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Interview with Ahmed Rashid

[Afghanistan] Ahmed Rahid - Pakistani writer on Afghanistan and Central Asia
Regional analyst and writer Ahmed Rashid (IRIN)

Ahmed Rashid is one of the most respected authorities on Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia. In his 2000 bestseller, Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil, and Fundamentalism in Central Asia, Rashid warned the world to ignore Afghanistan at its peril.

In a special interview to mark the anniversary of the changes that have led to a new direction for the region, Rashid spoke to IRIN from his home in Lahore. He called on the international community to do more straight away to promote security, reconstruction and human rights in Afghanistan.

Calling Hamid Karzai probably the most legitimate leader in the region, he sees Central Asia's new relationship with the US as a valuable opportunity for authoritarian regimes to become more democratic and accountable, which would in turn lead to greater foreign investment. He also warns that Islamic militancy will continue to thrive in the region unless political reforms are forthcoming.

QUESTION: A year on following the attacks on New York and Washington, what is your assessment of the changes in Central Asia?

ANSWER: I think the biggest problems faced now in the region are the repercussions of the September 11 in all the neighbouring countries of Afghanistan - that is Central Asia, Pakistan and Iran. The most important issue I think is the fact that all these countries are facing enormous political ferment. There is rising opposition to authoritarian rule. The fact is that Hamid Karzai is probably the most legitimate elected leader in the region.

In Pakistan you have a military dictatorship. In Central Asia you have five countries with authoritarian regimes that have carried out no economic and political reform. What we are seeing in all these countries now is that the Western presence has encouraged all the opposition parties and democratic forces in these countries to exempt themselves.

Even in Central Asia, where there has not been a tradition of political opposition from secular parties. You are seeing in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan groups now demanding that their leaders carry out economic and political reforms and this is something that has not been adequately supported by the Western alliance particularly the United States.

Q: There is mounting criticism of the slow pace of reconstruction in Afghanistan. How do you view the situation developing?

A: There has been a shift in the US policy over the last weeks. The US is now saying that it is prepared to allow the expansion of ISAF [International Security and Assistance force] to other cities, that it is also going to beef-up reconstruction funds, which were not reaching Kabul. But I think the situation is very critical. Clearly the US change of heart is a reflection of that. The US recognises that the government in Kabul remains very fragile. It has not been able to extend its authority across the country. In fact, it’s now weaker than three months ago. The warlords are stronger now in the region then they were in December when this government was formed.

Unfortunately, what all the change of US strategy is signifying is that the US is not prepared to take the leadership role in the initiative. It is not prepared to commit troops to ISAF. It wants the Europeans and other third world countries to do that. It’s not prepared to increase its own pledges for reconstruction.

The most devastating impact of the lack of reconstruction has been in the Pashtun belt in the south and the east, where there have been absolutely no reconstruction projects. There is growing resentment against the central government. The Taliban, Al-Qaeda and the new forces of Gulbudin Hikmatyar are being able to reorganise as we saw in the recent failed assassination attempt against Hamid Karzai.

Q: Does regional rivalry remain a problem in the development of Afghanistan?

A: Again the tragedy is that as far as Afghanistan’s neighbours are concerned the leading players that is Russia, India, Pakistan and Iran, have all committed substantial funds to the reconstruction of Afghanistan. There is no consensus but rather there is competition between all of them. Now all these countries are rivals, just like in the past. They have backed different factions during the civil war period.

What would have been more beneficial, if Iran and Pakistan and Russia could have been able to better coordinate some of the reconstruction. What we are seeing now is a battle for influence in Kabul. India is trying to get a foothold after being ostracised from Afghanistan for many years because India has a very close relationship with the Northern Alliance and Russia is the same. Pakistan is perhaps more firmly committed towards the Karzai government in the hope that it can reassert authority across the whole country and win over the Pashtuns. Iran is helping Ismail Khan and supporting projects in western Afghanistan.

I think it would have been much more beneficial if these countries would have formed some kind of dialogue among themselves to coordinate and not duplicate reconstruction efforts.

Q: How do you see Afghanistan's relation's developing with its neighbours?

A: it has been extremely difficult for Hamid Karzai to strike the right balance between all the neighbours who have always been in competition with each other over influence in Afghanistan. I think he has done a very good job. He has avoided getting involved over the disputes between the neighbours. He has also avoided waking up the past or blaming one neighbour or the other for being on the wrong side. He has managed to illicit the maximum amount of aid and support from the neighbours. He has pursued a very conciliatory and a very successful policy in trying to at least a very public or overt difference vis-à-vis Afghanistan.

Q: After nearly eight months in power, how would you evaluate President Kazai's overall performance?

A: The government clearly remains very weak and clearly fragile. But I think much of the blame must not be attached to the government but to the international community. I feel very strongly that the international community has failed Afghanistan over the past one year. The pledges and promises being made during the Bonn conference were not fulfilled. Afghans themselves feel very let down, including the people in government. I think certainly one can point to major shortfalls from the government side. I think the real issue is the issue of aid and money and security and troops.

Q: Up to 1.5 million refugees have returned to war ravaged Afghanistan since March. With the onset of winter do you fear a new humanitarian crisis?

A: There are serious humanitarian shortfalls such as for example in the funding for the returning refugees. The package of goods and money that the refugees receive on their return in fact has been reduced very seriously. There is a shortfall in wheat for the winter, which is quite a serious problem. At the same time I think quite a lot is being done on the humanitarian side.

What is not being done is reconstruction and long-term rehabilitation. The people are looking primarily for job creation, the rehabilitation of agriculture and support to the government in being able to demobilise some of the warlord armies. None of this can happen until there are medium to long term projects which offer food for work or which offer some kind of investment.

Q: You have said that there is a contradiction between the US military strategy and its political strategy for Afghanistan. Do you think that the military strategy is now giving way to a larger political and economic strategy?

A: Where we are now, as far as the American strategy is concerned, it is a half way house. That is the Americans, I think, privately acknowledge some of the mistakes that they have made in the past. They are moving more towards a political and economic strategy in Afghanistan but they are not prepared to take the leadership role in this.

Until they do, I don’t see the Europeans and others big powers who are important to provide peacekeeping troops or to provide money. I don’t see them being willing to do so until they see the lead coming from the US. Clearly the war against Iraq is going to be a major distraction for this. The US is less likely to take the leadership role in weeks ahead, simply because it is far too involved in Iraq now.

Q: With the recent discoveries of mass graves, how concerned are you for human rights in Afghanistan given the fact that warlords continue to play a major role in post-war Afghanistan?

A: This is of enormous concern. These mass graves relate to the war against the Taliban a year ago. The UN has logged something like 70 violent incidents in northern Afghanistan. Not a single of these incidents have been investigated nor has the central government been able to take action against them. The commitment of the UN and the special representative, Lakhdar Brahimi to try and improve the present situation. I can understand the UN reluctance, at the moment at least with such a fragile situation and such a week government, in digging up a human rights violation that occurred a year ago against the Taliban.

But the fact is that we have not seen a real reduction in human rights violation in the recent past. Two ministers have been assassinated and the culprits still have not been caught. There has been a huge expulsion of Pashtuns from northern Afghanistan and that issue remain unresolved Some 50,000 Pashtuns are camped on the Pakistan border refusing to go back up north. There have been violent incidents of rape, robbery and murder in the north, which have not been adequately explained by the warlords in the north and nor has an explanation been sought from the central government. NGOs have not been able to work in many areas because of the violence.

There has to be a much more forceful role to be played by the UN and by the Americans for some kind of accountability about these ongoing incidents.

Q: With Pakistan cooperating in the hunt for Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, how grave a threat to stability is Islamic militancy in the region?

A: Islamic militancy is still a very serious threat because clearly a lot of Al Qaeda and Taliban escaped to Pakistan, the government has been in denial that they are reassembling in Pakistan and that they are in Pakistan but every few weeks some major elements of Al-Qaeda emerge and arrests are made and a shoot out take place in Pakistani cities. I think it will be much more beneficial if the government acknowledge the fact that there is a problem. Just a few days before the recent arrests of 10 Al-Qaeda suspects you had a strong denial by the foreign office.

Q: Just before the beginning of Pakistan's election process, President Musharraf announced a controversial constitutional package that critics say will render October's poll null and void. Is there now any chance of a return to sustainable democracy in the country?

A: I am extremely disappointed in the efforts being made. The amendments to the constitution that are coming forward and the refusal of the government to accept that some of the major political opposition parties and their leaders should be allowed to run are resentful. The fact that there is an enormous amount of pre-rigging going on in which the government agencies are ensuring that their favourite candidates get to stand while others are refused election tickets. All this points to a major crisis once these elections are over.

The point is that these elections should have been inclusive in order to ensure that all the political parties could be represented in parliament. Instead these elections are turning out to be exclusive in which most of the genuine political forces, which are still popular, are kept out of the political process. This means that they will be in opposition outside the parliament.

The other major factor is that there appears to be no attempt by General Pervez Musharraf to modify his dislike of civilian politicians, civilian rule and civil society, which would have given the hope that he is genuinely interested in sharing power with civilians. What we are seeing is a continued monopolisation of power by the military.

Q: President Bush has declared Iran being a part of his "axis of evil". Does this undermine the reformist movement in that country, who want to mend fences with the international community?

A: The recent change of policy in condemning not only the hard liners in Iran but also President [Muhammad] Khatami and the moderate forces is extremely negative. The US has now adopted a very vague policy of support to the Iranian people, which is neither here nor there.

I think President Khatami is making major attempts in opening a dialogue with Europe, with Muslim countries, with neighbours and clearly President Khatami has been making major efforts to boost support for President Karzai in Afghanistan. Now he has been undermined to a great extent by the hard liners by the revolutionary guards. In this state of play, particularly with the American presence in Afghanistan, they should have continued to support President Khatami, which would have strengthened him rather than abandoning him in this way.

Q: You have repeatedly argued that the post September 11 American assistance to authoritarian regimes in Central Asia would further undermine the prospects of democracy in the region, how optimistic are you about the future of democracy in Central Asia?

A: Given the track record of the Central Asian regimes, I am not optimistic at all. The fact is that this was a golden opportunity for these regimes to take advantage of the US and under the cover of the US security umbrella they should have opened up their regimes and carried out market and political reforms, which would have encouraged foreign investment.

It would have deepened the relationship between the West and Central Asia and would have allowed the Central Asians to take advantage of this new found interest in their countries by the Western bloc, which is the first time that something like this has happened since their independence a decade ago.

But I think this opportunity has been squandered and has been lost by the Central Asians. At the same time, the military and economic aid that is now coming to Central Asia should have been made conditional on some kind of timetable for at least the start of major economic reforms. Unfortunately, this aid is being given without any conditionality and the Central Asian regimes are extremely confident that they can continue their policies of the past without any real pressure from the Americans.

Q: Does Central Asia have a prosperous future?

A: It has an enormously prosperous future. It has huge oil and minerals resources. It has enormous agricultural potential. It was the breadbasket of the former Soviet Union. It once provided all the cotton to the Soviet Union. It has a completely literate population, which is very different from many third world countries.

It has enormous potential but I think to realise that potential there has to be international support but there also has to be major economic and political support which will allow representative governments to emerge and allow the full potential of the people to be exercised.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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