INTERVIEW: Ahmad Rashid
An old hand explains the new great game
It’s for a good reason that Ahmad Rashid’s 2000 book, Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia sold like hot cakes – NYT bestseller for five weeks, translated into 22 languages, selling 1.5 million copies, etc – and came to be ‘used extensively by American analysts’ as they tried to make sense of the Taliban. The two decades or so that he covered Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia for The Telegraph and Far Eastern Economic Review were times of instructive change for the region.
This was when the Soviets came to Afghanistan, which brought the Americans to Pakistan, and a new great game was triggered with the fate of superpowers once again hanging on the goings on across the rugged and unforgiving hills marking the Pak-Afghan border. Thejihad, of course, changed Afghanistan forever. And the way American expertise and Saudi largesse lubricated Zia’s political Islam changed Pakistan forever. When the Americans left and mullah-clerics created for the war mutated into al Qaeda, Taliban, etc, they started spreading their tentacles further into Central Asia, threatening to change that region too.
By the turn of the century, Rashid was loudest among a small group of correspondents warning about the dangers of the Taliban phenomenon, about Saudi and Pakistani support, and how the sanctuary they provided to Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda posed threats far beyond the region. Then the war on terror changed the region again, especially Pakistan, with its TTP insurgency, etc. And now that the Americans are going again, at a time when the insurgency is gaining strength in Afghanistan and Pakistan is busy with Zarb-e-Azb, the most common concern is that things will get worse before they get any better, if at all.
That is why we talk to him to understand the significance of the Bilateral Security Arrangement (BSA) that Afghanistan’s new ruling duo has signed with the Americans. Karzai, whom Rashid knows well, rejected it outright. But now 10,000 Americans will stay on for another ten years. Does that change the game?
“Firstly, I hope 10,000 US plus Nato are sufficient to train the Afghan army”, he said.
This is the first time the Afghans are facing the Taliban on their own, and results are not encouraging. “The security situation is very serious. The Taliban are on the verge of taking Helmand, and if they are successful much of South Afghanistan will fall in their hands”.
By the turn of the century, Rashid was loudest among a small group of correspondents warning about the dangers of the Taliban phenomenon, about Saudi and Pakistani support, and how the sanctuary they provided to Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda posed threats far beyond the region
According to news reports, the Afghan army is suffering a 30 per cent higher death rate in 2014. There are concerns that the military might ‘fracture along ethnic lines’, which would play into the Taliban’s hands and even cause a collapse of the government. So the security situation might have prompted a departure from Karzai’s inflexibility.
“Another important factor is that without the BSA the international community was not willing to provide money that Afghanistan desperately needs”, he added.
It’s not just that less financial aid would slow the economy. It’s that Kabul cannot even pay official salaries without foreign funding. The military depends a good 90-95 per cent, according to his findings, on money from outside.
Reaction back home
Hasn’t Islamabad reacted strangely to the BSA? Wasn’t the argument that foreign forces complicate the fragile makeup of local forces, and so long as occupying troops say there will be incentive for militants to keep fighting?
“The Pakistani narrative has been changing for some months now, especially since the new military leadership took over”, he pointed out.
Recent events have convinced the Pakistanis, he thinks, that the Afghan army cannot hang on in face of the insurgency. And that, of course, is not good news for Pakistan. “Even in Washington, Pakistani military was very clear in its interaction with Centcom that Pakistan would want the Americans to stay”.
Pakistan has other concerns, too, of course. It is aware that the US, generally, wants out, and Islamabad would be the first to suffer. We still depend on US cooperation.
But isn’t that contrary to the strategic depth policy of so many years? Wouldn’t elements in the Deep State resist such a turnaround? Even if it came from the chief?
“That’s the dilemma”, he said. “There is still a dual policy at play”.
Pakistan has other concerns, too, of course. It is aware that the US, generally, wants out, and Islamabad would be the first to suffer. We still depend on US cooperation
That, of course, refers to the Taliban offensive in Afghanistan. Its supply line clearly still passes through Pakistan. Even our so called good Taliban, who until recently were assets of the intelligence machinery, openly called for continuing jihad in Afghanistan. And much of the money and ammunition is either generated in, or crosses, Pakistan.
“Reports say that the Taliban have more ammunition than the Afghan army, so something is definitely going on here. Whether it’s allowing the offensive or not doing enough to prevent it, especially resupplying”.
The operation is fine, but is it being relayed right? We are taking the ISPR’s words at face value, but that is all we have. There is still no independent journalistic verification of the situation on the ground. Is that how it should be?
“You are right. This part of the operation has been a huge mistake”, he said sharply. “There is no public information, no idea who the 900 people were that have been killed. Media and public information are essential parts of an effective counterinsurgency (COIN) campaign, but this is missing in this operation”.
But the operation is still extremely important. It has come at an important time. The Americans are staying, but their presence is greatly reduced. Afghanistan, too, is moving on from Karzai, and his animosity towards Pakistan. Even in his farewell speech he pointed at both America and Pakistan as fomenting trouble in his country. Will things change now?
“True, a lot is changing with Americans going and a new leadership in Kabul, but you must put Karzai’s hostility in perspective. The Afghans are extremely angry with Pakistan. They claim the Taliban are still coming from Pakistan”.
Pakistan, in his analysis, can do a lot to mend this relationship, which will yield better results for both countries, especially since Pakistan has also initiated war against its own brand of the Taliban.
Islamabad should, therefore, not only curtail the Taliban offensive in Afghanistan logistically, but also play a diplomatic role, and persuade warring factions to end the fighting. Following the operation, this would be the logical route. But it would also require reciprocity from Kabul. If he Abdullah-Ghani experiment holds, and turns out just as belligerent towards Pakistan, the relationship will come under strain again, and the timing would complicate things further. But for now its Zarb-e-Azb, change of guard in Kabul, and now the BSA. A new mix has been presented, which means the great game will shift again. We’ll come back for more to Ahmad Rashid as these new dynamics mature.