Ahmed Rashid is a journalist based in Lahore, Pakistan. He has been covering Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Central Asia for more than twenty years for The Far Eastern Economic Review and The Daily Telegraph. He is the author of Taliban (Yale University Press), a book that has sold a million copies and has been translated into more than twenty languages. His latest book is Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia (Yale).
Recognized as one of the leading authorities on the Taliban, he has been in high demand since 9/11. He has appeared on many radio and TV news shows, has spoken at universities around the world, and has even consulted with the State Department.
Yet Rashid himself became acquainted with the chilly atmosphere in the United States in December 2001. Arriving at Dulles airport to give some talks in Washington, he was stopped by security. "They asked me a few questions and spent about two hours looking through their computers," he recalls. "They finally released me without saying anything. I did not take any umbrage at that. But I thought it quite amusing, having written this book on the Taliban and having been invited by prestigious U.S. institutions to lecture."
A Pakistani citizen, Rashid has not given up on his own country. "There are a lot of people who are struggling consistently for democracy, for human rights, for freedom of the media," he says. "There is a strong and ever growing civil society."
Rashid is helping to build civil society in Afghanistan, as well. He has donated a quarter of the proceeds from his Taliban book to establish the Open Media Fund for Afghanistan. The fund, he says, "is now giving small grants to magazines and newspapers throughout Afghanistan, which had been completely banned by the Taliban. There's a woman's magazine, there's one for children. And there's a newspaper in Herat dealing with reconstruction. The idea is to help revive the print media in Afghanistan."
I spoke with him by phone on August 23.
Question: The standard U.S. media view of the war in Afghanistan is that it was a success. The Taliban were ousted. Al Qaeda has been dispersed. There were a handful of U.S. casualties. Hamid Karzai has been installed in power in Kabul. Maybe a couple of thousand civilians died; sorry about that. The Pentagon can't find Osama bin Laden or Mullah Omar, but all in all America is on its way to winning the war on terrorism. What do you think of that story?
Rashid: It's true certainly up to a point--to January or February, when the Taliban and Al Qaeda were defeated. But the real problem since then has been a lack of a strategy by the United States as to how to combat terrorism on the ground now that it has taken a different shape and form. The fact that there are no longer large units of Al Qaeda running around means you don't need B-52s. You need intelligence and special forces. And, most importantly, you need to resurrect Afghanistan from what is literally the graveyard of countries and transform it into a normal country, which the Afghans want.
The strategy for peace-building is economic aid, reconstruction, international security forces. On those lines, the U.S. has been extremely slow. And it has even blocked expanding security forces from Kabul to other cities. There's a sense of desperation in Afghanistan because of the lack of funding and the fact that the U.S. only has a one-track military strategy. It doesn't have an economic and political game plan.
Q: What do you make of Afghan-born Zalmay Khalilzad, who is Bush's special envoy to Afghanistan?
Rashid: Khalilzad is being called the governor-general of Afghanistan in the sense that he seems to be taking many of the major decisions in consultation with Hamid Karzai. He can make or break issues. And he reflects the views of the National Security Council and the Defense Department.
There is a kind of love-hate relationship between him and the Afghans. He has done some very sound work in keeping Afghanistan at the top of the Bush Administration's agenda, and making people notice Afghanistan, which I think is very important. But he's roiled up many groups of Afghans because of what happened during the loya jirga in June when he played a very up front role in trying to block the former king, Zahir Shah, from taking any position. So it's a mixed bag. Overall, Khalilzad an extremely powerful individual right now.
Q: He also worked for the Rand corporation and then he was a consultant for Unocal, which has wanted to build a pipeline from Turkmenistan in Central Asia down through Afghanistan out to Pakistan.
Rashid: The leaders of all three countries--Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan--are pushing for this, for their own separate reasons. At the moment this is as a non-starter. This would be a pipeline that would cross from Turkmenistan, into Afghanistan, and end up in markets in Pakistan and India. It is extremely difficult to imagine that any oil company for the next few years is going to want to invest two or three billion dollars in Afghanistan. That confidence is just not there right now. There's a huge security problem. Secondly, the market for that oil and gas is the subcontinent, but Pakistan and India are almost at war with each other. That market is very fragile. It's going to take a lot more than mere intentions to get this pipeline moving.
Q: General Tommy Franks, head of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, says U.S. troops will be in that country "for years." What are the implications of that?
Rashid: Very serious. You have a lot of suspicion from the neighbors of Afghanistan about U.S. intentions. Iran is already, to some extent, trying to undermine the U.S. in Afghanistan. Russia is now becoming increasingly nervous about a more permanent U.S. presence in Central Asia. And China is not keen that the U.S. should be so close to its borders over a long period of time. Certainly, if the U.S. is going to be there for a long time, it's going to exacerbate regional tensions.
The idea of a permanent U.S. military presence, as opposed to an economic presence, is going to create a new wave of hostility toward the United States. In the south amongst the Pashtuns, that sentiment is already strong. And I don't equate this with the Pashtuns becoming pro-Taliban or pro-Al Qaeda. Pashtun nationalism is reasserting itself. Its political history spans several hundred years. The Pashtuns are angry at the Americans because, one, they're still being bombed, and two, they perceive that the Americans are backing the Tajik faction, which controls the army and security forces in Kabul.
The problem right now, which I've been pointing out very bluntly to American officials in Washington, is that the U.S. has no economic presence in Afghanistan. The Afghans can't point and say, "Oh, the Americans built that road. They built that telecommunications facility. They built that electricity powerhouse," because nothing has been built so far.
Q: Karzai recently survived an assassination attempt. How secure is he?
Rashid: The situation is extremely fragile, with widespread anger in the Pashtun belt at the Karzai government and the Americans. The Pashtuns feel discriminated against by the Americans because they supported the Taliban and the war is still going on in their region with continued U.S. bombing. They are also disgruntled at the overwhelming power of their ethnic rivals the Tajiks, who dominate the security forces in Kabul and control the key levers of political power. Although Karzai is a Pashtun also, many Pashtuns consider him a hostage to the Tajiks and Americans.
We should remember that the Pashtuns are the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan. Of course, many of them did support the Taliban. But you cannot equate all Pashtuns with the Taliban. There has to be a better ethnic representation in all areas of government. This is the biggest issue that Karzai is facing.
There is also the issue of the continuing threats posed by the warlords. The fact is, they are defying Kabul. They're not accepting its authority, they're trying to keep their fiefdoms. They're raising their own revenues and maintaining their own armies.
The U.S., by failing until now to allow for the expansion of the ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] to other cities and by failing to take the lead in helping reconstruct the country and urging other Western nations to provide fast-moving funding, has created a precarious situation. There is an impasse. The warlords are stronger than they were some months ago. The Tajiks are more in control, more decisive and more unwilling to compromise, the central government authority has actually shriveled and not expanded outside Kabul.
The situation can only be changed if the U.S. is willing to play a leadership role amongst the Western donors, essentially by expanding ISAF by whatever means and getting money and reconstruction projects into the country fast and in particular into the Pashtun belt.
Q: Speaking of those pre-Taliban warlords, they are people like Abdul Rashid Dostum, the Uzbek leader in the north, Ismail Khan in Herat, and Gul Agha Shirzai in Kandahar.
Rashid: Karzai's strategy, which is questionable, has been to try to bring the warlords into Kabul and to persuade them to leave their fiefdoms. He's given a lot of senior posts to them, but many have refused his offers. Ismail Khan, for example, has been offered the vice presidency but he prefers to stay in his fiefdom in Herat. Dostum has been named special representative of the government to the north, but he stays in the north.
The real problem for Karzai is extending the writ of the central government. It is a political issue, but more than that, it's an economic issue. Unless Karzai can say, "Either you behave or I have money and I can build a road in your area. Either you behave and join the central government and cooperate with me, or I won't build this road, I'll build it somewhere else," he won't have any clout. The fact is, he has no money. As long as this continues, the warlords know Karzai is extremely weak.
Q: Let me ask you a bit more about Dostum. He's one of the most powerful of the warlords, and he's the deputy defense minister. Newsweek recently revealed new information about Dostum and his forces being involved in war crimes, the murdering of hundreds of captured prisoners in the Mazar-e-Sharif area. Do you have any information on that?
Rashid: This is not a new story. Immediately after the fall of Mazar-e-Sharif and Kunduz to the Northern Alliance, it was well documented that large numbers of Taliban prisoners suffocated to death as they were being transported in sealed containers from Kunduz and Mazar to Sheberghan. Amnesty International, the American-based Human Rights Watch, documented all this. Because the war was on, and defeating the Taliban was the main priority, this was ignored. Newsweek has presented considerable new evidence. And Physicians for Human Rights has unearthed mass graves. Clearly, something has to be done. The Afghan government actually condemned the mass killing and said that they would help any kind of investigation. But this is a very difficult issue. All the main perpetrators are part of the government.
Q: What is the situation of women in Afghanistan today? Have you seen any improvement?
Rashid: There has been an enormous improvement. Something like three million children have gone back to school. In the program, something like 50,000 women have gone back to work as teachers. That has been a huge accomplishment. The key to breaking the Taliban taboo against women and the cultural brainwashing that the Taliban imposed upon many Afghans is to get women back into the workforce. And that is happening at a pace that is quite remarkable. There's been a lot more progress in Kabul than in other cities, however, because they have not received reconstruction support.
There are several women in his government, though not in the top posts. That is one of the criticisms that came out of the loya jirga.
Q: Before the Taliban took power in 1996 Afghanistan was the major source of the world's supply of heroin. During the Taliban rule, poppy cultivation was significantly curtailed. So much so that in May 2001 Secretary of State Colin Powell challenged $43 million to the Taliban as thanks for the fine job they were doing in the war on drugs. What's the situation today?
Rashid: The West has had a distorted understanding of how to cope with drugs. Right after the government was formed in Kabul, it was the season for harvesting poppy crops. The Americans and the British raised $50 million and threw it at the farmers to try to get them to cut down their crops. This program was not successful. There was corruption.
Afghan farmers have no access to other seeds, other crops, irrigation, tools, and all the other incentives that are needed to wean themselves from a black-market economy. That again is part of the reconstruction effort. If there'd been a speedier input of money and incentives for farmers in this key area where poppies are grown on a large scale, you might not have stopped this year's crop but you would have stopped last year's crop. But now it's time to get ready for planting next year's crop, and there's still very little activity going on in the agricultural sector. So this could have been tackled on an emergency basis if there had been a serious investment in agriculture. Even if it couldn't be done across the country it could have been done in the key poppy areas.
Q: Before October 7, 2001, and the beginning of U.S. bombing campaign, I remember seeing signs in Urdu "Afghanistan Amreekon ka Kabirstan"--"Afghanistan is a graveyard of the Americans." I remember you predicting there would be fierce resistance to the U.S. onslaught. That simply didn't happen. Why not?
Rashid: What everyone underestimated was the acute unpopularity of the Taliban, even in the Pashtun areas. People like myself were saying the Taliban would be driven out very swiftly from the north of the country, but given that their main support base was in the Pashtun belt, there would be greater resistance there. That didn't happen. The Taliban had become deeply unpopular and were actually discarded by the Pashtun population almost as quickly as they were in the north. I don't see the Taliban coming back in any way.
Q: What's happening in the tribal areas of Pakistan bordering Afghanistan? There's been numerous reports that many Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters have taken refuge there.
Rashid: There's no doubt that the Al Qaeda have taken refuge not just in the tribal areas but also in Pakistan. We should remember that Al Qaeda had developed very close links to Pakistan over the last ten years, especially over the six years when the Taliban controlled Kabul. Some Pakistanis fought for the Taliban. Pakistani extremist groups provided infrastructural support to Al Qaeda. There was a coming and going of Al Qaeda militants and leaders between Afghanistan and Pakistan for several years. All that has really happened is that Al Qaeda has escaped from Afghanistan come into Pakistan, got in touch with their contacts and friends in these extremist groups, which then provided them with safe houses, cars, and not just in the border areas but also in the cities. Rooting out Al Qaeda in Pakistan now is where the main battle is being fought. And it's a very difficult one.
Q: Is Musharraf saying and doing one thing while his Inter-Services Intelligence is saying and doing something completely different?
Rashid: I don't think it's a problem of division within the Pakistani military. I think the real problem is that there has been some disingenuity by Musharraf himself. He is, for example, cracking down on Al Qaeda. Pakistan has delivered to the Americans over 300 hundred of the 900-plus people incarcerated in Guantanamo Bay. He's catching Al Qaeda. He's catching some of the extremist, sectarian groups, who have carried out the horrendous assassinations of Pakistani Christians and Westerners in recent months.
At the same time, he's backsliding on the pledges he's made to Pakistanis and to the West about containing the larger Islamic parties, which are equally important. The reason he's been backsliding on that is because they are involved in fighting in Kashmir, and the army needs these groups' support for the war in Kashmir and for confronting India. It's a mixed bag. Musharraf is walking a very fine line.
Q: The Bush Administration is focused on Iraq. The mantra is "regime change." The show is basically over in their view in Afghanistan. There will be a few mop-up operations but now we're off to new battlegrounds.
Rashid: It would be hugely detrimental for the Afghan people, because Afghanistan will then disappear from the radar screen and will not get noticed. It will become even less likely that Afghanistan will get the kind of funding and aid to revive society than it would otherwise. But the other really big strategic issue here is that the war on terrorism will take a back seat. There is no way the Americans are going to be able to carry out a full scale war against Iraq and at the same time maintain the same kind of pressure on the Al Qaeda network in countries as diverse as Indonesia, Philippines, and Pakistan, as well as in Europe. With the victory in Afghanistan, the Bush Administration is imagining that they can fight many wars, in many places, and win everywhere.
-- David Barsamian, director of Alternative Radio in Boulder, Colorado, is the author of "The Decline and Fall of Public Broadcasting" (South End Press).