ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN — Pakistan's security agency is asked to give information on its protégé, the Taliban.
Pakistani spies may be America's most critical eyes and ears in the manhunt for Osama bin Laden - and any military campaign in Afghanistan.
But will they deliver?
The Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI), which has an estimated 3,000 personnel inside Afghanistan, is likely offering the United States as much intelligence as possible on the whereabouts of Mr. bin Laden, his camps, the terrain of Afghanistan, and other vital logistical questions.
But turning on the Taliban - the fundamentalist Islamic militia that the ISI helped create and nurture - is a far more delicate matter, sources say.
"There is no way the ISI can ask its rank and file to suddenly turn on the Taliban," says one well-placed Islamabad source.
"It isn't quite the same thing, but can you ask a father to give up his child?"
On Sept. 11, the head of Pakistan's powerful secret service, Lt. Gen. Mahmood Ahmed, was in Washington. When he came back to Pakistan several days later, sources say, General Ahmed was "a changed man."
Yet, Pakistan's spy chief faces a monumentally difficult task in giving a carte blanche to the American military and the CIA. It is a complete 180-degree turn in the aims and purposes of an agency that sees the Taliban as bringing some semblance of law and order to Pakistan's border.
Sources say ISI intelligence to the US is likely to be a careful mixture of fresh and old material - designed to keep Pakistan's hand in the operations, and outcome, of any US-led coalition. The ISI is considered to know more about the Taliban leaders and commanders than any other group in the region - and rumors of splits in the Taliban reported in US press last week may have come from ISI sources.
Yet the aim of Pakistan and the ISI at this point, sources say, is to support the creation of a moderate Taliban leadership and avoid a wrenching war in the region. In recent days, the name of former Afghan Foreign Minister Mullah Mohammad Hasan Akhund, No. 2 in the Taliban movement, has been described as a leading candidate.
(In Kabul, Taliban officials shrugged off the idea of a split in their ranks, and said only Mullah Mohammad Omar would lead the Taliban. "We have foiled such conspiracies in the past and are ready to defeat fresh attempts to divide our movement," said Mullah Amir Khan Mutaqqi, a senior leader.)
Pakistani officials agree Afghan rule may have to change from the Arab-militant influenced Taliban leadership now based in Kandahar, sources say. But they are quick to add that the Taliban are too predominant and powerful inside the country to effect a whole-scale removal of them, as envisioned by some US policymakers.
Islamabad sources say that as an institution, the ISI must operate within a current atmosphere of public opinion in Pakistan. Many mid-level officials feel that the US has spent much of the past half decade isolating Pakistan. The US is now seen as suddenly coming in with demands that could seriously destabilize the region.
"As an institution, the ISI has to operate in the atmosphere of Pakistan, which for now is very wary of the US," says one source.
Former ISI leader Hamid Gul has a far more pragmatic criticism of the US request for help. General Gul says the ISI has always tended to cooperate with the US, but has done so in very private ways. He argues that by going public with a request for ISI help, the US has undercut the ability of the ISI to perform in Afghanistan.
"When [the US] made it a public demand, it hurt us," says Gul. "Why would the Taliban let the ISI anywhere near them now? The politicians simply have no idea how to do this work; they are deceiving their taxpayers."
"The Taliban know what the ISI knows," says a Pakistani journalist. "That may mean a lot of the information flow will be stale."
The rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan during the 1990s was largely an ISI-sponsored operation. Pakistan has long wanted a "friendly" northern neighbor - and until 1979, when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, the government in Kabul was considered "hostile" to Pakistan.
After the Soviets left in 1989, Afghanistan splintered into warring fiefdoms of former mujahideen. The rugged country, hauntingly beautiful and wild, was also considered here as an ungovernable land of thieves, kidnappers, and mercenaries.
By 1995, Pakistan, through the ISI, backed the rise of a super-fundamentalist group known as the Taliban - considering them the best choice of a very limited set of alternatives. In turn, the Taliban brought a degree of peace, as well as harsh moral codes, to areas it controlled. The ISI helped the Taliban take the key cities of Jalalabad and the capital Kabul - and continued to back them as they secured about 95 percent of Afghanistan.
In creating the Taliban, however, the ISI may have proven to be too successful. In recent years the Taliban have not listened to or agreed with ISI aims. Partly, this is due to the influence and money offered by Arabs like Osama bin Laden to Taliban leader Omar. Partly, it is due to the traditionally fierce independent character of the Pashtun ethnic peoples, who largely make up the Taliban. And partly it is due to a view among the Taliban that the ISI is a state-run secular organization that cannot always be counted upon to act in a proper "Islamic manner."
(Pakistan's interior minister Moinuddin Haider said this week that the Taliban had not cooperated in extraditing as many as 40 persons charged with murder and sectarian violence in Pakistan who are now in Kabul.)
Currently, US intelligence agencies are reportedly using ISI information about Afghanistan, as well as Northern Alliance information, to create a "picture" of the Afghanistan situation.
"The Americans are using both sources and cross checking them," says one Islamabad-based former official.
The ISI was formed by Pakistani leader Gen. Zia ul Haq as the organization that funneled some $6 billion in arms and supplies to the Afghan mujahideen during the 1980s. Pakistan at that time, as now, wanted to keep an eye on the policy and developments to its north.
"The ISI came of age during the Afghan war, because the Americans didn't know the groups involved in the region," says Rifaat Hussain, director of the Defense and Strategic Studies Department at Quaid-I-Azam University in Islamabad. "They had absolutely no clue who these people were, because they had no experience in the region. In a way, it's where they find themselves today."
For their expertise, the ISI has been funded handsomely. From their official staff of 2,000 operatives and administrative personnel, the ISI grew to 20,000 employees during the height of the fight to remove the Soviets. Even though US funding for Afghan operations was cut off in 1989, after the Soviets departed, the ISI continued to grow, with an estimated 40,000 employees and a $1 billion budget for maintaining influence among the now-victorious mujahideen groups. In the process, the ISI grew into a powerful institution with the ability to direct foreign policy, influence local news coverage, blackmail enemies, and even to topple governments.
"The ISI had become a ministate within a state," says one source with close ties to the Pakistani military. "They had their own headquarters ... their own enterprises. Their funding was totally unaudited. This gave them the ability, when the Afghan jihad was finished, to shift their eyes to the freedom movement in Kashmir. They had begun to define Pakistan's national interests."
In recent years, particularly after the November 1999 popular coup that brought Gen. Pervez Musharraf to power here, Pakistan has slowed its support for the Taliban, in face of a rise in Islamic fervor at home. That rise was brought partly by the success of the Taliban, and partly by a larger evangelical Islamic message that appealed to many poor and disaffected youth.
In order to channel much of this new energy, General Musharraf initially backed what he called a "jihad" in the Kashmir Valley - the disputed territory between India and Pakistan that is 95 percent Muslim. During this period, too, the ISI captured the imagination of youth by funding and organizing young "jihadis" - through a group known as Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, now on the US State Department "watch list" of alleged terrorist groups.