It was the dawn of 2010, and the ISI had a problem: Pakistan’s spy agency was losing control over some of its Taliban proteges. The previous year the British and some Europeans, wearying of the unending war, had prevailed upon the UN representative in Afghanistan, Kai Eide, to get peace negotiations started between the Karzai government and the Taliban. With the assistance of the Saudis, Eide arranged some meetings with a few former Taliban leaders and also involved some Afghan officials. These didn’t bother the ISI; what was getting them worried now were reports that the Taliban’s No. 2 man, and operational commander, Mullah Baradar, was involved in these talks.
The ISI’s predicament was that they didn’t know where Baradar was. While they kept track of the Taliban political leadership, Baradar had disappeared into the large Pashtun community in Karachi’s 18 million inhabitants. The ISI had information on his satellite communication links, but didn’t have the hi-tech equipment to pinpoint his location through them. Their friends in the CIA had such equipment but, even though they claimed the US wasn’t in favour of any peace negotiations, the ISI couldn’t be sure. So, they just told the CIA they needed help to pick up some low-level Taliban operatives in Karachi.
The CIA obliged, and the ISI nabbed Baradar. A week later they told the CIA: Guess what? We’ve just discovered we got a big fish in that roundup! The CIA was pleased, Kai Eide was not. The nascent peace talks were squashed, and the Taliban leadership got the message: no talking without Pakistani permission. The message to the Karzai government and the West was: if you desire peace talks with the Taliban and other insurgents, come to us and we’ll bring them to the table.
Months passed and then, all of a sudden, everyone in Kabul started jumping onto the peace talks bandwagon, including, notably, Gen Petraeus. The trouble was they weren’t asking the Pakistanis to help; instead, they were again throwing out feelers directly to the Taliban. The ISI didn’t like this at all; since they couldn’t be sure another leader wouldn’t decide to do some freelancing, they decided to create their own freelancer. The person they settled on was Mullah Mansur, who had replaced Mullah Baradar in the Taliban hierarchy.
The call went out to ISI operatives to find a Mansur look-alike. The person selected for this role was an Afghan who was running a small grocery shop in Quetta. Since all the Taliban, conveniently, wear turbans and sport large beards, discovery of the imposture was not a big worry; they hoped suitable briefings would take care of other issues. Even though the US commander in Afghanistan was now all for peace talks, the ISI wasn’t so sure about the CIA. So, they decided to have the fake Mansur approach the British spy agency, the SIS, instead.
The SIS couldn’t believe their luck. Marginalized in Afghanistan by the huge CIA operation, they were facing budget crunch time back at home. Here was a chance to play the lead role in a critical venture, and prove to everyone the importance of their contribution. Not wanting to look a gift horse in the mouth, they didn’t do any serious checking of his bona fides. Even if they’d wanted to, they didn’t have the means; they couldn’t ask the ISI, and they didn’t want to involve the CIA. Their Taliban contact was playing hard to get, so they overcame his hesitations with a large payment upfront, with promises of more to come.
When they broke the news of their coup to the CIA and the Afghans, both warmly welcomed it but warned of the essential need to keep it hidden from the ISI. A plane landed at the US airbase in Pakistan, picked up ‘Mullah Mansur’, and flew him to Kabul. Adequately briefed, the ‘Mullah’ held his own in talks with the Americans and the Afghans. Everyone was surprised at the very moderate conditions that he put forward for a settlement ‒ except Gen Petraeus, who was convinced that this was the result of the hard knocks he had recently been giving the Taliban.
The Taliban ‘leader’ had to be persuaded with several hundred thousand dollars to repeat his visits to Kabul. On one of them he was taken by the British to visit with President Karzai, who was generous in the promises that he made about the future. Gen Petraeus made it known to the media that his strategy was succeeding, and had brought the Taliban to the negotiating table. Already he could see the laurels of Afghanistan being added to those of his “victory” in Iraq. Taliban denials that any such talks were going on were met with knowing smiles.
The ISI had succeeded beyond its wildest dreams. It had managed to have its Quetta grocer conduct talks for months with the Afghans and the Americans as a senior Taliban emissary. It had learnt a great deal of their negotiating positions. This was sweet revenge for the Afghans and the West trying to cut them out of the peace moves. They had now effectively proved that such talks could not be held without using them as the intermediary. Having achieved what they wanted they pulled the plug on the caper; the doughty ‘Mullah Mansur’ and the humble Quetta grocer both suddenly disappeared. Word was quietly leaked as to what had really happened.
It is not known if the ISI has a mascot. Perhaps they should adopt the Cheshire Cat as one. After all, it was adept at vanishing into thin air, leaving behind only its huge grin hanging in the tree branches.
[Full Disclosure: The writer does not have, and has never had, any connection with the ISI. (In fact, apart from le Carre’s doomed protagonists, he heartily detests spies ‒ present company excepted, of course). This piece is a connecting of the dots of information available in the public record, while ignoring the chaff scattered by certain (rather red-faced) interested parties. As for Alice, the author finds her saga an indispensable aid in understanding an increasingly crazy world].