x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

'Only losses' for Pakistan in the war on Taliban

A former intelligence officer accused of fomenting political unrest says his country gains nothing from backing the US.

Maj Amer Khan, a retired Inter-Services Intelligence officer, blames the US presence in Afghanistan for insurgency in Pakistan.
Maj Amer Khan, a retired Inter-Services Intelligence officer, blames the US presence in Afghanistan for insurgency in Pakistan.

ISLAMABAD // Taliban militancy in Pakistan will flourish as long as US forces are based in neighbouring Afghanistan, a controversial retired Pakistani military intelligence officer with alleged links to the militants has warned. Major Amer Khan, popularly known as Major Amer, a former member of the Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) who was accused of attempting to undermine the government of the assassinated former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, made the remarks during a rare interview.

"The basic thing is the American presence in Kabul. So long as they are there, we will have problems in Pakistan, particularly the tribal areas," Major Amer said. According to the major, unlike during the war against the Soviets, Pakistan has nothing to gain from supporting the current war against the Afghan Taliban. "The benefits we got from the anti-Soviet jihad were to secure our western border by removing Russia and India's hostile influence from Afghanistan. We got assets like American F-16 aircraft," Major Amer said.

"But what benefits do we have now? I see only losses. We have got suicide bombers, we have lost hundreds of soldiers and policemen, we have had attacks on our intelligence agencies; our western border has become unsafe as Indian intelligence have once again set up training camps in Afghanistan and Kabul wants to destabilise Pakistan," he said. Pakistan accuses India of using its consulates in eastern Afghanistan to supply militant groups fighting against the government in the north-west of the country and Baluchistan.

Major Amer said he was not anti-American but that the United States had mistakenly invaded Afghanistan instead of showing more patience in 2001 in co-operating with the Taliban regime to hunt down al Qa'eda. Major Amer has been involved in the country's political intrigue for decades. He and another officer, Brig Imtiaz, were alleged to be the two main characters of "Operation Midnight Jackal", which was reported to be a covert operation to topple the first Bhutto government in 1989.

The ISI launched the operation to try to make members of parliament from Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) support a no-confidence motion against their own prime minister, it was reported. According to Masood Sharif Khattak, the director general of the civilian Intelligence Bureau at the time, the major and Brig Imtiaz were caught on video and audio tapes trying to influence PPP parliamentarians.

Major Amer denied any role in the plot and said a military court exonerated him. He claimed his interactions with PPP members stemmed from orders given to him to unmask PPP "black sheep". Bhutto, in her memoir Daughter of the East, accused Major Amer, when he had retired from the army, of establishing a militant organisation, Tahreek-e-Nifaz Shariat-e-Muhammadi, TNSM, which was led by Sufi Mohammad, in Malakand district in the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP). The movement, which demanded the implementation of Sharia, fomented an armed rebellion against the NWFP government in 1996 before it was put down.

Mr Mohammad went on to lead up to 10,000 young men from Malakand into Afghanistan to wage war against the US in 2001. Most of the untrained fighters were killed or caught and tortured by the US-allied Northern Alliance. Mr Mohammad was jailed during the regime of the former military ruler, Pervez Musharraf, but was released to act as an intermediary in talks between the government and his son-in-law, Mullah Fazlullah, the leader of the Taliban in Swat valley.

Major Amer denied having any contact with Mr Mohammad until 1999, during the government of Nawaz Sharif, when he was the adviser to the chief minister of NWFP. "We also had some problems with him. I warned him then not to take the law into his own hands," he said. In keeping with the twists and unlikely allegiances typical of Pakistani politics, Bhutto's widower, Asif Ali Zardari, now the president, recently offered the major the position of head of the Intelligence Bureau, which he refused.

Major Amer befriended Mr Zardari when he was in jail during the Musharraf years. Major Amer, who was under house arrest at the time, wrote a letter to the press demanding better treatment for Mr Zardari. "He is a good human," Major Amer said of the president. However, he said he would not get involved in politics and had committed himself to looking after his business interests, which include several flour mills in NWFP.

Major Amer comes from an influential religious family based in the village of Panchpir in Swabi district in NWFP. His father founded a religious movement, a splinter group from the fundamentalist Deoband school of thought popular among the ethnic Pashtuns of NWFP, whose followers are known as "Panchpiris". The movement's main tenets were to reform society through the teachings of Islam but to remain aloof from politics. The major described Panchpiris as being opposed to violence.

His family enjoyed religious and political influence over most of the main Afghan mujahideen commanders who waged jihad against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. His family is still respected by numerous militant commanders, many of whom studied at the family's mosque. He said that in 2007 he had advised the Taliban leader in Swat, Mr Fazlullah, to lay down his arms. The major's father, Mohammed Tahir Khan, opened his first religious school in 1937. Students still congregate from all over the country to attend a 40-day course during the month of Ramadan that is run by the major's younger brother, Maulana Tayyab Khan. Their father died in 1987.

A previous governor of the NWFP, Khalilur Rehman, had Major Amer hauled in to ask him to explain why so many of the Taliban commanders pitted against Pakistani forces were connected to the Panchpiri movement. Major Amer described the Pakistani Taliban commanders as not belonging to the Panchpiri-affiliated Jamaati Ishat-ut-Tawa Sunnat party. "They are outside the party's discipline," he said. He reserved his greatest scorn for Mr Musharraf; he believes he duped the US by exacerbating the militant threat to maintain a grip on power, and India's then Hindu nationalist establishment.

But later in the interview, he remembered fondly Panchpir's own history of Hindu and Muslim harmony in India before Partition in 1947. He recalled how he had a lasting friendship with a Sikh and a Hindu herbal healer, both of whom come from the neighbouring district of Buner, and who had to flee recently from militants. Nevertheless, single-minded obsession with a hostile India informed most of Maj Amer's analysis of the present and strategic calculations in the past.

"The Taliban regime in the 1990s in Afghanistan meant for the first time that India could not use Kabul against Pakistan," he said. "That is all we care about - making sure that Pakistan is secure." iwilkinson@thenational.ae