The Kunduz airlift, also known as the Airlift of Evil, refers to the evacuation of thousands of top commanders and members of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, their Pakistani advisers including Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence agents and army personnel, and other Jihadi volunteers and sympathizers, from the city of Kunduz, Afghanistan, in November 2001 just before its captureby U.S. and United Front of Afghanistan (Northern Alliance) forces during the War in Afghanistan. As described in several reports, the Taliban and Al-Qaeda combatants were safely evacuated from Kunduz and airlifted by Pakistan Air Force cargo aircraft to Pakistan Air Force bases in Chitral and Gilgit in Pakistan Administered Kashmir’s Northern Areas.
According to the Los Angeles Times, during the siege of Kunduz, U.S. and Northern Alliance forces (led by Mohammad Daud Daud and Abdul Rashid Dostum) had declared that they would treat foreign fighters of the Taliban (including Pakistani military advisers as well as Pakistani and Arab volunteers) more severely than their Afghan counterparts. The Northern Alliance had earlier witnessed Pakistani and Arab involvement in several massacres perpetrated by the Taliban in Afghanistan. Pakistani leaders feared that revenge killings of Pakistanis in Kunduz could lead to unrest and instability in their country and therefore decided to evacuate their forces before the US and Northern Alliance ground forces moved into Kunduz.
The revelation that the U.S. had acquiesced to the escape of potentially dangerous individuals including the top leadership of the Taliban and Al Qaeda was a controversial and politically contentious topic that sparked off a debate in the western media and elicited denials of knowledge of this event from top Bush administration officials including Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Although numerous articles mentioning such an ongoing airlift of Pakistani and other anti-U.S. combatants from Kunduz appeared around that time in several international newspapers (such as the New York Times, The Independent andThe Guardian), the first reference to the specific term Airlift of Evil appeared in a column on the website of the MSNBC news network. It is generally thought that the U.S. administration agreed to the airlift in an attempt to appease Pakistani PresidentPervez Musharraf and avoid destabilizing the Pakistani government, who, although overtly an ally of the U.S. in the War on Terror, had always supported the Taliban. This Pakistani evacuation of anti-U.S. fighters belonging to the Taliban, Al Qaeda and the ISI is also detailed in the BBC documentary Secret Pakistan: Double Cross and Backlash.
One senior (U.S.) intelligence analyst told me, “The request was made by Musharraf to Bush, but Cheney took charge — a token of who was handling Musharraf at the time. The approval was not shared with anyone at State, including Colin Powell, until well after the event. Musharraf said Pakistan needed to save its dignity and its valued people. Two planes were involved, which made several sorties a night over several nights. They took off from air bases in Chitral and Gilgit in Pakistan Administered Kashmir’s Northern Areas, and landed in Kunduz, where the evacuees were waiting on the tarmac. Certainly hundreds and perhaps as many as one thousand people escaped. Hundreds of ISI officers, Taliban commanders, and foot soldiers belonging to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and Al Qaeda personnel boarded the planes. What was sold as a minor extraction turned into a major air bridge. The frustrated U.S. SOF who watched it from the surrounding high ground dubbed it “Operation Evil Airlift.”
Another senior U.S. diplomat told me afterward, “Musharraf fooled us because after we gave approval, the ISI may have run a much bigger operation and got out more people. We just don’t know. At the time nobody wanted to hurt Musharraf, and his prestige with the army was at stake. The real question is why Musharraf did not get his men out before. Clearly the ISI was running its own war against the Americans and did not want to leave Afghanistan until the last moment.”