Pakistan’s ISI and the Afghanistan Taliban, Research Paper Example


In his 2010 report for the Carr Human Rights Center at Harvard University entitled “The Sun in the Sky,” author Matt Waldman discussed the relationship between the Taliban and Pakistan’s Intelligence Service, the ISI. Waldman’s report was based on a series of interviews with current and former Taliban commanders and operatives, and offers a sobering look at the intertwining nature of the two organizations, as well as of ancillary ISI support for groups such as the Haqqani Network and other insurgent organizations. From Waldman’s report:

According to Taliban commanders the ISI orchestrates, sustains, and strongly influences the (Taliban/insurgent) movement…it gives sanctuary to both Taliban and Haqqani groups, and provides huge support in terms of training, funding, munitions, and supplies. In their words, “this is as clear as the sun in the sky.” (Waldman,p1, 2010).

While Pakistan is ostensibly a U.S. ally, there was no remaining doubt of the “double game” (Radio Free Europe, n.p., Sep. 2011) it was playing when the U.S. surreptitiously crossed into Pakistan in an effort to capture Osama bin Laden (an effort which ended in bin Laden’s death). Since the administration of former U.S. President George W. Bush launched its Global War on Terror, the relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan has been an uneasy one. The U.S. has long accused Pakistan of providing support and aid to the Taliban and Al Qaeda, charges which have been denied by that country’s leaders. Even before the death of bin Laden made it clear that at least some elements within Pakistan were indeed offering aid and support to the Taliban, there existed a significant body of evidence indicating the existence of such connections. The question of whether or not Pakistan, the ISI, or its military –or elements within all three bodies- are connected to the Taliban has already been answered; what remains to be determined is the nature and extent of such support. This paper will provide an examination of the roots of the connections between Pakistan’s ISI and the Taliban, as well as a discussion of the current nature of their relationship and its possible future implications for Afghanistan and the U.S.

Historical  Overview

Any discussion of the relationship between the ISI and the Taliban will, by its very nature, be incomplete. As Pakistan’s primary intelligence services organization, the ISI is inherently secretive. The effort to make determinations about the details of the connections between the Taliban and the ISI is, therefore, steeped in speculation and often carried out by similarly-secretive organizations. While the details may be difficult to pin down, the overall shape and scope of the Taliban-ISI connection can be sorted out by examining the contemporary history of the geopolitical machinations in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Such an examination reveals a complex and often-competing set of forces and interests at work, which serves to highlight the complex circumstances of the current situation.

To a great extent, the connection between the ISI and the Taliban was originally, and is currently, rooted in the ongoing contentious relationship between Pakistan and India (Klein, n.p., 2010). After being on the receiving end of several significant military defeats at the hands of India, Pakistan began to see Afghanistan as a potential ally –or, perhaps more specifically, as a potential buffer- in its in terms of the problems it had with India (Klein, n.p., 2010). This can be traced as far back as the early 1970s, when Pakistan lost control of what was then known as East Pakistan and is now called Bangladesh. Determined to halt, or at least slow, any further encroachments by India, Pakistan worked to build a relationship with Afghanistan that would, it hoped, serve to align Afghanistan both politically and economically with Pakistan and against India.

The contentious relationship between India and Pakistan prompted a mounting growth of nationalism and socio-religious factionalism within both countries. This manifested as a increasingly significant Islamist movement in Pakistan; not entirely coincidentally, though for different reasons, a similar process of “Islamization” (Jones, p56, 2009) began to develop in Afghanistan in the late 1970s and early 1980s during the Soviet invasion and ensuing occupation of the nation (Jones, p56, 2009). Conflict in the region began to serve as a proxy war between the U.S. and the Soviets, with Pakistan operating as the “principal conduit” (Waldman, p3, 2010) for funding and supplies being funneled into Afghanistan from both sides. Despite its ostensibly neutral role in this conflict, there was little doubt as to where its loyalties were; the burgeoning Islamist movement in Afghanistan that underpinned the resistance movement against the Soviets was nurtured not only by Pakistan, but by the U.S. as well.

It was during the 1980s that the support for the Taliban by the ISI grew from a largely-ideological one to a more direct, overt involvement. In the early 1980s, Osama bin Laden was exiled from Saudi Arabia, and it was Pakistan that brokered his entry into Afghanistan (Waldman, p4, 2010). Bin Laden, armed with a strong ideological fervor and a vast financial fortune, is reported to have shared his wealth with both the ISI and the Taliban (Waldman, p4, 2010). His burgeoning Al Qaeda organization served as skeletal force in support of the mujahedeen (Arabic for “warriors”), the name given to the resistance fighters in Afghanistan. The mujahedeen, under both the tutelage and the munitions support of bin Laden, began to mount an increasingly effective counter-insurgency strategy against the Soviets; this resistance would eventually bankrupt the Soviets both financially and morally, leading directly to the end of the Afghanistan war and indirectly to the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union.

By the time the war between Afghanistan and the Soviet Union came to an end, the ties between the ISI and the Taliban had been firmly cemented. The complex interconnections between the ISI and the Islamist movement in Afghanistan played to the interests of Pakistan; as they had for years, Pakistan saw a distinct advantage in fomenting the same confluence of nationalism and religious ideology in Afghanistan as had been growing in Pakistan. Such a movement would, from Pakistan’s perspective, shore up that nation’s strength in its ongoing enmity with India (Jones, p63, 2009). As such, the ISI continued to provide support and aid to the Islamist Taliban; such support would help to lead the Taliban in its eventual takeover of Afghanistan. In 1996 the Taliban managed to wrest control of the capital city of Kabul from the then-extant Afghanistan government, and would continue to spread its reach and exert control over the nation until the U.S. invasion in 2001.

As has been often discussed and well-documented, Osama bin Laden managed to slip the grasp of the U.S in 2001; most reports at the time indicted that he had escaped capture in Tora Bora and fled into the tribally-controlled outlands on the Afghanistan/Pakistan border. Speculation continued for nearly a decade that bin Laden remained ensconced in the mountainous region, and given refuge by the tribal leaders in the region. While there was some measure of public discussion that bin Laden had slipped across the border into Pakistan, such reports were routinely -and often angrily-denied by the Pakistani government (Griffin, p107, 2004). Still other conversations about bin Laden were based on the presumption that his rumored medical conditions –including, supposedly, renal failure that would have required regular dialysis treatments- would have made it impossible for him to survive long in the rugged terrain in the Afghanistan mountains; if he had not escaped into Pakistan, many presumed, then he must surely have died.

In May 2011, any pretense that Pakistan had tried to maintain about its lack of involvement with or connection to Al Qaeda –and by extension, the Taliban- was undone when U.S. forced killed Osama bin Laden in the Pakistan city of Abbotabad.  Moreover, bin Laden’s refuge, in which he had apparently been living for at least several years, was within a few miles of a major Pakistan military academy. It seems virtually unthinkable that bin Laden could have lived in the area without the knowledge and complicity of Pakistan. The public revelation that bin Laden had been hiding out in Pakistan did not come as a surprise to many analysts of Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian geopolitics (R.F.E, n.p., 2012) , but it did serve to highlight and reaffirm that the connections between and among the ISI, the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and other such organizations and movements that had begun decades earlier were not only still extant, but were as strong as ever.

Contemporary Overview

Many of the same ideological and political undercurrents that first brought the ISI and the Taliban together in the 1970s and 1980s remain significant factors in underpinning the contemporary nature of such connections. As one Taliban commander described it, Pakistan continues to offer support to insurgency movements such as the Taliban and the Haqqani Network for the same reason it always did: India (Waldman, p3, 2010). Although India and Pakistan have largely maintained an uneasy stability in recent years, there has been little improvement in terms of their opposing perspectives; the possibility of war between the two nations remains just as real today as it has for four decades. The same nationalism and ideological fervor that serves to shore up domestic support for each nation’s enmity against the other also serves as the potential kindling for an all-out conflagration; this political reality leaves nations such as the United States in the precarious position of balancing support for its ostensible Pakistan ally against the reality of Pakistan’s support for the Taliban. The U.S. is, of course, interested in routing the Taliban both in Afghanistan and in the larger region, but is also concerned that destabilizing the Pakistani government could remove the only bulwark against a fully-Islamist, Taliban-style government taking over in that nation (Rooney, p38, 2010).

While the involvement between the ISI and the Taliban had long been recognized by the U.S., the events of September 11, 2001 lent greater urgency to the efforts by the U.S. State Department and other political and military bodies to fully flesh out as complete a picture as possible of the relationship between the two. State Department memos from the late 1990s describe direct financial and munitions support by the ISI to the Taliban; one such report specifies a cash infusion of $6 million to the Taliban, as well as direct support from ISI operatives in Kandahar, Heart, and Jalalabad as the Taliban sought to extend its reach in Afghanistan after taking over Kabul (Jones, p63, 2009). According to these State Department reports, the ISI would often attempt to offer such support surreptitiously by using private-sector trucks and other means to mask the movement of supplies from Pakistan to Afghanistan (Jones). Even as such aid and support were being offered to the Taliban by the ISI, Pakistani officials would continue to deny these activities (Jones, p64, 2009).

According to some analysts, the CIA and the ISI were jointly responsible for “creating the Taliban” (Griffin, p108, 2004). Both agencies lent support to the Taliban during the era of Soviet occupation of Afghanistan; each agency –and the governments it represented- had its own set of reasons for offering such support. Even as such support was being offered by the U.S. in the 1990s, some in the State Department warned that a too-powerful Islamist government in Afghanistan could lead to serious problems for the U.S. and the region in years to come; ultimately this was seen as “a problem for another day” (Jones, p108, 2009), with the then-current problem of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan taking precedence. By almost any measure, those who sounded such warning bells in the 1990s were prescient, as the Taliban and the Islamist movement that drives it and other organizations such as the Haqqani Network continues to undermine the stability of the U.S.-backed Afghanistan government.

According to Waldman’s “The Sun in the Sky,” the ISI is currently, and deeply, involved with the operations of the Taliban and the Haqqani Network. Operatives from the ISI reportedly hold positions on the Taliban Supreme Leadership Council; by some accounts these operatives function largely as observers, but most analysts believe that the ISI is directly involved in the decision-making processes of the Taliban and other insurgency movements. As Waldman notes, it is difficult to say with certainly just how extensive such ISI involvement or control is, but the accounts Waldman has gathered directly from Taliban commanders and operatives would seem to indicate that little has changed from the Soviet era in Afghanistan in terms of direct and indirect support to the Taliban by the ISI.

The ongoing efforts by the U.S. to ascertain the extent of support for the Taliban by the ISI have reached different conclusions over the years, as the political and military conditions in the region have shifted and the ability of intelligence-gathering agencies have strengthened. While the U.S. has long been aware of the ISI’s involvement with the Taliban, some analysts suggested that as late as the early 2000s  ISI support was being offered without the direct knowledge or oversight of the Pakistani government (Aid, p107, 2012). One State Department report from the early 2000s stated that then-president of Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf, was being forthright when he denied that the ISI or any other Pakistani governmental agency was offering support to the Taliban (Aid, p108, 2012). Such denials were, however, contradicted even then by some of the available evidence; the presence of Osama bin Laden in Abbotabad very possibly extended as far back as the same time frame that Musharraf was denying a connection between Pakistan and the Taliban, bringing the veracity of such denials into question.

Regardless of whether the connection between the ISI and the Taliban did, in fact, begin as the work of rogue or otherwise undirected elements within the Pakistani intelligence organization, it now seems clear that they did not remain so. A 2010 report from the Congressional Record Service (CRS) states: “Pakistan appears to have shifted somewhat to actively assisting the U.S.-led effort in Afghanistan” (Waldman, p3, 2010). This report goes on to assert that the assistance being offered to the Taliban by the ISI could not, in any practical sense, be going on without the knowledge or complicity of the Pakistan government. In the New York Times in 2010, journalist Ahmed Rashid wrote the following:

Taliban leaders and their families live in Pakistan and are in close touch with the military and its ISI. Some Taliban allies, such as the network led by Jalaluddin Haqqani, are even closer to the ISI. Although the military is finally hunting down the Pakistani Taliban in the Northwest tribal areas, the Afghan Taliban and Pakistani extremists in Punjab province are being left alone. –R.F.E., n.p., 2011

The implications of the ISI/Taliban connection are potentially dire; both the U.S. and current Afghanistan leadership see the threat posed by the Taliban as quite significant. Despite being directly involved in Afghanistan for more than a decade, the U.S. military has been unable to rout the Taliban or significantly defuse the potential for Islamist-fueled insurgencies to undermine the ostensibly-democratic Afghanistan government currently led by President Hamid Karzai. It appears certain that the support of the ISI for the Taliban has been instruemtnal in ensuring that the latter has been able to survive, and even flourish, despite the overwhelming military superiority of the U.S. armed forces.

As the picture of how entrenched the connections between the ISI and the Taliban really are becomes clearer, the U.S finds itself in an increasingly precarious position. When bin Laden was found to have been hiding in Abbotabad, calls for punitive action against Pakistan by members of Congress and other U.S. officials grew louder. Concurrently, the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama is faced with a dilemma, as any significant actions it takes against the Pakistan government, whether in the form of military action, economic sanctions, or some other means, run the risk of undermining or entirely destabilizing the government. Support for the U.S. among the Pakistani populace is muted at best; should the U.S. undertake military action in that nation, such a move could serve to fuel the same Islamist fires that currently feed the Taliban.

The government of Pakistan is in a similarly precarious position, as it seeks to strike a balance between the Islamist movement that serves as an ideological stanchion in its ongoing cold war with India and its need to appear cooperative with the U.S., a nation that provides billions of dollars in direct support to Pakistan and whose military serves to help maintain the current state of uneasy détente between Pakistan and India. The Pakistan government has, at the behest of U.S. officials, arrested and jailed scores of Taliban operatives singled out by the U.S.; at the same time, reports indicate that such detainees are often quickly and quietly released, while other Taliban operatives and leaders are offered direct support (Porter,  n.p., 2010).

The Current Relationship between the ISI and the Taliban

As Waldman (2010) points out, it can be extremely difficult to describe with specificity the nature of the working relartionship between the ISI and the Taliban (and between the ISI and other groups such as the Haqqani Network). The inner workings of all these organizations are inherently secretive by nature, and information about how they function is often obtained through second- and third-hand sources. With that caveat in mind, however, it is possible to reach some conclusions about how these organizations function together by comparing the information gleaned from different sources and looking for areas where the consistencies of such different sources overlaps and serves to support other sources. As has been discussed earlier, it is only in recent years that U.S. intelligence sources have begun to agree with each other that the support offered by the ISI to the Taliban is, in fact, an institutional support, as opposed to the work of rogue or independently-operating actors within the ISI. Although the detail may still be difficult to discern, there are certainly some broad outlines that can be seen by examining the available evidence and reports about the ISI’s support for the Taliban.

At its core, the relationship between the ISI and the Taliban is one wherein the ISI helps to direct and coordinate Taliban strategy. Reports differ about the extent to which the ISI exerts control over the Taliban; by some accounts the ISI operatives merely observe Taliban operations and offer suggestions, guidance, and logistical support. By other accounts, the ISI is directly involved in the decision-making processes of the Taliban (and the Haqqani Network). Despite these conflicting reports, it does seem certain that members of the ISI hold seats on the Taliban’s ruling council, and that they offer support that extends beyond mere advice. The strategic motives of the Taliban –which are largely centered around re-establishing primacy in Afghanistan- intersect neatly with those of Pakistan –which has a vested interest in stoking the fires of an Islamist movement for reasons elaborated earlier.

Even if the question of whether the ISI’s involvement with the Taliban is officially sanctioned, it is possible to view some of their actions through the lens of their relationship with the Taliban in order to ascertain their motives. The so-called double game that Pakistan has been playing, wherein they appear to be surreptitiously supporting the Taliban while publicly professing to support the U.S.’ anti-terrorism efforts, may well be serving multiple purposes.  According to one Taliban commander, Pakistan has been known to arrest members of the Taliban in what appears on the surface to be efforts to appease the U.S. (Waldman, p3, 2010); at the same time, this capacity to arrest or detain members of the Taliban also allows the ISI to exert significant influence over that organization. Simply put, Taliban operatives who get “out of line” –meaning they do not adhere to ISI directives- can be detained, arrested, and tried; such actions allow the ISI to demonstrate (or appear to demonstrate) that they are supporting U.S. interests, while also allowing them to hem in elements of the Taliban who do not adequately toe the ISI line.

It is in these arenas of strategy and politics that some analysts feel the ISI is playing its greatest role with the Taliban. While there seems to be a consensus that the ISI offers material support to the Taliban in the form of funding, munitions, and sanctuary, the extent and scope of such support is all but impossible to determine. What does seem clear, however, is that the ISI –and, presumably, at least some Pakistan government officials- is intimately involved with shaping the overall strategy of the Taliban. The practive of selectively arresting members of the Taliban, and undertaking other actions that significantly influence the decision-making processes of the Taliban leadership- may in fact be the most fundamental role the ISI plays with regard to the Taliban. Examples of such a role include the arrest of a former Taliban commander who, it was belived, was interested in negotiating with the Karzai government; in response to these reports, it has been claimed, the ISI arrested the commander and several of his functionaries in order to derail the possibility of such negotiations (Waldman, p9, 2010). Other reports claim that the current Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari personally visited several dozen jailed Taliban operatives being held in a Pakistani prison, informing them that they had only been detained to appease the U.S. and that they would be released as soon as was politically feasible (Waldman, p10, 2010).

Even at the highest levels of U.S. intelligence-gathering, the complete picture of ISI/Taliban involvement remains fuzzy. A cable leaked by the website wikileaks in 2011 offered some insight both into the nature of the relationship between the ISI and the Taliban and the quite-limited information the U.S. has about this relationship. The cable discussed a then-recent report prepared for NATO leadership that described the ISI as “intimately involved” (R.F.E., n.p., 2011) with the Taliban, but offered few details about the specific nature of this “intimate” relationship. With the Pakistani leadership maintaining its official denials of any involvement with the Taliban, it may be impossible to say with certainty how, exactly, the two organizations interact with each other; what is clear, however, is that few in the U.S. intelligence or political communities continue to take such denials seriously. In short, the ISI appears to exert significant control over Taliban strategy and operations, and the underpinning motives of the ISI and the Pakistani leadership –i.e.- their continued enmity with India- remain firmly in place.


The links and connections between and among the various organizations and actors in the region can be difficult to dissect and understand; a confluence of ideological, political and social motives serve to drive an array of clandestine and overt activities on the part of all those involved. The former leader of the Haqqani Network, Jalaluddin Haqqani (whose son now reportedly oversees the Network’s operations) was reported to have operated out of Pakistan for years (Aid, p110, 2011), and the U.S. has found direct financial and operational connections between Pakistan and Haqqani’s Taliban-linked Network (Waldman, p4, 2010). Although the Haqqani network reportedly directs insurgency operations against the current Afghanistan government, reports have surfaced that President Karzai has offered representatives of the Haqqani Network a seat at the Afghanistan government (Klein, n.p., 2010), an offer which was reportedly rejected by the Haqqani Network.

Such overtures by Karzai may reflect the adoption of a new stance in the region, one in which Afghanistan acknowledges that the Islamist movement that fuels the Taliban and the Haqqani Network is unlikely to be defeated in any real sense. With such an acknowledgment comes the need to make some difficult decisions –both in Afghanistan and the U.S.- about the political future of Afghanistan. It is an open question whether the Islamist Taliban can work in political concert with an ostensibly democratic government; it is also an open question whether the U.S. would (or should) remain committed to military operations in Afghanistan should a resurgent Taliban retake control of the country. What is certain is that the secretive infrastructure of support for the Taliban offered by the ISI is significant and extensive, and is unlikely to be lessened to any great degree in the current circumstances and geopolitical conditions in the region.  Pakistan still have grave concerns about India, prompting it to continue supporting the Taliban and the Haqqani Network, the latter of which has been described as a “virtual arm of the ISI” by former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairmen Admiral Mike McCullen (R.F.E., n.p., 2011). With no real end in sight to the conditions that serve to maintain the relationship between the ISI and the Taliban, it is virtually impossible to predict that such a relationship will be severed, or even lessened, in the foreseeable future.

Works Cited

Aid, M M. Intel wars: The secret history of the fight against terror. New York, NY: Bloomsbury Press, 2012. Print.

Griffin, D R. The new Pearl Harbor: Disturbing questions about the Bush administration and 9/11. Northampton, MA: Olive Branch Press, 2004. Print.

Jones, S. In the Graveyard of Empires: America’s War in Afghanistan. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Co, 2009. Print.

Klein, J. “Beyond the Leaks: Our Pakistan Problem.” Time 176.6 (2010): n. pag. Web.

Radio Free Europe (R.F.E.), “Pakistan Pushes Back Against U.S.” Radio Free Europe Documents and Publications- Sep. 2011: n. pag. Web.

Porter, G. “Jailed Taliban leader still a Pakistani asset.” Washington Report on Middle East Affairs 29.3 (2010): 25. Web.

Rooney, J J. “An Inconvenient Truth: Pakistan’s ISI and the Afghan Taliban.” The New Presence-Online Summer 2010 (2010): 37-40. Web.

Waldman, M. “The sun in the sky: the relationship between Pakistan’s ISI and Afghan insurgents.” Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, Web. <>.