Ahmed Rashid on Militant Islam in Central Asia

Publisher: Yale University Press, New Haven (2001)
Publisher: Yale University Press, New Haven (2001)

Ahmed Rashid is the Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review and the Daily Telegraph, London, and has written extensively on the region for the last twenty years.

In Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil, and Fundamentalism in Central Asia (London: IB Tauris, 2000), Mr Rashid warned the international community to ignore Afghanistan at its peril. This book became a New York Times bestseller shortly after September 11th.

In this interview, Mr Rashid discusses his new book, Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), and the explosive situation unfolding in the region today. He also explains the role of other important regional actors like Pakistan and the impact of the US war in Afghanistan.

There appears to be some consensus among people familiar with Afghanistan that more Taliban would have defected if there had been a political entity for them to defect to (that is, if the interim administration had been established prior to a military campaign). Why do you think this is the case and where instead have the Taliban gone?

Pakistan was trying to delay the start of the bombing for as long as possible because it believed that the Taliban would split and there would be defections, but my impression was that the Taliban leadership was so closely tied in with bin Laden -- and with the aims of bin Laden -- and so tightly controlled and disciplined by Mullah Omar that such defections would not have occurred.

What could have happened if the bombing had been delayed was better preparation by the Americans and the Pakistanis for the Pashtun belt in the south of the country. Then you would not have had the chaotic situation that exists today where a lot of the Pashtun governors and tribal leaders are giving only nominal support to Hamid Karzai and the interim government. There would also not have been such large pockets of Taliban and Al-Qaeda still being able to set up bases the way they are.

So I think that the failure of US policy was really the lack of political preparation in the Pashtun belt; even today there is no political strategy there because the warlords are being funded and armed by the Americans and they are not cleaning up their acts or expressing great loyalty to the central government. This is clearly undermining the authority of the Karzai administration.

As far as the Taliban are concerned, I think many of the rank-and-file have gone home to their villages, while others have gone into Pakistan. The bulk of the leadership is now in Pakistan (those who were not caught or arrested by the Americans) and they are all lying low there. They have contacts, they have refuge with the Islamic parties as well as with former intelligence officials, and they are lying low like so many other militant parties in the region.

You have emphasized elsewhere the need for a reconstruction plan that would focus on the region, rather than just on Afghanistan. You suggest that there is an area of instability that includes the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), and Baluchistan in Pakistan, the Ferghana Valley in Uzbekistan and Seistan in Iran. What kind of instability do you see in these areas and what kind of a reconstruction plan would be needed to counteract it?

These are areas where Islamic militancy is strongest. These are also areas which have been economically completely neglected by their own regimes, and by the international community. I think it is the classic case of a combination of poverty, growing unemployment, and the youth bulge fuelling and spurring on extremism.

These areas need a comprehensive economic plan formulated and implemented by the international community and, of course, by individual regimes in the region. The Central Asian regimes do not take the Ferghana Valley seriously; that has been half the problem. They do not believe that there is an economic crisis or an unemployment crisis in Ferghana whereas, in fact, there is something like 90 per cent unemployment there. So the regimes have to take these areas seriously.

A comprehensive, integrated plan, perhaps spearheaded by one of the big multilateral agencies like the World Bank, is needed. We need to keep in mind that the problems in these areas are very similar even though one is dealing with different ethnic groups, different languages, and different cultures.

In your book, Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia, you discuss the increasing appeal of the Hizb ut-Tahrir al-Islami (HT; the Party of Islamic Liberation) and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and argue that they constitute a serious threat to the region. Their adherents derive inspiration from the Taliban and the extreme Wahhabi doctrine of Saudi Arabia, and were trained in militant madrassas in Pakistan. You say, as well, that in Kabul in September 2000, the Taliban, the IMU, the HT, Chechen separatists, and bin Laden met and held talks about future cooperation.

Given both the demographics of the region as well as the increasing political repression these groups face in Central Asia, you argue that they are likely to grow in strength and numbers. What should the US and the international community do to prevent this from happening?

First of all, the campaign in Afghanistan has certainly hit the militant arms of the IMU and the Hizb ut-Tahrir; in other words, the fighters who were in Afghanistan, their source of money, weapons and supplies, as well as the drugs trade, have all been hit very badly. But their networks in Central Asia itself have not been touched at all. The IMU is reorganizing in Central Asia as is Hizb ut-Tahrir. Both organizations have a new slogan now which is basically anti-Americanism. They feel that over the medium- and long-term, they will be able to mobilize greater popular support because the Americans now have bases in three countries in Central Asia (Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan). The Americans will be seen to be propping up dictatorial regimes and not pushing them hard enough to carry out economic and social reforms. The danger is still very much that these groups are not going to diminish or disappear in Central Asia; they are going to continue to exist and may in fact grow in strength.

Now what can be done? What is going to be needed is very serious economic and political reform within these countries, particularly President Karimov's Uzbekistan. Karimov was in Washington last week and signed a security pact with the US, in which, for the first time, there was some mention of the fact that he has to carry out political and economic reforms. I think this is a step forward, but the US is not stipulating any kind of reform as a condition for any Central Asian country receiving an aid package. To some extent, the aid has to be conditional on greater democratization and greater economic reforms; that is, measures that will address unemployment and other problems in the area and that will also allow a political process to evolve.

You have also argued that the US military campaign in Afghanistan has exacerbated the situation since both Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have cooperated with the Americans and have at the same time become more repressive and authoritarian with Muslims at home. What are the implications of this in the long-term?

I think there was an explosive situation in Central Asia even before September 11th; I think that explosive situation still remains. One purpose of my writing this book was to give a warning to everyone, just as I did in the Taliban book, that the Taliban regime was heading for a catastrophe which would upset the entire balance of power in the region. This book is giving the same warning: there is an extremely explosive situation in these areas which is not being tackled and what it needs is a political and economic strategy. It is not good enough for the US to guarantee these regimes security by giving them military training and military aid; what is needed from the international community is a comprehensive political strategy which will take into account the extremely volatile demographic, ethnic and political situation in Central Asia which is fuelling extremism. Since September 11th, none of these issues have gone away; in fact they have probably been exacerbated.

Pakistan's support seems to have been critical to the Taliban, not least because Pakistan wanted to use Afghanistan as a base to train militants for Kashmir. There are many things that point to continuing sympathy with the Taliban within the Pakistan security and intelligence community, despite the regime's formal backing of the war: the removal of top Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and military generals directly before the American military operation, the kidnapping and murder of Daniel Pearl, and most recently, the attack on the church in the diplomatic enclave in Islamabad. How much sympathy do you think there is in Pakistan's military and intelligence establishment for the Taliban? Given these lasting sympathies, how reliable a coalition partner is the Musharraf regime in the so-called war against terrorism?

Unfortunately, the Musharraf regime has not carried out the promised crackdown on these militant groups that it had pledged to do after his January 12th speech. The 2,000 militants who were caught have all been freed, none of them have been charged with anything, and the leadership is now free.

Out of the extremist groups who were banned, hardly anyone has been caught and certainly no one has been charged for the sectarian killings these groups were involved in (several of which have occurred following September 11th). So we are seeing a very weak response: the performance of Musharraf does not match the rhetoric of Musharraf. This is clearly exacerbating the situation.

There is still support among some sections of the military for the Taliban. But more important than that, there is a very powerful group of retired and serving intelligence officers who have, over the last 20 years, built up very effective grids with each other and with militant groups, and are fuelling these extremist groups even now. Nothing has been done to stop them, especially the retired officers, who are giving simply outrageous statements which are undermining Musharraf's attempts to crack down on these groups. But the army refuses to discipline these generals; there are very senior retired generals from the Pakistan army who are making scandalous remarks which are fuelling extremist sentiment in the country and confirming the impression that there are anti-Western grids within the military.

But do you think the Americans are aware of this? And if they are, what are they doing about it?

Unfortunately the new American relationship with Pakistan has become too dependent on one man too quickly. I think Musharraf's visit to Pakistan last month demonstrated that; there was lots of praise for Musharraf but nothing was said about Pakistan (no word about the need for institutional building in Pakistan, no praise for the Pakistani people who have been supporting the crackdown on extremism, etc.). Unfortunately the relationship has been dominated by dependence on one man.

We have seen this before in American foreign policy: with people like the Shah of Iran, for instance, and even now, in Central Asia, with Karimov in Uzbekistan. It is much easier for the Americans to deal with one man but this is not an effective policy. These countries need institution-building procedures which will of necessity go beyond dependence on one man. We are not seeing that process; it almost appears as though the American administration is having a love affair with Musharraf but has no time for Pakistan, the country, or its people.

To turn to issues in Afghanistan: you have said that the Northern Alliance seems to dominate the interim administration since their representatives are in charge of the most important ministries (defence, interior and foreign). This has created resentment within the administration and accusations that they are staffing their offices with other Panjsheris and Northern Alliance loyalists. What effect, if any, is this likely to have on the outcome of the loya jirga in June? How credible do you think the conclusions of the loya jirga will be?

First of all, I think the most difficult and problematic issue in Afghanistan's domestic politics is precisely this: the overwhelming role of the Panjsheris within the interim government is creating enormous resentment, hatred and disunity. I was in Kabul a few days ago and had very frank talks with all three leading Panjsheri ministers and told them that this is a suicidal policy that they are carrying out. It is undermining not only the interim government but their own future. Other ethnic groups are seeing this as the Panjsheris replacing, if you like, the Kandahari Taliban, who also constructed a very narrowly based power structure which was not inclusive of other ethnic groups. I think this is a major problem which they will have to tackle before the loya jirga.

At the same time, I am very optimistic since the loya jirga commission is doing a marvelous job and is reaching out to all sorts of people. It is made up of some very impressive neutral intellectual figures. They will very soon publish the rules and agenda for the loya jirga. I think the loya jirga is going to take place, and it will be very broadly representative, because they will make sure it is. There will be huge representation from women, much more than we expect, as from professionals and émigré groups.

The loya jirga will be broadly representative but the really critical issue is going to be the formation of the next government, that is, the two-year transitional government that will come out of the loya jirga. What is going to be the role of the Panjsheris in that? Are they going to accept the kind of demotion that will be necessary in order to make the government fully representative? I think this is something that the international community, and of course, Hamid Karzai, have to tackle. The Americans do not as yet have a strategy for that either.

Hamid Karzai has not been able to build a constituency with Pashtuns, among whom you say warlordism is rampant. You also suggest that this warlordism is being fueled by the Americans who have funded these warlords to hunt down Al-Qaeda fighters but have not pressured them to be loyal to the central government. Do you think this suggests that the Americans are not interested in the long-term stability of the country and that once they have what they want from Afghanistan, they will simply leave as they did previously?

No, I think the Americans are interested in the long-term stability of Afghanistan but the lack of a political strategy is a reflection of the power struggles and debates going on in Washington between the State Department and the Pentagon. Unfortunately, the Pentagon is still running the show, it is still determining Afghan policy, and it is running the war on terrorism.

The point is that we are at a different stage in Afghanistan now, where the political strategy and the aid strategy have to be as important as hunting down Al-Qaeda. USAID [United States Agency for International Development], for example, has been relegated to the bottom of the pile of US agencies in Kabul. USAID should now be a major player in assisting not only the reconstruction effort but also future politics in the country, just as the State Department should also be a major player.

Unfortunately, however, the balance has not shifted since the war started in October. Of course, the Pentagon had to run the war between October and December but now the political balance inside the country has shifted and it is very important that this debate in Washington ends with a better political strategy for Afghanistan. This political strategy cannot be pursued by the Pentagon; it needs diplomats, aid officials and other people to formulate and run it.

You have elsewhere repeatedly stressed the importance of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) being expanded into four or five other cities in Afghanistan apart from Kabul. Could you explain why you think this is so important?

First of all, this has been demanded by 99 per cent of the Afghan population. I think it would demonstrate a major commitment by the international community, since it pledged to do this in Bonn, but has not yet carried it out. It would guarantee security for the loya jirga, which is very important so that people can send their real representatives, and thereby reduce the power of the warlords.

Also the real reconstruction and development effort, as opposed to the humanitarian work, can only be guaranteed when there is, for at least six months to a year, an international presence in other major Afghan cities. A number of NGOs, for instance, are not able to operate in Kandahar or in Mazar-e-Sharif at the moment, because of the security situation. Once ISAF is in place, however, this will of course change.

You have also argued that Afghanistan's public sector should not grow out of proportion (that is, there should be a small army, small bureaucracy, etc.) and that instead emphasis should be placed on private initiatives, which should have minimal restrictions placed on them. Why do you place so much emphasis on the private sector?

The Afghan state, for the coming 10 to 15 years, is not going to have the revenues to sustain a large state structure. The new Afghanistan is without a doubt going to have to be a decentralized Afghanistan. This means in political terms giving much greater power to the regions, to minorities and to other ethnic groups. Political decentralization will also, of necessity, mean economic decentralization.

The private sector will of course have to be monitored and have rules of behavior but Afghanistan is not a country that can afford a huge state sector. Already there are 270,000 Afghan civil servants who have not been paid for the last several months.

A Pakistani official you quoted in an article you wrote for FEER shortly after 9/11 said, "Bombing Afghanistan and bin Laden will just be lopping off the top of the tree, it will not be taking out all the branches, which are everywhere." Do you think this justifies military intervention in Iraq or other countries thought to be harbouring terrorists or supporting terrorist activities against the United States?

First of all, I would like to emphasize that I am extremely critical of this so-called "axis of evil" because I feel that this is an extension of US foreign policy and US likes and dislikes. This has very little to do with the war against terrorism. The US is attempting to internationalize its own foreign policy agenda by incorporating everything under the war on terrorism. Iran is not the enemy of Europe or of Japan, so you obviously cannot equate Iran with, say, the Taliban or Al-Qaeda, the way Bush has done.

I think this has been the real tragedy: the unilateralism of the Bush Administration in its first six months is coming back into focus and once again US interests are taking precedence over all else.

As far as Iraq in particular is concerned, if the Americans kill Saddam Hussein, there is no doubt that the nature of the regime would change quite dramatically. But this is not to say that I support military intervention in Iraq because it has nothing at all to do with the war on terrorism. The war against terrorism has credibility because it is not a unilateral effort and operates with some degree of international participation.

Interview conducted by Nermeen Shaikh of The Asia Society.