Transcript

Afghanistan's Rising Danger

Ahmed Rashid
PostGlobal Panelist/Journalist and Terrorism Expert
Tuesday, October 10, 2006; 11:00 AM

Ahmed Rashid , PostGlobal panelist, journalist, writer and terrorism expert discussed the crisis in Afghanistan and the failures of Pakistan to address them.

The transcript follows.

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Pune, India: Ahmed, thanks for your excellent article. These views being expressed by the NATO commanders are receiving almost no coverage in the US media. Do you have any comments about that?

Ahmed Rashid: I think what has been lacking in the US media has been real investigative work and articles on the attitude of policies of the US administration similar to the kind of investigative work we have seen in other areas such as lately Iraq. If you take the past five years there has been good coverage of Afghanistan in the mainstream media but little of US policy towards Afghanistan.

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Quetta, Balochistan, Pakistan: Our city is full of Taliban. These are local Taliban and also mixed with Afghani Taliban. All these Talibans are protected and financed though partially, by the local population. The grass root multi-dimensional support of Taliban is essentially a religious phenomena. But this traditional and conventional support is reinforced by religious parties who hold reins of power in the province and were closely associated with Taliban movement. I reckon it would be extremely difficult for any govt. to uproot Taliban from the provincial capital and other areas as it is very difficult to distinguish local talib from Afghani talib due to the fact of common language and dress and above all political support potentially available. Thanks to Saudi lavish financial contribution for opening of madrasas and US support during jehad against USSR,the Talibans are here to exert their influence for along time to come and we all have to live with them though very uncomfortably. In the long run it is the secular education which can make the people perceive the dangers associated with these ultra conservative lot

Ahmed Rashid: Please see earlier answer on Quetta but I agree with you. The real issue was back in 2002 why was Quetta allowed to be an open city for the Afghan Taliban who had retreated into Balochistan. They were able to buy houses, hotels, build mosques and turn a large part of the city into a Taliban city. Quetta has always been a very ethnically mixed city and no one of the many ethnic groups in Balochsitan can actually lay claim to it but now that has changed and people are becoming very scared of the Taliban presence - and precisely because their presence is linked to the religious parties and receives support from the provincial government. I still believe things can be made to change if the Taliban leadership residing there were arrested.

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Ottawa, Canada: Canadian military officials have characterized the Taliban's offensive actions during Operation Medusa as acts of desperation. Would you characterize them as acts of desperation or acts of growing strength?

Ahmed Rashid: I think all the NATO countries who contributed troops to the south were completely taken by surprise with the ferocity of the Taliban offensive. They have had to put a gloss on it not to create panic at home. The Canadian troops have suffered the most. In Medusa NATO finally won out and they killed some 1100 Taliban I was told out of a force of between 1500-2000 but the real lesson was the way the Taliban had dug into Panjwai district outside Kandahar, with about one million rounds of ammunition, training camps, suicide bomb training camps, a field hospital etc. That is a grim reminder that there is more to come possibly in an even more organized threat.

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Paris: Karzai recently emphasized on his gathering of tribes across the border. Do you think he is right in doing this? How much can one rely on these traditional structures and mechanisms to resist and fight the action of islamist groups? Isn't this a coming failure? What can Karzai get from a jirga like this?

Ahmed Rashid: Karzai told me in great detail about his ideas of a Jirga but I was and am very skeptical. You are right, its very difficult for these to succeed unless there is complete good will on both sides. The reason the Constitutional Loya Jirga ultimately succeeded was that all the factions knew the world was watching, so were afghans and they had to compromise. that kind of good will is missing because on the Pakistani side you will many Taliban, as so many of the elders in Waziristan and other places have either been killed or been forced to leave for other cities. I think unless there is a cessation of Taliban attacks and recruitment from Pakistan no jirga will work

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Birmingham, Alabama: We often hear that President Bush financed Afghan warlords, refused to burn poppy fields, and diverted forces from Afghanistan, thereby creating all the problems plaguing Afghanistan today. To what extent is that true?

Ahmed Rashid: There are three main elements to the failures in Afghanistan, certainly one most important is the way the war in Iraq distracted the Bush admin from committing enough troops money aid etc to Afghanistan and there are serious questions about whether Bush was ever really interested in rebuilding Afghanistan the way the Bush admin has been about Iraq. But also the afghan leadership has failed to deliver and is now being heavily criticized. Thirdly there is the issue of outside interference from neighboring countries which has kept the pot boiling, either providing backing for warlords or the Taliban. So its not a simple answer but the US has a lot to answer for

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Oslo, Norway: How might long-term instability in Afghanistan affect Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan with regards to narcotics trafficking and militant Islam?

Ahmed Rashid: I think the crisis in Afgh, the resurgent Taliban, the increase in production of drugs this year is all having a very negative effect on CAsian states. The threat is very real for example the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan still has some 1000 fighters in Waziristan in the tribal areas of Pakistan. However the crisis in Afgh also gives the leadership more excuses to postpone democracy and political reform, avoid taking the tough decision they have to take and also it has led them to return to the fold of Russia and China rather than the West because those two countries don't question them about democracy etc.

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Kabul: How optimistic are you about the proposed tribal jirgahs on both sides of the border? Will the composition of the jirgahs, especially on the Pakistan side of the border be really representative?

Also is there any attention being paid to the slow but sure increase in insecurity in the Northern part of Afghanistan?

Ahmed Rashid: I answered the Jirga part. On your second half, I agree not enough attention being paid to the rising violence which is driven by drugs, criminality , warlords etc rather than Taliban. But the Taliban is being used an excuse. For example a lot of the good work done by the UN in disarming the north since 2002 has been reversed because people and warlords are rearming themselves saying the Taliban are coming. The prices of weapons in the north has doubled. So there are very big problems which could get much worse if the Taliban do start major attacks in the north.

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Lisbon, Portugal: Has there been any evidence to show that terrorists in Afghanistan are collaborating with Hezbullah, Hamas and other islamic terrorist groups?

Ahmed Rashid: What we have seen and what NATO and US intelligence now openly admit is that there is traffic in terms of training, sharing experience between al Qaeda in Iraq and al Qaeda in Afghanistan which has seeped down to the Taliban. any new tactic you see in Baghdad is copied some week later in Kabul or Afghanistan. The Taliban have traveled to Iraq and Arabs have traveled back to Afghanistan from Iraq, so there is a line open there.

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Fairview, Pa.: Many of my Afghan friends say they are now fed up with Karzai - they call the "Mayor of Kabul." What does this current spike in the violence level mean for the continuation of the current government and its ability to succeed and the overall prospect for construction projects?

Ahmed Rashid: Karzai has committed blunders and being weak in some critical decision making and is now also blamed for not clamping down sufficiently on the corruption, drugs trafficking in the government. However first he is elected and every afghan knows that if you mess with the system now - or he is removed by force - than the afghans end with nothing and return to being a failed state. Pakistan kept removing elected leaders and it still does not have a functioning system of governance after 50 years. Secondly I think there is nobody else who the international community will trust because he is himself clean, no blood on his hands, he can command respect for donors to keep coming and giving. thirdly many afghans still want him to succeed, they may criticize him but that does not mean they don't want him to succeed.

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Kansas City, MO: Is it possible that Musharraf is keeping the Taliban alive

because he thinks the Americans will tire of "nation building"

and leave Afghanistan; so that he and the Taliban can pick

up the pieces?

Ahmed Rashid: I think certainly one of the reasons the Pak military is keeping the Taliban leadership alive is that one day they believe the US and NATO will leave and then Pak will have a role in trying to form more pro-Pak friendly government in Kabul and even come to influence the afghan Pashtun belt in the south and east. However I think this is a wrong strategy, wishful thinking, not kind to the afghans. Pakistan has to learn to live with Afghanistan as normal neighbors would with all the ups and downs.

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Pawcatuck, CT: Mr. Rashid,

You've been arguing for some time that the Musharraf government might come down harder on the Taliban in Waziristan and the Northwest Frontier Provinces. You've also pointed out that heavy-handedness in Balochistan risks energizing the simmering regional nationalism there. Why do you recommend more force in the "Patan" areas of Pakistan? Isn't the Taleban movement basically an expression of Pashtun nationalism? And why, given his insecurity--that you've written about--and lacking legitimacy, would General/President Musharraf want to risk provoking that nationalism on his side of the border?

Ahmed Rashid: The US interest in Waz. and Musharraf's willingness to be tough there is that Waz is occupied is occupied by many different groups including al Qaeda which has been the main US target and so there has been pressure on pak to deal with it. The US has not put the same pressure on Pak to wrap up Quetta which holds the Afghan Taliban leadership. So the US differentiating between AQ and Taliban has in a way suited Pakistan, who is willing to attack AQ but not the Taliban. This of course upsets the afghans greatly because they say to the Americans, that the threat to the government is not coming from AQ in Waziristan but the Taliban in Quetta.

The Taliban on both sides of the border represent an attempt to interpret Pashtun nationalism in an Islamist jihdaist fashion and in doing so to make sure that secular and democracy seeking Pahstun nationalists are eliminated. It is the secular pasthun nat. in Pakistan who question army rule, while the Pakistani Taliban do not.

Antoehr reason for Pak to continue supporting the afghan taliban in quetta is precisely they form a buffer between the secular and now separatist Baloch insurgency from seeking any sanctuary or support from afghanistan.

The picture is a very complicated on the border.

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Mike G. Ottawa Ontario: The Taliban resurgence in southern Afghanistan can be traced in large part to their safe haven in Baluchistan. There's all sorts of evidence that the Taliban in Quetta are being supported by Pakistan's ISI. Why can President Musharraf not do more to put a stop to ISI complicity and throw the Taliban leadership in jail.

Ahmed Rashid: See my answer to this elsewhere. But I think Pak army is very consicously supporting the Taliban base in quetta and is presumign that nato and the US will leave Afgh very soon. I dont think this is just isi policy but has the backing of the military regime as a whole and after 5 years there is a large infrastrcuture that has been built up to support the taliban in quetta, such as the Islamic JUI led provincial government, government machinery, the network of madrassas and mosques ertc.

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Berkeley, CA: Do you think that the recent agreement between Pakistan and the "semi-autonomous" regions has the side effect of removing those regions from Pakistani protection?

For example, is it now more likely that the US will resort to special operations in those areas, without the need to clear them with Pakistan?

Ahmed Rashid: The agreement in Waziristan betwenn the Taliban and Pak government on september 5, is really already breakng down. Nato has said that there are 3 times more attacks coming out of waziristan on nato and afgthan troops in eastern afghanistan, than before sept 5. and there is no mechainsm in the agreement which would allow pak to punish those taliban etc who are doing it.

however pak will still not allow US forces to come into the waziristan region but agan i see a contradciton here. if a top al qaeda leader is spotted and pak forces refuse to do anything because of the deal then i am preety sure the US forces will try and get him.

I dont see this deal lasting very long.

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Richmond, VA: From your previous responses it sounds like Iraq is now being used as one big training ground for those who want to learn how to fight modern western forces. This training is then being spread to neighboring countries such as Afghanistan where there never used to be suicide bombings and the prevalence of IED's that we are now seeing. Is the war in Iraq making it harder for NATO in Afghanistan?

Thanks for your comments here.

Ahmed Rashid: Much harder, you are right. Many of these tactics were not known to Afgh before nor was the technology known such as using improvised explosive devices etc. when i was in kabul there were suicide bombings using cars, bycyles and then one guy just throwing hiself onto the bonnet of a nato jeep and exploding. in other words you cant prepare for anything because the tactics vary so much just like in baghdad.

secondly if you study the tactics of Taliban ambushes on US and Nato troops, its vastly improved and very classic guerrilla war. The Taliban before had very tradtional predictable afghan style tactics which ment fighting from long distances away, now they cut off convoys, engagein hand to hsnd fighting etc.

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USA: How involved is Osama Bin Laden in orchestrating the Taliban resistance?

Ahmed Rashid: We really dont know the answer to that but i think he is helping the Taliban on many fronts, clearly he put them in touch with al qaeda in iraq and helped the tlaiban developed these new tacitcs. his drug traffciking contacts in the Arab Gulf and places like Dubai are probably being used by the tlaiban to luander money, his smugglng contacts are probably bringing in arms and ammo from the gulf to the Balochsitan coast and up to quetta. (Nato tells me many of the dead taliban have brand new weapons and hundreds of rounds of ammo) He is probably helping in creating new command and leadership structures for the Taliban. he is certianly coordinating all these groups from different regions now in Waziristan, (Chechens, Uzbeks, Chinese Muslims etc) with the Taliban.

I dont think he is taking day to day decsions for them but he is helping them strategically and helping them become part of the global jihadist movement.

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Oslo, Norway: Norway, like some other NATO countries, is currently debating whether or not to contribute more troops to ISAF. In addition, some here have suggested entering into talks with Taliban leaders. Is an enlarged ISAF mission in Afghanistan the best solution to the crisis there, or might there be a role for diplomacy? Thank you.

Ahmed Rashid: There is an on going effort since 2003 by Karzai to engage with those taliban who want to return home peacefully but i dont think engaging with the hardlineers is possibel , they have to be defeated but also their sources of recrutiment and logistics from the paksitani side of the border has to be stopped. then i think there is ample room and definately a need to negotiate. Ultimately more and more ex Taliban will be accomodated in the government, the provinces etc and that is the answer to end the insurgency but the hardliners have to be defeated.

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Oakland, CA: Dear Mr. Rashid,

I am wondering about your connections to the U.S. government funded "NGO," Internews. A December 11, 2005 NYT article, ' 'Military's Information War Is Vast and Often Secretive,' describes how the U.S. is disseminating propaganda through a number of front agencies in Afghanistan, an it names Internews as one of the agencies that controls content on upwards of 40 Afghan radio stations without informing the listener that they are hearing U.S.-influenced news (or, "propaganda").

I see that you have endorsed the Open Media Fund for Afghanistan, which is affiliated with Internews and thereby the U.S. government. Can you please explain this affiliation and let us know whether or not you believe this to be in conflict of interest? As yo uare probably aware, international media NGOs have played a key role in what militaries call Information Operations in conflict zones.

Ahmed Rashid: I founded the Open Media Fund for Afghanistan (OMFA) after 9/11 giving one third of my profit from my book sales to do so. We have funded afghan print media with start up money and some sustaining funds for salaries and printing etc. we have funded about 25 newspapers,magazines since then many of which are now flourishing and almost self suffecient. we made it a rule NOT to take money from any government so we relied on support from other Western media, charitable foundations etc. I got alot of support in 2002 and 2003 from other newspapers around the world.

Internews was hired in order to manage our accounts as OMFA was a US registerd charity - and you have to send quaterly reports to the IRS which is very complicated. It had no influence on our Board . We have now handed over the same responsibility to the Soros Foundation which is handling our accounts - (we dont want to spend money setting up an expensive accounts structure).

I am no longer on the Board and have handed it over to a complete Afghan Board who take all the decsions and I just help raise money for them. OMFA is now a fully afghanised ngo.At the moment there is no other agency that is funding the print media in kabul so we are the only one.

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Wuppertal, Germany: Dear Mr. Rashid, when seeing/reading reports here in Europe on the situation in Afghan., it is interesting to see how the Afghan people react differently towards US troops and European troops. I have the feeling, that European troops are somewhat more welcome, and that they treat the Afghan people differently than US troops. It seems that the European troops act more open or friendly, thus their attitude towards the locals is more effective. What is your view? Have you had the same impressions?

Ahmed Rashid: Yes I think you are right. Nato has taken over from the americans with a firm mandate to do more reconstruciton etc then fight. But so far unfortunately in the south they have not been able to do reconst and have spent most of the time fighitng because of the tlaiban offensive.

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Paris: Corruption has become a major issue over the last two years and the West media started covering it a few months ago. Nato command made a few statements on this, but many within the military accept to pay corrupt commanders who fight and claimed that publicly (Ghazni, last august). Is this something exploited by the Taliban? Is there a link between corruption in the south and Taliban mobilization?

Ahmed Rashid: The fialures of the government is allowing corrptuion, drugs trafficking by senior officials, the lack of reconstruciton and better governance by the provincial governors and police chiefs appt by kabul have had a huge impac tn mobilizing afghans to give closet support to the taliban in the south.

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David Ignatius, PostGlobal: When I was recently in Iran, Iranian analysts expressed concern that President Musharaff's dialogue with the Taliban in Pakistan's border areas with Afghanistan was a prelude to a new U.S.-Paksistani effort to use the Taliban against Iran. Are the Iranians being paranoid?

Ahmed Rashid: There have been major tensions between Iran and Pak on the Taliban issue since the 1990s and it remains a major constraint on improved relations. I am sure the Iranian government is very nervous about the Taliban resurgence because they pose a threat to the traditonal ethnic groups in Afghanistan that the Iranians back, such as the Shias Hazaras and the Tajiks.

But at another level I am also told that the Iranian revolutionary guards are now funding some Taliban groups in western afghanistan as a safety mechanism - in case the US attacks Iran, these Taliban can start killing americans in Afghanistan. This also sounds very logical because the Rev Guards have always funded in the past warlords such as Ismael Khan in Herat who were also anti-american. So the divisons in the Iranian government are still very apparent in Afghanistan with different policies.

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washingtonpost.com: Thank you for joining us. For more writing by Ahmed Rashid, visit his PostGlobal blog at blog.washingtonpost.com/postglobal.

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