Betraying Afghanistan, again

"Taliban" author Ahmed Rashid says the Bush administration is risking the success of its war on terror by scheming against Iraq's Saddam Hussein while Afghanistan is still in ruins.

By Anthony York
Published April 1, 2002 10:00PM (EST)

Long before Sept. 11, Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid was trying to warn the world of the dangers of Afghanistan and the ruling Taliban. His 1999 book, "Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia," was a cautionary tale about the new wave of Islamic fundamentalism that the movement represented, and the potential dangers it posed for the rest of Central Asia and the world.

Like New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, Rashid is convinced that Western engagement in Afghanistan and Central Asia is the answer to sustained peace in the region. While analysts like journalist Robert Kaplan advocate a more hands-off approach, Rashid argues that the war on terrorism cannot be fought simply with military power, but must also involve significant economic and diplomatic intervention. And he is alarmed at the United States' half-hearted commitment to that kind of thoroughgoing engagement in war-devastated Afghanistan.

Rashid is a correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review and London's Daily Telegraph. He is also co-founder of the newly created Open Media Fund for Afghanistan, which aims to rebuild professional local media in the wake of the Taliban's rule.

Salon met with Rashid here in Seattle, where he was promoting his new book, "Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia." As he drank tea and chain-smoked Dunhills, Rashid gave his assessment of the current situation in Afghanistan and aired his frustrations at the United States, which he criticized for vainly trying to marshal support for extending its war to Iraq while it has so much unfinished business in Afghanistan.

What has it been like for you to watch the world try to give itself a crash course in Afghanistan, which you've been covering for more than 20 years?

It's a kind of vindication, of sorts, except that it's on the back of such horrible circumstances, Sept. 11 and all of that. I wish these warnings had been heeded before. The Taliban book was a warning. OK, it didn't predict 9/11, but it did say if you leave Afghanistan to itself, it's going to be a disaster for the whole region.

You've been critical of America's handling of Afghanistan since the bombing stopped. What should the Americans be doing differently?

[U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld has reiterated every second day that the war is still on. Well, the war is over in Afghanistan. What we're left with now is a kind of mopping-up effort in a very small area of the country, which is basically two or three provinces in eastern Afghanistan out of a total of 32 provinces.

If you look at Operation Anaconda, the war zone was about 15 square miles. If the ordinary American saw it on a screen, you'd think that all of Afghanistan was still at war. I was in Kabul during Anaconda, and 95 percent of the population was totally unaffected. Yeah, that's where al-Qaida and Taliban are, and there's a threat there, no doubt, but the rest of the country is relatively peaceful. So what I'm trying to say is that the Americans, by insisting that the war is still on, are not allowing the other processes to take off.

The other problem is that other arms of the U.S. government should be involved in the policy -- the State Department, AID [the U.S. Agency for International Development], they're not in the decision-making process. The Pentagon is still making the policy. I think [Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul] Wolfowitz is basically running this policy, and he's taking a very hard line.

What's very disturbing to me, and I think to many Afghans, is that [Secretary of State Colin] Powell has not made a statement on Afghanistan in the last four or five weeks. The only statements of policy are coming from the Pentagon. Where is the State Department?

Doesn't some of that responsibility fall to Hamid Karzai's government?

I think the interim government is very frustrated because it's not being able to extend its power around the country. It can't do it on its own. It needs money and reconstruction; it needs security forces. It's a vicious circle. When I was in Kabul, I spent a lot of time with Hamid Karzai, and it was very clear that the only people who have any power or influence are the U.S. military. It's not the diplomats, it's the generals. What I'm saying is that the war was over basically by December; you should have brought other agencies of government into the decision-making milieu. But I think the same group of people who were making the decisions back in September and October are still making decisions.

Do you have any insight, on the American end, as to why that might be the case?

Yeah, I've had a lot of people coming to me from other agencies of the U.S. government who are extremely frustrated by their own policy, because they're not involved. I think the State Department is quite frustrated, because they do have expertise on Afghanistan and what should be done. I think AID is very frustrated, and American NGOs [nongovernmental agencies] that should be in there in a big way.

How dangerous is this for the United States and the world to allow this to continue?

It's extremely dangerous. In June, the Loya Jirga is going to meet. It means that for at least the next two months there has to be able to be a political process whereby people will choose [their representatives], through a kind of indirect election around the country. They need to do that in an atmosphere where they have security, where they're free to choose their representatives. Now at the moment, in many parts of the country, the warlords are dominating, there's little security, and the Loya Jirga is going to be the make-or-break. The whole credibility of the political process rests on the fact that the Loya Jirga has to be credibly representative of the Afghan people, because it's going to set up a new government. It's going to set up a transition government for two years, it's going to choose a head of state, it's going to set up a constitution-making committee. It's very important. These next two months are make-or-break.

The current government is not pretending to be representative. This was a U.N.-composed government. That will be an Afghan government. So it's very important that this whole process succeed. But at the moment, with this kind of emphasis on the war, as if that's the only thing going on, it's putting it all in jeopardy. The king has not even come back, basically because of the Americans. He was going to come back on the 23rd, but the Americans were saying there was a security situation. Well, look, he doesn't have trained bodyguards, and doesn't have neutral guys, but we knew the king was going back, back in December. We knew there was a problem; we should have addressed it three months ago.

Is the king's return really that important for the future of Afghanistan?

Oh, yes. There's an attempt to kind of control the environment. The king's return would unleash a whole, very emotional reaction by the Afghans that could speed up the whole political process. The king is an important symbol of unity. There's an enormous sense of nostalgia about the king. I wouldn't call him a political player, but it symbolizes a time when Afghanistan was at peace. I'm worried that the Americans are trying to control the environment to the detriment of the political process and the interim government.

How much of that is based on a fear of a Balkan-like situation, of unleashing ethnic rivalries in Afghanistan, and having those rivalries dominate the political process? Is that what the Americans are trying to keep a lid on?

I think so, but my assessment of the warlords right now outside Kabul is that there are two types of warlords. The warlords in the north and the west are former warlords who've come back, helped defeat the Taliban, but they don't have the power and loyalty that they had in the past. First of all, they were all defeated by the Taliban, they all fled the country. They've come back under the American umbrella, but they don't have that power and credibility. And I think it would be relatively easy to diminish their influence with all these other things I've talked about.

The other bunch of warlords are the ones in the south who've been armed and funded by the Americans directly, who have been used as the ground troops against al-Qaida. They're showing little loyalty to the interim government. They're unable to provide security to the U.N. and the NGOs in the south and east of the country, so people are asking what in the hell the Americans are doing. These are the American warlords. If the Americans are the ones who are going to provide security, at least a warlord in Kandahar should be bloody well told to behave. Control your troops from criminal activity in the city, and create an environment where NGOs and aid agencies can come. But there has been no effort to do that. Not even in areas like Kandahar where American troops are based, where American warlords are based, where these warlords owe their existence to the Americans.

This only emphasizes what I'm saying, that what is lacking at the moment is any kind of political and economic strategy. You can't have that if you have purely a war strategy which is based purely on threats from al-Qaida and Taliban.

So, essentially, it's the lack of nation-building that is the most dangerous factor in Afghanistan now?

The Bonn agreement, which set up the interim government, was essentially a partnership between, on the one hand, the international community, and on the other, the interim government. Both had several obligations. I was in Kabul 10 days ago, and what I'm seeing now is that the international community has not fulfilled its obligations, which were essentially to provide security for the political process and the reconstruction process. Although there are 4,800 European peacekeeping troops in Kabul, they have not been expanded to the five other major cities, and the Americans have basically said no. I think all the Europeans were clearly waiting for an American lead, or American permission, because Americans are running the war.

Now I'm not saying that Americans should be part of the peacekeeping, but they need to encourage the Europeans to go to the other cities. Now everybody's chickened out because the Americans are not on board.

But much of the U.S. reluctance to increase the peacekeeping force is coming from the hesitation of Turkey to take over control of ISAF. Isn't it important to appease the concerns of the only NATO country with a Muslim majority population which has peacekeepers on the ground in Afghanistan?

Well, I think the American reluctance is that they fear that these European peacekeepers in other cities will interfere with the war effort, the mopping up of al-Qaida, and secondly, my own sense is that they don't want interference. They have a kind of monopoly of power in Afghanistan, and they don't want interference from peacekeepers.

Is this a deal the Karzai government has made with the Americans?

No, the interim government has been pushing for peacekeepers all along. The peacekeepers will play an important role in the other cities. They will diminish the power of the warlords. They would allow the political process to pick up speed; they would allow reconstruction, the NGOs and the U.N. agencies to come. The problem is that outside Kabul, the security is not good enough for large-scale development and reconstruction. I think that's the first failure.

The second failure is that at the Tokyo conference in January, the international community pledged $4.5 billion for reconstruction aid, as opposed to humanitarian. None of this money has arrived yet. There is no reconstruction and no redevelopment going on. Even the rubble in Kabul hasn't been cleared. You have a huge poppy crop that is going to be harvested in April. There's no incentive for the farmer to grow anything else because he has no other seed. Poppy is the easiest thing.

Agriculture would help in the demobilization of the warlord armies. A lot of these kids want to go home, but they have nothing to go home to. You need to give them a package of incentives to go back to the farm. These kids haven't been paid for six months, some of them. If you give them an incentive -- seed, fertilizer, tools, whatever -- it would help.

The other thing that the lack of peacekeepers is doing is creating a vacuum in the provinces that's being filled once again by the neighboring countries. The Russians are back in northern Afghanistan, the Iranians are back in western Afghanistan. The whole purpose of Bonn was to demand that the neighbors do not interfere and allow the Afghans to settle their own problems. And they were the cause of the civil war for the last 10 years.

Is it important for the U.S. specifically to make a lasting commitment to Afghanistan, or can it mainly be handled by the rest of the international community?

I think U.S. commitment is very important. The war against terrorism cannot be won by a purely military strategy. It needs the stabilization of Afghanistan. Afghanistan has been the center of instability for Pakistan, for Central Asia -- for the whole region. Unless you have a credible government with the rule of law established in Afghanistan, which is able to offer its people reconstruction, you are not going to eliminate the threat. Al-Qaida can be regrouping all the time. So the U.S. commitment is very important.

It's more important in the long term, because a real U.S. commitment would send a very strong message throughout the Muslim world, that the U.S. doesn't just come in and bomb and then push off. Everybody there has serious doubts about U.S. commitment, because history teaches us that the U.S. comes in for a few weeks or a few months, carries out whatever limited agenda it has, and then leaves. It deserted Afghanistan in 1989, it's deserted Pakistan several times. I think you've got to have a serious U.S. commitment for at least the next year or so.

In your book "Taliban," you write a lot about the role that oil companies played in Afghanistan and the money they invested to build oil and gas pipelines that would run through the country. What role do you think they will play in the future of Afghanistan?

I don't think [oil] played a role after Sept. 11, I think that [the U.S.] response was genuinely because of terrorism. But certainly in the long term, especially the U.S. presence in Central Asia is probably going to be very important to securing pipeline routes, which the U.S. would back, as opposed to what the Russians or Chinese or the Iranians would want. And what we don't know is: Is the U.S. military presence in Central Asia going to be long-term or short-term? And I suspect it will be long-term.

I think it's far too early to start thinking about the pipeline again. I don't see any oil company, having been burned very badly once in Afghanistan, I don't think they're in any hurry to jump in until there's a credible government and stability.

What about Pakistan's role in the new Afghanistan?

There's a lot of pressure on [President] Musharraf to clamp down on the border where all these guys have been fleeing into Pakistan. I don't think the army has been doing enough, and I think there's a lot of frustration behind the scenes by the Americans that the Pakistan army has not sealed the border. I think there's a great deal more that Musharraf can do.

How thorough was Musharraf last fall in purging the ISI -- Inter-Services Intelligence -- of Taliban sympathizers?

I think those officers who were running the pro-Taliban policy have been removed, but I think these stories in the American press have been very exaggerated. You've not had a reorganization of the intelligence services to break the linkages and the sympathies they have with some of the militant groups in Pakistan.

There was a lot of talk about possible ISI links in the murder of Daniel Pearl, for example.

The murder of Danny Pearl and the arrest of Omar Saeed is very murky. Omar Saeed was held by the ISI for one week before he was released to the police. There's no explanation yet by the government as to what he was doing in ISI custody and what was talked about. And throughout that period, we were told that Danny Pearl was alive and well, and it is now very clear that Danny Pearl was killed almost immediately after he was picked up. So, I don't know what kind of pressure the Americans are putting on Musharraf, but I think the situation remains very murky.

How stable is the Musharraf government?

Well, the recent terrorist attacks in Pakistan -- the bombing of the church in Islamabad, the killing of Danny Pearl, the assassination of seven to 10 Pakistanis in Karachi -- have created a greater sense of insecurity, and the failure of the government to crack down on extremist groups, the failure of the government to arrest anyone responsible for these killings. In January, he banned five political parties, he arrested 2,000 militants -- they've all been freed. Not a single charge has been brought against these militant leaders, their parties -- nothing. The only people on trial at the moment are these Danny Pearl people.

I think he's nervous about making a full-scale crackdown.

Are these militants a real threat to the government of Pakistan?

They're a threat to the people of Pakistan, and they're certainly creating a huge sense of insecurity, particularly for liberal Pakistanis. Having failed to win popular support for a mass movement, they have stepped up acts of terrorism, bombings and assassinations. Musharraf is also in a dilemma. First, there's a fear of the backlash within the military itself if the crackdown is too harsh. The other big problem is the fact that the Indians have something like 600,000 troops on the border for the last two months. There's also a lot of Indian pressure for him to crack down. It's much more difficult for Musharraf to be seen to be bending to Indian demands than it is to be seen bending to American demands. And I think this Indian strategy is a huge mistake. It's putting enormous pressure on Musharraf that he can't respond to, because if he does, there will be public and military resistance.

Is there any sign that the U.S. or any other country may try to play a more active role in resolving the conflict between India and Pakistan over Kashmir?

My own feeling is that this is an ideal moment. This is an incredible opportunity to bring in the West to help broker a peace settlement in Kashmir. We're never going to get this opportunity again. There's total U.S. engagement with both countries, there's so much focus from the West on both countries, this is a moment that we should seize.

There was speculation a couple of months ago that the Americans may appoint a special envoy to Kashmir, but that hasn't happened. I think it would be a very good thing if they did. It would show both countries that the U.S. is concerned and that they're determined to try to help both countries resolve this problem.

But it seems as though the Americans are moving on to Baghdad.

I don't think there's any international support for bombing Iraq. This Cheney trip to the Middle East, he came back completely empty-handed. He went to try to get support for Iraq, everybody said, "Take care of Israel and Palestine." How can any Muslim regime right now with this Mideast crisis going on, how can any Muslim country support another American attack on a Muslim country? It's inconceivable.

Is the United States cooperating at all with Iran in Afghanistan?

Afghanistan has been the one area where there's been continuous contact between Americans and the Iranians for the last four or five years, because they both had a common interest in knocking out the Taliban. Behind the scenes, there was a dialogue going on, there were meetings, and it was very productive. It helped contain the Taliban movement.

But now, the "axis of evil" has lumped the hard-liners and moderates into one camp, and condemned all of them, which was very wrong. It was a disaster. [Iranian President Mohammad] Khatami was trying to build bridges with the Americans, and because of "axis of evil," he was forced to make a statement supporting the hard-liners. And the hard-liners turned around and said, Look, we always told you the Americans are evil and anti-Islam.

The axis of evil speech has frozen the behind-the-scenes dialogue that was going on. The Iranians supported the war. They did not object to U.S. bombing near the Iranian border. They supported the Bonn process. American diplomats and Iranian diplomats were working very closely together in Bonn to set up this interim government, and all that seems to have gone out the window.

Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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