Pakistan has long been complicit with the Taliban in Afghanistan

“That is where the Pakistani adviser used to sit,” I remember an Afghan air force corporal showing me a room in the Bagram airport, then controlled by a British army unit, after I landed there from Dushanbe in a rickety Afghan Antonov-28 in the winter of 2001. I was going to cover George Bush's war on the Taliban, but I was late. The Taliban had just fled Kabul, and regrouping in other towns. A British army contingent was now providing security to Bagram where till a few days earlier the Taliban, guided by Pakistani officers, were running the show.

My attempt to take off from Dushanbe the previous day had failed. The plane, an Afghan air force transporter, had a tyre burst on the take-off runway moments before it was to get airborne. If the tyre had held on till the plane had got airborne, and burst on landing? Two decades later, I shudder at the thought. It was nearly an hour-long flight from Dushanbe to Bagram near Kabul, with all of us, journalists from all over the world, sitting on wooden benches, our feet thrown over the luggage dumped on the floor and tied into huge piles. On landing at Bagram, we Indian journalists were separated from the rest, given warm hugs, and briefed separately by Afghan officials. It was then that one of them pointed to the room where a Pakistani air force officer used to sit till about a week earlier.

A tweet by Afghan Vice President Amrullah Saleh yesterday sent my memories back by two decades to that room in Bagram from where Pakistani 'advisers' controlled the airspace around Kabul. “Pakistan air force has issued official warning to the Afghan Army and Air Force that any move to dislodge the Taliban from Spin Boldak area will be faced and repelled by the Pakistan Air Force,” Saleh's tweet yesterday read. “Pak air force is now providing close air support to Taliban in certain areas.” He has even offered “to share evidence” about the warning from the Pakistani military asking Afghan aircraft to stay “as far as 10 kilometres from Spin Boldak... or face air to air missiles”.

Saleh, a former spy chief, alleges that the Pakistan Air Force is threatening the Afghan security forces who are fighting the Taliban in the Spin Boldak region on the Afghan-Pak border. That sounds like a throwback—not by two but by three decades—to the 1990s. For, it was in Spin Boldak, back in 1992 or so, that two Pukhtoon girls were abducted from a vehicle. A local mullah by the name Omar, who had fought the Soviets and lost an eye, had raised a gang of 30 young men and rescued them. That gang soon grew into a vigilante group, started collecting protection money from transporters, enforced fierce religious codes on the local people, got girls thrown out of schools and tucked under purdahs, got into drug business and became the Taliban with the help of Pakistan's ISI.

Spin Boldak, Pak air support, strafing, Taliban - hasn't anything changed in Afghanistan? Spin Boldak is still a Taliban stronghold as it was three decades ago, and that is why the present Kabul regime is sending its fighter planes for strafing there.

It wasn't just close air support in the 1990s, but virtual air and ground management by the Pakistanis. The room wasn't the only one in Kabul with a Pakistani 'marking'. In fact, every office in Kabul—civilian or military—bore Pakistani markings. Even hotel rooms, and of course their toilets, bore Pakistani graffiti. Those days we didn't have to look for evidence. We could see it everywhere. Every office in Kabul showed telltale Pakistani markings. Every tale that Kabulis told us had Pakistanis in it - how Pakistanis had built a road, how Pakistanis had erected the telecom lines, how Pakistanis had supervised office work. When I asked my interpreter about what looked like a graveyard of Indian Tata buses rusting away in a transport depot, he told me: “those were a gift from India, but the Pakistanis took away the engines.” Perhaps a tall tale to tickle the Indian in me, but then Kabulis had always loved Indians for fighting the Pakistanis.

Pak ISI's role in raising and grooming the Pakhtoon Taliban, whom the cosmopolitan Kabulis hated, is no secret. It was Pakistan's Benazir Bhutto government, elected in 1993, that moved away from Gulbuddin Hekmatyar whom Pakistan had been backing among the Afghan warlords, and put Pakistan's money and guns on the Taliban. As the Taliban quickly grew into a militia force, most of its technical training was imparted by Pakistan's ISI. As it grew into a military force, most of its signals (telecommunications) requirements were handled by Pakistan Army. As the Taliban captured power in Kabul and became a regime, most of its military and civilian infrastructure support was provided by Pakistan's state-owned Telecommunications Corporation. In fact, so thick had the relations become that Peshawar was only a local call away from most Afghan towns on the border. The Pakistan public works department built the roads, and even the Taliban's rudimentary air force was virtually controlled by Pakistan air force officers.

Pakistan's close relationship with the Taliban continued through the changing governments of Bhutto, Nawaz Sharif and finally the military regime of Parvez Musharraf, all of whom were also friends of the US. In fact, the world believed that even the US did business with the Taliban through Pakistan.

The 9/11 bombing changed all that. As the Taliban regime refused to yield the bombing mastermind Osama bin Laden, who was hiding in Afghanistan, to the US, George Bush declared war on it. That put Pakistan, then ruled by Gen. Parvez Musharraf, in cleft stick. His army and ISI had been openly aiding and advising the Taliban, but now his other ally, the United States, had turned against the Taliban. As India cosied up to the US in its war against Taliban, Musharraf did the incredible—overnight, he changed colours and offered to hunt with the American hounds, while also quietly running with and guiding the hares. Apparently, he promised Bush to deliver the bad Taliban to be killed, and a good Taliban to be allowed to survive and rule from Kabul.

Musharraf's deft move left the Atal Behari Vajpayee regime in India nonplussed for a while. Much as India tried to impress upon the Bush administration that there was no good Taliban, US bombers began bombing the Tora Bora mountains where bin Laden was thought to be hiding, as also elements of the 'bad Taliban'. India's entreaties that the US take the help of the Northern Alliance—mostly of Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara warlords, to fight the Taliban fell on deaf American ears, especially of the Pakistan-leaning Secretary of State Colin Powell.

But with the bombing campaign getting nowhere (except “melting the snow on the mountains,” as Indian defence minister George Fernandes scoffed), the Americans began looking at other options. Bush now sent his Defence Secretary, the more pro-India Donald Rumsfeld, to Moscow and Delhi in a bid to reach out to the Northern Alliance. Around this time I reached the Tajik capital of Dushanbe, a city infested by journalists, spies, agents and double agents, in my bid to get into Afghanistan. At Dushanbe, I heard from sources—who literally came out of the woodwork in hotel lobbies—about the US having reached an understanding with the Northern Alliance. And within days, the bombing campaign changed course, and I saw the Northern Alliance troops walking into Kabul.

I too followed on—on that rickety airplane which had bursting tyres.

As the Taliban fled Kabul, they grouped elsewhere to put up fierce resistance. But by now, Pakistan was desperate. It had to rescue its military officers, who had been aiding the Taliban before they fell into the hands of the Northern Alliance who might lynch them. We heard stories of torture and sexual abuse of captured Taliban troops at the hands of the Tajiks and the more fierce Uzbeks and Hazaras in the so-called prisoner-of-war camps. 'Sources' even told us stories of how Pakistan had sent helicopters to rescue its personnel from the PoW camps (of course with the Americans looking the other way), and how those attempts had led to Taliban prisoners rioting. The infamous Mazar-e-Sharif prison riot is still believed to have been triggered by the attempt to isolate Pakistanis from the captured Taliban troops and rescue them.

My return journey was a road adventure that involved an arduous trek through the bombed-out Salang Pass, a drive down the slippery mountains, a horse ride across the Oxus and a visit to Ai Khanoum, the easternmost city that the conquering Alexander had founded two millennia ago. Since then several conquerors had come into Afghanistan and gone, all of them leaving their marks and many not to return, and many to conquer and lose again. The British went three times from India, installed and deposed kings, effected regime changes in 'great games' but could never hold on. Nor could the Russians. As they say, “the bear went over the mountain.”

On the way down the Pamir and Panjsher mountains, I saw more signs of Pakistanis having been around. At Pul-i-Kumri and Kunduz, the Alliance soldiers told me stories of their battles with the Taliban. I had thought then that those would be the last tales about the Taliban that I would hear.