• U.S.


4 minute read
Edward Barnes/Panjshir Valley

The 26 men sit in grim isolation, huddled in a darkened cell of a former Soviet-built prison deep in northern Afghanistan’s Panjshir Valley. They are sequestered from nearly 600 other prisoners, but even if they were allowed to mingle, they would still stand apart. The style of their clothes, the color of their skin, their very language mark them as outsiders. They are not Afghans. They are Pakistanis, captured while fighting against the forces of the Afghan government that was driven from the capital five weeks ago by the group of Islamic fighters known as the Taliban. The presence of these foreign supporters of the Taliban, claim officials at the prison, is hard proof that Pakistan, a U.S. ally, has arrogated for itself a more extensive role in Afghanistan’s war than has ever been acknowledged.

Even before the Taliban’s victorious drive on Kabul, the ousted government had long insisted that the student-led band of Muslim warriors were actively backed by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Agency (ISI) and by some members of the country’s powerful military. The motive: gaining some influence over a neighbor with whom it shares a long and exceedingly porous border. Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto has denied any involvement, but in late September, Naseerullah Babar, Pakistan’s Interior Minister, flew to Afghanistan to work out a settlement between the Taliban and the most powerful of the Afghan warlords. While that seemed to support suspicions, the stories told by several of the prisoners in the Panjshir, if true, would constitute the first direct evidence that Islamabad’s involvement with the war-riven nation to the west extends to recruiting Pakistanis and paying them to fight alongside the Taliban.

Khalid Mohammed Zai, 22, was a member of an Islamic paramilitary unit, based in Kulty Chawni in Pakistan’s Punjab province. He says his unit was under the control of the ISI, and his mission, as it was explained to him and 1,000 other Pakistani fighters he says entered Afghanistan during the past two months, was to “go as a fighter and rise to a high position of influence.” He was transported across the border by Pakistani military vehicles and, once in Kabul, received orders and money from the senior Pakistani officer in Kabul, a man named Naser. Zai was in the forefront of the Taliban troops who swept into Kabul on Sept. 27 and pushed the armies of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the former government’s army commander, into the hills surrounding the capital. Zai was captured Oct. 13 near the Salang Pass, the high-water mark of the Taliban effort to drive Massoud’s forces from the region. The campaign turned disastrous when Massoud retreated until the Taliban had stretched their lines dangerously thin. Then the Lion of Panjshir turned and abruptly struck at their flanks, a tactic he had used many times against the Soviets.

The momentum of this counterattack carried Massoud’s forces through the village of Charikar, where Mohammed Zahid Pashtun, 26, another Pakistani fighter, was stationed. A devout Muslim and former engineering student, Zahid says he signed up for combat duty with a Pakistani intelligence officer and was given 40 days of training. He eventually reached Charikar, where Afghan civilians, who initially welcomed the Taliban, revolted after just 11 days of repressive rule, outraged by a draconian regime that bars women from working outside the home. Also outlawed are movies, music and chess. Captured, he now says he regrets his role. “I heard and saw how the Taliban treated people. If I get home again, I will tell people that the Taliban are not true Islam.”

While Massoud is eager to drive them out, the Taliban have sworn they will not leave Kabul. Massoud, an ethnic Tajik, is aided by the Taliban’s plummeting popularity, but the key to his offensive is his tenuous alliance with Abdul Rashid Dostum, a powerful Uzbek warlord, who is with Massoud’s forces battling the Taliban near Kabul. The tribal nature of the conflict has always complicated the fighting. Last week the Taliban, mostly ethnic Pashtun, were going house to house in Kabul in search of Tajiks and Uzbeks. Pakistan’s meddling can only worsen the hostilities, and the lines of refugees will stretch deep into the winter.

–With reporting by Meenakshi Ganguly/New Delhi and Lewis M. Simons/Washington

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com