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Interview With Ahmed Rashid: Afghanistan Needs (And Wants) U.S. Long-Term Commitment

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I've never been one prone to hyperbole so take my word that calling award-winning journalist Ahmed Rashid one of the world's foremost experts on Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Taliban might be an understatement. Just ask President Barack Obama who, ever since taking office, has sought Mr. Rashid's counsel when developing U.S. Central Asian policy. And after interviewing the bestselling author I had no doubt his concepts influenced the President's decision to "finish the job" in Afghanistan, a doctrine announced by Obama on Tuesday which aides said will likely include a surge of approximately 30,000 additional troops.

Lending even more credence to Ahmed Rashid's reputation is the fact that Christopher Hitchens described him as "Pakistan's best and bravest reporter", which is an astounding testimonial considering Hitchens dispenses compliments as often as the Taliban hand out birth control. Mr. Rashid has written eerily clairvoyant bestsellers that forecasted 9/11 and predicted the rise of the Taliban in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, including Descent Into Chaos. He writes articles for The Washington Post, The Daily Telegraph, BBC Online and The Nation; and appears regularly as an expert analyst on CNN and NPR. In 2001 he was awarded the Nisar Osmani award for courage in journalism.

Michael Hughes: The three most popular cases posited by a multitude of experts and politicians for withdrawing from Afghanistan include: (1) Afghanistan is not strategic; (2) the Karzai administration is too corrupt; and (3) the Afghan people don't want us there. Do these arguments hold any merit?

Ahmed Rashid: The Taliban are not only an Afghan phenomenon they are a regional phenomenon. You have Taliban in Pakistan, Afghanistan and in other parts of Central Asia - they are a major security problem in the region. Any U.S. withdrawal will lead to a very quick Taliban conquest, certainly in Southern Afghanistan and probably Kabul - and the government will most likely fall. And that would have severe implications in Pakistan and across Central Asia.

I have no doubt that there are close ties between al-Qaeda's leadership and the Taliban leadership. So, the argument that Afghanistan is not of strategic interest to the U.S. is absurd. Although there is no oil or other major resources in Afghanistan, I don't think the U.S. can tolerate a world where two or three countries in the center of Asia are ruled by extremists.

As far as Karzai, yes, the situation is deteriorating enormously. But the Karzai phenomenon is partly due to the mishandling by this administration and gross mishandling by the Bush administration. And the rigged elections have made this situation extremely complicated.

The main point is that the Afghan people want development and reconstruction. They want to see a better life. Plus, there is no mass movement among the people as there was in Iraq, for example, for a U.S. withdrawal. Yes, people are mad and frustrated because they haven't had development and they haven't seen the promises kept that were made in 2001. However, they know that as long as there are foreign troops there, reconstruction has a chance of taking place.

Michael Hughes:
You write in a recent National Interest article: "Ultimately the choices are stark. Either the United States and Europe abandon the region to the forces of violence, extremism, poverty and the danger of loose nukes--with all its consequences--or they remain committed and prepare to carry out both counterinsurgency and nation building." If we do stay, HOW does the U.S. carry out counterinsurgency and nation building?

Ahmed Rashid:
The counterinsurgency doctrine which has come out of Iraq from General Petraeus and has been declared by General McChrystal [in Afghanistan] I think is very doable. It does require extra troops and enhanced development and reconstruction efforts. The key element missing from the Bush period was a rebuilt economy. The rebuilding of the indigenous Afghan economy requires development including infrastructure, electricity, water, and investments in agriculture. This development must lead to the creation of real jobs and not short-term employment which is wholly dependent on aid packages.

The problem is that the American aid structure is totally flawed. Hillary [Clinton] and [Richard] Holbrooke have advocated a complete restructuring of the U.S. aid process. The current process that awards contracts to the Beltway bandits and private contractors must be improved because it has led to a massive waste of resources. 30-50% of the dollars allocated for development projects never reach Afghanistan. This system has also helped fuel corruption in Afghanistan.

And then of course you need a much more responsive Afghan government and a much more hands-on attitude ministry by ministry. That's why the plan Obama announced in March to send civilian experts to help these ministries is a very good idea. But obviously the deteriorating security situation makes it very difficult - you must improve the security situation so civilians can work in the provinces. So, you need American, NATO and Europe to come together and coordinate the aid program much more effectively.

As far as corruption, part of the problem is that it has been very much a case of one man rule and the political structure is just not being used properly, or at all, by President Karzai. One man rule and blank checks were good enough for Bush - he didn't question Karzai's actions and that has unfortunately led to a very chaotic situation.

Michael Hughes: What about this argument that Afghanistan isn't ready for democratic or parliamentary systems?

Ahmed Rashid: I think every country should have the chance of building a democratic process. There have been major mistakes made by Karzai and major mistakes made by the international community. You must have a political system in place that can grow and develop. Democracy is still the best possible system that we have.

Michael Hughes: If Mr. Obama calls you tomorrow and asks: "what does the exit strategy look like?" what would you tell him (if you haven't already)?

Ahmed Rashid: The issue is this regional problem with Iran, Pakistan and the neighboring countries. The U.S. promised in March that there would be a regional strategy, unfortunately, that has not yet been put into place. In fact we've seen a reversal - Pakistan is not cooperating nor is Iran, and China can do much more. We'd like to see a much more comprehensive regional strategy. Secondly, there was a promise of dialogue with so-called moderate Taliban, and I still think that is still feasible. I still think you need to divide the Taliban as much as possible, but in order to do so infrastructure must be in place. You need support from the neighboring countries, you need amnesty.

In summary - the main problems that need to be addressed include the regional issue, getting better performance from the Afghan government, talking to the Taliban, putting up an infrastructure that will work, and rebuilding the Afghan economy.

Outside of its senior leadership, the bulk of the Taliban movement remains a peasant movement. They are peasant farmers with no income and have seen no dividends from the last eight years. They are joining the Taliban either because of harassment and fear, or the Taliban are giving them money. And that has to change.

Michael Hughes: The U.S. is providing over $1 billion to fund anti-Taliban militias - the kind of strategy we used in the Sunni awakening - is this a prudent approach?

Ahmed Rashid: It's a very dangerous approach in Afghanistan because of this whole issue of warlordism. That is why you need more foreign troops and quicker training of the Afghan army, which is performing quite well except there are too few of them. The issue of warlordism was not as apparent in Iraq because you had a functioning state under Saddam Hussein, but you haven't had a functioning state in Afghanistan for the last two decades. These warlords in Afghanistan are predatory, will feed off the people, and eventually start harassing the very people they are supposed to protect. This should be a temporary solution, our whole philosophy and security cannot be built around militias

Michael Hughes: One of the biggest dilemmas is intelligence about al-Qaeda. How many are actually in Afghanistan?

Ahmed Rashid: Al-Qaeda has penetrated Afghanistan and Pakistan Taliban, Chechen and groups in the Caucuses. We don't know how many of these groups are pure Taliban in terms of being invented by the Taliban or are they pure AQ. Al-Qaeda and the Taliban are constantly expanding in the region, so we cannot presume that if we kill a certain amount of Arabs we have won. For example, the leadership of the Pakistan Taliban is very closely aligned with al-Qaeda. Now do you call them al-Qaeda? Or do you call them something else? It's a big problem.

Michael Hughes: Seems an Afghanistan strategy is incomplete without a Pakistan strategy - what does the U.S. need to do with respect to Pakistan to ensure the Taliban doesn't overthrow the Pakistan government?

Ahmed Rashid: I don't see the Taliban actually taking over Pakistan. But my fear is that the Taliban movement will spread and will cause paralysis, the economy will crumble, causing more and more young people to join the Taliban. You will have a failing state that is descending into chaos very fast. And that is very dangerous.

Michael Hughes: What are your thoughts on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's recent visit to Pakistan during which she challenged them to help the U.S. root out extremists. She had a hard time buying the fact that Pakistan's government officials could not provide the U.S. with the whereabouts of key Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders.

Ahmed Rashid: I think Pakistan continues to have a dual strategy - helping the U.S. to fight terrorism but keeping the Afghan Taliban in reserve in case there is a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Pakistan is fighting the local Taliban but supporting the Afghan Taliban - a contradiction that has not been resolved. Pakistan does not trust that the Americans will have the longevity to stay committed and actually root out the Taliban.