Just before 9/11, Ahmed Rashid, the Pakistan-based correspondent of The Daily Telegraph, published his first book on the Taliban. The timing set him on the road to becoming one of the world’s experts on Afghanistan and the author of three bestsellers, including The Taliban, which has sold more than 1.5 million copies. He spoke to the National Post’s Stewart Bell during a visit to Calgary this week to give the semi-annual Teatro Lecture.
Q. You’ve argued that the greatest threat to global stability was not the Middle East but the Pakistan-Afghanistan region. Given recent events in Syria and Iraq, do you still think so?
A. Right now what we are seeing is a redrawing of the map of the Middle East and the failure of the Arab states to basically be able to create a common narrative of tolerance within Islam and moderation in Islam to counter the Islamic State of Iraq & Al-Sham. And we’re seeing a huge crisis in the Middle East. In fact, we’re seeing the disintegration of the Middle East.
Q. But Pakistan and Afghanistan remain volatile?
A. Pakistan in many ways is even a more fragile state than Afghanistan because there are multiple terrorist groups, there is the issue of the safety of nuclear weapons and there is always the potential of war with India, which could lead to unforeseen escalation. And there’s continued support for a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, which is also very serious.
Q. We see the extremism and sectarian violence of Pakistan, but you represent a different Pakistan, one that is modern and progressive. Who is winning the contest between these two Pakistans?
A. Unfortunately I would say that the extremists are. And the state is very weak. It is riven with internal divisions between Nawaz Sharif, the prime minister, the opposition led by Imran Khan and the military, which doesn’t want any rapprochement with India at the moment. … There are many more extremists, they are well armed and they have the capacity to undertake horrendous levels of violence.
Q. You’ve written that what Pakistanis truly crave is stability — better governance, a better economy, a better military. Give us a progress report on those fronts?
A. Unfortunately, the war against extremism is not going well because, like elsewhere in the Muslim world, there is no common narrative against the extremist groups. The army and the government are at odds with one another so they are not prone to adopt a common narrative against the extremists. And so about one-third of Pakistan is no longer controlled by the authorities. We have huge areas which are controlled by various insurgencies … this obviously leads to very dangerous conclusions: money laundering, drug running, not to speak of the training of extremists and being able to export them to other countries like Syria and Iraq.
Q. Canada spent a great deal of time and effort trying to bring security and stability to Afghanistan. And still we see a country that remains pretty unstable and insecure. What happened?
A. Well, I think the biggest mistake of the international mission was not to have basically developed an indigenous Afghan economy which was self-sustaining. That was the first big mistake. Not enough money was spent on agriculture and alternatives to poppies. I think the second mistake was the failure to build the army, the police, the security institutions much sooner … The third reason was the attention to Iraq. The resources that should have gone to Afghanistan, and the focus of expertise and nation building all went to Iraq and it was wasted there because it never took root in Iraq. I think in Afghanistan you had a population that was basically pro-American, in favour of development and peace and anti-Taliban. And I don’t think the Taliban would have ever been able to reach the limits of power that they have today if the right measures had been taken at that time by the Americans and by NATO.
Q. You’ve called ISIS the new Taliban. What did you mean?
A. ISIS has adopted a lot of the military tactics and political tactics used by the Taliban. … but basically ISIS is much more extreme. It wants to eliminate all the minorities from the Middle East. It wants to redraw the map of not one country but multiple countries, right across the Middle East. And the methods it’s using are methods that not even the Taliban used — the mass slaughter of opposing soldiers or aid workers and journalists. And of course their grasp of the media and the use of social media.
Q. Al-Qaeda appears to be losing the popularity contest against ISIS. What are the implications of this?
A. I think Al-Qaeda is very deeply rooted in Pakistan and Afghanistan. It’s not going to go away in a hurry. It may be facing a sort of down period at the moment. ISIS is much more popular but ISIS will start facing acute problems again if this American military offensive is successful in any way, and we may well see again the rise of Al-Qaeda.
Q. ISIS and Al-Qaeda are built on a foundation of myth and conspiracy theory that is given a phoney religious legitimacy: there is a war against Islam, jihad is needed to defend the Muslims, Muslims are duty-bound to suppress all other faiths, even violently, in order to bring theirs to supremacy. How are we doing at confronting this Islamist world of make believe?
A. I think these extremists have been able to construct an ideology and a set of beliefs that do resonate amongst disenfranchised Sunnis in Iraq and Syria, and possibly it could as well in Jordan and Lebanon and Saudi Arabia and other countries. Now I agree with you it’s a false narrative but it’s a narrative that has resonance because of the failure of these regimes and the West to tackle the root causes of alienation and unemployment and all the rest of it. Finally, let me just say that this whole battle that ISIS is fighting, this is a war within Islam. This is not a war against the West. What ISIS wants is the elimination of Shias, the elimination of minorities. It wants to extend its interpretation of Islam to the whole Islamic world, which is why it has formed the caliphate. It’s not an Al-Qaeda rehash. This is something completely different … Al-Qaeda was obsessed with hitting the far enemy, which was America. ISIS is obsessed with hitting the near enemy, which is the Arab regimes.