Conversation with Ahmed Rashid.
Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley. 3/26/02
Welcome to Berkeley.
Thanks a lot.
Where were you born and raised?
I was born in Ravapindi in Northern Pakistan. After the Second World War, my family was based some of the time in Pakistan and some of the time in London. So I grew up in both places. In the fifties, I had, if you like, quite a cosmopolitan life and education. And then, subsequently, I went to college in Pakistan, and then went to university at Cambridge.
How did your parents shape your character, do you think, in retrospect?
I dedicate the Taliban book to my mother because she was an incredibly inquisitive person who paid attention to absolutely everything. She was a very traditional Indian Muslim woman, grew up in British India. But she had incredible curiosity about everything, and while we were kids, she used to take us on these wild trips, even without very much money. We were sleeping in the car, I remember, as kids, traveling and camping in Europe. We drove once from London to Karachi in the sixties with her. She was just a very adventurous person.
My father was the more stabilizing influence, if you like, in the family.
Was there a discussion of politics and current events and world affairs at the dinner table?
Yes, always. You know, Pakistan — I don’t think any society was more politicized than Pakistan, because we had been through so many traumas and so much political upheaval and unrest. When Pakistanis get together, the first thing they talk about is politics at home and what’s going on. So this is an incredibly politicized society and people.
Where were you educated?
I went to college in India and in Pakistan, and then got my degree from Cambridge. I was at Cambridge in 1968, during the anti- Vietnam War movement. I learned a lot about Berkeley, and knew about a lot that was going on here.
How did the sixties affect you, do you think, in retrospect?
Well, certainly, it radicalized me very much. The experience is there. I was [also] in Paris in ’68. But, really, Pakistanis in particular were very radicalized from ’68 to ’70 because of the war in Bangladesh, which was then East Pakistan. This had a very traumatic effect on Pakistani leftists, on liberals, because the military conducted this war in a particularly brutal fashion, killing tens of thousands of Bengalis, East Pakistanis. When Bangladesh became independent and the army was defeated, there was a major political upheaval in Pakistan. So, you know, that was a period of enormous political ferment in Pakistan, where the left was very strong at that time.
2-Being a Journalist in Central Asia
I’m curious, with this background, why did you choose journalism?
Well, it was by accident in many respects. I was already interested in ethnicity, and the ethnic groups in Pakistan. I had never did a Ph.D. or anything like that, but I used to read and study a lot. And by chance, I was in Kabul when the first coup took place, the Communist coup in April of 1978. I came back to Pakistan and I wrote a few pieces for Pakistani newspapers about what was going on. And then I was in Kabul when the Russians came in. I went back to London, and I was with several photographers who had pictures of the Soviet invasion, but didn’t have the stories to go with the pictures, and they wanted to sell them to the British press. So they asked me to write a few stories. I knew everyone in Kabul; I knew they had gone Communist, I had met the Soviets, purely out of curiosity and interest rather than journalism. So I started writing.
I stayed on in London for about three years, actually, and I was snapped up by everyone, because at that time, it was a huge story, of course — the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan — but nobody really knew what the hell was going on. So I brought a kind of expertise, and I knew who all the players were. There was a lot of factionalism going on at that time, and I knew which faction was trying to do what. So I started writing very extensively for the British press, the Financial Times, The Guardian, some of these Middle East magazines.
I moved back to Pakistan in ’82, and got married. And then we both moved back, and I started doing full-time journalism.
Let’s talk a minute about journalism. Is it hard for you to write? Does writing come easily to you?
The day-to-day journalism that I do comes pretty easily. Some of the longer pieces, the essays that I do or the analyses that I do, that takes more of an effort. And, certainly, writing books takes a great deal of effort. It’s extremely difficult in this profession; to write a book is very different from writing an 800-word story. You’ve got to discipline yourself, you have to do the daily story, which is something completely different, but then at the same time, perhaps you’re writing a book or writing a long essay, which requires silence and time, and thinking and reading and looking at your notes and things like that. So, it’s two very different things.
I notice that history is a subject that you find very important as you unravel these current events. Tell us about navigating between research that you might do in a library versus on-the-spot reporting.
My first book came out in ’94. It was called A Resurgence of Central Asia. It was the first book on Central Asia to come out after the breakup of the Soviet Union. I had been traveling to Central Asia; I had no clue of the history. There was very little at that time in English on Central Asia. You had this whole Soviet school in America and all over, but nobody covered Central Asia. I didn’t speak Russian or any of the local languages. I was having to read books from the twenties and thirties and forties that I got in second-hand book shops. I started reading very extensively on history then.
But I’m fascinated with all academic disciplines. I read anthropology, I read history, I read economics. And I try to have a multidisciplinary approach in my books, where I’m looking at social and economic and cultural issues along with the politics and the investigative journalism side, so that it gives you more depth, a greater richness, and adds to the unfolding of these dramas, if you like.
3-Islam in Central Asia: Soviet Legacy
Let’s talk a little about Islam. Your new book is called Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia. One of the important points that emerges is that where Islam finds itself today is just one of several possible trajectories that in an earlier period could have led to a different path. Tell us a little about Islam and those possibilities for more pluralism or a different perspective in Islam on the world and relations with the West.
One of the tragedies of the recent era has been in the post-Soviet breakup. There was an Islamic revival around the world, and there were many triggers to it.
There was the defeat of the Soviets in Afghanistan, there was a general revival in Islamic culture, and people wanting to know about religion. And the Gulf War, for example, in ’91, was a big trigger also. But Muslims regimes failed to understand what was going on below the surface.
Unfortunately, most Muslim regimes in the Arab world and in Asia have been very autocratic. They didn’t grasp the significance of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the new world that was very swiftly emerging. There had to be a more pluralistic approach, there had to be democratization, a freer press, and a free academia to absorb all these new currents that were coming from outside, and also to absorb the Islamic revival, which was taking on many shapes and forms, including the extremist form that we saw in the early nineties, for example: the civil war in Algeria, the first Palestinian Intifada, the war in Chechnya. There was a very genuine intellectual revival in Islam, which was extremely positive and should have been taken on board by these regimes as a part of the opening up of these political systems. But none of this happened.
If you look at the region that I cover — Pakistan, Afghanistan — the regimes in Pakistan failed to understand the significance of the collapse of the Soviet Union and all these new currents. The Central Asian regimes which came into being in ’91 completely misunderstood, and, in fact, tried to suppress all the new currents that were coming up, because they still had the mentality of the Sovietized bureaucracy.
One thing that emerges throughout your book is this interplay, this dynamic between external and internal forces. So let’s go back a little in history. The Soviet Union in its control of Central Asia set in place a number of the regimes that would contribute to this set of problems. Tell us a little about the conduct of Soviet power in Central Asia that isolated Islam in that part of the world from the rest of Islam, on the one hand, and put in place regimes that were not susceptible to the democratic tendencies that they should have been responsive to after the fall of the Soviet Union.
There were two or three crucial mistakes from the Soviet period, which we’re still living with in Central Asia. The first one is that Stalin designated five ethnic groups as the five major nationalities of Central Asia. Central Asia has something like a hundred ethnic groups. And he made nations out of these ethnic groups — so, the Uzbeks were given Uzbekistan, the Kazaks were given Kazakhstan. But you know, Central Asia was an amalgam of tribes, clans, ethnic groups, principalities. Stalin created these ethnic divisions, and then gave them a very falsified history, which, of course, was a Sovietized history. Their “history” had nothing to do with their own real history.
Parallel to this, of course, he completely suppressed Islam. Religion was not allowed. Islam was very much part of their history and tradition and culture; by suppressing Islam, he cut them off from their past completely. And also, of course, suppressed indigenous culture and tradition that was still inherent there. Fortunately, it’s very clear now that there was a significant underground Islam that carried on throughout the seventy years of Soviet rule. But, certainly, when Central Asia emerged in ’91 of five independent states, the majority of the population knew very little about Islam and their history.
The third important aspect was that the Soviets delayed, for as long as possible, the creation of an indigenous local elite in Central Asia. So Central Asia, right up to the fifties, was, in fact, ruled by White Russia rather than the local elite. And so finally, in the fifties and sixties, you get this local elite, Uzbek Communist elite, Turkman, the Tajeks, who were extremely isolated, cut off, highly bureaucratized, and very much in debt to Moscow for just having been allowed to come up. So this elite was even, in my opinion, far more backward. And, of course, this elite is still ruling today, because there have been no leadership changes in Central Asia. This elite was far more backward than the kind of movements that were taking place in the Soviet Communist Party in Russia.
You write in your new book, “The genius of early Muslim Arab civilization was its multicultural, multi-religious, and multiethnic diversity. The stunning and numerous state failures that abound in the Muslim world today are because that original path, that intention and inspiration, has been abandoned either in favor of a brute or a narrow interpretation of the theology.” So in a way, although this is a statement about a broader set of regimes, it reflects a perversion of what might have been.
Well, certainly. One of the cultural tragedies is that the fundamentalist parties today do not study history. It’s not a subject in the madrasas, in the religious schools. They don’t know about their own history. They don’t know about the Islamic culture in Spain — the Muslims ruled Spain for nine hundred years, alongside Jews and Christians, and built the most magnificent monuments which are standing today. Or the history of multicultural, multiethnic Muslim empires that ruled in North Africa, and in the Middle East, and even in South Asia, of course. If you look at the Moguls, who ruled India for four hundred years, they came out of Central Asia. They brought with them a Central Asian culture, the culture of Afghanistan and Persia; lived with Hindus and mixed with Hindus and Farsis, Buddhists, and other religions sects in India, ruled over them. This is the legacy specifically of South Asia. Unfortunately, the fundamentalist groups in the recent twenty or thirty years have failed to grasp the diversity, because they don’t study this [history].
Now, as we go back again to the effect, the consequences of what the external actors do, the invasion by the Soviet Union of Afghanistan was a pivotal turning point in effecting the radicalization of some sectors of Islamic society in the light of this history. Tell us a little about the consequences of the Soviet invasion and the American response as a factor in creating this witch’s brew that we now live with.
The response to the Soviet invasion was, of course, then countered by the American aid to the Afghan Mujahadeen, with the support of Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and dozens of other countries. But essentially, what the U.S. launched in Afghanistan was a jihad. The Pakistani, the American, and the Saudi intelligence services were all joined together in bringing into Afghanistan thousands of militants from all over the Islamic world. At that time the American aid was simply to show that the whole Islamic world was resisting the Soviet invasion. But, essentially, they brought together these jihadi groups. And naturally, the militants who arrived to fight in Afghanistan from the Arab world, from all over, came from the most militant groups in this part of the world.
Now, many of these Muslim regimes also saw this a good way to resolve their internal tensions and problems by sending these militants out; you know: “Go and fight in Afghanistan, don’t bother us here at home.” That, of course, created the roots for al Qaeda and bin Laden, and even the Taliban, and for the subsequent upheavals that have occurred in Central Asia, even for the militants in Central Asia. Because Central Asians came in the 1980s also, to fight in Afghanistan, and linked up with all sorts of Arab groups and Pakistani groups. So that legacy is what the world today is faced with.
4-Islam in Central Asia: Foreign Intervention and Fundamentalism.
Let’s explore this a little more. [Certain] regimes, like the regime in Saudi Arabia and the regime in Pakistan — because of, in retrospect, very narrow definitions of their own national interests — actually fueled this fire. Let’s talk, for example, about Pakistan. It was the key agent, through its intelligence services, for funneling American money to the Mujahadeen. What was the foreign policy goal in doing that?
The foreign policy goal, first of all, was to get support from the United States and the Western world, which came a lot to Pakistan. But the other thing was that this was seen by the military, because this was a period of military rule under General Zia, as an expansion of its influence inside Afghanistan for the first time. Secondly, the military wanted what was termed at that time “strategic depth” vis-à-vis India — India being the long-term enemy of Pakistan. Having a friendly Mujahadeen government in Kabul would give the military strategic depth — which I think was a completely fallacious argument, because Afghanistan does not give Pakistan any kind of strategic depth in the real sense, because it was a devastated country.
But almost immediately after the end of the Afghan War and the withdrawal of the Soviets, the war in Kashmir begins. The Kashmir insurgency starts against India; Pakistan, and Pakistani groups first start going in and helping the Kashmirians. So almost immediately, a lot of these Mujahadeen, who were funded and supported by the Pakistani military, move form Afghanistan to Kashmir. This, of course, creates a vast upheaval inside of Pakistan, because then you have recruitment. The whole madrasa culture, the religious school culture, takes off, and you have these militants training in these madrasas to fight wars. And then, of course, it expands. You have Pakistanis fighting in Chechnya, in Bosnia, all around the world.
The military fuels this simply because it believes that this is the answer to India. This is the way we can keep the Indians bogged down in Kashmir, and the military can also extend its influence around the Western world.
And it’s not just the Pakistanis that get implicated in this way, it’s also the Saudis. Tell us a little about what the Saudi goals were as they were confronted with this vast sea of change in Central Asia and in Afghanistan.
The Saudis, since the time of King Faisal in the seventies, have had a very aggressive policy of exporting Wahhabism. Wahhabism is a Sunni sect, which is the state religion, if you like, of Saudi Arabia. It’s a particularly austere, conservative interpretation of Islam, and it’s not very popular in many areas of the world, particularly in South Asia. But the Saudis use a lot of their money, the oil money that was coming, to export this through the foundations, through the royal family. As part of their foreign policy, they fund madrasas, mosques, all sorts of scholarships to Saudi Arabia. This was extremely detrimental, because basically, Saudis were exporting Wahhabism, but they could not control the end results of what these Wahhabis were doing in Central Asia or Afghanistan or in South Asia. Many of these Saudi-funded Wahhabi groups, which the Saudis considered to be under their control, actually then became al Qaeda, and became these extremist groups.
The other aspect of this was that Saudi Arabia was in competition with Iran. Iran was also aggressively exporting a revolutionary Islam, but the Shia interpretation of Islam. So the Saudis were justifying their Wahhabi exports, if you like, as a means to counter the influence of Shiaism in Iran.
What you then get is a dynamic between these very narrow regimes in Central Asia responding to the penetration by these religious fanatics from other parts of the Islamic world.
Exactly. After independence came in 1991, Central Asia was viewed by many of these groups, especially these groups who had just been fighting in Afghanistan, as kind of virgin territory. Here was a Muslim population, who, according to them, knew nothing about Islam. And now we can go in with our money and our influence and our particular sectarian creed, whatever it may be — Wahhabism, Deobandism — and we can try to convert these people to our creed, to our sect, to our beliefs, when Central Asia, essentially, is 90 percent Sunni Muslim. Central Asia has never been ridden with sectarian divisions within the Islamic fold. But what happens is that these groups go in, they create lobbies and support inside Central Asia. These groups are from Pakistan, from Afghanistan, from Saudi Arabia; and the regime reaction, of course, is to crack down very viciously. But the regime does not put in place a process which offers people a political alternative — democratization, economic reform, modernization. So the regime cracks down on these groups, but it also cracks down on everything else also. And so obviously what happens is, when no political freedoms are allowed, the dissidents go underground. When you are underground, you become radicalized, and because the major influences around Central Asia were all radical Islam, the groups then become Islamic radicals.
It was very interesting. I met in 1991 many of the secular democratic groups in Central Asia who wanted to go the way the Baltic republics were going, or like Russia was moving — liberals, democrats, who wanted human rights, freedoms, parliament, free elections, etc. Nobody lasted more than a year. They were all crushed. So the whole tendency then for the opposition in Central Asia was to become Islamicized.
5-Fundamentalism versus Traditional Islam
In the middle of all of this, help us understand what the Taliban was and how they came to take over what had become an empty shell of a state.
Exactly. Afghanistan had become a failed stated, it was an empty shell. And it was relatively easy for one particular group, who was well organized, well funded, and had certain aims, to try and take over the country, which is, of course, what the Taliban did. But the Taliban popularity in the beginning was based on the fact that they didn’t want to seize power. There has been an evolution with the Taliban.
Yes, they were very conservative and very religious-minded in their personal practices, but they didn’t have ambitions to rule the country and to impose their writ on the whole country. And that made them popular in the beginning, because they were seen as bringing an end to the warlordism. What they said was, “We will cleanse the country of the warlords, we will disarm the population, and then we will call our elders, and they will have a meeting, and they will set up a government.”
Well, by ’96, there was a group in the Taliban which was much more ideological, who [developed] the ambition to rule Afghanistan. Their ambition was to conquer the whole country and rule it. And then, of course, they linked up with bin Laden, and there was a re-ideologizing that took place, and the Taliban got introduced to this global jihad phenomenon, and gave bin Laden all these facilities and bases, and allowed him to virtually take over the running of the country, almost.
So there was an evolution of the Taliban. It was a very particular phenomenon that could have gone in another direction, if certain things had not happened.
One of the tensions that you talk about in Islam is the local versus international, provincial versus cosmopolitan. And you’re suggesting in your new book that what you get is a global jihad without a programmatic content, without a vision of what a future Islamic state would look like. Explore that a little with us.
The history of Islamic fundamentalism as an alternative to British imperialism and the whole colonial era was very rich in the 1920s and 30s, and especially in the Middle East, with the creation of an Islamic state. There was a very rich debate about this. These groups in the Middle East, and then in India (British India at that time), explored the idea of how an Islamic state would run — Islamic economics, the treatment of minority groups, the treatment of women, education — all these major issues.
Now, during the war in Afghanistan and events elsewhere in the Muslim world, you get a completely new generation coming up who are not rooted at all in the history of Islam and Islamic fundamentalism in the twentieth century. Who are not rooted at all in the wars of liberation against colonialism, which the earlier Islamic fundamentalists were rooted in. All you get is a kind of blind hatred against the West, against the Americans. But primarily what drives them is a hatred for their own regimes. Because they don’t have this intellectual background, they are not Islamic scholars, they are not historians, they have very little knowledge about what has gone on in the last one hundred years, they have a kind of blind faith that toppling “our” regime — the Saudi regime, the Pakistani regime, whatever — toppling “our” regime and bringing in sharia, Islamic law, will automatically resolve all the problems of the country.
[But] the evidence is there already: Iran failed. The Iranian Revolution wanted to do just that, and it failed. The Taliban wanted to do it in Afghanistan, and they failed, too. There’s no intellectual interest in what are they going to replace their regimes with? What are they going to offer the people? I think that’s why they remain on the extreme terrorist fringe of society. They never develop into mass parties, you know. Their action is militant, is to topple. It’s not to build or create.
Let’s take three leaders whom you talk about from this Islamic fundamentalist side. I’m talking here about Juma Namangani, Osama bin Laden, and mullah Muhammad Omar. Are there similarities between them? If so, what are they? What are the differences? How do they fit into the picture that we’ve been talking about?
They fit very seriously into this idea of global jihad, the idea that you can destroy but you don’t have to build, and you don’t have to offer an alternative to people about society and justice and state-building. All three, for example, are extremely secretive. They are not interviewed. They are not photographed. There is not any kind of intellectual tradition amongst them. They don’t have party manifesto. They don’t offer people the alternative as to what they hope to achieve once the regimes are toppled. Essentially, it’s the secrecy around these movements and the extreme difficulty of getting access to the leadership of these movements that makes them very negative forces even within the Islamic tradition. Because Islam is not about secrecy and evasion and avoiding the interview or avoiding giving lectures. The whole history of Islamic scholarship and Islamic empire-building, right from the Middle Ages, is about debate and discussion. The hallmark of the madrasa culture is debate and discussion, and then arriving at the consensus — ijtihad. The madrasas are supposed to teach the students all the various interpretations of Islam, and then it is the job of the teacher to build a consensus within the classroom about where do you think now we should kind of be heading, and what should be our interpretation of Islam in this era for these times.
But all that is missing from these three men. And in that sense, they’re identical.
In this context, the word “jihad” takes on an entirely different meaning, is that correct?
Yes. Jihad is one tenet of Islam. It’s a very important tenet, but it’s one of the five major tenets of Islam. What the global jihadists do, or what these three figures do, is to elevate jihad to be the only tenet of Islam, and the most important tenet of Islam. Well, you know, prayer, charity, performing the Hajj — there are all sorts of other things that Muslims have to do. So the first issue is that.
The second issue is that in the Koran, it says very clearly that there are two sides to jihad. There is certainly a side where Muslims have to defend themselves if they’re attacked by unbelievers, which is, if you like, the militant side of Islam. But that is what the prophet Mohammed called the lesser jihad. The greater jihad is the improvement of self and the improvement of community. As in all great religions, Islam has an enormous legacy of how do you become a better human being, how do you become an asset to society, how do you help other people. It’s just like the Christian tradition, the Buddhist tradition, the Jewish tradition of religion, that religion is supposed to be about building community and building civil society, and improving yourself in the process while you worship God. The greater jihad is all about that. But, of course, that is totally ignored by these figures.
This perversion of jihad, are there any similarities with the international Communist Party, in terms of the organization format, in terms of its emphasis on secrecy and cells and so on?
Certainly, in the twenties and thirties, the Islamic fundamentalist movement took a lot, not from the ideology, but from the organizational capabilities and abilities of the Communists in Russia, Eastern Europe, and even the Muslim world. If you read all the scholars of, for example, the Hawan movement in Egypt in the twenties and thirties, and Sayyid A’la Maududi, who headed the Jamaat Islami in British India in the forties, they had all read Lenin. They were admirers of Lenin, in the sense that they had all read his very famous tract, What is To Be Done? where, in 1903, I think, he sets out how the Communist system is supposed to be organized in cells, and how it can propagate, and all the rest of it. So there was certainly an influence in that element, yes.
6-U.S. Foreign Policy
Let’s talk a little about U.S. foreign policy as it relates to all of these issues. Reading your book, I made the following notation: from covert policy to no policy, to, today, the military policy. That’s my shorthand. Comment on that, and also, try to help us understand what has been our failure in the region, if any.
Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, there has been overall a trend towards isolation. The Bill Clinton administration intervened in the world only under extreme pressure, either domestic pressure or international pressure. There was really no understanding of what was going on, or a particular interest in what was going on in the outside world, and, of course, even less of an interest in the Muslim world. I think the U.S. just completely missed out on this whole Islamic revival, trying to get these Muslim regimes — through aid, through pressure, through other means — to do the right thing. And, of course, the chickens have come home to roost, as they say.
Right now, since September 11th, the U.S. — for example, in Afghanistan and even in Central Asia — has been driven too heavily by the defense planners, by the Pentagon, by the military. Clearly, there was a period of time during the [U.S.] war in Afghanistan, when the military had to be in the driving seat. But what you need in this region now is a very multidimensional policy of state building of nation building, and other branches of the government have to come into this — the State Department, the Agency for International Development, the information services, the Treasury, even.
I do believe that the war in Afghanistan is now over. Yes, there’s a mopping-up operation in a very small area of Afghanistan, but this mopping-up operation does not affect 95 percent of the population in the country, even though we are seeing these mopping-up operations carried out on CNN and on the big screen, because American troops are on the ground for the first time. But essentially, you have to bring this into perspective, that this is a mopping-up operation in ten or twenty or fifty square miles of territory.
What is needed now are other elements of U.S. government to come into the driving seat, to support the interim government for reconstruction of Afghanistan, to try and ease the political tensions inside the country. The same is needed in Central Asia, where the Americans now have bases; again, it’s a military-driven policy. What is needed here is much greater pressure, combined with incentives. A policy of carrot and stick with the Central Asian regime: “We will help you militarily deal with the threat to your faith, but you have to carry out certain reform agendas. Our aid will be limited or subjugated to certain conditionalities. We want a timetable from you; please carry out certain reforms.”
So I think, again, what is needed is a much broader, multidimensional strategy by all the arms of the U.S. government, in order to achieve the primary aim of not only eliminating terrorism, but also stabilizing this region.
One of the problems with American foreign policy is our unilateralist bent. It would seem in this part of the world, where so many external actors have an interest and see this area as a means to the ends of those interests, that there needs to be some sort of understanding that many interests are engaged, and that they have to be brought in. What is the best strategy for doing that?
One of the greatest tragedies of Afghanistan, and, of course, why the civil war has continued for so long, is because of outside interference of all the neighboring countries.
Which goes back in history.
Yes, of course, because Afghanistan is landlocked, it has always been a very fragile state. The Afghans have always had to balance off Russia, India, Pakistan, Iran, the Gulf states. The intervention of these neighbors has been hugely detrimental to Afghanistan. The U.S. has publicly taken a position against any kind of neighborhood intervention inside Afghanistan, and this is absolutely vital. But also, [the U.S. must] work with the neighbors. Now, all the neighbors have interests. You can’t pretend that these interests don’t exist, and you can’t just crush them and push them down, otherwise, they will reemerge once the U.S. gets out of the region. So the U.S. has to work with the neighbors. And then it has to work with the coalition against terrorism, which, of course, includes the whole world, basically, but particularly the Europeans.
I can understand the U.S. desire to carry out the military campaign in a unilateral way, so as not to be interfered with, if you like, by other armies and other chains of command, or the United Nations or whatever. But in the postwar scenario, when it comes to reconstruction and development, and ensuring stability and security so that the political process in Afghanistan can begin and a genuine recognized government can emerge, it’s absolutely essential that the U.S. work with all the coalition partners.
What about your native country, Pakistan. Can it change itself, given the road it’s gone down during this period of your reporting? It seems to have gone down a road which led to a dead end.
Pakistan has come a long way since September the 11th, but it has not come far enough, I think. The fact is that there is a military regime in Pakistan — they did a U-turn after September the 11th. They were supporting the Taliban; they then dumped the Taliban. But there was a certain logic that followed that. You dump the Taliban under this huge American pressure. The military really had no choice in the matter. But once it had taken that decision, any Pakistani saw that the military now had to also curb domestic extremism inside Pakistan. And the third part of that logic was that you had to deal with Kashmir and India, and the end of support for extremism outside your borders, in Kashmir.
Now, the problem has been in Pakistan. I don’t think the military has carried out stage 2 and stage 3 of this — they have, to some extent, carried out stage 2: curbing domestic extremism — but they’re doing it reluctantly, they’re doing it half-heartedly, because there hasn’t been a strategic decision yet on what to do with India. Is Pakistan going to go genuinely for a settlement of Kashmir and a settlement of problems with India, and is India going to do the same, or not? So in that sense, the military perhaps has some idea of trying to keep some of these extremist groups in reserve, because they were always, if you like, the front line against India. To curb all the extremists immediately and without any conditions would, as far as the military mindset is concerned, perhaps expose Pakistan and the military to repercussions from India.
Is the killing of the Wall Street Journal reporter [Daniel Pearl], and then handling of that after the arrest, important in pointing which direction Pakistan will go, or is it just a minor case?
No, I think it was a very important watershed case, because the fact is that Daniel Pearl was killed by groups who have very close links with the military and the intelligence services over a long number of years. This should galvanize the military to realize now that these groups, who have been in their service for many years, fighting in Afghanistan, fighting in Kashmir, fighting in many places, are now a threat to Pakistan itself. And here you get this contradiction, because there’s always a problem with military regimes. Are these military regimes carrying out policies and decisions in their own interests, in the interest of the army, or in the interest of the nation? What I think Pakistanis are expecting and hoping President Musharraf will do is to think of the nation first, and not to think just purely in that kind of military mindset, with that tunnel vision that the military leaders tend to have.
You called Pakistan a failed state. What would be a measure of it moving beyond that condition?
No, I don’t call Pakistan a failed state, I call it a potentially failing state. I think Afghanistan was a failed state. I think the most essential part now is that Musharraf has to have elections by October. I think the most important part is, how is the military going to share power with civil society? We’ve had periods of democratically elected governments which have failed; all the military regimes have also failed. Is the military now realizing for the first time that you cannot set up either a puppet government through a rigged election, which I fear Musharraf may be trying to do — which would be a disaster, because the repercussions of this would come six months down the road — nor can he possibly allow a complete kind of reversion, to allow some of these corrupt politicians to come back.
So what many people are envisaging is a sharing of power, for a certain period of time, perhaps, while this crisis persists, between the military and civil society and the politicians. Will the military actually carry out a genuine sharing of power and not a fake sharing of power, whereby it retains all power for itself, but has a civilian puppet? That’s the primary issue, because the problems in Pakistan are immense. The educational system has collapsed, you’ve got extremism, you’ve got a huge economic recession, you have ethnic divisions, you have a foreign policy that has been a total disaster for the last ten years. You have to rectify all these things, but it cannot be done by military fiat. It cannot be done by a command and order. It has to be done by involving people in decision-making, through some kind of representation. The military has to go in for a free and fair election, which will set up a civilian government. I think, by and large, most Pakistanis accept that there will have to be limits on that civilian government, and there will have to be a sharing of power with the military.
8-Heeding the Warning Signs of Fundamentalism
After reading your two books, I’m left with the sense that one way to look at the events of 9/11 is that it was a fire bell in the night, that it woke us up to forces and issues that are clearly presented in your books, but were not in our public consciousness or in the consciousness of leaders enough. Comment on that. Do you think that that might be one positive outcome?
I certainly wrote the Taliban book as a warning, that if you ignore Afghanistan, there is going to be enormous instability in the region. Now obviously, I didn’t predict 9/11, but I wrote this book a year before 9/11, and I gave many seminars, and talked frequently in Washington and New York about it. I think there was an awareness among people in government if you were in the Clinton administration and the Bush administration, but there was an unwillingness to change policy and to change track, and to do something about Afghanistan.
The Central Asia book is also a warning. It was also written before 9/11, and what I’m basically trying to say there is that the next explosion, a social and economic explosion, will occur in Central Asia in the months and years ahead, unless something is done quickly. The danger in Central Asia is the same: the only political forces which could take advantage and could take a leadership role in such an explosion would be the extremist groups. And that would be detrimental, not just to Central Asia, but to everyone.
So yes, I hope these two books do serve as some kind of warning, that the world cannot allow states to fail. I think the biggest message from 9/11. You cannot allow having these failed states around the world, where terrorism and drugs and weapons and extremism breed. That has to mean, surely, a much greater U.S. involvement with the world around it.
If students were to watch or read this fascinating story, both the story of Central Asia and your involvement in it, what advice, other than reading your two books, would you give them in terms of preparing for the future?
One of my real complaints, especially for my colleagues in the media in America, is that there has been a horrible dumbing down of America in the last decade on foreign policy issues. The ignorance in the United States is huge. I think the media — and the government, perhaps, but certainly the media — is very much at fault here. There has to be a much greater awareness of foreign policy issues. U.S. governments have got away with either doing nothing, or doing the wrong thing, or getting involved under various pressures, because there has been no real domestic debate about foreign policy. Foreign policy issues are not on anybody’s agenda. It’s very important for young people to get involved with foreign policy issues, and to understand the world around them.
And for these students, what would be your thoughts about the lesson that they might learn from your personal story of somebody who landed on his feet with a story that many people weren’t aware of but became of global importance?
In today’s age — I mean, I’m an old man now — but I think in today’s age, what I admire so much about so many students I talk to at universities is their multidisciplinary approach. Yes, you have to focus on your degree and your subject and your discipline, but you’ve got to be interested in other things also. We’re here in the heart of Silicon Valley and I hear that these computer experts don’t read newspapers, they don’t follow foreign affairs. That’s not the kind of world that we need to grow up in now. I would love the students who come out of American universities to be interested in everything, curious about everything. It can mean travel, it can mean reading the newspapers, it can mean watching different TV programs, whatever. But I think there has to be a curiosity about what’s going on in the outside world.
Going back to my mother: [like her] I’m still immensely curious. I never met Osama bin Laden, and I never met Juma Namangani either, but I’m very curious about what makes these guys tick. Why is it they do what they do? And to understand that, it’s not just understanding the individual or the personality, it’s understanding history and culture and tradition and geography and anthropology, and all sorts of things. I would love to see that kind of curiosity among students.
Ahmed, on that note, I want to thank you very much for exploring your reflections on this region that you’ve covered for the last twenty years, and your thoughts about your own involvement in that region. Thank you very much.
Thank you, so much.
And thank you very much for joining us for this Conversation with History.
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