January 17, 2011 20:03

The Spy Who Quit

A Conversation with Amrullah Saleh

I first met Amrullah Saleh four years ago when I was filming Return of the Taliban for FRONTLINE. We've kept in touch since. After news came that he had been forced to resign, I invited myself to his home in the Panjshir valley north of Kabul. It sits in an old village above a clear, rushing river, surrounded by mulberry groves. Amrullah was a gracious host, a terrific raconteur and a man who likes to climb mountains before breakfast "to make his eggs and naan taste good."

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During our three-day visit in November 2010, I asked Amrullah to explain his break with President Karzai, his views of the American military and of Pakistan. As always I found him to be candid and direct. He is an unapologetic hawk who wants NATO and Afghan forces to escalate the war -- more night raids, more targeting killings, more drones inside Pakistan. Many, including President Karzai, believe he is misguided and reckless but Amrullah insists that a greater civil war is inevitable unless the Taliban, their sponsors in Pakistan, and Al Qaeda are forever defeated.

Below is more from our conversation. -- FRONTLINE Correspondent Martin Smith

·   ·   ·

“I do not consider Pakistan an asset. I consider Pakistan a global liability.”

How did you link up with [Northern Alliance leader] Ahmed Shah Massoud?

When I left Kabul in 1990, because I had to be conscripted into the Communist army, I decided to join the mujahideen and resistance. I came here, and I was sent for training to Pakistan. I did my training, and I came back and I met him, as thousands of other ordinary fighters who were with him. And I served him in various capacities. ... I was a junior person working under him.

But he recognized you as somebody who could be useful as an intelligence officer.

Yes, that's right. And then he agreed in '99 to send me for training, as the opportunity presented itself, to the United States to receive advanced training in operations and tradecraft.

And who gave you that training?

It was after the Americans had realized that Afghanistan was going to be very important. The Taliban and Al Qaeda were posing direct threat to security of the United States, so they were considering the resistance as a potential ally, and they offered a training. And I was part of the first group to go over there and receive training.

From the CIA?

I don't know who they were. ... They were Americans. I don't know whether they were military or CIA or whoever, but they were good trainers.

What was the training you took, and why?

... It was an advanced operations. Advanced operations means targeting, assessment of the target, casing and planning an operation, execution of an operation, exploitation of documents, exploitation of the site, exploitation of the arrested target, and then analyzing it and stuff like that. Very basic. ...

What was the event that led the Americans to recognize --

It was after bombing of the U.S. embassies in East Africa, and it was after the missile attacks by the United States against Al Qaeda targets in Sudan. The realization back in the United States was growing that this is going to be a real threat against the United States.

And we were fighting the Taliban and Al Qaeda with very meager resources under Cmdr. Massoud's very wise and charismatic leadership. So they thought these guys are fighting our enemies, so the enemy of my enemy is my friend. That's how that started.

And so they gave you training. They were interested mostly in you going after Al Qaeda, weren't they?

Yes, that was a very narrow agenda, not only in a sense because Taliban and Al Qaeda were the same those days. They were a coalition controlling large parts of Afghanistan. It was very difficult to distinguish between Al Qaeda and Taliban.

And we were never comfortable with an Al Qaeda-only agenda. ... Cmdr. Massoud never agreed to only focus on Al Qaeda. But it was an avenue to open up relationships with the United States, so we did agree to share information with them. But for us, Afghanistan as a whole was our mission and our agenda. We never discussed Al Qaeda alone. Pakistan and Taliban and Al Qaeda, they were all together those days. ...

[What were the requests you were getting from the U.S.?]

It was a liaison relationship, which meant that we were telling them about the situation, meaning the agenda that Al Qaeda and Pakistan and Taliban [had] -- spreading radicalism in the region, and also becoming a hub for all the extremist and radical groups from around the globe. And we would tell them even about the global agenda of Al Qaeda.

In return, from their side, it was very little those days. It was a liaison relationship, but we were seeing signs of political support coming from United States gradually. And also there was hope that they would eventually assist the resistance with materiel support. But what they were giving in terms of material support those days was very, very insignificant, very insignificant.

This was the CIA.

This was the CIA, yes. ... In those days, they were not very confident and sure that Al Qaeda would be able to strike at U.S. mainland, homeland. They were thinking that Al Qaeda may target more of USS Cole or U.S. interest in the region. ...

How good was their intelligence?

... There were occasions where they had actual naval intelligence, but they did not have the political approval to strike U.S. assets, so they came and told us if we had the capability to do it. But the area that they were requesting us to strike was out of our reach, beyond our capabilities, was deep in southern Afghanistan. A couple of occasions.

There came one or two occasions where bin Laden and his convoy were passing through the proximity of the front line. That is still, for us, very difficult to make a breakthrough and go after bin Laden. For us, bin Laden himself was not a priority. He was an element in the package of the priority and targets we had. ...

In the beginning of September 2001, you had two Arab journalists come to your camp in Takhar. Tell me the story of when they arrived, what you thought of them. ...

... When the two Arab journalists assassinated Cmdr. Massoud through that suicide mission, one, of course, was alive, and he escaped. He was killed in an encounter minutes after the explosion.

We did get a lot of documents from their bags. The evidence was easily exploitable for investigation. We did do some investigation. We passed the copies of those documents, and also we passed the evidence to Britain, to the United States, to France, to Belgium, because there were people involved in those countries in facilitation of the mission of these two journalists. And the most prominent person was [Yassir] el-Sirri, a London-based Egyptian who had issued introduction letter to these journalists saying they were working for him, and they were journalists. ...

Who do you think was responsible for his assassination?

Based on the evidence we got, there is no doubt, zero percent doubt, it was Al Qaeda.

And what evidence is it that makes you have no doubt who did it?

Because the journalists were Arabs. One and all Arabs who were in Afghanistan were affiliated with Al Qaeda. They had lived in Kabul before doing the mission. And their passports, they had multiple visas of Pakistan, which clearly implicates Pakistan.

But, of course, there were evidence implicating Taliban and the assassination. Very specific names. The minister of defense of Taliban and the deputy minister of foreign affairs of Taliban were directly involved in helping these two journalists get to the front line and help them cross the front line into our territory, the territory of the resistance.

But the investigation was, from our side, very crude. It was very immature. It should have been done with more vigor and enthusiasm to establish the circles which had not done their job, who were negligent, find out who were ignorant, find out who probably had a hand in allowing them to get on the other side of the front line. ...

[You were asked to call the U.S. and alert them to Massoud's death?]

First I was called to rush to the site, to the small hospital where the commander was brought. I didn't know he was dead. I thought he was wounded. And I was called in there to utilize my liaison relationship with the foreign countries and see if we could evacuate him to a proper hospital.

But when I got to the hospital, it was clear he was no longer alive. Then it started an internal discussion among a very small circle as to how we should hold and who should lead us temporarily, and how long shall we keep it secret about the incident, and what should be the story, what should be our strategic messaging. In that context, I received a very specific assignment. I was told to go and call the United States --

The CIA.

-- the CIA, and tell them that the resistance against Al Qaeda and Taliban and Afghanistan, in the center of which was this charismatic man, a leader who would compensate the shortage of resources, and who would manage to hold what little and meager resource, is gone. If you think Al Qaeda is a threat, if you think the Taliban are a threat, if you want this resistance to continue, help us. Cmdr. Massoud is no longer there. We have lost him. We need assistance. We are desperate. That was my assignment to tell the United States. And I did it.

What was the response?

The response was: "OK. This is shocking news. We are saddened." The person who was talking to me was not in a position to decide.

That was Rich?

Because his name has been written by other people. It was a very good gentleman called Rich, who had met Cmdr. Massoud a couple of times on missions here. He said: "Hold. We will get back to you." And then they had 9/11 before getting back. ...

[How did you hear about 9/11?]

Two Afghans called me from New York who had heard about Commander's incident. They called me to ask about the commander. ... They said a plane crashed itself into the World Trade Center. And the same guy called the next time and said, "Another plane crashed." But then a couple of hours later we had access to satellite TV, and we watched with horror what was going on.

But then we did receive call from United States after 9/11. They said: "United States has been attacked. We reckon it's Al Qaeda. Do you have anything to show there are more attacks in motion, more plans in motion? Is there anything you can tell us which will help us to prevent further attacks?"

Who was on the phone with you?

The same person.

Rich from the CIA?


He called you. What did he say?

That was our last phone conversation. Then another person took on. I said, "OK, we will see what we know." And we did get some information. We passed on the chattering of the Taliban about 9/11. We passed on the chattering of Al Qaeda about 9/11.

What were you hearing?

We were hearing mixed things. There were people who got very worried. They said, "This will destroy us." But there were people who were very happy.

But what was more interesting is the chattering between Kabul and Kandahar, how to handle it. Mullah Omar, after consulting with bin Laden, issuing instructions ... [on] what to say to the media. "Do not denounce it. Do not condemn it. Be very cautious. Don't give an impression that we have not done it, and don't give an impression that we have done it." ...

Did you pick up any chatter directly from bin Laden?

Not from bin Laden, as I recall, no. Not from him as a person. But from his lieutenants, yes.

From [Muhammad] Atef?

From people like Atef. ...

Khaled Sheikh Mohammed?


Ramzi bin al-Shibh?

Ramzi bin al-Shibh. We knew who he was, but we had not intercepted

Abu Zubaydah?

Abu Zubaydah. We had people observing him, yes.

And what was he saying?

They were happy. For them, there was this great sense of achievement. They were celebrating it in big places. We knew for sure, for fact, there was celebrations in Darunta. In Jalalabad they had a camp. In south of Kabul they had celebrations. In Kandahar they had celebrations. Near Bagram they had a big Al Qaeda regiment headquarters. There was celebrations, and they were very happy, because they had done something extraordinary, and they had rocked the world. They were very happy. ...

We were picking up all radio communication, and we were picking up certain types of phone communications.

This must have been a fascinating sort of insight into the organization.

But you put yourself in our shoes. We had lost our leader. We were in panic. It was very difficult to imagine resistance without Massoud. ... We were in pain; we were in grief. And we didn't know what the situation will be.

And then the meantime, the attacks started, the massive onslaught of the Taliban to finish off the northern front, both in Takhar and Shomali Plain. ...

You said [within] three weeks on the death of Massoud you got an interesting phone call.

I think it was Sept. 14. I received a call, and the person told me, he said: "Amrullah, in the face of this tragedy, this disaster that we have in the United States, thousands of lives, innocent lives have been lost. And the massive destruction, the damage in our economy and the stain in our psyche, all of this is very, very bad for United States. But this is good news for Afghanistan. Unfortunately for us, but fortunately for you, you are going to have a very bright future. And I am calling you that don't act as you were doing before. Go to your leadership and tell them we have changed. We want to do things you cannot even imagine. What do you need?"

And I started to tell him what we need. He said: "Amrullah, it's a changed world. Go back to your leaders. Have a bigger discussion. Get back to me as soon as you do that meeting. Tell me what you need. Think out of the box. It's not going to be the same. Afghanistan will have a bright future."

How soon did you call him back?

Then as we started to discuss what we were needing, that person called and said they were on their way to come. ...

It was the CIA.


... So that was the beginning of the fall of the Taliban really.

... It was like a dream. All of a sudden, a village in the middle of these mountains became command centers for the most powerful army in the world. ... Sometimes I would wash my eyes and say: "Am I dreaming? No, I'm awake. This has happened. Yeah."

And it wasn't long before you were in Kabul.

It was more than 50 days. ...

[In 2004, Afghan President Hamid Karzai] brings you into his office and tells you he wants you to head the NDS [National Directorate of Security]. Can you recall the meeting?

I had met him three times before that. ... But I did have connection with people in his entourage, in his immediate circle. I never lobbied to become a chief.

... Does he sit you down and give you his instructions as to what he wants the NDS to do?

It was largely a blank check. He said: "We want to build Afghanistan, and I trust you can do this job and build this intelligence service. I fully back you. Congratulations." And then he took a picture, and that picture is still with me. ...

... Before the tension developed between you and President Karzai, you were on the same page in terms of the NDS's work, the NDS collaboration with the NATO and the American forces?

Yes. We were on the same page.

What was that page?

The page was that NATO is making Afghanistan a hard country to be infiltrated by bad neighbors. So we need NATO to give us the expertise, the training, the equipment, the know-how; be our ally and save us from spoilers, domestic and regional. ...

[In 2008, President Karzai survived a Taliban assassination attack during a parade.] What happened on the day, and then your speech before Parliament?

The job of the Ministry of Defense and Interior was to clear all the buildings and physically take over. They had not cleared this one building in which three terrorists were hiding. So, as the parade has started, with gunshots, the 21-gun salute, they started to throw grenades and fire PKM [machine guns] into the parade. And President Karzai was immediately evacuated.

We found out who did it and how they had infiltrated. They were assisted by a guy in the army, and that guy is in jail. The weapon they had used was a weapon stolen from the army stores by this rogue element and sold to them.

We established the entire facts, and then we went to the Parliament. And then the Parliament, they were very angry. The prestige of Afghanistan had shattered. And I was suffering from the same damage. It was not as if I was defending the thing.

But I told them: "OK, their achievement, one, was to disrupt the parade. And if you force us out of our offices you reward them. And if they have similar attacks, you can get rid of the whole government, because your enemy can strike at you. We should act as a national team. We should be together at moments of triumph and moments of decline." I give lots of other explanations. And that saved the three of us.

The three of you?

Defense, Interior and myself. ...

But the purpose of your speech was to say what?

To say the truth and then let the Parliament decide in the light of the truth. ... I talked to them about weakness of the justice. I talked to them about flaws in the security sector of Afghanistan. I spoke to them about the role of the Parliament and the strengthening the national institutions. And I also talked to them about what was in the mind of enemy doings.

And at the end I said: "Look, I am not considering myself indispensable. This country is full of talents. There are thousands of other people who can do this job most likely better than I can. That is not what I want you to consider. What I want you to consider is, two days after this disaster, what is your message to Al Qaeda?"

And the Taliban.

And the Taliban. And the Pakistanis. ... I think they acted properly. They saved us. And the next day I saw President Karzai. He was not happy we were saved.

... This was a disaster. You thought perhaps it was over.

Yes. There were a lot of moments I thought my job was over. I was not in power politics -- to go and flatter and be rosy and be bowing to people for the sake of remaining in that job. I was straightforward. I thought I was part of this team, and this team needs to be connected with the population, with the reality. ...

What did Karzai say to you that day?

He didn't congratulate us for remaining in our jobs. I could read his face. He was not happy we were saved.


Probably that was an easy thing for him to get rid of us.

Why did he want to get rid of you?

Probably he thought we were incompetent.

Why did he think you were incompetent?

We had not been able to protect the parade.

Did he raise his voice at you? Was he angry?

Of course he was angry.

What did he say?

He said: "This is a shame, a national shame. And you guys are responsible for not being able to protect."

And what did you say?

I said: "Well, yes, that's right. It has happened. And it will happen again. Afghanistan is not a country in peace. It's not a normal country." It happens even in normal countries. Look, how did they kill [Egyptian President Anwar] Sadat in Egypt? How did they kill Kennedy? ...

Were you in Kabul on the day that the Indian Embassy was bombed [in 2008]?


You got the news and then you began to gather evidence.

Yes. The evidence directly linked the bombing to [the Pakistani Islamist group] Lashkar-e-Taiba and ISI.

Specifically what?

Very specific, because we got the guy who prepared the car; we got the guy who planned together with ISI in Pakistan. And we had sufficient evidence that it was ISI's plan, because prior to the bombing, I had passed many other assets they had if they could do it. So we knew they were trying to do something against the Indian Embassy.

But what was the evidence that you had?

We had the remaining members of the network arrested.

And they told you --

That they were working for Lashkar-e-Taiba.

But what was the evidence linking those Lashkar-e-Taiba operatives to the ISI?

Lashkar-e-Taiba is an ISI child, A. B, prior to the bombing, we had detected ISI surveillance of the Indian Embassy through proxy, meaning they would train people in surveillance and casing and task them to go after the Indian targets in Afghanistan and bring back information. So we knew ISI were planning to do something against the Indian Embassy.

What was the evidence that linked those proxies to the ISI?

Because it's very direct and it's very simple. Indian Embassy in Kabul is not a target for Al Qaeda. India is not doing anything against Al Qaeda, one. That's circumstantial evidence.

But hard evidence means we get the guy. He tells us about his safe house in a Pakistani city. He gives us telephone numbers. He gives us the name of this mysterious clean-shaven person who came and gave them the equipment, showed them the map and gave them the training and the money, which clearly shows ISI's hand. And we go to the ISI, and we say, "Brother, this is the location where the bombing was found."

Months later they come by and say, "Yes, we did go to the location; the house was empty." Sure, if the house was empty, you could see the register. Who are running it? Very frustrating. Very frustrating. Yeah, they were involved. They were involved. ...

And when did you present your evidence to your U.S. counterparts in the CIA?

As far as investigations were concerned, I don't know now. It was shoulder to shoulder it worked. ... On this particular incident there was nothing that we were withholding from CIA. They knew everything we were doing in the investigation, everything.

So they concluded that as well as you did that this was an ISI-sponsored operation.

We were not telling the CIA to share with us their conclusion. We were empowering them with evidence. And we were assuming that overwhelming evidence will allow them to have good judgment. ...

What was [the Haqqani network's] role in that attack?

They have facilitated, because the bombers had come to Logar with the help of Haqqani facilitators into Kabul. But it was a Lashkar-e-Taiba operation.

Lashkar-e-Taiba is a --

Is a Pakistani extremist outfit, Punjabi. It's not tribal areas. Initially created to do operations in India. They are the ones who did the Mumbai attack.

You have numerous incidents, operations that you've investigated. But can you recount for us now ... perhaps something you haven't talked about before that makes very crystal clear the involvement of the Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI, in Taliban operations inside Afghanistan?

... There is an individual called Tajmir. Tajmir, during the Taliban, was chief of their intelligence for Jalalabad. By virtue of his job he was very close to Al Qaeda, and he was trained by ISI. He's an ISI graduate, and he hails from Paktia province. Very professional in training, he uses about 70 aliases and fake names. But we know it's Tajmir.

He is directing operations from Tal, from Waziristan, from tribal areas. And more than a dozen times after we found out this particular operation was carried out with blessings of Tajmir, we told ISI: "This guy is not hiding in mountains. He is either in Peshawar, or he is in a specific building with this telephone number." They never arrested Tajmir because Tajmir is their man. CIA knows about this. The U.S. military knows about it. The FBI knows about it. And Tajmir is like chief of operations of Al Qaeda assisted by ISI. And he's responsible for more than half of the deadly, the spectacular attacks that have happened since 2004 in Kabul.

You just said that he was chief of operations for Al Qaeda or for the Taliban?

Both. For that particular region of Afghanistan.

He was trained by the ISI?

Yes, he was trained.

What convinces you that he is currently being run by the ISI?

Because he's not hiding in the mountains. He is living in a flat in town. And more than a dozen times we have passed his location and phoned to the ISI. The ISI have come back to me and said: "You were right. A cell who did that operation in Kabul or this operation in Kabul, you are right, they were in contact with their masters in Tal." But they never arrested anybody.

You've called the ISI?


Who do you talk to?

I used to talk to [Pakistan army chief Ashfaq Parvez] Kayani, [former ISI chief] Nadim Taj and [ISI chief] Gen. [Ahmed Shuja] Pasha.

And when you talked to Kayani or Pasha, you mentioned this Tajmir?


And they said?

They would say, "We will look into it."

Did they deny that he worked for the ISI?

Of course.

So they're denying it? And you're saying that your proof that he works for the ISI is that they don't arrest him?

He's not an ISI officer, but without ISI's protection, he cannot live where he is living. When he does an operation, he then moves to Peshawar, [where] he has a shop. ... And ISI knows about it.

Well, there's a difference, though, between hands-off policy by the ISI toward operatives and actually running them.

I am afraid the United States is becoming again so legalistic like before 9/11, and that will hurt you.

But you're an intelligence man. There is a difference, would you not admit, between a hands-off policy and actual employment and running him as an agent? Are we talking here about the refusal of the ISI to cooperate with you in going after people, or are we talking about active ISI-led operations?

ISI has created a space for Al Qaeda, Haqqani and Taliban to launch operations. Without their protection, without them tolerating the presence of these operatives to do planning, training and using Pakistani soil they won't be able to do these operations. So ISI knows they are doing it, and ISI is happy they are doing it, because through them, Pakistan promotes her policy in Afghanistan, and the policy is, "Taliban are ours, and they are to dominate Afghanistan."

And we're going to help those who help them by protecting them? By not arresting them?


Have you ever arrested somebody engaged in a Taliban operation who was carrying papers that identified them as having communications with the ISI?

Too many.

Can you give me an example of that?

For example, there is a guy called Sayed Akbar. He's an active ISI officer, and he was embedded with Taliban in Kunar. We arrested him, and he's in jail.

Give me another example.

Another example -- my colleagues and the police arrested another ISI man fighting, embedded with Taliban in Farah.

How did they know he was an ISI man?

He's saying he's an ISI man. He gives his regiment and his office, everything.

Can you give me another example?

I wouldn't because we have an expression: When you buy apples, you just look at one, and don't necessarily look at each and every apple you buy. So what is the point going over and over this? Americans know ISI is hurting them.

The Pakistanis deny it.

Sure. It suits them.

They say: "We're being hurt and attacked by the Taliban. Why should we be helping them?"

I would say they are being hurt by anti-Pakistani elements or miscreants, but not the Taliban.

In the summer of 2008, the drone campaign in FATA [Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas] accelerates. What kind of conversations did you have with the CIA, with your U.S. counterparts and the military about this operation and what were your feelings were about it?

Well, we had very close sharing of information with the Americans about targets. But drone operation is a very sensitive, secret U.S. operation. I don't know much about it.

I don't believe that you don't know much about it. I think what you're saying is you choose not to talk about it.

It was not under our control. So I only talk about things in which I was involved and I had a degree of control or influence.

But your counterparts in the CIA were running these drones?

Right. And they're very proud of it.

They deny that they do it.

No, I don't think they deny it.

I think they do officially.

I find that very odd. Who else on the earth has drones -- (laughs) -- in FATA?

Can you recount the conversations you had with them about the nature, the targeting, who you should go after -- any information you can share with us?

That's one nice constant. It's all the time. Remember, U.S. is in Afghanistan because Al Qaeda was based there and Taliban was based there. They didn't come here for a humanitarian mission. And that agenda is still very much there. ...

Did you encourage the Americans to increase their use of drones?

I encouraged America to use Air Force, bomb Pakistan, force it to stop supporting Taliban and Al Qaeda, period; let alone drones. I said: "Drones are not sufficient. ... Do night raids the way you do in Kandahar." This is global war against terror. It was never declared global war against terror in Kandahar. I am very, very direct on that.

I do not consider Pakistan an asset. I consider Pakistan a global liability. So I'm very direct on that. Not that I hate Pakistan. I consider Gen. Pasha to be the most decent, knowledgeable, intelligent person I have ever met in Pakistan. But he represents a notorious, blood-sucking organization.

Just one more point on the drones: You made clear that you encouraged them to use whatever assets they had.


But on the specific issue of drones, what was your advice?

I said: "Drones are not useful. Use the entire U.S. might and stop this country from misbehaving and bad behavior."

You want them to bomb Pakistan?

Absolutely. They bombed Afghanistan because we have some expendable Taliban roaming around, and they don't bomb Pakistan despite knowing all the high-value targets are there. This is not fair. ...

The drone campaign accelerates and expands in 2008. I just want to know what role you played, Amrullah Saleh, in that.

... We were sharing intelligence with the U.S. How did they want to take action is up to them. I have no information what is a drone. I know it is a pilotless, giant chunk of steel flying with bombs. I don't know anything about it.

So I was urging the U.S. -- and I am urging them now -- whatever can hurt Al Qaeda and Taliban and their supporters in Pakistan, use it. You will not regret using it today. This is not a war which will end in July 2011. Trust me. July 2011 means nothing. This is about rooting out militant extremism which is directly seeing United States as enemy.

You gave them targets in the tribal areas --


-- that they then used drones against. How did you collect your intelligence? What were your sources?

I will never discuss our sources. Those are people who share our perspective, our belief, that Afghanistan has suffered at the hands of these guys and we need to go after them. I consider the assets like my brothers.

This is human intelligence on the ground?


Inside the tribal areas?


When [Gen. Stanley] McChrystal takes over [as commander of U.S. forces and the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan] in June of 2009, there is an increase then in the use of night raids?"

Yes. And it broke the backbone of the midlevel Taliban leadership inside Afghanistan. When President Obama came and when President Karzai allowed me to speak, I praised the special operations. ...

What were your views on the use of night raids?

You see, this is a special way of conducting a war, and the special operations are the most useful ways of hurting the enemy. You cannot roll your tanks; there is no enemy territory per se. These are cells. The enemy is hiding among greater civilian population. What I do want to add is after so many years, why [don't we] have Afghan special forces? They should be doing such things.

You do have Afghan special forces. You have Afghan militia.

Not with the same capabilities.

Why not?

Because they have not been given those capabilities.

Have you pressed McChrystal or [Gen. David] Petraeus, [current commander of U.S. and ISAF forces in Afghanistan,] for those things?

For as long as I was in the government. ...

And what did they say?

They do not reject the logic, but you do not see programs start to that effect. ...

How effective are targeted operations?

Very effective.

How quickly can the Taliban regenerate? ...

No, the problem is most of the midlevel commanders who are targeted enough understand they are expendable anyway. What I say is we should have a special operations against Quetta shura [Taliban leadership council], against Siraj Haqqani, against Tajmir. That's what I say.

I say if it can be effective in Kandahar, why [can't it] be effective in Quetta? Why [can't it] be effective in Waziristan? That's my point. U.S. Special Forces can do the same job anywhere in the world. ...

There's a criticism that says that if you kill all these Taliban commanders one after the other, they're immediately replaced by younger, more brutal cadre.

I don't want all the Taliban killed. I want the Taliban in the process to be integrated into the Afghan system and society. ... I want the leadership to be isolated, marginalized and killed. All of those guys who are fighting under the banner of the Taliban, they shouldn't be killed. ...

So the strategy of killing the Taliban who are fighting in the countryside is doomed to failure, in your view?

I am not saying it's doomed to failure. I am saying it is not sufficient. ...

Is there a possibility that targeting the Taliban will drive them closer to Al Qaeda?

Are they far from Al Qaeda? ...

[There have been a number of incidents in which innocent civilians were killed.] It raises questions about the quality of NATO intelligence. ...

Intelligence is never, ever perfect. And it is not going to be perfect a century from now.

But there are great risks in getting it wrong and killing civilians?


So how do you balance those risks against the gains that you might or might not make in killing leaders?

Well, of the 700-whatever number of operations that were done, very few had gone wrong.

And you're not concerned about the propaganda used when they do go wrong?

... I'm genuinely worried, hurt and saddened after loss of civilian life, be it one or more. But what is the alternative? I'm not looking at it politically. I'm looking at it as a human being.

One of the alternatives is to more aggressively negotiate with the Taliban. That's what Karzai has --

My view is there must not be a deal with the Taliban.


Ever. There must be a process. And according to that process, based on that process, Taliban should become part of the society and play according to the script of democracy. They should be demobilized, disarmed, reintegrated the way Northern Alliance was. ... And also they should denounce violence. And that process will bring a lasting stability. Minus that, if there is a deal, deals never bring stability. They create fragile peace. ...

What I have been saying so far -- and I have been misinterpreted -- that if there is a deal, we will resist against the deal, "we" meaning all the forces who fought the Taliban. ...

And if our enemy after 10 years is brought back to do a deal, what did we fight for all these years? We were not tissue paper. [You can also watch Saleh's keynote remarks at the 2010 Jamestown Foundation Terrorism Conference, in which he talks more about these views.]

Can you recount the key conversation that you had with President Karzai over this idea of negotiating with the Taliban?

President Karzai does not look at his Cabinet as weighty enough to incorporate their views. It's one-way conversation. Either you have to agree with him or you are considered rude.

You have expressed to him in private your opposition to his views?

Yes. Not a position for the sake of being impolite or rude, just for the sake of bringing into his attention potential dangers. ...

I stand for pluralistic society. And that pluralistic society can have Taliban as a player. Why not? But I don't want the Taliban to dominate us, the country, because the leadership in Kabul has lost confidence.

You had this conversation with Karzai over negotiations?


Can you recount it for me?

President Karzai said, "Yes, I also want defeat of the Taliban." But nine years, why [are they] undefeated? Why I am destroying parts of my country because some expendable Taliban are hiding there? ...

He said: "I gave a chance to everybody to contribute to defeat of the Taliban, and I don't see the result. It is over. I want to make peace."

And you said?

I said, "We all want to make peace, but we do not want to Talibanize Afghanistan."

And he said?

It's a very difficult question. Why should a president treat his subordinate as a counterpart in negotiations? He would be presidential. He says: "I have decided I cannot go business as usual. Yes, take the risk. I want peace with Taliban."

And he is no longer badmouthing the Taliban. He calls them "brothers."

And you objected to this to his face?


And you told him what?

I told him the Taliban have no message, no vision except intimidation, spreading fear, bringing exclusion in the Afghan society, stopping development and destroying pluralism. ...

When you made those objections to President Karzai, he responded?

It became suffocating for me, because I got outnumbered; I got isolated; I lost my political weight, and it led to my resignation. ...

Have negotiations started with the Taliban?

I don't know. I really don't know.

Were you ever involved in any negotiations or preparations for negotiations with the Taliban?


A guy named [Muhammad] Aminullah came to your attention.

But for me that was intelligence collection.

Well, he was interested in negotiating on behalf of the Taliban? Tell me the story. What happened?

He came and said, "I represent [senior Taliban commander Mullah Akhtar Muhammad] Mansour." ... Mansour is Taliban's number two. He used to be Taliban's number two. So a guy walks into our office and says, "I have a letter of introduction from number two in the Taliban who's interested to open a channel of negotiations." And yes, we start to test the credentials of this messenger, and we find out it's wrong, so the case is dead.

But it wasn't dead?

Well, the same guy goes to another institution and deceives them. And he sells this fake number two of the Taliban all the way to arranging a meeting with President Karzai, and after that meeting they detect he was wrong.

When I learned ... that he was going through a different avenue, I warned the government that if it is this Aminullah, if he claims this, and if it is this guy, trust me, he is not representing anybody; it's a scam.

Who did you call?

I called the minister of interior personally.

Mr. [Hanif] Atmar?

Yeah. I told him this. I told the foreigners who were involved. I also told the palace, but I don't want to name the --

Who were the foreigners who were involved?

Whoever they were, I told them: "Be careful. This is not Mansour." But there was a perception that Amrullah is against talks, so let's sideline him.

... So they thought you were trying to sabotage it?

Yeah. ...

We're up to the point of your resignation. ... The palace says you were fired because of a failure to provide security at the peace jirga. ...

That was a tipping point. ... It should have been prevented, but we failed. Two guys under burqa, exploiting the respect of Afghans for women, hiding their weapon like a child, come into this house, and they fired at the jirga, and they are encountered in a matter of less than half an hour; they are killed.

And then you were summoned?

Not that day.

Yes, but you were summoned?

Yes. We were summoned. And by the time we were summoned, we had investigated, and we had arrested, with the help of McChrystal, the guy who was going to Pakistan.

President Karzai dismissed our evidence. He said: "I don't think what you are saying is true. I don't buy into this evidence that Taliban did it. Taliban cannot be that smart. It's those who have tried to spoil my peace jirga." ...

We got offended. He was not treating us with the respect or dignity or professionalism. He was ridiculing us.


Ridiculing, yes. In a sarcastic way.

Can you set the scene for that meeting? ...

Most of the questions were asked from minister of interior because police was responsible for physical security and clearing every house in that neighborhood. But I did not want to leave the police alone. I wanted to be seen as a united team.

So when President Karzai dismissed our evidence and dismissed our arguments and dismissed our presentation, then morally no place was left to remain in our positions. So we resigned. ...

[What were the reasons you resigned?]

My views were different from him about how talks or negotiations or settlement with Taliban should look like. And I just explained it to you. I was also in favor of more robust activities against the Taliban.

But his views have changed after a presidential election. He thought democracy had hurt him as a person. His family had been attacked by the media unfairly, and the West was criticizing him unfairly. So after a presidential election, he was a changed man, and we could not have the same relationship as before the presidential election. So he wasn't in the position of power, and he made it so difficult, if I say it, ridiculing our evidence and treating it as dirt. So there was morally no point to remain.

What was the emotion like for you at that meeting?

That was tense, very tense. ... He was, as I say, ridiculing our evidence.

He was ridiculing your evidence. And he was angry?

Yes. Yes, he was angry. He had every right to be angry.

Can you remember anything he specifically said?

I remember every word he has said. I don't want to repeat it.


It's still early. I don't want Afghan government weakened.

You said that you cannot work in a government that forgives the Taliban?

Yes. My deputy, Dr. Abdullah, was killed by the Taliban. I know who planned his assassination. I know who in the Taliban helped Al Qaeda to assassinate Cmdr. Massoud.

A process is different, but a blanket pardoning of the Taliban, it won't stabilize Afghanistan.

So today, who is winning this war?

It's a stalemate.

Can the NATO strategy succeed?

What is their strategy?

Targeted assassinations and COIN [counterinsurgency] operations.

I don't see consistency either in COIN or in the special operations.

So you see no coherent strategy?

I have not seen that.

That's quite a statement.

It is.

After all this time?

No, my views have not changed. I said those operations are very useful, but they should be part of a grand strategy, the region, the governance piece, economic development, a narrative for Afghan population in which they see themselves as players. That is what I call a strategy. But if it is special operations are done in isolation and Kabul is not partnering with them, that's not a strategy. And if they did, it's a NATO strategy.

... How is the strategy of standing up to the Afghan army going?

It's an institution everybody is proud of, and I am proud of our national army. But they reached their ceiling, and it was not a big event.

What do you mean?

They reached the number that they should have reached. So what is different in the situation?

Is it a well-run army?

I don't comment.

Karzai on the one hand criticizes the United States. He criticizes NATO. Then Petraeus goes to see him, and he comes out with a statement of support. How are we supposed to understand President Karzai's flip-flops?

President Karzai exploits the inconsistency of the American policy. President Karzai asks a very legitimate question: Is Pakistan an ally or an enemy? And NATO cannot answer. So the president says, "If Pakistan can take your money and in the meantime can afford to kill you, I can softly do things."

Where is the Taliban getting its funding?

Now they have diversified their sources. Initially it was Pakistan and Al Qaeda money. Now they extort money from businesses. They collect taxes, and they collect part of the harvest.

The drug harvest?

No, the wheat harvest.

And also heroin.

Yes. Now they have diversified. If you'd asked me this question in 2005, I would have said 90 percent Pakistan. But now Pakistan is probably about 50 percent. ...

What's next for Amrullah Saleh?

I'm not exaggerating what I can do. You have been with me for the past couple of days. I enjoy living in Afghanistan. I enjoy the weather; I enjoy the mountains; I enjoy the water; I enjoy the fruits, everything. I am very local, very local person. I cannot imagine for a second being detached from this country.

The outside image was that if I am not protected by a government or in the government, I will go out. No. My next step is work with communities, bring harmony in communities where I can, work with grassroots, university students, create awareness about the situation among the Afghan middle class, share the information and experience I have with Afghans.

That is why I have not spoken to foreign audience, because foreigners know a lot; it's Afghans who need information.

So I am enjoying the life here. My children are in Afghanistan. They go to school. Every day my daughter goes to school, and I say goodbye to her, that makes my day. She goes to an Afghan school and learns things here in our country. That makes my day. ...

Do you have intentions to run for president?

It will be wrong to say yes or no. Politics does not start like that. But everybody wants to become a president. I want to contribute. I want to be on the stage, but humble, but not necessarily expand myself and my energy for that one position. This country is in dire need of talent, of people who can do something. Presidential position is not the only meaningful -- there are too many others. I'm already doing a lot of good work here. ...

You have long warned about Pakistan?


The Pakistani officials have long wanted to see you go from the NDS [National Directorate of Security]?


Now you are out?

I am not out.

They won?

They won in a way because I am not in a position of power. But they lost still. I am in my country. And I talk to you, and I lecture the Afghans, and I go abroad, talk about Afghanistan, talk about Pakistan. People say I was sacrificed; I say, "No, I am here." ...

Are you worried about what happens when the Americans withdraw?


What will happen?

If they happen and the situation is the way it is, it will be a disaster -- massacres, bloodbath, disintegration of power, fragmentation of authority.

Why should America stay here and sacrifice the lives of its young indefinitely?

Why did they come here? They came here for three distinct objectives: Defeat Al Qaeda; make the Taliban irrelevant; create a viable Afghan state. If those objectives are achieved, good.

How long is that going to take?

How long did it take to defeat communism?

Fifty years.

So they can reconcile with Al Qaeda. It's up to them.

But you oppose that?

Well, we will fight it. We will fight Al Qaeda. We were fighting Al Qaeda not because of the U.S. We will continue to fight Al Qaeda not because of the West, because I still want my daughters to go to an Afghan university, and if Al Qaeda takes over, that's over. I'm selfish, very selfish, very self-interest[ed]. I am not fighting for America, and I was not fighting for America. America is not fighting for me. And they will not fight for me. It is in their national interest. We happen to fight a mutual enemy. ...

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Video Transcript

MARTIN SMITH, Correspondent: [voice-over] There are a lot of closely guarded secrets in Afghanistan. Amrullah Saleh knows most of them. Until six months ago, he was Afghanistan's chief of intelligence. Then suddenly, he was out. Saleh had sparred publicly with President Hamid Karzai over Karzai's efforts to make peace with the Taliban.

I've invited myself to Saleh's home in the Panjshir Valley, 60 miles north of Kabul, to hear about his defection.

AMRULLAH SALEH, Afghan Director of Intelligence, 2004-10: I was not in power politics to go and flatter and be rosy. I was straightforward. There were a lot of times I thought my job was over.

MARTIN SMITH: To help me understand where he was coming from, Saleh insisted on taking me and his bodyguards on a hike. He said he needed to show me something. He led the way. That's me on all fours.

AMRULLAH SALEH: I'm sorry. But it's good for you! [laughs]

MARTIN SMITH: Saleh was taking me to a ridgetop upon which sits a shrine to Afghanistan's national hero, Ahmed Shah Massoud. It was from here that Massoud's Northern Alliance forces successfully held back the Russians in the '80s and the Taliban in the '90s. But a decade ago, two days before 9/11, Massoud was assassinated by two al Qaeda suicide bombers posing as journalists.

Saleh says Massoud would roll over in his grave if he knew Karzai was preparing to offer a peace deal with the enemy.

AMRULLAH SALEH: What did we fight for all these years? My view is there must not be a deal with the Taliban.

MARTIN SMITH: [on camera] Ever?

AMRULLAH SALEH: Ever. And if there is a deal, we will resist against the deal─ "we" meaning all the forces who fought the Taliban. There must be a process. And based on that process, Taliban should become part of the society and play according to the script of democracy. They should be demobilized, disarmed, reintegrated, and that process will bring a lasting stability. Deals never bring stability.

MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] The problem with any reconciliation plan is that the Taliban don't seem very interested. In June 2010, Karzai gathered Afghan tribal elders for a peace jirga, or conference, and proposed amnesty for what he called "his dear Talibs."

As the jirga opened and Karzai began speaking, rockets landed nearby and a gun battle followed. Saleh says he had clear evidence that the Taliban was behind the attack, but Karzai refused to accept it.

Afterwards, he called his interior minister and Saleh to his office. He accused them of wanting to derail the jirga.

AMRULLAH SALEH: President Karzai said, "I don't buy into this evidence that Taliban did it. Taliban cannot be that smart."

MARTIN SMITH: [on camera] He was ridiculing your evidence. And he was angry?

AMRULLAH SALEH: Yes. Yes, he was angry. He had every right to be angry.

MARTIN SMITH: Can you remember anything he specifically said?

AMRULLAH SALEH: I remember every word he has said. I don't want to repeat it.

MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] Saleh resigned, accusing the president of appeasement.

AMRULLAH SALEH: He is no longer, you know, bad-mouthing the Taliban. He calls them "brothers."

MARTIN SMITH: To defeat the Taliban, Saleh supports escalating the war.

AMRULLAH SALEH: I am in favor of more robust activities against the Taliban.

MARTIN SMITH: He advocates more raids, more targeted killing.

[on camera] How effective are targeted operations?

AMRULLAH SALEH: Very effective. You cannot roll your tanks. There is no enemy territory per se. The enemy is hiding amongst greater civilian population.

MARTIN SMITH: But there are great risks in getting it wrong and killing civilians.


MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] In fact, civilian casualties soared by 31 percent last year.

[on camera] So how do you balance those risks against the gains that you might or might not make in killing leaders?

AMRULLAH SALEH: Well, of the 700 whatever number of operations that were done very, few had wrong─ gone wrong. I don't say all of these operations go perfect. There are disasters. But what is the alternative?

MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] Karzai says this strategy is backfiring, turning more Afghan's against the government.

I also asked Saleh about a two-fold increase in drone strikes against Taliban sanctuaries in neighboring Pakistan.

AMRULLAH SALEH: Drone operation is very─ very sensitive, secret U.S. operation. I don't know much about it.

MARTIN SMITH: [on camera] I don't believe that you don't know much about it. I think what you're saying is you choose not to talk about it.

AMRULLAH SALEH: I only talk about things in which I was involved and I had a degree of control or influence.

MARTIN SMITH: But your counterparts in the CIA are running these drones.

AMRULLAH SALEH: Right. And they're very proud of it.

MARTIN SMITH: Did you encourage the Americans to increase their use of drones?

AMRULLAH SALEH: I encouraged America to use Air Force., bomb Pakistan. Force it to stop supporting Taliban and al Qaeda, period, let alone drones. I say drones are not sufficient. This is global war against terror. I am very, very direct on that. So I was urging U.S., and I am urging them now, whatever can hurt al Qaeda and Taliban and their supporters in Pakistan, use it. You will regret not using it today.

MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] Saleh's special obsession is Pakistan's spy agency, the ISI.

AMRULLAH SALEH: ISI has created space for al Qaeda and Taliban to launch operations. Without their protection, they won't be able to do these operations. So ISI knows they are doing it. And ISI is happy they are doing it because through them, Pakistan promotes her policy in Afghanistan. And the policy is, "Taliban are ours, and they are to dominate Afghanistan."

MARTIN SMITH: [on camera] The Pakistani officials have long wanted to see you go?


MARTIN SMITH: Now you are out. They won?

AMRULLAH SALEH: They won in a way because I am not in a position of power. But they lost still. I am in my country, and I talk to you and I lecture the Afghans and I go abroad, talk about Afghanistan, talk about Pakistan. People say I was sacrificed. I say, "No. I am─ I am here."

MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] A week after I saw Saleh, he took his message to America. He'd been invited to give the keynote address at a major Washington conference on terrorism. That's him talking with Michael Hayden, former director of the CIA.

[Jamestown Foundation Terrorism Conference]

AMRULLAH SALEH: We hear the speeches of major western politicians saying, "Failure is not an option." Now it seems as if failure is an option.

MARTIN SMITH: In his speech, he blasted the Karzai administration.

AMRULLAH SALEH: ─because everybody is desperate for a deal.

MARTIN SMITH: [on camera] Do you have intentions to run for president?

AMRULLAH SALEH: I─ that's a─ it will be wrong to─ to say yes or no. I want to contribute. Presidential position is not the only meaningful one.

A deal will be a disaster both for Afghanistan and for the United States.

MARTIN SMITH: Are you worried about what happens when the Americans withdraw?


MARTIN SMITH: What will happen?

AMRULLAH SALEH: If they happen and the situation is the way it is, it will be disaster─ massacre of people, bloodbath, disintegration of power, fragmentation of authority.

MARTIN SMITH: Why should America stay here and sacrifice the lives of its young indefinitely?

AMRULLAH SALEH: Why did they come here? They came here for three distinct objectives─ defeat al Qaeda, make the Taliban irrelevant, create a viable Afghan state. If those objectives are achieved, good.

MARTIN SMITH: How long is that going to take?

AMRULLAH SALEH: How long did it take to defeat communism?

MARTIN SMITH: Fifty years.

AMRULLAH SALEH: So─ they can reconcile with al Qaeda. It's up to them.

MARTIN SMITH: America is losing interest.

AMRULLAH SALEH: If they lose interest and they withdraw, I have no influence to stop it. None of us have any influence to stop it.


AMRULLAH SALEH: There will be disasters. And history has seen many disasters.


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posted january 17, 2011

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