Posted by: Christian | May 13, 2007

Revisiting the Airlift of Evil: A Blunder Via Pragmatism

May 14, 2007.

There was very little controversy when numerous sources revealed, over a two-month period from November 2001 to January 2002, that the Pakistani government had rescued possibly thousands of Afghan Taliban, Pakistani Taliban, Pakistani ISI and Army officers, Al Qaeda volunteers and Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan members from the northern Afghan city of Kunduz. Defeated Taliban and Al Qaeda had fled to the city after losing battles across the north and many were negotiating surrender.

But then something inexplicable happened. Over a three-day period Pakistani military planes made non-stop flights in and out of the Kunduz airport, which was controlled by the Taliban. So all the important commanders and Pakistanis escaped along a safe-flight corridor supposedly guaranteed by the Americans.

Photo: This guy missed his flight to Pakistan. But he got another one to Guantanamo.
Arab in Kunduz

Needless to say, many people were upset. Northern Alliance soldiers were livid, American soldiers were outraged and named it “Operation Airlift of Evil,” and the Indian government sent diplomatic notes of protest to the American and British government, as it believed all these Al Qaeda and Taliban soldiers were destined for Kashmir.

But the story generally went away since, hey, we won! Didn’t we? And the nail in the coffin was when the increasingly deranged journalist Seymour Hersh published an article on the event. Hersh attempts to regularly publish reports that live up to the importance of his work on the My Lai massacre in Vietnam. And in the process he relies on “secret sources” and, increasingly, his imagination. But his credibility is rather low and nobody really wanted to follow up on a story given publicity by the crazy yelling old man. And also, who cares? We won! Woo-hoo!

Additionally, former super-desk jockey CIA officer Gary Schroen pretended the event never happened in his book; all the bad guys were retreating to Kunduz and then……nothing. He has proved his loyalty to the bureaucracy of the CIA and nothing else by his actions (not to mention his gross ignorance of Afghanistan which I catalogued here). At least his second-in-command Gary Berntsen was patriotic and brave enough to sue the CIA and go ahead with publishing his book complete with a mention of the Kunduz airlift. (The difference is probably that Berntsen began his career in the military, where loyalty to country is stressed, while Schroen had served his entire career in the CIA, where loyalty to the bureaucracy is stressed).

The significance of the airlift became clear when many of the escapees began to return to Afghanistan to fight or, at the very least, to work to further their cause from inside Pakistan. And many actually later became a direct problem for the Pakistani government as demonstrated by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan fighters who started to take shots at Pakistani soldiers and locals who got in their way. (Amazingly this was the IMU’s second great escape by plane. The Russian military had flown them out of Tajikistan and into Afghanistan in return for promising never to come back.)

So a man that was likely on those flights [note added: he also may have actually bribed his way south by vehicle], Mullah Dadullah, has ceased to be. But many others, including Tahir Yuldashev and many lesser-known names continue to operate against the Afghan government, NATO troops, and even the Pakistani government.

Photo: “When the Russians flew me and my guys safely out of Tajikistan there was no in-flight meal. And again it happens. These Pakistanis say the flight will be less than two hours and there is no in-flight meal, not even peanuts. Qornim Ochdi!”
Tahir Yuldoshev

So why did the American government agree to this? One explanation given is that they desperately needed Musharraf’s cooperation and his demand was that he gets his boys back. But his boys had stayed to fight and kill American and British troops knowing full well for over two months what Al Qaeda had perpetrated and yet they stayed. As Warlordish said “they call this pragmatism I guess.” I recognize the pragmatic aspect and I also recognize that for a government that wanted no more than a few thousand soldiers in Afghanistan temporarily, this may have made sense at the time. But I also believe this was cowardly and extremely negligent. The escapees have returned to kill NATO troops, Afghan soldiers and civilians, NGO workers and the occasional journalist. And all this to appease Musharraf, a man who, if not being a brazen liar, at a minimum has no ability to live up to his promises.

Photo: “Hey Hamid! That plane I just landed in flew Dadullah out of Kunduz back in 2001! It still smells like wet goat! Pretty funny, huh?”
Musharraf visit

I’ll quote the surprisingly competent and intelligent NBC journalist Michael Moran from 2001 to state what is obvious today:

“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? [….] 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?”

The prescience of Michael Moran was obviously not shared by the folks at the State Department, DoD, CIA, The White House or wherever it was that Musharraf’s demands were agreed to.

Further reading:

Michael Moran MSNBC article
Seymour Hersh article
BBC report
CNN report article
Also look for articles in the New York Times, The Times of London, and Barnett Rubin’s Foreign Affairs article.


  1. […] I guess the semester is over? Regardless, there’s a ton of great stuff up there, like the airlift of evil. Go, […]


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