01.12.13

Taliban Commanders Say They Were Tortured by Pakistani Intelligence

Afghanistan’s former leaders are emerging from Pakistan’s shadowy intelligence lockups with tales of horror. Could the harsh treatment now backfire on their backers in Islamabad?

It may be difficult to sympathize with the plight of former Taliban officials and commanders who have been incarcerated in Pakistan’s shadowy, extrajudicial prison lockups without charge for the past several years.

But some of the more than two dozen insurgent leaders whom Islamabad has released unconditionally over the past two months, ostensibly as a means of reviving the stalled Afghan peace process, are now recounting in exclusive interviews with Newsweek and The Daily Beast the years of deprivation and torture they suffered at the hands of Pakistani intelligence. Not surprisingly, the harsh treatment they suffered has turned them against the Pakistanis, who, ironically, provide aid and safe haven to the Afghan insurgency as a whole.

Mullah Nooruddin Turabi, Mullah Mohammad Omar’s former justice minister, who was freed late last month after being arrested in 2005, is the senior-most insurgent leader released thus far. Turabi, the 60-something, former hardline head of the Taliban’s draconian moral police, is telling family members and friends at his house in Karachi that he was held in underground solitary confinement without sunlight, was barely fed, and was frequently tortured for five of the seven years he was incarcerated. During that time, he lost most of his eyesight in his one good eye. (He had already lost one eye and one leg during the war against the Soviets in the 1980s.)

Turabi certainly didn’t deserve cushy accommodations. He personally and zealously supervised the enforcement of the Taliban’s tough dress, moral, and gender codes during the Taliban’s regime: beards of a certain length for men, burqas for women, and the prohibition of women’s education and employment outside the home or women leaving home without being escorted by a male relative. Turabi says that some of those who mistreated him told him they were doing it as payback for the way he and his police treated women under the Taliban’s rule. “Some of the interrogators told him he was receiving God’s punishment for the way he insulted humanity and treated women while he was minister,” says senior Taliban operative Zabihullah, who recently met Turabi in Karachi. (Zabihullah is a pseudonym.) He told Zabihullah that he believes the Pakistanis treated him even worse than the Americans would have: “The Americans would not have kept me thirsty for the sun for five years.”

Until 2010, Turabi says interrogators never tired of asking him questions that he couldn’t answer: where are Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden? “Some of the interrogators were nice and wished me and the Taliban well, but most were rude, nasty, and violent. But they all kept asking the same stupid questions,” he told Zabihullah. Some of his interrogators were even apologetic, saying they only arrested him and other Taliban leaders after receiving heavy pressure from the Americans. “The [Inter-Services Intelligence] explained they had no alternative but to arrest me and others,” Turabi told Zabihullah. “I can understand that, but then why beat, insult, and torture and lock me up in a dark room?”Although he was blindfolded during the interrogation sessions, Turabi says he believes Americans were present because of the incessant questions about Omar and bin Laden, but he does not implicate the Americans in his mistreatment.

“Pakistan is not only breaking the backbone of the Taliban, it is also crushing the bones of the Islamic movement.”

In the end, the intelligence agencies wanted Turabi to cooperate with them. Just before he was released, they asked him to tell Mullah Omar to use his influence with the Pakistani Taliban and order them to cease their attacks on Pakistan. But after so much pain and suffering, Turabi was hardly in a cooperative mood. “I told them no deal. The way you have treated me for seven long years, I have forgotten Mullah Omar’s address and I can’t even remember his face,” he told Zabihullah.

Another recently freed Taliban commander, a former deputy provincial governor who requests anonymity for security reasons, says he was mistreated so badly that he believes Pakistan is the enemy and that “Pakistan hates the Afghan Taliban.” As a result, he says he is now more than ever committed to the Taliban’s cause. “We will never forget the mental and physical torture,” the commander told Newsweek and The Daily Beast. “Before I went to jail I was a Taliban, but now I am even more committed and solid. I will do whatever the Taliban shura assigns me to do.” To him Pakistan has become the main foe. “Pakistan and its secret service are the enemy No. 1 of Afghans and the Islamic movement,” says the commander, who was arrested at his house in Quetta in 2008. “Pakistan is not only breaking the backbone of the Taliban, it is also crushing the bones of the Islamic movement.”

“Only God knows how many jihadists from many countries are rotting in these ISI black, underground cells,” he adds.

Reports of torture, disappearances, and the mistreatment of detainees are nothing new in Pakistan. According to the U.S. State Department’s 2010 Human Rights Report, “extrajudicial killings, disappearances, and torture” are “major human-rights problems.” “There are reports that security forces, including intelligence services, tortured and abused individuals in custody,” the report adds. Amnesty International, in its report on Pakistan last December, says the Pakistani military has “free rein to carry out torture and enforced disappearances.” Human Rights Watch’s World Report 2012 says that “Thousands of suspected members of Al Qaeda, Taliban, and other armed groups… remain in illegal military detention” and that there is “continuing torture and ill-treatment of criminal suspects.” Pakistan’s security services strenuously deny the charges. 

But enemies can suddenly become friends or at least nonenemies. About six months ago, Turabi, the commander, and several other Taliban suddenly were flown from their clandestine lockups in Karachi to two ISI safe houses around Islamabad and Rawalpindi, they say. There they were united with about two dozen other Taliban, some very senior, including Mullah Omar’s No. 2 and brother-in-law, Abdul Ghani Baradar. There were some 18 Taliban in one house and six, including Baradar, in another. They said that Baradar seemed to be in charge and “be in good shape.” Neither Turabi nor the commander knows why they were arrested in the first place or why they were suddenly released from the cruel confines of Karachi to the relative comforts near the capital. “We don’t know why things changed,” says the commander. “One day we were the bad enemy, the next we were the nice prisoners.” Then they were released last month “unconditionally,” they say.

If Pakistan is hoping the releases will give some momentum to the moribund peace talks, then it may be disappointed. After what Turabi and the other incarcerated insurgents have experienced, they may not be in a compromising mood. At least one Taliban operative in Kabul says it’s unlikely the releases will add good will or a fillip to any negotiations. “Those who were freed will not play any positive role for peace,” he says requesting anonymity for security reasons. “If the Taliban asks, they will rejoin the attan,” he adds, referring to the traditional Afghan dance. ” The dance of war, not of peace.