By Steven Pressfield | Published: December 11, 2009
SP: Chief Zazai, I’d like to talk to you today on the subject of Pakistan. More than any other aspect of the Afghan conflict, I think, the subject of Pakistani involvement is confusing to Americans. Even extremely well-versed observers ask, “Whose side is Pakistan on?” You, more than anyone I know, are in a position to really “tell it like it is.” So let me ask you first, what do you think is the Pakistani agenda in the current Afghan conflict? What does the government of Pakistan want?
Chief Zazai: When you talk about the government of Pakistan, do you mean 1) the Bureaucrats, 2) the Elected Government, 3) the Army or 4) the Shadowy powerful invisible government? In Pakistan a few governments exist. First, the bureaucrats who are there no matter who comes into power; then the elected government; then the Army government, which is most superior and above all which comes and goes whenever they feel like; and finally the Shadowy government of former ISI officers and some former Army Generals whom you do not see but surely feel their presence.
If you take all four Pakistani governments (which function simultaneously), I believe their single agenda would be the survival of Pakistan as a country. Pakistan has one enemy and that is India. Unless India and Pakistan come to the point where they can free themselves of the Cold War mentality and enmity with each other, things will be tense in the region for many years to come.
In respect to Afghanistan, I believe the first three Pakistani governments would wish for a peaceful and friendly Afghanistan with more Pakistani influence. But the shadowy government, which has its own agenda and designs, would go a few steps further by continuing to operate their proxies (insurgents) in order to keep Afghanistan destabilized and weak. I believe the Shadowy Pakistani government also wishes to see less or even no Indian influence and interference in Afghanistan and of course it wishes to see a large share given to the anti-Indian Taliban in the Afghan government.
SP: I have heard Pakistan described as “an army in search of a state.” Do you think there’s any truth to that? Perhaps more specifically, what is the role of Pakistan’s intelligence service, the ISI, in the overall government of Pakistan? Why is this one branch so powerful?
Chief Zazai: Let’s put it this way, the ISI is an institution which runs Pakistan. No one should doubt the ability and the power the ISI has. I believe it is the region’s most superior intelligence agency. The ISI enjoyed a large portion of the $28 billion that came in from the West during the 80’s in support of the Afghan resistance to the Soviets. Throughout this period they have advanced their abilities and training.
I do not believe there is any truth to the phrase, “an Army in search of a State.” Pakistani institutions are all functioning well; the Army is strong and in control. I believe Pakistan can not survive without its Army either. The Shadowy government might be in alliance with the Army but that contact would be limited to a number of individuals and not the entire Pakistani Army.
One might ask, if the Shadowy government is not entirely supported by the Pakistani Army, then where do they get their support? There is no solid evidence to back this claim, but there are many reports that Iran, Russia and China are pouring a lot of money into this Shadowy government to support the Taliban in Afghanistan. If this is true, it means the problem is much wider. It is a regional issue.
Afghanistan has been always the center of the so-called “Great Game.” I strongly believe the Great Game is on now. One should be smart enough to play the game right, which means the US and NATO are now fully in the great game. If they play it wrong, they will lose and if they play it smart they will win, it’s that simple!
SP: Let’s revisit recent history for a moment, to help us understand how we got to where we are today. During the mujahideen era, the Pakistani government and the ISI were America’s allies in helping to funnel arms and money to the Afghan fighters (including yourself and your father) who were resisting the Soviet occupation. The ISI in essence created the Taliban, did they not? How did we get from then to now?
Chief Zazai: I want to clear one thing up here that is neither I nor my father ever got a single bullet or a single dollar from the ISI. My father always refused to contact or get involved with the ISI from day one (1980) due to his personal views. Most of the arms our men had were captured from the Russians and from the Afghan Communists, plus my father was receiving some cash on a regular basis from most Afghan businessmen in Afghanistan and his friends in the West in order to continue the fight against the Red Army. My father and myself were never in the payroll of the ISI. This fact is clear like the shining sun to every Afghan who knows my father and myself. That was one reason my father could not expand the tribal unity beyond Zazi Valley.
SP: My apologies, Chief Zazai. You and I are still getting to know each other!
Chief Zazai: Of course the Taliban were created by the Shadowy Pakistani government (ISI). Even President Karzai was part of the Taliban movement in their initial days.
When the Red Army was defeated, Washington turned its back on Afghanistan and Pakistan and left everyone in the cold to freeze! I guess that did not impress Pakistan in general.
SP: Chief Zazai, you yourself were imprisoned by the ISI in Pakistan for two and a half years, without any charges ever being brought. Can you tell us briefly the story behind this? How do you feel about this experience? Has it left you embittered and an enemy of Pakistan?
Chief Zazai: When people say, “There is neither friend nor foe in politics,” the living example can be seen in Pakistan. I am not an enemy of Pakistan and never have been. Our campaign in 1997 (my father’s and mine) was to start a resistance in Afghanistan against the brutal regime of Taliban, not against the Pakistani governments. But because the shadowy government in Pakistan was embedded with the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, it did not allow us to go any further. Most Pakistani politicians including the present President Asif Ali Zardari have been imprisoned at one time or another, sometimes for years, on countless charges. Now he is the president of his country and ruling the same government that once put him in prison! I do not think he is to take revenge on Pakistan nor is he an enemy of Pakistan.
The people of Pakistan are peace-loving and very friendly people. I have many Pakistani friends and family. I believe there is a rift within its Army in regard to these insurgents (Taliban), as many Pakistani Army Generals including General Kiyani want to put an end to this nonsense in Waziristan, Bara, Tirah Orakzai Agency and the Khyber & Mommand Agencies. But again the shadowy government is far stronger and more powerful than one could imagine and the Shadowy government would do anything to protect its proxies.
My father’s agenda and mine during the late 90s was to start an uprising against the Taliban regime in three South Eastern Provinces (Paktia, Paktika & Khost). In order to do so we needed to organize armed groups within the provinces and take charge of affairs on the district level. An incident happened in 1997 in which four Taliban members, including one Taliban commander, were killed in Paktia by my father’s commander. This sent alarming waves to the Taliban leadership and to the shadowy Pakistani government, which are the die hard supporters of that Taliban. Later that year my father’s commander was killed along with six of his fighters in Paktia in a trap set by the Taliban.
The Shadowy Pakistani government did not allow any movement against the Taliban within Pakistani soil. Our biggest disadvantage was that we had no choice but to use Pakistani soil to gain support in order to carry out operations within Afghanistan. That was not a move which could be tolerated by the Pakistani Shadowy government of ISI.
Prior to my arrest, a few of my father’s close friends and allies were also imprisoned. They were snatched from their homes and were taken to undisclosed locations and held there for months. Their families were unaware of their whereabouts but when their whereabouts were found, all three were charged with terrorism.
I was the liaison between London and my father. I was snatched too from my family home in Peshawar and put in prison with false charges to bring pressure on my father to stop the movement. They accused us of working for the Northern Alliance. I was denied a trial and kept in prison until 2001. All the charges were dropped against me and I was set free in early 2002 as I was no longer a threat.
In my opinion, prison is a learning experience. I learned a lot and read a lot and I believe prison is the only institution where one learns all by himself. As my father used to tell me that “An iron needs a lot of fire to become a good sword.” I am not happy that I was in prison, but I learned a lot about life, politics and how to survive in a very tense environment full of pressures. I am glad it’s over!
[This discussion ran longer than anticipated, so we'll break it into two parts and publish the second one next week. To be continued: our interview with Chief Ajmal Khan Zazai on the subject of Pakistan and how its actions and policies affect the current situation in Afghanistan. See you next Friday!]