CIA officers who know Amrullah Saleh have described him as "brilliant" but Saleh has always been reluctant to say much on the record until his attendance at an anti-terrorism conference in Washington late last year -- and even then he didn't go into detail about his oft-repeated charge that Pakistan's ISI is complicit in terrorist attacks in Afghanistan and India.
Now, FRONTLINE has aired an interview with Saleh conducted by veteran reporter and FRONTLINE producer Martin Smith. ("The Spy Who Quit," aired January 17, 2011 on PBS). They expanded their discussion off camera, which FRONTLINE published in transcript form.
Smith has been in contact with Saleh for four years and is knowledable about the issues raised in the interview. The expanded portion of the discussion fills in several gaps in the Afghan war record, from the pre-9/11 days to the present, addresses Saleh's career in intelligence work and his relationship with Hamid Karzai, and his views on al Qaeda, the Taliban, and the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan and the war in terror in general.
But it's the part of the discussion about the ISI and specifically Saleh's charge that the ISI orchestrated the bombings of the Indian embassy in Kabul (in 2008 and 2009) that's the stunner because of the details Saleh provides for the first time about his claim of ISI involvement in the 2008 bombing. Below I feature excerpts from the transcript that address the bombing, but first I'd like to make two points:
Although Saleh was fêted in many quarters during his trip to Washington in December 2010 I find that there's a subtle bias against him within certain Washington factions - namely ones that recoil from his hawkishness toward Pakistan, or still cling to the notion that Pakistan should have a large say in Afghanistan's affairs, or which fear that he's too friendly with Russia or will become so if he gains political power.
Often the bias takes the form of faintly praising him while pointing out that as a Tajik he can't be accepted by Afghanistan's Pashtuns. This line is invariably accompanied by the claim that Pashtuns are the majority population in Afghanistan.
The Pashtuns are the majority ethnic group in Afghanistan but they make up only 40 percent of the country's population, and Amrullah Saleh's ethnic heritage is actually Tajik-Pashtun, as a reader at RFERL's Gandhara blog notes in response to Christian Caryl's speculations about Saleh's chances of becoming Afghanistan's next president.
Secondly, while Saleh speaks with frankness during the interview he avoids stating the obvious, which is that Afghanistan's 'Pakistan problem' is a U.S. problem spelled backward. The problem is that Washington can't make up its mind from one day to the next about how it deals with Pakistan.
It's because of Washington's incoherence that I don't agree with Amrullah Saleh's recommendation that the U.S./NATO "bomb" Pakistan, nor do I support the drone strikes. Or rather I think such actions put the cart before the horse.
Washington and its most powerful NATO partners should first change their tune toward Pakistan and make the tune consistent, then see if Pakistan's military/ISI continue to support terrorism in Afghanistan. Then take it to the next level if they don't abandon the support.
But it's only recently that Washington has demonstrated real opposition to the Pakistani military's support of terror sponsoring groups -- and even then the demonstration is part of a passive-aggressive approach that sends conflicting signals to Pakistan's military and civilian leaders.
Let me show you something:
October 8, 2009
US leaders say no intention to interfere in Pakistan's affairsJanuary 8, 2011
[...] Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the United States has no intention of interfering in Pakistan's internal affairs through the [civilian] aid programme, as some critics have suggested. "Those who have questions or doubts should read the legislation, which is very clear in its intent. [...]
Islamabad - The US has the right to interfere in Pakistan’s economic and governance affairs as Washington provides funds to it, the American envoy here has asserted. US Ambassador to Pakistan Cameron Munter said the US was the largest aid giver to Pakistan and, therefore, it has the right to interfere in economic and governance affairs, Geo News reported Saturday.[...][flipping her pen in the air] Who acts like this? Only crazy people can afford the luxury of changing their minds whenever it suits them. A policy, particularly one that's written into legislation, means an assurance that's consistently applied. Policies can change but if 'change' is the operative term, one is no longer making policy.
With that off my chest I'll turn the floor over to Martin Smith and Amrullah Saleh; Smith's comments are shown in boldface:
[...]I'll break off here, but there is much more of import in the interview.
Were you in Kabul on the day that the Indian Embassy was bombed [in 2008]?
You got the news and then you began to gather evidence.
Yes. The evidence directly linked the bombing to [the Pakistani Islamist group] Lashkar-e-Taiba and ISI.
Very specific, because we got the guy who prepared the car; we got the guy who planned together with ISI in Pakistan. And we had sufficient evidence that it was ISI's plan, because prior to the bombing, I had passed many other assets they had if they could do it. So we knew they were trying to do something against the Indian Embassy.
But what was the evidence that you had?
We had the remaining members of the network arrested.
And they told you --
That they were working for Lashkar-e-Taiba.
But what was the evidence linking those Lashkar-e-Taiba operatives to the ISI?
Lashkar-e-Taiba is an ISI child, A. B, prior to the bombing, we had detected ISI surveillance of the Indian Embassy through proxy, meaning they would train people in surveillance and casing and task them to go after the Indian targets in Afghanistan and bring back information. So we knew ISI were planning to do something against the Indian Embassy.
What was the evidence that linked those proxies to the ISI?
Because it's very direct and it's very simple. Indian Embassy in Kabul is not a target for Al Qaeda. India is not doing anything against Al Qaeda, one. That's circumstantial evidence.
But hard evidence means we get the guy. He tells us about his safe house in a Pakistani city. He gives us telephone numbers. He gives us the name of this mysterious clean-shaven person who came and gave them the equipment, showed them the map and gave them the training and the money, which clearly shows ISI's hand. And we go to the ISI, and we say, "Brother, this is the location where the bombing was found."
Months later they come by and say, "Yes, we did go to the location; the house was empty." Sure, if the house was empty, you could see the register. Who are running it? Very frustrating. Very frustrating. Yeah, they were involved. They were involved. ...
And when did you present your evidence to your U.S. counterparts in the CIA?
As far as investigations were concerned, I don't know now. It was shoulder to shoulder it worked. ... On this particular incident there was nothing that we were withholding from CIA. They knew everything we were doing in the investigation, everything.
So they concluded that as well as you did that this was an ISI-sponsored operation.
We were not telling the CIA to share with us their conclusion. We were empowering them with evidence. And we were assuming that overwhelming evidence will allow them to have good judgment. ...
What was [the Haqqani network's] role in that attack?
They have facilitated, because the bombers had come to Logar with the help of Haqqani facilitators into Kabul. But it was a Lashkar-e-Taiba operation.
Lashkar-e-Taiba is a --
Is a Pakistani extremist outfit, Punjabi. It's not tribal areas. Initially created to do operations in India. They are the ones who did the Mumbai attack.
You have numerous incidents, operations that you've investigated. But can you recount for us now ... perhaps something you haven't talked about before that makes very crystal clear the involvement of the Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI, in Taliban operations inside Afghanistan?
... There is an individual called Tajmir. Tajmir, during the Taliban, was chief of their intelligence for Jalalabad. By virtue of his job he was very close to Al Qaeda, and he was trained by ISI. He's an ISI graduate, and he hails from Paktia province. Very professional in training, he uses about 70 aliases and fake names. But we know it's Tajmir.
He is directing operations from Tal, from Waziristan, from tribal areas. And more than a dozen times after we found out this particular operation was carried out with blessings of Tajmir, we told ISI: "This guy is not hiding in mountains. He is either in Peshawar, or he is in a specific building with this telephone number." They never arrested Tajmir because Tajmir is their man. CIA knows about this. The U.S. military knows about it. The FBI knows about it. And Tajmir is like chief of operations of Al Qaeda assisted by ISI. And he's responsible for more than half of the deadly, the spectacular attacks that have happened since 2004 in Kabul.
You just said that he was chief of operations for Al Qaeda or for the Taliban?
Both. For that particular region of Afghanistan.
He was trained by the ISI?
Yes, he was trained.
What convinces you that he is currently being run by the ISI?
Because he's not hiding in the mountains. He is living in a flat in town. And more than a dozen times we have passed his location and phoned to the ISI. The ISI have come back to me and said: "You were right. A cell who did that operation in Kabul or this operation in Kabul, you are right, they were in contact with their masters in Tal." But they never arrested anybody.
You've called the ISI?
Who do you talk to?
I used to talk to [Pakistan army chief Ashfaq Parvez] Kayani, [former ISI chief] Nadim Taj and [ISI chief] Gen. [Ahmed Shuja] Pasha.
And when you talked to Kayani or Pasha, you mentioned this Tajmir?
And they said?
They would say, "We will look into it."
Did they deny that he worked for the ISI?
So they're denying it? And you're saying that your proof that he works for the ISI is that they don't arrest him?
He's not an ISI officer, but without ISI's protection, he cannot live where he is living. When he does an operation, he then moves to Peshawar, [where] he has a shop. ... And ISI knows about it.
Well, there's a difference, though, between hands-off policy by the ISI toward operatives and actually running them.
I am afraid the United States is becoming again so legalistic like before 9/11, and that will hurt you.
But you're an intelligence man. There is a difference, would you not admit, between a hands-off policy and actual employment and running him as an agent? Are we talking here about the refusal of the ISI to cooperate with you in going after people, or are we talking about active ISI-led operations?
ISI has created a space for Al Qaeda, Haqqani and Taliban to launch operations. Without their protection, without them tolerating the presence of these operatives to do planning, training and using Pakistani soil they won't be able to do these operations. So ISI knows they are doing it, and ISI is happy they are doing it, because through them, Pakistan promotes her policy in Afghanistan, and the policy is, "Taliban are ours, and they are to dominate Afghanistan."
And we're going to help those who help them by protecting them? By not arresting them?
Have you ever arrested somebody engaged in a Taliban operation who was carrying papers that identified them as having communications with the ISI?
Can you give me an example of that?
For example, there is a guy called Sayed Akbar. He's an active ISI officer, and he was embedded with Taliban in Kunar. We arrested him, and he's in jail.
Give me another example.
Another example -- my colleagues and the police arrested another ISI man fighting, embedded with Taliban in Farah.
How did they know he was an ISI man?
He's saying he's an ISI man. He gives his regiment and his office, everything.
Can you give me another example?
I wouldn't because we have an expression: When you buy apples, you just look at one, and don't necessarily look at each and every apple you buy. So what is the point going over and over this? Americans know ISI is hurting them.
The Pakistanis deny it.
Sure. It suits them.
They say: "We're being hurt and attacked by the Taliban. Why should we be helping them?"
I would say they are being hurt by anti-Pakistani elements or miscreants, but not the Taliban.
In the summer of 2008, the drone campaign in FATA [Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas] accelerates. What kind of conversations did you have with the CIA, with your U.S. counterparts and the military about this operation and what were your feelings were about it?