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Rescuing The Enemy

Rescuing The Enemy

Author: Tunku Varadarajan
Publication: The Wall Street Journal
Date: November 28, 2001

Yes, Pakistan Evacuated Men From Kunduz. Why'd The U.S. Let Them?

Last Thursday the Indian press carried reports that two helicopters of the Pakistani air force had landed in the heart of Kunduz--an Afghan town then under siege by the Northern Alliance, but still under Taliban control--and "flew out soon after carrying two chopper loads of personnel." These included two brigadiers of the Pakistani army. Two days later, the Indian press again carried reports, based on information supplied by Indian intelligence, that Pakistan's air force had "flown several missions since Sunday to evacuate top Pakistani military commanders."

When I read these stories, I asked myself: What on earth is going on here?

Of course, it occurred to me that the story could have been a bit of misinformation, perhaps a mischievous "feed" to journalists by Indian intelligence officers keen to stir things up against Pakistan. After all, the allegation was a serious one. Pakistan, a much-vaunted U.S. ally in the war against terrorism, stood accused of rescuing fighters who were on the side of the Taliban and al Qaeda, the very groups against which the U.S. is waging war. And what is more, these fighters were not freelance hotheads from Islamic seminaries in Pakistan--though, goodness knows, there's no shortage of those--but actual members of the Pakistani armed forces. In other words, these were men with ranks and commissions, men in line for Pakistani state pensions, disciplined, professional men who would be unlikely so much as to say "boo" to a goose without orders from above.

If these reports were true, I was entirely justified, was I not, in asking, What on earth is going on here?

On Saturday, the same day as the second Indian report, the New York Times ran a story that caught my eye. "Pakistanis Again Said to Evacuate Allies of Taliban," said the headline over a report filed, from a place called Bangi, near Kunduz, by Dexter Filkins and Carlotta Gall. They told of eyewitness accounts by Northern Alliance soldiers "that Pakistani airplanes had once again flown into the encircled city of Kunduz to evacuate Pakistanis who have been fighting alongside Afghan Taliban forces trapped there." The Times reported that earlier in the week, "alliance officials said they had been told by a Taliban leader in Kunduz that at least three Pakistani Air Force planes had landed in recent days on similar missions."

Yesterday, in a conversation with a highly placed diplomat from the region, I learned enough to be able to assert that all these reports are entirely correct. Pakistani air force helicopters and transport craft did, indeed, ferry out nearly 200 regular men and officers of the Pakistan army--including two brigadiers. A large number of ex-servicemen were also evacuated in this manner. According to the diplomat, "this could not have been done without the specific approval and connivance of the Bush administration." The U.S. controls the skies over Kunduz, and it is unlikely that Pakistani craft would have flown into the zone without attracting U.S. attention.

This affair raises intriguing, and worrying, questions. First: What were these Pakistani soldiers doing in Kunduz? And second, why did the U.S. choose to turn a blind eye to their rescue?

In answer to the first question it should be pointed out that prior to the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan, there were thousands of Pakistani troops in that country. Most were spirited out in the days before the bombing began, days in which, one will recall, Gen. Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan spent most of his time urging restraint, delays, etc., all as a smokescreen for a complicated troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.

They couldn't be flown out en masse, for that would have looked ugly, and raised ugly questions about Pakistan's role in the Taliban and al Qaeda networks; instead, they had to be siphoned out overland, as it were, as unobtrusively as possible. Small garrisons were left behind--at Mazar-e-Sharif and Kunduz--in the belief that the war would end rather differently, and not with the kind of rout that we have seen. Gen. Musharraf, you will also recall, spent much energy, earlier in the campaign, urging the U.S. not to attack the Taliban frontline in the country's north. Why? Because he had troops there, alongside the Taliban, troops he hoped would hold the line for the Pakistan-Taliban axis in any postbellum settlement.

Why did the U.S. let Gen. Musharraf rescue his troops, only days after Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had rebuffed the general's pleas for safe passage out of Kunduz for Pakistani fighters trapped there? There are no easy answers, only uncomfortable ones. My guess is that Secretary of State Colin Powell, with whom the Pakistani dictator has developed an unseemly and unctuous rapport, called in all his chips on this one. The evasiveness of U.S. top brass on the subject suggests they are embarrassed over the affair. How could they not be? Weren't the men the Pakistanis rescued the very men this country is at war with? And weren't these some of the very men Mr. Rumsfeld said had only two choices before them at Kunduz, death or surrender?

One day, when the war in Afghanistan is well and truly done, we will get answers to all these questions. In the meantime, what we are beginning to learn is that if one enlists dubious allies, one runs the high risk of treading knee-deep in--how shall I put it?--foul-smelling organic waste matter.

And as allies go, Gen. Musharraf is as dubious as they get.

(Mr. Varadarajan is deputy editorial features editor of The Wall Street Journal. His column appears Tuesdays.)

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