With this post, we begin a review of another series of declassified documents from the State Department.
This is a cable dated 29 Jan 95, subject: NORTHERN AFGHAN STRONGMAN GENERAL DOSTAM MEETS TALIBAN REPRESENTATIVES
1. CONFIDENTIAL -- ENTIRE TEXT.
2. [redacted] RECENTLY TOLD POLOFF OF A REPORTED MEETING BETWEEN GENERAL ABDUR-RASHID DOSTAM AND REPRESENTATIVES OF THE TALIBEN IN MAZAR-I-SHARIF. [redacted] SAID SEVERAL TALIBS, ACCOMPANIED BY TWO UNIDENTIFIED PAKISTANIS, CALLED ON GENERAL DOSTAM IN EARLY DECEMBER. [redacted] WHO SAID HIS GOVERNMENT HAS EXCELLENT SOURCES WITHIN THE DOSTAM CAMP, REPORTED THAT THE GIST OF THE MEETING WAS THAT DOSTAM WAS TOLD THAT THE TALIBAN HAD NO TERRITORIAL AMBITIONS IN THE NORTH AND THAT DOSTAM SHOULD NOT OPPOSED THEM. SHOULD THE RELIGIOUS STUDENTS SUCCEED IN OPENING THE KANDAHAR-KABUL ROAD, THEIR STATED INTENT WAS TO DECLARE KABUL AN OPEN CITY. IN THAT EVEN, DOSTAM WAS ASKED TO AGREE TO OPEN THE SALANG TUNNEL AND NORTHERN ROAD, AND TO ENSURE THAT HEKMATYAR DOES NOT SEIZE THE CAPITAL.
Detouring to a page on Afghanistan's mountains for some background (I fixed two typos):
Mountains dominate the landscape, forming a terrigenous skeleton, traversing the center of the country, running generally in a northeast-southwest direction. More than 49 percent of the total land area lies above 2,000 meters. Although geographers differ on the division of these mountains into systems, they agree that the Hindu Kush system, the most important, is the westernmost extension of the Pamir Mountains, the Karakorum Mountains, and the Himalayas.
Numerous high passes (kotal) transect the mountains, forming a strategically important network for the transit of caravans. The most important mountain pass is the Kotal-e Salang (3,878 meters); it links Kabul and points south to northern Afghanistan. The completion of a tunnel within this pass in 1964 reduced travel time between Kabul and the north to a few hours. Previously access to the north through the Kotal-e Shibar (3,260 meters) took three days. The Salang Tunnel at 3363 meters and the extensive network of galleries on the approach roads were constructed with Soviet financial and technological assistance and involved drilling 1.7 miles through the heart of the Hindukush.
Before the Salang road was constructed, the most famous passes in the Western historical perceptions of Afghanistan were those leading to the Indian subcontinent. They include the Khyber Pass (1,027 meters), in Pakistan, and the Kotal-e Lataband (2,499 meters) east of Kabul, which was superseded in 1960 by a road constructed within the Kabul River's most spectacular gorge, the Tang-e Gharu. This remarkable engineering feat completed in 1960 reduced travel time between Kabul and the Pakistan border from two days to a few hours.
The roads through the Salang and Tang-e Gharu passes played critical strategic roles during the recent conflicts and were used extensively by heavy military vehicles. Consequently these roads are in very bad repair. Many bombed out bridges have been repaired, but numbers of the larger structures remain broken. Periodic closures due to conflicts in the area seriously affect the economy and well-being of many regions, for these are major routes carrying commercial trade, emergency relief and reconstruction assistance supplies destined for all parts of the country.
The Salang Tunnel "represents a major north-south connection in Afghanistan, cutting travel from 72 hours to 10 hours and saving about 300 km." From 1964, when it was opened, it was for about nine years the highest road tunnel in the world, reaching an elevation of roughly 11,100 feet.
For some more background on the Salang Tunnel, these two articles provide captivating history: Inside the Salang Tunnel and Eyewitness: Crumbling Afghan lifeline. For some short blurbs with photos, see Tunnel Provides Opportunities for Truckers and Opening the Salang Tunnel. For some pictures, see The Salang Tunnel.
This is a great photo -- a tunnel on the top of the world! This is really breathtaking scenery.
Meanwhile, knowing this little bit about the Salang Tunnel, why would it be important for the Taliban in 1995 to open it, assuming the Taliban could open the Kandahar-Kabul Road?
Returning now to our State Department cable:
3. [redacted] SUBSEQUENTLY PROVIDED POLOFF WITH A SIMILAR READ-OUT ON THE TALIBAN-DOSTAM MEETING IN MAZAR. THE [redacted] ADDED THAT DURING THE DOSTAM'S VISIT TO ISLAMABAD IN DECEMBER, PAKISTANI GOVERNMENT OFFICIALS REPORTEDLY HAD TOLD DOSTAM NOT TO CONSIDER AN ALLIANCE WITH AHMED SHAH MASOOD, AND TO INSTEAD MAINTAIN HIS LINKS WITH HEKMATYAR. UNSPECIFIED SENIOR PAKISTAN OFFICIALS TOLD DOSTAM, [redacted] ALLEGED, THAT "HE NEED NOT WORRY ABOUT THE TALIBAN, BECAUSE PAKISTAN CAN TAKE CARE OF THEM." DOSTAM WAS REPORTEDLY ASKED TO AGREE, IN THE EVENT THE TALIBAN OPENED THE KANDAHAR-KABUL ROAD, TO OPEN THE NORTHERN SALANG ROAD, WHICH WAS DESCRIBED AS "VITAL" TO PAKISTAN'S PLANNED CENTRAL ASIAN TRADE. IN RETURN, [redacted] CLAIMED, PAKISTAN AGREED TO CONTINUE ITS LIMITED FINANCIAL ASSISTANCE TO DOSTAM. [redacted] TOLD POLOFF JANUARY 24 THAT SOURCES IN MAZAR-I-SHARIF SHARED [redacted] GIST OF DOSTAM'S MEETINGS WITH PAKISTANI OFFICIALS IN ISLAMABAD, AND ADDED THAT DOSTAM HAD REPORTEDLY AGREED TO THE ALLEGED PAKISTANI REQUESTS.
Pakistani government officials said "He need not worry about the Taliban, because Pakistan can take care of them." And, there was a reference to the Salang Road being "'vital' to Pakistan's planned Central Asian trade."
As we surmised from the beginning -- someone in Pakistan wanted to open the road north to Central Asia, through Afghanistan, and got behind the Taliban as the most likely candidate to be able to achieve that.