughout Kashmir.
It is this strategic consideration that has had
such a major effect on the conduct and intensity of the armed struggle
in Indian Kashmir. Consequently, the ISI is not only the sponsoring and
guiding force behind the escalation, but the ISI increasingly participates
directly in the fighting. Particularly as of the spring of 1995, the ISI
has assumed direct control over the key operations in Indian Kashmir in
order to ensure the strategic outcome of events. Most of these covert operations
are conducted by loyal foreigners, including Afghans and Arabs, in order
to ensure a semblance of deniability.
This strategic aspect of the Pakistani involvement
in Kashmir is best manifested in the evolution of the Islamist terrorist
and subversion struggle in the region. The increased ISI presence, including
taking over key operations, has both operational and strategic meaning.
At the operational level, there is a distinct "Afghanization" of the struggle
-- key operations are conducted by forces comprised of Afghans and Pakistan-born
Kashmiris, as well as an assortment of Arab 'Afghans.' Their introduction
in growing numbers should not be perceived merely as a reaction to the
growing effectiveness of the Indian security forces.
Indeed the terrorist organizations most active
in Kashmir are almost totally manned by foreigners -- mainly Afghans and
Pakistani Kashmiris. Harakat-ul-Ansar, the largest Kashmiri group with
forward headquarters in Muzzaffarabad, and Markaz Dawa al Irshad, the militant
wing of Lashkar-e-Tayeba with headquarters in Muridke near Lahore, have
very few Indian Kashmiris in the ranks of their elite fighters. Another
active organization -- Al-Barq -- is comprised of a mix of Indian Kashmiris,
Afghans and Pakistani Kashmiris. Further more, both Markaz Dawa al Irshad
and Al Barq are closely associated with Jamiat-i-Ulema-Islam of Pakistan
under the leadership of Maulana Fazlur Rahman. All together, there are
well over 5,000 foreign mujahideen in the ranks of the Kashmiri Islamist
organizations -- most of them from Pakistan (non-Kashmiris), Afghanistan,
Egypt, Sudan, Yemen, Lebanon and Bahrain. The thousands of mujahideen born
in Azad (Pakistani) Kashmir are not counted here.
The key Islamist terrorist operations in Kashmir
since the spring of 1995 testifies to this trend:
On 10 May 1995, on the Muslim holiday Id-al-Zuha,
Islamist terrorists burned down the 14th century shrine to Sheikh Nooruddin
Wali (Kashmir's patron saint that is revered by Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs)
and the adjoining Khankah mosque in Charar-e-Sharief, some 18 miles southwest
of Srinagar, Indian Kashmir. The buildings were torched in the middle of
a clash with Indian security forces initiated by the Islamist terrorists.
Already in early March, a force of about 150 terrorists
was identified in the area and surrounded by the Indian security forces.
They withdrew into the compounds in Charar-e-Sharief where they held for
more than two months, maintaining radio communications with their base
in Pakistan. Apprehensive about the dire ramifications of damaging the
sacred mosque and shrine, the Indian forces besieged the compound but did
not attack it. The eruption of fighting and fire on May 10 must have been
instigated on order from Pakistan for there was no irregular activity on
the Indian side.
The terrorist force was comprised of some 150
mujahideen of Harakat ul-Ansar, Hizb ul-Mujahideen, and al-Fatah Force
under the command of Mast Gul (an Afghan national). In Muzzaffarabad, Pakistan,
the headquarters of ISI-sponsored Mujahideen, Sardar Basharat Ahmed Khan
of Harakat ul-Ansar acknowledged that many of the mujahideen in Charar-e-Sharief
were actually Pakistani nationals, some not even Kashmiri. He explained
that "40 or 42 of the mujahideen killed belong to Harakat ul-Ansar and
26 of them hailed from Azad Kashmir and Pakistan."
The incident was clearly intended to spark a wider
confrontation in Kashmir, primarily in order to prevent the elections New
Delhi had scheduled for the summer.
Moreover, on August 1, Mast Gul returned to Muzzaffarabad
to a hero's welcome by a cheering crowd of several thousands. He had withdrawn
into Azad Kashmir with about 100 terrorists in late July. "I will take
revenge for Charar-e-Sharief's desecration by Indian forces," Mast Gul
told the crowd. He vowed to continue fighting until Kashmir's "freedom."
Qazi Hussain Ahmed, the head of the Jamiat-i-Ulema-Islam
party, accompanied Gul in his triumphant return, describing him in a fiery
speech as a living symbol of Kashmir's Jihad. The mere presence of Qazi
Hussain Ahmed is of importance. As of April 1995, in his capacity as the
leader of Islamic Jihad of Pakistan, Qazi Hussain Ahmed was nominated by
the leadership of the Khartoum-based Armed Islamic Movement (AIM) to be
in charge of a terrorist headquarters and regional center in Karachi that
is responsible for Islamist activities (training, equipping, operational
support, etc.) in Pakistan (including Indian Kashmir), Afghanistan, and
Albania (including Kosovo).
Meanwhile terrorism continued in Kashmir. On July
20, a major bomb blast left 17 dead and over 40 wounded in Purani Mundi
(Jammu). It was a sophisticated bomb concealed in a auto-rickshaw that
blew up in middle of crowded street. Then, on July 26, a second bomb exploded
in Jammu city, wounding 12. Both bombs were made of RDX, and their mechanism
was similar to previous bombs attributed to ISI-trained terrorists. Indeed,
the on July 27, Harakat ul-Ansar claimed responsibility for the two bombs
Starting early August, there was further escalation
with the launching of attacks and raids on Indian Army camps in Kashmir.
At least one camp in Bhadarva was temporarily seized by the mujahideen,
long enough for them to remove weapons and ammunition. Meanwhile, Hizb
ul-Mujahideen forces conducted diversionary raids in the area, further
complicating the security forces' ability to react to the raids. In these
operations, the attackers were using tactics taught by the ISI in the late
1980s for similar type of raids against Afghan government facilities in
eastern Afghanistan. Indeed, Harakat ul-Ansar, that claimed responsibility
for these attacks, acknowledged that many of the commanders and mujahideen
killed in the operations against Indian Army camps were Afghan and Pakistani
By now, Kashmir was already at the height of a
still lingering crisis -- the kidnapping and holding of Western tourists.
Starting July 4, a shadowi group of 12-15 terrorists
abducted numerous Western tourists the Lidder Valley area, about 32 kilometers
from Pahalgam. Some of the tourists were released and one succeeded to
escape, leaving six in captivity. The group identified itself as Al-Faran,
and demanded the release of 22 commanders of all Kashmiri terrorist organizations
currently in Indian prisons. It subsequently modified the demand to only
15 leaders. The Kashmir hostage crisis reached a new level on August 13
when Al-Faran beheaded a Norwegian hostage and then dumped his head and
body. New threats for the safety of the remaining hostages and renewed
demands for the release of the jailed terrorist leaders were issued by
Al-Faran seems to be the cover name of the Islamist
elite force that carried out the kidnapping of the tourists. There are
indications that Al-Faran members are connected with the Harakat ul-Ansar.
The kidnapping detachment is comprised of 16 terrorists -- twelve from
Azad (Pakistani) Kashmir, two from Afghanistan, and two Indian Kashmiris
who act as guides. The terrorists were equipped with sophisticated weapons
and modern communications equipment. They seem well organized and enjoying
pre-installed strong logistical support at each of their hide-outs. Moreover,
Moulana Fazlur Rahman was approached by the UK in effort to negotiate with
the kidnapper and was even granted visa for a "private" visit to India.
This alone confirms the general leaning of the Al-Faran. As discussed above,
the Taliban, another protege group of Rahman, is closely associated with
The infusion of foreigners -- mainly Afghans,
Pakistani Kashmiris and 'Afghans' -- into the ranks of the Kashmiri Islamist
terrorists, including key positions in the leaderships of what is being
presented as a genuine national liberation struggle, has altered the character
of this armed struggle. Irrespective of the true aspirations of the Muslim
population of Indian Kashmir, the armed struggle currently waged in their
name has very little to do with their fate and future. Through the ISI's
manipulations, Islamabad has transformed the Kashmiri struggle into a drive
for Kashmir's unification with Pakistan and away from the origins and indigenous
quest of the popular struggle -- a quest for Kashmiri self-determination
and independence from both India and Pakistan. This is only natural considering
that Islamabad's primary objective is to make Kashmir Pakistan-controlled
so that the key transportation routes can be built in order to feed into
the Silk Road.
Perhaps the most audacious outgrowth of the ISI's
Afghan operations is the Islamist surge into Tajikistan in order to consolidate
control over segments of the Silk Road itself.
The roots of the ISI operations in Tajikistan
and northern Afghanistan can be traced to Islamabad's efforts to ensure
that their protege at the time -- Gulbaddin Hekmatyar -- took over Kabul
following the collapse of the Communist regime.
Back in the spring of 1990, the ISI established
its "Afghan" Takhar Regiment. This unit was some 2,000-2,500 troop strong.
It was the most tightly controlled "Afghan" unit, and the best equipped.
Ostensibly, this unit belonged to Hizb-i-Islami Gulbaddin Hekmatyar and
had been prepared by the ISI for resistance operations near the Soviet
border. The troops were provided with the most comprehensive military training
given to Afghans. Resistance sources described this unit as being turned
into "a conventional army" by the ISI. In early April 1990, the force was
virtually combat ready and ISI expected to commit this Afghan Army to battle
within a month, once the mountain passes leading into Badakhshan were completely
These ISI-controlled mujahideen constitute the
core of the Afghan force currently supporting the Islamist insurgency in
However, by now the regional strategic priorities
have already changed. With the growing chaos in Central Asia, it was imperative
in Beijing to prevent the emergence of neither a pro-Moscow nor a nationalist
regime in Tajikistan. Beijing is dead set against having a Moscow-dominated
regime on its border considering the nationalist fervor of the new Russian
elite. Further more, Beijing is apprehensive about the spread of Central
Asian quest for Islamic self-identity across the border into the volatile
Xinjiang. The best way to reduce the threat of both developments is to
destabilize any future Tajikgovernment. The ensuing escalation of special
and terrorist operations from northern Afghanistan into Central Asia, sponsored
by the ISI but serving Chinese interests, can be seen as further development
and expansion of the mutual long-term strategic cooperation and close working
relations between the services of the two countries.
The major escalation in the Islamist involvement
in Tajikistan started in late 1990. Vladimir Petkel, the Chief of the Tajik
KGB, stressed that "subversive activities against Tajikistan have been
stepped up," and that he feared "an outburst of subversive activities in
local areas." The KGB correctly identified this outburst of violence as
the beginning of a regional surge. "There are no grounds for complacency
in the present situation in Central Asia. The situation is deteriorating
and confrontation is growing," Petkel warned.
The ISI was soon identified as the driving force
behind this campaign. Anatoli Beloyusov, Deputy Director of the KGB, warned
that the "strengthened influence of the ideas of Islamic fundamentalism"
in Tajikistan was "directly linked to increased activities by Pakistani
special services." He described a Pakistani "Program M" intended to "destabilize
the socio-political situation in the USSR's Central Asian republics." In
the summer of 1991, Moscow had "incontrovesible evidence" that the ISI
was creating "an armed Afghan opposition" in order to infiltrate and subvert
Soviet Central Asia. Beloyusov explained that "schools have been set up
in Afghan settlements near the border to give religious and military instructions
to young Tajiks, Uzbeks and Turkmens." Once ready, these men were being
dispatched to carry out "hostile activities against the USSR."
During the early 1990s, the ISI consolidated the
support and training infrastructure, launching a major new effort in the
camps in Afghanistan, as well as Peshawar, to recruit veteran fighters
for the Jihad in Tajikistan. This campaign was given the aura of an all-Islamic
campaign sponsored by the Armed Islamic Movement (AIM). Indeed, the ISI-sponsored
operations in Central Asia were run by Muhammad Ibrahim al-Makkawal. He
is an Islamist Egyptian and former colonel in the Egyptian Army who arrived
in Pakistan in 1989, and had been operating a humanitarian organization
in Peshawar as a cover. In 1992-93, al-Makkawal had been to all the Central
Asian states as well as Kashmir to personally study the conditions in these
important theaters of the Islamist Jihad, as well as inspect and oversee
the operations of his people. In the summer of 1993, al-Makkawal insisted
that he and 10-12 Egyptian Islamists under his command stayed in Pakistan
only for training, and that actual fighting of the Jihad was carried out
from and on hostile territory.
The civil war that erupted with fury in Tajikistan
in early 1993 was a revival of old tribal rivalries hijacked by the Islamists
who, by providing weapons, expertise, and leadership, became the dominant
force. The ISI and its Arab 'Afghans' were crucial to this manipulation
and transformation of the war in Tajikistan. The problem in Tajikistan
was only intensifying, stressed a high ranking Russian diplomat. He warned
that Russia's "future relations with Iran and Pakistan will depend on whether
these states take into account Russia's interests in Central Asia, above
all Tajikistan." He diplomatically identified the countries responsible
for the escalation of subversion in Tajikistan, explaining that "Tajik
Islamists undergo training in Afghanistan, a country much influenced by
Pakistan and Iran."
Indeed, the Islamist forces continued to expand.
The headquarters of the Tajik Islamists is in Taloqan, Afghanistan. The
forces of the Tajik Islamists are aided by Afghan and Arab 'Afghans,' as
well as the Afghan government. These bases in Afghanistan are key to the
Tajiks organization, arming and training. The Afghans infiltrate hundreds
of highly trained fighters into Tajikistan from their bases in Afghanistan.
For example, Abu-Salman, a veteran Saudi 'Afghan' is the commander of a
Tajik Islamist commando operating deep inside Tajikistan. Ahmad Shah Massud
is a key supporter of the Tajiks and has a special headquarters near their
center to closely oversee their activities and ensure support. In Kunduz,
Pakistani assistance is channelled through Gulbaddin Hekmatyar's Hizb-i
Islami. In early 1993, about 1,000 Tajiks were being trained at any given
time at the Kunduz camps alone, mainly the Imam Shahib camp. Other training
camps are at Chah-i Ab and Khuajagar, both north of Taloqan. Money comes
from Arab Islamists in Saudi Arabia and Gulf states via Pakistan. In early
1993, French relief officials described "significant Arab presence in Kunduz."
By the fall of 1993, a growing number of Arab
'Afghans' were very active in northern Afghanistan in providing support
for the Islamist subversion in Tajikistan. Most important are the Arab
'Afghans' operating in the Mazar-i Sharief, Takhar and Tashqurghan areas
in northern Afghanistan where they have training camps to support Islamists
not just in Tajikistan, but in Central Asia and Indian Kashmir. Of note
are the camps for Tajik Islamists who fight for Abdol Ghafur. The most
important camps are in Imam al-Bukhari (former military air base) and Bagh
Sharkat, both near Kunduz. The Afghans, Arab 'Afghans' and their Tajik
mujahideen operate together, conducting joint raids deep into Central Asia
beyond Tajikistan. These offensive raids at time include more than 500
Tajiks led by dozens of Arab 'Afghans.' Weapons and ammunition are received
from Pakistan via Hizb-i-Islami of Gulbaddin Hekmatyar and Ittihad-i-Islami
of Rasul Sayyaf. Iran, Sudan, and Pakistan directly finance the 'Afghan'
Islamists and their camps in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
In late 1993, Tajik Islamists with active support
from Arab 'Afghans' planned at least two major spectacular sabotage operations
that were prevented in the last minute by Russian Special Forces operating
under the 201st MRD's Kulyab regiment. The first operation was an attempt
to place three truck-bombs driven by suicide drivers under the massive
Nurek Hydroelectric Power Station. The operation was prevented when the
Russians ambushed and shot the drivers to death on approach to the dam.
Had the trucks exploded as planned, the ensuing wave would have been 86
meters high, 53 kms wide and 1,385 kms deep. Over 2,000 villages and seven
cities in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenia would have been flooded.
A member of this terrorist network, captured by the Russians, disclosed
active preparations to blow up by a suicide truck the nitrogen mineral
fertilizer plant near Yavan. This operation would have led to mass poisoning
and death of people all over the region.
The failure of this audacious attempt could not
reverse the escalation in terrorism in Tajikistan. Other terrorist operations,
though less spectacular, were successful. It was not by accident that the
most important operations in this cycle were against axes of transportation.
For example, on 26 November 1993, a powerful bomb derailed the main train
between Termez (Afghan border, Uzbekistan) and Khalton (Tajikistan). The
bomb exploded near Kurgan-Tyube (Tajikistan). The terrorists came from
the direction of Afghanistan. In early 1994, Tajik security officials were
bracing for spectacular terrorist operations, to be carried out by "a kind
of 'fifth column' opposition exists in the Tajik capital and its suburbs
numbering many hundreds." They added that recently, "Tajikistan's special
services got hold of a coded message from representatives of the so-called
irreconcilable opposition in Afghanistan recommending that terrorist acts
against the Tajik leadership be stepped up."
By now, it was becoming clear that the Tajik Jihad
was also being transformed into a component of a regional Jihad sponsored
by the ISI and employing members of a joint mixed pool of mujahideen.
In early December 1993, during a state visit to
Pakistan, the Deputy Prime Minister of Afghanistan, Maulana Arsalan Rahmani,
admitted that Afghanistan was providing military assistance to various
Islamist insurgencies because "we cannot remain aloof from what is happening
to the Muslims in occupied Kashmir, Tajikistan, Bosnia, Somalia, Burma,
Palestine and elsewhere. ... We are not terrorists but Mujahideen fighting
for restoring peace and preserving honor." He acknowledged that Afghanistan
also played a major role in the consolidation of the potent Harakat ul-Ansar.
This support for the unity was but part of the active support given by
Afghanistan to the Islamist fighters in Kashmir, Tajikistan, and Bosnia.
"There are about 8,000 members of Harakat ul-Ansar who are supporting the
Kashmiri struggle against Indian occupation," Maulana Arsalan Rahmani stated.
In early 1994, there was a growing volume of evidence
that the ISI was running the various insurgency and terrorist campaigns
as part of a single master plan. For example, in mid February 1994, the
Indian security forces captured two senior ISI operatives inside Kashmir.
Sajjad Afghani Khan and Mohammad Massud Azhar are both veterans of the
war in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Mohammad Massud Azhar is also a veteran
trainer and organizer, long involved in preparing expert cadres in ISI
camps in Pakistan for operating in hostile and challenging environments
such as Kashmir, Afghanistan and Tajikistan. For example, Azhar organized
a force of 50-60 ISI-controlled Pakistani operatives that are still conducting
special operations in Tajikistan under the banner of Nahza Islam.
As with the other ISI-sponsored regional insurgencies,
the strategic decisions in Islamabad were quickly manifested in armed operations
inside Tajikistan. Starting the winter of 1994-95, there has been an escalation
in the pressure on the Russian-led Border Guards along the Afghan-Tajik
border. The new escalation went beyond the on-going intensification of
infiltration efforts. Recent operations reflect distinct growing professionalism
of the Tajik mujahideen. Not by accident, the Tajiks were employing tactics
quite similar to these of the ISI-sponsored elite Afghan mujahideen units
in the late 1980s. However, Russian security officials noted that a growing
number of the Afghan "mujahideen" they were now encountering along the
Afghanistan-Tajikistan border were too young to have been combat veterans
of the war in Afghanistan. Instead, they were trained only recently, mainly
in camps in either northern Afghanistan or Pakistan.
Indeed, there is a large Islamist force being
organized in northern Afghanistan on the Tajik border. In the spring of
1995, according to Russian experts with on-site experience, there were
some 12,000 mujahideen in northern Afghanistan alone. They were divided
between two main grouping of 5,000-6,000 men each -- on the Kulyab (Khatlovskiy)
Axis and on the Badakhshan Axis. The main Tajik bases are near Kalay-Kuf,
Nusay, Bakharak, and Fayzabad. Other Tajik centers are co-located with
the key Afghan facilities in Badakhshan. Moreover, the major local Afghan
mujahideen forces, a total strength of some 14,000 men -- including Abdul
Basir Khaled's 29th Infantry Division, and also major detachments under
the command of Khirodmand, Bakhadur, Zabed Vadud, Abdul Kadyr and a number
of other lesser commanders in Afghan Badakhshan -- actively support the
Tajik Islamist forces. Indeed, the Tajik mujahideen routinely rely on,
and get assistance from, several thousand Afghan mujahideen on the Kulyab
Axis. It should be remembered that the key Afghan forces -- both regular
and irregular -- in the area are under the control of General Dostam who
has reached several "understandings" with the ISI on co-existence and cooperation
in the pursuit of common objectives.
In the spring of 1995, mujahideen reinforcements
were redeployed, with additional arms and ammunition delivered, on the
Vanch-Yazgulem Axis. This axis was being transformed into the main axis
in mujahideen operations. The deployment of a significant mujahideen detachment
was completed on the same Ishkashim Axis from the Bakharak area, the site
of a Tajik major training center in northern Afghanistan.
As with the Kashmiri Islamist armed struggle,
the growing involvement of the ISI was immediately followed by a noticeable
infusion of foreign "volunteers." In the spring of 1995, the Afghan Mujahideen
were joined by a large number of Arab fighters -- both veteran 'Afghans'
and younger volunteers. All of them are well trained members of numerous
radical militant Islamist organizations, many of which are very active
in toppling governments in their home countries (such as Egypt and Algeria),
that have offices and camps in Peshawar and other Pakistani cities. These
Arabs arrived in the camps in northern Afghanistan in an organized fashion
from Pakistan, bringing with them large quantities of weapons, ammunition,
and other equipment. Additional Arab volunteers and supplies continue to
arrive from Peshawar. Moreover, the Arabs have been receiving very large
sums of money, originating in Arab states, via Pakistan. This money is
used for the escalation of the Tajik Jihad -- mainly training, arming and
in effect controlling Tajik and Afghan detachments.
Russian experts point to the great impact the
Arabs and Afghan mujahideen have on the quality of the "Tajik" forces.
"High morale-fighting spirit, an excellent state of training, especially
for the conduct of partisan warfare, all the more so in mountainous terrain,
are a distinguishing trait of the Afghan mujahideen and the volunteers
from other Muslim countries. Lately, the level of training of the detachments
of the Tajik opposition has increased dramatically."
The consequent escalation of the Jihad in Tajikistan
reached a point that Russian experts already point to the greater strategic
ramifications. One Russian expert, Semen Bagdasarov, stressed that "he
who even nominally does not control Gornyy Badakhshan [an area where the
ISI-sponsored mujahideen are most active] does not control all of Tajikistan.
At the same time, one can say without any exaggeration that the withdrawal
of the [Russian] border troops from Tajikistan -- this is a geo-political
catastrophe both for the states of Central Asia and also for Russia."
Most threatening is the intensifying wave of Islamist
special operations and terrorist strikes -- operations where the ISI's
hand has been most distinct. By mid 1995, the emerging leadership of the
high quality Tajik mujahideen was the Movement of the Islamic Revival of
Tajikistan (DIVT). Its rise to prominence can be attributed directly to
the conduct of an increasingly sophisticated, well organized, and tactically
sound campaign of "diversion and terrorism," to use the definition of Russian
military intelligence. The DIVT forces enjoy solid support and logistical
system, especially a steady supply of ammunition and weapons.
The most important MIVT commander is identified
as "Tajik Mujahideen Commanding General R. Sadirov" whose earlier activities
are behind the present expectation for a marked escalation. Back in mid
January 1995, Russian military intelligence warned that "[on] Sadirov's
order, a terrorist group consisting of 40 guerrillas who underwent special
training in Pakistan is prepared to cross the [Amu Daria] river onto the
territory of Tajikistan. It is assumed that they will operate in the central
areas of Tajikistan and in Dushanbe with small teams of 3-4 men." Analysis
of the training received by this group suggested a major rise in audacious
terrorist operations, particularly assassinations as well as attacks on,
and neutralization of, key roads and axes of transportation.
Indeed, in the early summer, mujahideen special
forces deep inside Tajikistan, most likely Sadirov's ISI-trained detachments,
were becoming audacious. For example, on June 12 they assassinated Col.
Izatullo Kuganov -- the commander of a Tajikistan SPETSNAZ unit and a close
political ally of President Emomali Rakhmonov. It was a highly professional
job done with an assault rifle from a very close range, leaving no traces
of the assassins. This assassination is not an isolated case, but rather
the first of a trend. Russian intelligence has learned that the Pakistan-trained
elite mujahideen have been instructed that "they should destroy first of
all Russian officers." This, the Tajik Islamist leadership is convinced,
will bring about a collapse of the Russian support for the Government of
Tajikistan. Should this happen, the road will be open for a militant Islamist
surge into, and throughout, Central Asia.
Pakistan's terrorism sponsoring activities along
the Silk Road are both an instrument of Islamabad's regional strategy and
an expression of its apprehension of domestic crisis. By the summer of
1995, fully aware of the ramifications of the ISI's escalating operations,
Islamabad is wavering between self-confidence in a vastly improved strategic
posture and fear of a strategic backlash that will, in turn, greatly exacerbate
an already tenuous internal situation. Therefore, the crisis environment
emanating from the ISI's regional activities serves to both divert the
public's attention from domestic crisis to an external threat, as well
as bolster the government's own self-confidence. Moreover, Islamabad is
increasingly apprehensive about the unstable regional posture the ISI is
essentially creating, and especially backlash from neighboring states,
friends and foes alike, whose regional interests are adversely affected
by the ISI's activities. Consequently, the Islamabad is committed to further
escalating the ISI's terrorism sponsoring operations along the Silk Road
in order to improve and secure Pakistan's own posture in the vital gateways
to China at all costs and in any regional environment.
Taken together, these ISI-sponsored insurgency
and terrorism along the western gateways to China are therefore strategic
developments of grave ramifications. The PRC is increasingly apprehensive
about the revival of Islamist sentiments, including a fledgling armed struggle
in Xinjiang, and a growing Russian influence over the former Soviet states
of Central Asia. Considering its global strategic orientation, Beijing
is happy with the Pakistani subversion of these states and the ISI's confrontation
with crawling Russian influence. Beijing is most satisfied with the fact
that these Pakistani operations serve the PRC's regional interests without
getting the PRC actually involved or even implicated in the covert operations
or use of force. Moreover, the net result of these ISI-sponsored covert
operations is a further increase in the Chinese influence and consolidation
of anti-West posture along the Trans-Asian Axis.
Thus, these ISI terrorism sponsoring operations
in Afghanistan, India, and Tajikistan are yet another manifestation of
Islamabad's determination to increase the importance of its role as the
linch-pin of the Trans-Asian Axis. Pakistan is determined to become a power
to be reckoned with by its mere control over choke-points, not achievements
or economic capabilities. The sponsoring of terrorism and subversion by
the ISI is presently Islamabad's primary and proven instrument in this