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The 'airlift of evil'

The 'airlift of evil'

Author: Michael Moran
Publication: MSNBC
Date: November 29, 2001
URL: http://www.msnbc.com/news/664935.asp

Why did we let Pakistan pull 'volunteers' out of Kunduz?

A convoy of several hundred Taliban soldiers evacuate their northern foothold of Kunduz to surrender to opposing Northern Alliance forces earlier this week.

NEW YORK, Nov. 29 - The United States took the unprecedented step this week of demanding that foreign airlines provide information on passengers boarding planes for America. Yet in the past week, a half dozen or more Pakistani air force cargo planes landed in the Taliban-held city of Kunduz and evacuated to Pakistan hundreds of non-Afghan soldiers who fought alongside the Taliban and even al-Qaida against the United States. What's wrong with this picture?

THE PENTAGON, whose satellites and drones are able to detect sleeping guerrillas in subterranean caverns, claims it knows nothing of these flights. When asked about the mysterious airlift at a recent Pentagon briefing, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, denied knowledge of such flights. Myers backpedaled a bit, saying that, given the severe geography of the country, it might be possible to duck in and out of mountain valleys and conduct such an airlift undetected.

But Rumsfeld intervened. With his talent for being blunt and ambiguous at the same time, he said: "I have received absolutely no information that would verify or validate statements about airplanes moving in or out. I doubt them."

SEE NO EVIL
 
Western reporters actually in Kunduz in the days after it fell this week found much to dispel that doubt. Reports first appeared in the Indian press, quoting intelligence sources who cited unusual radar contacts and an airlift of Pakistani troops out of the city. Their presence among the "enemy" may shock some readers, but not those who have paid attention to Afghanistan. Pakistan had hundreds of military advisers in Afghanistan before Sept. 11 helping the Taliban fight the Northern Alliance. Hundreds more former soldiers actively joined Taliban regiments, and many Pakistani volunteers were among the non-Afghan legions of al-Qaida.

Last Saturday, The New York Times picked up the scent, quoting Northern Alliance soldiers in a Page 1 story describing a two-day airlift by Pakistani aircraft, complete with witnesses describing groups of armed men awaiting evacuation at the airfield, then still in Taliban hands.

Another report, this in the Times of London, quotes an alliance soldier angrily denouncing the flights, which he reasonably assumed were conducted with America's blessing.

"We had decided to kill all of them, and we are not happy with America for letting the planes come," said the soldier, Mahmud Shah.

IN DENIAL

The credibility gap between these reports from the field and the "no comments" from the U.S. administration are large enough to drive a Marine Expeditionary Unit through. Calls by MSNBC.com and NBC News to U.S. military and intelligence officials shed no light on the evacuation reports, though they clearly were a hot topic of conversation. "Oh, you mean 'Operation Evil Airlift'?" one military source joked. "Look, I can't confirm anything about those reports. As far as I know, they just aren't happening." Three other military and defense sources simply denied any knowledge.

Something is up. It certainly appears to any reasonable observer that aircraft of some kind or another were taking off and landing in Kunduz's final hours in Taliban hands. Among the many questions that grow out of this reality:

* Was the passenger manifest on these aircraft limited to Pakistani military and intelligence men, or did it include some of the more prominent zealots Pakistan contributed to the ranks of the Taliban and al-Qaida?

* What kind of deal was struck between the United States and Pakistan to allow this?

* What safeguards did the United States demand to ensure the evacuated Pakistanis did not include men who will come back to haunt us?

* What was done with the civilian volunteers once they arrived home in Pakistan? Where they arrested? Debriefed? Taken to safe houses? Or a state banquet?

WHY NOT ADMIT IT

The answers remain elusive. If the passengers were simply Pakistani military and intelligence men, and not civilian extremists, what possible motive is there for concealing the truth about their evacuation? Pakistan may believe that no one has noticed the warmth of its intelligence ties to the Taliban and even al-Qaida, but surely the Pentagon isn't operating under this illusion, is it? This news organization has quoted U.S. intelligence sources as far back as 1997 as saying that ties between Pakistan's intelligence service and al-Qaida, and links to the Taliban - a movement nurtured by Pakistan - are undeniable.
 


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