NEW YORK, Nov. 29, 2001 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."
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.
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.
Furthermore, the United States can easily explain why it would have allowed a military ruler under intense pressure at home to adopt an unpopular pro-American stance in this war to evacuate some elite intelligence and military forces from a chaotic battlefield. But only if, in fact, the planes were limited to evacuating those people.
The lack of a forthright answer to this question suggests otherwise, and that is a great shame. The history of American policy in Southwest Asia, from the shah of Iran to Saddam Hussein to Afghanistan and Pakistan, is marred by one example after another of short-term decisions that stored up enormous trouble for later. We failed for decades to find common ground with the world's largest democracy, India. We failed to temper the shah's domestic abuses in Iran in the name of anti-communism and wound up with the ayatollahs. We decided not to rile our Gulf War coalition allies by pushing onto to Baghdad and find ourselves a decade later wondering how to deal with Saddam Hussein. We pumped Afghanistan and Pakistan with billions of dollars worth of weapons and military know-how to fight the Soviet invasion, but then adopted the Pontius Pilate approach in victory, washing our hands of these struggling nations as soon as Moscow withdrew.
Now, are we careening down the same road with a nuclear-armed Pakistan? Are we allowing an army of anti-American zealots to live and fight another day for the sake of our convenient marriage with Pakistan's current dictator? I wish I could quote Rumsfeld. I wish I could say "I doubt it." I can't.