Thursday, 6 November 2008

My Encounter with Ahmed Rashid

I met Ahmed Rashid last week at SOAS when he came to deliver a talk - "Rise of Religious Extremism in Pakistan" - this past Monday, 3 November.

I was at the reception desk waiting around for the lecture to begin when I saw him walk through the main entrance in a very angrezi style coat and hat. I immediately introduced myself excitedly, gushing about my experience in Afghanistan and what a pleasure it was to meet him! He asked me where he might get a cup of tea and I pointed towards our very grimy student union shop. His elegant wife and very cute daughter also walked in. I followed them to the shop where Mr. Rashid offered me tea as well. I chatted to Mrs Rashid who is Spanish. I asked her where she'd met Mr. Rashid and she quipped, 'where everyone meets everyone, in London.' I thought it was pretty cool to be talking to her while other Pakistani students streamed in greeting the famous journalist.

Because of the mix up of the allocated venue for the talk, it was another 10 minutes before it all began. It ended up taking place in a very small room but the relevance of the topic, the fame of the speaker, and the general coolness of Pakistanis more than made up for it! I mean, there was a real buzz in the room - unlike a few other talks I have seen so far by outside speakers.

Ahmed Rashid described the dire straits in Pakistan and helped me to better understand or differentiate between the violence spilling from Afghanistan into Pakistan and, our homegrown talents in mayhem. According to him, Pakistanis are living under a false set of assumptions propagated by our Army, politicians and the Urdu press:

- that America's so-called war of terror is not Pakistan's

- the war would stop if Americans left Afghanistan

- that if the Pakistan Army pulls out of Federally
Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), all would be okay

- that we should have unconditional talks with the militants
(Nawaz Sharif apparently supports this idea)

- everyone but us is responsible for the mess in Pakistan

Against this false sense of reality within Pakistan, it is true that Americans are badly losing the battle against the Taliban and other militants in Afghanistan. The reasons for the deterioation in the situation in Afghanistan are directly linked to the diversion in Iraq. The Americans abandoned the fragile security situation after their invasion of Afghanistan which was put on the way-back burner while Iraq was supposedly being liberated. 2003 to 2004 was a period of opportunity to rebuild Afghanistan and, rise to the expectations of Afghanis as was promised to them before cluster bombing them. Instead of rebuilding infrastructure and investing in basic health, education and the economy, warlords were re-empowered by the CIA, the drugs trade flourished again and, the Taliban eventually regained their strength in numbers and resources.

It is only now that Americans and, the Pakistan Government have woken up to the situation we find ourselves in. In their well-thought-out plan to only get a hold of Al Qaeda, the Pakistan Government under General Musharraf agreed to do America's bidding and only focused on Al Qaeda cells and, caught a lot of Al Qaeda #2's. This suited Musharraf very well because the Pakistan Army had not only help create the Taliban but also fought with it in Afghanistan against the Northern Alliance. The Taliban which had escaped from Afghanistan into Pakistan's mountains and frontier not only regrouped but branched out into a Pakistani chapter as well. And, it is this Pakistani chapter of the Taliban that is wreaking the death and destruction not only in the mountains but also in our major cities.

Taking a step back into the past, the original Taliban that had fought against Northen Alliance in the late 1990s were supported by the Pakistan Army and volunteers as part of our 'strategic depth' policy. It is this Taliban that escaped Afghanistan in 2001 and 2002 during American strikes and sought refuge in our mountains and along our border regions. And they certainly had the support of the Pakistan Army which according to Mr. Rashid not only turned a blind eye but supported them. These Taliban were hosted in FATA and after executing a lot of the local pro-government and anti-Taliban elders and heads of communities, raised their own fighting forces.

Mr. Musharraf meanwhile rigged elections in 2002 and radical religious parties such as Jamiat-ul-Ulama-i-Islam (JUI) who had actually supported the Taliban in the 1990s came onto the political scene at the expense of the sidelined mainstream political parties. The massive earthquake in 2005 in Kashmire allowed other dormant groups such as Lashkar-E-Tayyaba to also become active. Public relief funds were directed to them and, these groups gained legitimacy in public opinion as having been one of the first groups to offer help to the affected. And lastly, the delayed and bloody seizure of the Lal Masjid in Islamabad resulted in an unnecessary and tragic bloodbath; the few militants that had barricaded themselves in the Red Mosque should have been contained in the beginning and not after six months as it so happened, thereby radicalising the Taliban and sympathisers further.

Today, our Army is fighting militants in its own territories but not with any real strategy or policy in mind. The ongoing battle in Bajaur was meant to last for a couple weeks but has dragged on for three months now and, has become a frontline. Instead of employing a counter insurgency policy, the Army has only sporadically tackled the problem. I was shocked to learn that the Frontier Corps are fighting this war while the regular army is still posted on the border with India. Pashtoons who make up the Corps probably fought with the Taliban in the 1990s or have family links to areas in FATA compounding the challenges even further.

Furthermore, we have failed our own population. We did not protect the local population of FATA which have become refugee in the rest of Pakistan. Since 2004, 800,000 Pashtoons have fled those areas (this is 20 - 25% of the entire population!). Furthermore, the Taliban executed the elders and other leaders who did not agree with their ideology. By giving sanctuary to the Afghan Taliban, we effectively created our own Pakistani Taliban who have an agenda of talibanising the whole of Pakistan. Ahmed Rashid certainly did not mince his words when describing the mess we are in. He proposed the following solutions:

The Taliban which have become a regional problem in South Asia need to be approached and tackled regionally keeping in mind that India, Pakistan, Iran and the five central states all have proxies in Afghanistan. The Americans needs to have a far more comprehensive solution for the region as a whole. You can't box Afghanistan or Pakistan differently, for example.

Normalisation of relations and resolution of unresolved issues needs to be facilitated between Pakistan and India. Pakistan's Foreign Policy has always been rooted in deep fear of Indian aggression; furthermore, this policy has always been in theArmy's control. Hence, we came up with 'strategic depth' in Afghanistan. Hence, we have never allowed a stable democracy. The civilian government in Pakistan needs to be strengthened and regain control of its foreign policy.

Ahmed Rashid was bombarded with very interesting questions after proposing a regional diplomatic and economic strategy.

In answer to a question whether conservatism was not on the rise itself regardless of the presence of the Taliban, Mr. Rashid agreed but stated that the Pakistani middle class did not realise that Pakistani Taliban are a result of Pakistan Government - under the heavy influence of the Army - sponsorship over a long period of time. Relief funding was directly channelled to radical religious parties at the time of the 2005 earthquake in Kashmir. Hence, the Right is quite organised and well-funded. People are not standing up to this radicalisation or violence because they think that the war in Afghanistan and in FATA is America's war. The Taliban are quite a dangerous bunch of people without a real social or economic model (their view on women is disastrous). Groups in Egypt or Lebanon for example at least have an economic programme.

Is the violence in Karachi in any way linked to any Taliban presence? Mr. Rashid explained that the violence in Karachi has always had largely sectarian and ethnic roots. Although, a lot of support for the Taliban originated from religious schools in Karachi, all the way back in 1994.

In answer to 'Western-divide-and-rule tactics,' Mr. Rashid said that the Americans have not been playing fair politics in South Asia by initiating the civilian nuclear power exchange with India, Pakistan's rival. This will have an adverse affect on Pakistani internal politics and psyche. The neo-con strategy, highly "stupid," was to even use India against China but thankfully, India did not want to play that game. Of course there is no guarantee that the new American administration will have better policies for South Asia but at least we can hope. General Petraeus, the American military dude who was in charge of Iraq, is now running Afghanistan. Mr. Rashid explained that the tribal society was not dismantled in Iraq - tribal leaders were paid by Saddam Hussein and also, by the Americans after the invasion. The Americans armed 100,000 tribesmen in Iraq which now will be difficult to disarm. The options are limited - these armed tribesmen cannot even be absorbed into the army or police.

In Afghanistan, on the other hand, the Taliban have dismantled hierarchies by raising the mullahs over the traditional elders. Moreover, the Taliban are paying today paying salaries to their fighters which they were not in the 1990s.

The sad thing is that Pashtoon culture is being demonised all over the world and, even in Pakistan. Pashtoon culture is not only rich but, also has a rich tradition of politics. He himself and the audience made reference to the peaceful non aligned Pashtoon movement.

As for what Pakistan has done with the approximate $ 12 billion worth of 'aid' given by the Americans, a lot of defense equipment was bought but more against India. Pakistan should have spent the money on equipment more useful for counter insurgency and, training in it.

There were a lot of cynical observations made by some of the students as Pakistanis have lost faith in the army as well as the political parties. But Ahmed Rashid stressed that the democracy in Pakistan has never really had a chance to grow and mature; hence the quality of the politicans that we have. But just because these are the 'cards we have been dealt with', does not mean we should abandon the democratic route.

The lecture came to an end and most of the audience dispersed. I followed Mr. Rashid and some others to the SOAS bar. I found myself sitting with Mr. Rashid, a few other Pakistani students, an older retired Pakistani academic and who I believe to be M. Ziauddin, the editor of Dawn. Pretty cool, eh? I even managed to ask a few seemingly-smart questions and contributed my spurts of thought here and there. I was quite chuffed to be at this little after-party which went on about for an hour at least. The evening eventually came to an end and, I expressed my pleasure of meeting Mr. Rashid.

As far as the mess in Pakistan is concerned, it is going to take a lot of time to clean it up. It is not a mess, it is war. The kind of 'insurgency' war that can be sustained over long periods of time and, increasingly destabilise Pakistan. Because the means of this war are small to medium arms which are actually being manufactured locally and being traded across both sides of the border with Afghanistan. And, as we can imagine, it is not hard to recruit frighters; America is indiscriminantly bombing our territories. We in Pakistan have to not only fight this insurgency with a clear strategy but, be prepared to repair the damages of war and population displacement.


  1. hey I commented,where did the comment go?

  2. get the Pakistani defense policy perpective, understand strategic depth, and the current insurgency in Pakistan and its causation :)...welll done...the post :)