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Ex-Top Pakistani Intelligence Official Says U.S. Fought 20 1-Year Wars In Afghanistan

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The other night, we walked into a house here in Pakistan's capital. A servant held open the door, and we found the owner in the hall.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Nice to meet you.

ISFANDIYAR PATAUDI: Nice to meet you.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Hi.

PATAUDI: Please come on in.

INSKEEP: What a beautiful - this is the library or...

It's the home of Isfandiyar Pataudi, who's a retired general in Pakistan's army. His house is from the mid-20th century, when this city was built.

PATAUDI: It's one of the first houses built in Islamabad. It's been the residence of the U.S. ambassador for a while.

INSKEEP: Now the living room is filled with Pataudi's possessions, like a painting of a Muslim shrine and a bookcase where the volumes include one about the British intelligence service, MI6. Pataudi was once the chief of analysis for Pakistan's main intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI. The retired general is still fit as a soldier but wears civilian clothes and reflects sometimes on how his country's capital could be different.

PATAUDI: This could have been a memorial to the martyrs of the wars and especially in the last 20 years of counterterrorism - the casualties we've taken. And children must know what happened and why it happened.

INSKEEP: As a man brought tea and sandwiches, Pataudi talked of that 20 years. Many American officials have a theory of their country's defeat in the war in Afghanistan. Pakistan, they say, played a double game - allied with the United States while also backing the Taliban in ways that served Pakistan's interests. Pataudi offered a very different idea of what went wrong.

PATAUDI: The Taliban don't need Pakistan. The Taliban have defeated the greatest military in the world wearing shalwar kameez, Peshawari chappals and driving Toyota pickups - and AK-47s of Soviet vintage.

INSKEEP: Well, now they have American weapons.

PATAUDI: Now they have American weapons. I saw some pictures with them carrying M16s and M4s. So you can't defeat an ideology.

INSKEEP: It is true that that ideology came in part out of Pakistan. The Taliban emerged out of Pakistani religious schools in the 1990s. They were members of an ethnic group that has spread on both sides of the international border. Pakistani officials cultivated relations with them as they took over Afghanistan.

PATAUDI: I think the relationship is not specifically the ISI. The relationship is Pakistan and the Taliban. The Taliban are a majority Pashtun group, whereas I - if my figures are not wrong, there are about 12 million Pashtuns in Afghanistan, and there are about 30 million in Pakistan.

INSKEEP: More in this country than that country.

PATAUDI: Much more. So there is a natural affinity and also a natural concern. And I don't think it's in Pakistan's interest to have a radical Islamist government of a dominant-Pashtun makeup in its neighborhood. It's not in our national interest, and we have always said that. But we've also learned that there is a reality you have to work with. And so, like everyone else, we've had a relationship with every group.

INSKEEP: After the 9/11 attacks, a U.S.-led campaign drove the Taliban from power. Some defeated Taliban leaders reached out to the United States, ready to switch sides. The U.S. spurned them, determined to exact retribution for the group that sheltered Osama bin Laden. Pakistan maintained relations. And Pataudi, who took a senior ISI position starting in 2010, contends it was the Americans who didn't know what they were doing.

PATAUDI: And this is purely my own view. Please, this is not the government view at all or anything. This is my own view. I think there was a lot of interagency friction in understanding what the region was all about. If I were not too harsh, I'd say that it was 20 one-year wars.

INSKEEP: Twenty one-year wars.

PATAUDI: Yeah. And so everybody who came in new, you know, came in with this new perception of what was happening on ground. And, you know, they brought in new strategies, new counterinsurgency doctrines and, you know, applied them here to an environment that was quite different to elsewhere. And it didn't work. And, you know, as happens in all bureaucracies, there's then a little bit of covering up of facts to facilitate your own point of view and so on. So, yeah, I think there was a little bit of haziness there.

INSKEEP: The U.S. military changed everybody, from enlisted soldiers to commanders, every year or two years or three years maybe, and there was no consistency, in your mind, of purpose.

PATAUDI: Till you don't - living in a region and you haven't involved yourself in the people and tribes and the geography of the region and the culture, you don't really get a feel for it academically.

INSKEEP: Was Pakistan not pro-Taliban?

PATAUDI: Pakistan was supporting a return to stability.

INSKEEP: And you saw the Taliban as the group that could bring that?

PATAUDI: Well...

INSKEEP: Or the group that needed to be brought into the government because they were...

PATAUDI: No, no. We have not been - we have not brought anybody. I think this is a misperception. Pakistan does not have the capability to bring a government in Afghanistan. Nobody can bring a government in Afghanistan.

INSKEEP: U.S. officials found Pakistan far too close to the Taliban. Once, a Taliban ally called the Haqqani network led a 20-hour assault on the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. The top U.S. military officer afterwards said the Haqqanis were a veritable arm of the ISI. Haqqani leaders appeared here in Islamabad. But General Pataudi notes that the United States itself eventually dealt with them.

PATAUDI: A lot of people tend to, when it suits them, separate the Taliban and the Haqqanis. They're not separate. They're one. And that is what a lot of people like to miss out because, you know, oh, we're making friends with the Taliban. We're not making friends with the Haqqanis. No, you're making friends with the Haqqanis. Admit it. You signed a deal with the Haqqanis.

INSKEEP: Are you suggesting that after disagreeing with you year after year after year, the United States finally came around to your point of view?

PATAUDI: I don't think that is our point of view. It is the Taliban's point of view. Looking at it from a negotiation point of view, I think Taliban have played it brilliantly.

INSKEEP: Was it simply that the Trump administration was impatient for a deal and the Taliban were more patient, and then President Biden came in and he stuck with the deal because he wanted out of Afghanistan?

PATAUDI: I think you've put it really well. The Taliban have been pretty consistent in their demands. They haven't budged.

INSKEEP: Did it serve U.S. interests just to get out?

PATAUDI: I think eventually it would serve U.S. interests to leave, but not leaving Afghanistan in the way that it has left it. It's unfair to Afghanistan, and it's unfair to all of us in the region because we backed the U.S. on this. And so for us, it's been a bit of a letdown that you've not left a stable country after 20 years of occupation. And now people are struggling to leave. The economy is in shambles. There's no law and order. I mean, how is this country going to function? You haven't promised it any grants, aid for the future. If this is going to be the end state, then you might never have come back after, let's say, January 2002, and just gone and left.

INSKEEP: Isfandiyar Pataudi is a former Pakistani intelligence official. It's not yet clear how, if at all, the United States might help to stabilize Afghanistan, but Pakistan is already trying. Over the weekend, the first senior Pakistani official visited Kabul since the Taliban takeover, and that first official to go was not a diplomat, but the head of the intelligence agency, the ISI.

(SOUNDBITE OF DISTANT.IO'S "TOO OFTEN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.