Global Security: Afghanistan and Pakistan - Foreign Affairs Committee Contents

Submission by Sean Langan

  I would like to focus on what I believe to be the key role of Pakistan. Most of my evidence will be anecdotal, but I imagine my personal experience of dealing with the Taliban over the years is quite unique, and I was able to gain a further insight during my recent hostage experience.

But just briefly, I would like to be able to recount some of my meetings over the years with both Pakistani militant groups in Kashmir, and the Taliban in Afghanistan, because on almost every occasion—I was made aware of the not-so-hidden hand of Pakistan. I was briefly abducted by Hizbul-Mujahadeen militants in Indian-occupied Kashmir in 1998 while filming. A few were Pakistani, and the others Afghans, Arabs and Tajiks. But they admitted they had crossed the border and had been trained in Pakistan-run camps in Afghanistan. After six months in Kashmir, working closely with the political opponents of India, it became clear just how involved the ISI were in the insurgency, and how it spanned groups in both Pakistan and Afghanistan.

  During the Taliban regime, I even visited a Pakistan militant camp in Jalalabad, near the infamous Al Qaeda Darunta Camp. I also dropped in on the ISI station chief in Kabul, who boasted just how much they were in command. In fact, the overlap between the Taliban, the ISI, and Pakistani militants and Al Qaeda, seemed quite open. I even saw Pakistani soldiers drive up to the frontlines north of Kabul, and Pakistan Airforce pilots pose at Kandahar airport. The irony is, I noticed a similar, but far more hidden, level of involvement when I returned to Afghanistan in 2005 to make a film about the burgeoning Taliban insurgency.

  My guides in Eastern Afghanistan were Afghans, but had served with Lashka-Taiba in Kashmir, and said they were still on the payroll of the ISI. The Taliban admitted they had bases and safe-havens in Pakistan, and I was even told they received logistical support. And on my most recent trip, I became all too aware of just how much of a safe-haven the tribal areas of Pakistan have become. I was surrounded by Taliban training camps, who test-fired their weapons on a daily basis, and I was told Arab mujahadeen openly patrol the roads. And before being released after three months in captivity, I was brought to a Taliban safe-house in Peshawar, just minutes away from the Pakistan military HQ. Which is why I agree with the American general who said NATO operations in Afghanistan are like "mowing the lawn". The seeds of the insurgency are sown in Pakistan, and that is where the focus needs to be.

  It's still not clear how a few more thousand British troops in Helmand will either stem the flow of Taliban recruits from over the border in Pakistan (although closing some of the Saudi-funded madrassas in Pakistan might help). Or even make much difference to what the foreign secretary has called a "strategic stalemate." Without removing the insurgent's "strategic depth," and dismantling their network of training camps in the safe-havens in Pakistan, it will just mean more "mowing the lawn". Although I would say this—I do believe there is something that would make a difference. Much has been said of finding an equivalent to the "sunni-awakening" strategy in Iraq, which did so much to defeat Al Qaeda in Iraq. Some commentators have suggested General Patreus should repeat his success by arming Afghan tribal elements in Afghanistan, and turning them against the Taliban. But the realities on the ground are completely different than in Iraq.

  To my mind, if I was asked, the equivalent would be to convince the ISI that their future, and that of Pakistan, lies with closer links to India and the West. If they could be made to turn, rather like the Sunni insurgents in Iraq, it would have an immediate and massive impact on the insurgency in Afghanistan. They could roll-up entire networks of Taliban, close down their camps, cut-off their logistical supplies and some of their funding. And more importantly, as far as British national security is concerned, they could also locate and help shut-down a large number of individuals and militant networks involved in planning attacks in Britain. Not least because they helped create them. But for that to happen, it would take an enormous diplomatic and political effort on the part of Britain and its allies to change Pakistan's long-held strategy of using terror groups as their proxy forces. And again, it's not clear what efforts are being taken to achieve those aims, and to re-build democracy in Pakistan. The cost, while high, may be far cheaper and more effective than an on-going war in Afghanistan.

  Secondly, I have also witnessed British and American forces in combat both in Iraq and in Afghanistan, and met some of those involved in formulating policy. And I sometimes felt as though I was witnessing some kind of Alice in Wonderland fantasy. The War on Terror often seemed to be framed in terms that stretched the realms of incredulity. Iran was held up as a supreme enemy, but Pakistan, who had sold nuclear weapons technology to Iran, North Korea and Libya, and who had created the Taliban and still now supporting them, as well as groups linked to Al Qaeda like Lashka-taiba (who were responsible for the recent attacks in Mumbai)|.were until last year held up as America's great ally in the War on Terror. President Musharaf was even rewarded with $10 billion in military aid, while it was increasingly clear his regime was supporting those killing British and American soldiers in Afghanistan. ... but I presume this is now well known by most MP's, so perhaps I'm in danger of repeating old news.

  But I would like to point out, that over the last few years, I have been able to make a career out of revealing the fact that the situations in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan, are not quite how they appear to be when presented to Parliament by this government. So in 2003, while there was barely any debate about it in Parliament, I was able to witness the growing insurgency in Iraq for myself. And in 2006, when the then defense secretary announced that British forces were being despatched to Helmand on peace-keeping operations, and added he hoped they would achieve their aims without firing a single shot—I immediately got on a plane and headed out there because it was clear to me that the Taliban insurgency was about to explode. (In fact, the Taliban had already informed me of their intentions, and capability, when I met up with them in Afghanistan in 2005. It was clear, even back then, that the British forces would find themselves in a war-fighting scenario, and were hopelessly ill-equipped for the task.)

  What surprises me, is why it was less clear to those in Parliament. There does seem to have been a lack of scrutiny, and timely accountability in Parliament on matters of foreign policy. More questions should have been asked before the initial deployment in Helmand. And to my mind, it's hard to see how parliamentary over-sight has improved, despite all the recent failures. Given the strategic threat Pakistan now poses to British national security, perhaps the question of how well does Parliament scrutinize UK foreign policy needs to be raised. Far better to do so now, rather than wait until after the next terrorist atrocity in Britain is traced back to Pakistan.


  I would like to add that I support Pakistan's efforts in its struggle against extremist elements within its own country, and hope my comments would be taken as constructive criticism by the government of Pakistan.

23 February 2009

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