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Central Asia/Russia

THE ROVING EYE
From strategic depth to strategic nightmare

By Pepe Escobar

ISLAMABAD - "The next few days are going to be very important for the ISI." The high-level Pakistani intelligence source savors his words as he begins to explain in detail how the all-powerful Pakistan Inter-Service Intelligence is on the brink of despair.

He starts by saying how Iran is Pakistan's economic enemy, and how India is Pakistan's political enemy. During the 1990s, "the ISI theory was to get hold of the Central Asian markets". This was the time of the famed General Nasirullah Babar, the man who tried to convince diplomats from Asia and Europe that through the Taliban he could assure them of a peaceful and stable government in Afghanistan - the key to everyone's pot of gold: "The concept of strategic depth was that without a friendly government in Kabul, Pakistan would not have access to Central Asian states." Now, the whole ISI world seems to be upside down. Strategic depth is being replaced by a strategic nightmare.

Taking time to sip his tea, the source goes on, "I would take the liberty of drawing a parallel between the relations of Osama bin Laden and the CIA, and the relations of the Taliban with the ISI. The CIA was basically the promoter of Osama. Then Osama turned against the CIA. It is the same with the Taliban and the ISI."

As the Pakistani intelligence community follows in horror the way the Americans are beefing up the Northern Alliance - already supported by Pakistan's enemies India and Iran - the source ponders, "The problem is not so simple. Pakistan cannot simply delink from the Taliban, and the Taliban delink from the ISI. Also, the ISI has already penetrated into the low ranks of Taliban. Historically, whenever the ISI felt that some groups were going out of their control, they tried to politically divide them. This is how the ISI will try to create a split within the Taliban. Hardliners will be sidelined for a while. They will go behind the scenes, and a new leadership will be brought [in]."

As far as the volatile tribal areas inside Pakistan that border Afghanistan are concerned, the source comments that the Taliban hardliners living in these areas will certainly join the Taliban in Afghanistan for another jihad. "In Peshawar there is already a campaign of distribution of arms among these people."

The source is keen to emphasize that the game is far from over. "In Afghan history there have always been groups and countergroups. Seventy percent to 80 percent of the Taliban officials are from Najibullah's administration. They have disguised themselves. They had no option, they had to win their daily bread. They will now be taken into confidence. Otherwise, Pakistan will be out of the whole scene." The source expresses the whole Pakistani dilemma. "If the Northern Alliance comes onto the scene, gets into power, it would be the end of 'strategic depth'."

Lately, in the non-stop jockeying for position in a situation that has never been so fluid, the ISI "has been working with Sayyaf". Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, deputy prime minister of the Northern Alliance administration, was described a month ago to this correspondent by a Panjshir source in the north of Afghanistan as "nothing less than a genocide perpetrator".

Says the source: "It was basically Sayyaf's religious party [Islamic Unity] that Osama bin Laden first joined when he came to Afghanistan. Sayyaf trained him militarily. Sayyaf is Osama's teacher." Indeed, it was Sayyaf's party that attracted most of the so-called Afghan Arabs - Middle Eastern Muslims who came to Afghanistan to fight the Soviets, and he is ethnically Pashtu, like the Taliban. The source stresses that "all these contradictions will now be exposed" - for the ISI's benefit, of course. "There will be a split in the Northern Alliance - the same as within the Taliban."

As we discuss the ballet of the groups and counter-groups, the source casually says that the Uzbek warlord in the north of Afghanistan, General Abdur Rashid Dostum, who had been reported killed, was done in by a faction of the Northern Alliance, that is, the Sayyaf group. "Commander Fahim [who replaced slain Ahmed Shah Masoud as top commander] would have expressed concerns about Dostum's attitude. This is unconfirmed, but apparently the two false journalists who went to interview Masoud [and killed him] were carrying a written message - a recommendation letter signed by Dostum. General Fahim suspects that Masoud was killed by Dostum's people. If this is true, and Dostum is also killed, you can imagine the situation that the ISI has already started." A few hours later, though, Dostum himself told a news agency that he was alive, well, and fighting the Taliban near the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif.

The source, before leaving, says that he is betting on a broad-based government for Afghanistan "with people from the Northern Alliance and soft people from the Taliban". He does not trust octogenarian former king Zahir Shah. "He has outlived his image. Afghanistan went through so many metamorphoses when he was in exile that the concept of a monarchy is going to be shattered." So he sees as the only acceptable solution an embryonic government of national salvation "with a Pakistani hand on it".

The United States government has spent this past week unsuccessfully pressing Europe to agree to a military campaign to "smoke out" (copyright George W Bush) the Taliban. The reason they have had no success is that they are clueless for the moment on just how to find bin Laden and his top 3,000 Al-Qaeda fighters. A source from Brussels confirms that the Europeans remain highly skeptical - they want proof, and there is none. Our Pakistani intelligence source obviously frets at the thought of the US, from its point ideally, replacing the fallen Taliban with an interim coalition government under United Nations supervision. And to create the conditions for this scenario to unravel, the US is now prepared to go it alone.

Actually, it's been it going alone for quite some time, since a few Hercules loaded with surveillance equipment arrived in Tashkent in Uzbekistan, which could be the precursor of an armada of US fighter planes taking over the Termez airfield there. Termez is right on the Uzbek-Afghan border. Russia didn't say a word about it. It's still unclear what exactly is in the package for Moscow, courtesy of Washington: but the fact is that President Vladimir Putin, his generals and the Federal Security Service have given the green light for the American deployment. With the Central Asian states of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan on board with Russian blessing, it's not that the Americans are begging the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

The Northern Alliance - a loose coalition at best - is a touch of local color in what is now configured as an American-British-German-Russian-Central Asian military offensive, with some lateral help from Iran and India. Objective: to topple the Taliban. The Taliban were never more than a theocratic-military movement anyway: they never qualified as a government, since the leader, Mullah Omar, and his clerics are unaware of the meaning and responsibilities of a modern state.

The coming war will be decided by a multitude of factors. Among them: the violent twists and turns of Afghan history; the deployment hardships through mountains and deserts as the snowy winter sets in; the near impossibility of pinpointing human targets; the near absence of military targets worth capturing; the practically total absence of intelligence; the splits within the Northern Alliance; the extremely fragile position of former king Zahir Shah; the Islamist-nationalist fire stoked by the Taliban as they decide to make life hell for the "crusading invaders"; the dreadful possibility of tremendous "collateral damage" in case of air attacks.

From Islamabad to the capital of Tajikistan, Dushanbe, the predominant rumor is that the Northern Alliance, now with ultra high-tech international backing, could make a push to capture Kabul in a little more than a week, maybe 10 days. It has to be in early October before Afghanistan's "terminator" winter sets in. One wonders if the political settlement after this surefire military victory would be enough to ensure "enduring justice" - a justice that the long-suffering Afghan people deserve more than anybody.

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