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Sun Jan 20 2002 12:15:41 ET

American intelligence officials and high-ranking military officers say that Pakistani Army military and intelligence advisers who had been working with the Taliban in Afghanistan were flown to safety in Pakistan during the siege of Kunduz last November, in a series of nighttime airlifts by the Pakistani Air Force!

Controversial Seymour Hersh returns to the pages of the NEW YORKER, according to publishing sources, in the January 28, 2002 edition, hitting racks Monday.

The airlifts "were approved by the Bush Administration," Hersh reports.

The evacuation, which had been conceived of as a limited operation, "apparently slipped out of control, and, as an unintended consequence, an unknown number of Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters managed to join in the exodus."


One American defense adviser tells Hersh, "Everyone brought their friends with them. You're not going to leave them behind to get their throats cut."

As one senior intelligence official puts it, "Dirt got through the screen."

Indian intelligence officials tell Hersh that they number the escaped officials and fighters at four or five thousand; American intelligence officials put the total far lower. But "the Bush Administration may have done more than simply acquiesce in the rescue effort," Hersh reports.

"At the height of the standoff, according to both a C.I.A. official and a military analyst who has worked with the Delta Force...the Administration ordered the United States Central Command to set up a special air corridor help insure the safety of Pakistani rescue flights from Kunduz to the northwest corner of Pakistan."

The Department of Defense did not respond to a request for comment.

Pakistani leader Pervez Musharraf won American support for the evacuation, Hersh reports, by warning that losing a large number of Pakistanis would jeopardize his political survival.

In India, a recently retired Indian diplomat tells Hersh, the feeling is that "Musharraf has two-timed you. What have you gained? Have you captured Osama bin Laden?"

A senior Indian intelligence official says, "Musharraf can't afford to keep the Taliban in Pakistan. They're dangerous to his own regime. Our reading is that the fighters can go only to Kashmir."

Kashmir remains the flashpoint. "The situation is bloody explosive," a senior Pakistani diplomat says, suggesting that Musharraf has not been given enough credit by the Indian government for the "sweeping changes" he's brought to Pakistan.

A retired C.I.A. officer who served as a station chief in South Asia tells Hersh he found it especially disturbing that each country had "imperfect intelligence" about the other. "Couple that with the fact that these guys have a propensity to believe the worst of each other, and have nuclear weapons, and you end up saying, 'My God, get me the hell out of here.'"


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