London, Asharq Al-Awsat—The actions of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the radical Sunni militant group that has taken control of large swaths of Syrian and Iraqi territory, is laying bare the potency of extremism and its territorial ambitions. But the rise of militant jihadism had an earlier and vital chapter further east, in the rough and mountainous terrain of Afghanistan, where during the 1980s the followers of the Palestinian ideologue Abdullah Yusuf Azzam fought with the Afghan mujahideen against the military might of the Soviet Union. It was in Afghanistan that Osama Bin Laden, a young Saudi disciple of Azzam, founded Al-Qaeda, the radical organization that would redefine the concept of offensive jihad.
As US and NATO troops prepare for a complete withdrawal from Afghanistan by the end of the year, outgoing President Hamid Karzai refuses to sign a security agreement that would allow the US to maintain up to 10,000 troops in the country. Meanwhile, Afghans are eagerly awaiting the results of the presidential run-off vote between Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, amid allegations from Abdullah’s campaign of widespread vote-rigging in favor of Ghani.
It is not only in Afghanistan that the Taliban insurgency and fears of the return of Al-Qaeda are gaining momentum. Next door in Pakistan, home to dozens of Taliban groups and other extremist groups with links to Al-Qaeda, a new offensive by the Taliban has generated a counter-offensive by government forces supported by US drones in the tribal region of North Waziristan. The peace talks between the government of Nawaz Sharif and the insurgents look doomed.
Asharq Al-Awsat spoke with Pakistani journalist and author Ahmed Rashid, who has covered Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia for more than three decades. He was in Kabul in 1978, during the coup that put the Communists in power, and in Kandahar the following year, when the Russian troops rolled in. Among his books, defined by impressive first-hand detail and unrivalled knowledge of the region, is Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia, published just before the 9/11 attacks.
Mr. Rashid discussed the electoral stalemate in Afghanistan, the chances each of the candidates have to unite the different ethnic groups around one national project, the status of the peace talks between the government and the Taliban, and the often ambiguous relationship between militant groups in Pakistan and Pakistan’s authorities.
Asharq Al-Awsat: Abdullah Abdullah’s campaign claims that there has been widespread fraud and that Karzai and his people are behind it. Do you give credit to these allegations?
Ahmed Rashid: At the moment it is very difficult to know. But clearly Abdullah, who lost out on the presidency in 2009, is not going to tolerate fraud again. This is the second time that he has been faced with the potential of enormous fraud, and he is going to fight back. And I think this creates a huge crisis in Afghanistan, which of course at the moment is being overshadowed by Iraq and Syria and other things. But a breakdown in Afghanistan could lead to a civil war between the two protagonists, Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani.
Unfortunately part of the problem has been caused by President Karzai, who first seemed to be siding with Abdullah, and seems to have given him some reassurances before the elections that if he won he would continue to support his presidency. And now Karzai seems to have switched to support Ashraf Ghani. In that instance it seems that if anybody has carried out the rigging, the rigging has been carried out by the state machinery of President Karzai. And if it has been done in favor of Ashraf Ghani, well then it is very clearly showing that Karzai is supporting Ashraf Ghani rather than Abdullah. This, of course, really undermines the principles of a free and fair election.
Q: What are the expectations surrounding Abdullah? And around Ashraf Ghani? What could they offer at helm of the Afghan state that Karzai didn’t?
I think they’re both very competent, they’re educated, they’re modern, they believe in nation-building, state-building. All the things that went wrong in the last decade, they want to rectify. They want to tackle issues like corruption and drugs, which are pulling Afghanistan down. They want to improve relations with their neighbors. There is absolutely nothing wrong with their agendas.
The question is that when one becomes the president, the real agenda unfortunately is always about ethnicity. If Abdullah comes into power, or if Ashraf Ghani does, will they be able to keep a balance among all the ethnic groups within their own government and presidency?
Q: Abdullah is a Tajik-Pashtun. Do you think that can help in the negotiations with the Taliban? Will it affect how he is perceived by the Taliban? Or does the fact that he was an adviser to Ahmad Massoud, the leader of the Northern Alliance, mean that the Taliban will never trust him?
What has been indicated so far, for example by Pakistan, which is a supporter of the Afghan Taliban, is that actually Abdullah—who is viewed as a Tajik because he was fighting with the Tajiks in the civil war against the Taliban—could broker a peace [agreement] probably better than Ashraf Ghani because he could bring along all other non-Pashtun minority nationalities—the Hazaras, the Turkmens, the Uzbeks, the Tajiks, et cetera. All of that consensus would be needed to make a peace deal with the Taliban.
Ashraf [Ghani] could also manage the same thing, but [he] is disliked by many people because he has a very bad temper and he has a reputation for being very aggressive, and will have to see whether he is the kind of person that can mediate a complex multi-ethnic agreement.
Q: The Afghan Taliban seem to be split between those leaders who support direct talks with the government and those who oppose it. Is Mullah Omar still essentially the key leader? Is his word the final say on the peace process?
First of all, I think it is very positive that we still have a central leadership among the Afghan Taliban. If you look at the Pakistani Taliban, they are forty groups and no group accepts the others’ leadership. So it is healthy for the negotiations that there is a central leadership. Now, I think at the moment that that leadership is divided; it is having a long debate over peace or war. There is a peace lobby within the movement, and we saw that lobby in action with the help of the Americans two years ago. I think that lobby is backed partially by Mullah Omar, because those talks would have never happened if Mullah Omar had not supported the talks.
But there is also a hardline lobby that says that we should conquer Kabul and defeat the government and take power and all the rest of it, and I think the debate is continuing. Obviously, we are not really going to understand the outcome of the debate or what the Taliban really want until the crisis in Kabul is settled and until there is a clear president in Kabul accepted by the people.
Q: More than a decade after the US-led intervention in Afghanistan, what have been the main benefits of their presence?
I think the main benefits have really been in the social services and the provision of services to the people, which of course have never happened in Afghan history before. Even the communist government in the 1980s basically provided services and goods to the urban elite, but never managed to reach the countryside. I think the provision of goods and services has been very important, and it has raised expectations enormously among the Afghan population. This needs to continue with the new government and without the Americans.
Q: A lot is said about the relationship between the Afghan Taliban and Pakistan’s Inter-services Intelligence Directorate (ISI). Has the nature of this relationship changed with the withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan?
I think it changed earlier. Pakistan, in 2003–2004, was militarily supporting the Taliban and I don’t think that is the case now. Certainly, they are allowed to have sanctuary in Pakistan, their leadership is there, but I don’t think they are being militarily supported by ISI or the army as before, and that is a big change.
Secondly, the Pakistanis are very keen for a negotiated settlement between Kabul and the Taliban, and they have helped before, especially with the talks with the Americans in 2011 and 2012, and I think they would like to see these talks happen again with the new government.
Q: A recent book by British journalist Carlota Gall, The Wrong Enemy, claims to have ample evidence supporting a longstanding accusation against ISI: that it supports the Afghan Taliban logistically and has a say in the Taliban’s military strategy. It also describes how ISI had a desk dedicated to looking after Osama Bin Laden. Was there a protection deal for Bin Laden in exchange for no terrorist attacks by his followers in Pakistan?
I really don’t know the answer to that question. She makes a very interesting assertion, but I don’t think anyone really knows the answer to that. She does not give her sources: What kind of sources told her this? Were there sources within ISI? If there were Afghan sources I would not really trust them, so I think this is an unanswered question so far.
Q: Maulana Abdul Aziz, the former imam of the Red Mosque in Islamabad, has again become very active. Can you explain this ambiguity, or even tolerance, from Pakistan’s authorities when dealing with militant Islamists and the spread of radical ideas?
Unfortunately, this is a policy that has continued for the last forty years. Pakistani militants have been used to push Pakistan’s foreign policy agenda in India, in Kashmir, in Afghanistan, in Central Asia. And I hope that this period has come to an end now and that the Pakistani military and the ISI understand what a loss and what a negative impact this kind of proxy war has had on the internal situation in Pakistan. We are seeing, of course, the massive growth of Talibanization in Pakistan and the impact it has had on Pakistan’s international image and its neighbors, which has been very negative.
It is not over yet, but I hope that there will be more logical, rational policies which will not use extremists.
Q: Talking about Pakistan’s neighbors, how do you think the new Indian prime minister will change the dynamics of the relationship between India and Pakistan, if at all?
It’s too early to say. All the vibrations have been very positive. Nawaz Sharif went to attend the inauguration in Delhi and they have written letters to each other and all the rest of it, but nothing has actually happened yet on the ground. The Indians want to see action taken against the seven people who are charged with organizing the massacre in Mumbai in 2007. The Pakistanis want to see the resumption of talks on Kashmir and other issues. None of these things have actually happened, and until they start happening it is very difficult to say that just exchanging letters and being nice to each other is sufficient. We need more than that.