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Afghanistan: Pakistani Journalist Criticizes Nation Building In South-Central Asia

Best-selling Pakistani author and journalist Ahmed Rashid's new book, "Descent Into Chaos: The United States and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia," is a comprehensive look at the South-Central Asian region in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States.

Rashid uses field reports and insight into the power corridors of Washington and Europe to present a critical appraisal of the post-2001 developments in the region. The book shows why Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia are vital to winning the global struggle against the Islamist insurgents led by Al-Qaeda.

RFE/RL correspondent Abubakar Siddique spoke with Rashid during a promotional tour in the United States to ask him about some of the conclusions in his book.

RFE/RL: In your new book, "Descent into Chaos," you chronicle the failure of U.S. efforts in South-Central Asia post-9/11. What, in your opinion, have been the major failures of U.S. policy and international engagement in the region?

Ahmed Rashid: I think the major distraction was the war in Iraq. That literally within weeks of concluding the war in Afghanistan in 2001, the Americans had already decided to invade Iraq and had pulled out some of their best resources and facilities from Afghanistan....

The second factor was that there was no plan to rebuild and reconstruct the country. I think the Afghan people offered the international forces a huge window of opportunity to do so. [They] welcomed foreign forces, welcomed foreign reconstruction but the Americans had no intention to do so, again partly because of Iraq.

Thirdly, there was no plan as to what to do with the Taliban, even though the U.S. had a very narrow agenda of trying to capture and kill Al-Qaeda.... And as a consequence they [the Taliban] were picked up by Pakistan and reinserted into the battle two years later.

RFE/RL: Why has the international community failed to convince the Pakistani establishment -- which is dominated by its military -- that a peaceful, stable Afghanistan is in its best interests, as your book maintains that Pakistan is still supporting the Taliban insurgency?

Rashid: I think the real issue was that the U.S. refused to recognize this issue. The U.S. agenda for Afghanistan and Pakistan was that General [Pervez] Musharraf should be involved in catching as many Al-Qaeda -- that is the Arab component of the Al-Qaeda leaders -- as possible. They were not interested in [dealing with] the Taliban...and there was no real pressure on the Pakistanis to end their support for the Taliban.

RFE/RL: One of the chapters in your book is called "The One Billion Dollar Warlords." Why do you think the empowering of the anti-Taliban warlords was a bad strategy -- after all they were instrumental in overthrowing the Taliban?

Rashid: Once the Taliban were overthrown, it was ridiculous to assume that the public would welcome the same warlords who had raped and pillaged and stolen from them in the 1990s. And this has helped create the civil war inside [Afghanistan]. It was ridiculous to assume that the public would support them. Because the U.S. got immediately bogged down in Iraq, they thought the easiest way to keep law and order in the provinces would be to have a weak government in the center, which was headed by Hamid Karzai. And the other was to empower the warlords in the countryside, thinking that these warlords will keep law and order and keep the peace. On the contrary, these warlords broke law and order and broke the peace and, in fact, even gave shelter to Taliban and Al-Qaeda and harassed the local population.

RFE/RL: You maintain that seven years after the overthrow of the Taliban, there still is no coordinated international antidrug policy. Why is that and what needs to be done to correct it?

Rashid: The bottom line [is that] the Americans have been very reluctant to use the U.S. military in any capacity whatsoever. Now, the argument was that we can understand that the Americans or NATO would not use their soldiers to carry out eradication but -- at least very early on -- they were the only forces in the country who could have carried out interdiction....

Secondly, I think, there was a very deep division between the Americans and the British over drugs policy. The Americans have talked frequently about spraying the poppy fields and such things. The British and other Europeans are very much against that, saying that it would only antagonize the farmers.

RFE/RL: At the recent Paris donors' conference, the international community pledged $21 billion for Afghanistan's reconstruction. Do you see economic reconstruction being stepped up in Afghanistan?

Rashid: First of all, we really don't know how much of this is new funding and how much of this is old funding -- money that has been reissued again. But I think more important than that is even to see what kind of commitments the Afghan government have given to the international community to deal with the issues that are under their control. And, in particular, I will single out drugs, corruption, and better governance. And I think these are what has been the real plea of the Afghan people that the government should improve these topics.

RFE/RL: In a bold attack on June 13, hundreds of Taliban prisoners were freed from the Kandahar prison, do you think that the Taliban and Al-Qaeda insurgency is now winning in Afghanistan?

Rashid: I wouldn't say it's winning. But it's certainly showing -- unlike what the Americans are saying -- it is certainly showing a huge capacity to mount ever more sophisticated attacks.... [The Taliban] are capable now of mounting very sophisticated attacks, which cause immense embarrassment.... [The Taliban] want to embarrass these NATO allies, which will, in turn create opposition at home for these NATO governments. The Taliban want to increase sufficient opposition so that finally these foreign troops are pulled out.

RFE/RL: Do you see peaceful democratic presidential elections in Afghanistan next year? Do you see President Karzai participating and winning those elections even though he dislikes political parties and has so far failed to organize one?

Rashid: I was with President Karzai about 10 days ago and he assured me that he would be standing in the elections. But once again he is adamant that he will not have political parties. He will not set up a political party himself and he didn't seem to really have an agenda for the next 18 months as to when and why and how he was going to win back public support. Unless the military situation improves, I don't think the country can afford an election....

I think the second issue is, how do you organize the mechanics of the elections? It was very difficult in 2004 when there was relative peace across the country.... And thirdly, I think, the issue is that there will be some very strong opposition candidates standing against Karzai and that lobbying has already started in Kabul.

RFE/RL: Going back to Pakistan, your book is highly critical of Pakistan's Afghan policy. Given the raging Taliban insurgency in Pakistan, do you see Pakistan a victor or a victim after its quarter century of deep engagement in Afghan affairs?

Rashid: I don't think Pakistan has gained anything by this engagement. It has, in fact, created a blowback of now huge proportions where we have our own Taliban problem, where Talibanization is taking place in the Northwest Frontier Province. The latest reports are that Pakistani Taliban militias are now surrounding Peshawar [the capital of the Northwest Frontier Province] and are even beginning to enter Peshawar. And the government is having to organize a defense of Peshawar, which is an extraordinary situation. It is far worse, for example, than what is happening in Afghanistan.... The blowback of drugs, of guns, of extremism, the suicide bombings we have had. All this has come around because of the military's covert support to the Afghan Taliban leadership and giving them sanctuaries back in 2001.

RFE/RL: On June 11, a U.S. air strike killed 11 Pakistani military soldiers inside Pakistani tribal areas. Do you see the war in Afghanistan now moving to Pakistani borderlands where the western coalition in Afghanistan believes Taliban and Al-Qaeda has sanctuaries?

Rashid: There is a very massive breakdown between the U.S. and the Pakistani military. I think talks between these two have failed.... Whatever the details are of this clash. We really don't know what happened, there are many versions. But I think the real issue was that the Americans are clearly sending a very tough message to the Pakistanis.

RFE/RL: What is your assessment of the ongoing efforts in Pakistan to conclude peace deals with the Taliban?

Rashid: I don't think these efforts are successful. I don't think these efforts can work because, simply, the Taliban are clearly using these efforts to rebuild their organization and further "Talibanize" the region. Every time there is a peace deal, what we get is that the Taliban are left alone in their region and they are left alone to reorganize themselves and to expand their area of influence.

RFE/RL: Finally, given the discontent with authoritarian rule in Central Asia: do you see it moving towards a democratic transition in the near future?

Rashid: Well, there is a lot of progress in some areas of Central Asia. But, by and large, the leaders are still dictatorial, they are authoritarian. The expected political and economic reforms that should have been carried out after 9/11 and which -- I think, the people of Central Asia were hoping would be carried out -- was never done.

So we really do have quite a grim situation in Central Asia. And of course, in midst of this, you have much worse poverty than ever before. You have much greater repression and you really don't have any steps forward as far as the democratization is concerned.


Copyright (c) 2008. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org

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