On April 6, I spoke with Pakistani journalist and historian Ahmed Rashid about his work covering Central Asia and other parts of the Muslim world. Rashid, a leading expert on the Taliban, lives in Lahore, Pakistan. We spoke about his career and some of the consequences of American foreign policy in these regions. The interview has been edited for length.
Q: After graduating from Cambridge in the late 1960s, you spent some years in the province of Balochistan organizing a resistance movement against the military dictatorship of Pakistan. What inspired you to engage in guerrilla activities?
Ahmed Rashid: There was a lot of radicalization of students then against the war in Vietnam, protesting American policy there. You might say that radicalism was in the air everywhere. We all read Frantz Fanon. The Wretched of the Earth was a byword in the “Third World” to the revolutionary left. Che Guevara was the hero of everyone. Lesser-known revolutionary figures in Africa were very influential in the socialist circles of poor agricultural countries with very few resources. We also went through the drill of the major Marxists: Marx himself, Mao, Lenin, and other Russian revolutionaries. In Pakistan, we wanted our radical movement to be innovative and not repeat the mistakes of Mao, Stalin, and the others. We wanted to create an alternative movement that would be a big shift away from the authoritarianism of earlier revolutionary movements. But the movement ended because of internal divisions.
Q: Starting in the 1970s, you began your career in journalism. How did you break into the newspaper business?
Rashid: I had spent the last year of my time in the movement in Afghanistan looking after some 50,000 refugees from Balochistan. A communist revolution occurred in Afghanistan. It was a bit of a disaster because of its Stalinist character, which of course deeply antagonized the tribal Muslim people there. They rose in revolt.
When I subsequently came to London, people I knew there suggested that I earn some money by writing about the situation in Afghanistan. Nobody knew what was going on because the Soviets had banned all journalists.
Afghanistan became a very big media topic in the 1980s. I quickly found a gap in the media coverage where I could use my knowledge to write articles. Eventually, I returned to Pakistan under an amnesty scheme by a new government and continued my life as a journalist.
Q: Your first book, The Resurgence of Central Asia: Islam or Nationalism?, appeared in 1994. By then, the Soviet Union had broken up. The word “resurgence” in the title suggests optimism about the future. Did you see the post-Soviet era as a time of promise in Central Asia?
Rashid: At that time, there was a movement away from communism and Stalinism toward a redefining of their culture. Religion had been banned. Most of the Central Asian states were Muslim, but they had not been allowed to practice Islam. The people began to rediscover their rich cultural legacy.
What I found there was that people wanted to inherit their past and to understand it. There was no historical understanding about their tribal societies or the role of Sufism, the spiritual side of Islam, which had been very predominant in Central Asia. People were really hungry to understand this past culture. It was a real resurgence.
When I wrote this book, there was hardly anything available about Central Asia. No one knew how it had lost so much tradition and culture or how it was trying to regain it. It was a very difficult book to write because of the unavailability of sources.
Q: But it launched your career as an author, and later, in 2000, you published Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia. It became a New York Times bestseller and has been translated into forty languages, with over a million-and-a-half copies sold in English alone. Did the book become a bestseller right away, or did it take 9/11 the following year to bring it to the attention of a global audience?
Rashid: The book was based on what I had learned about the Taliban from my many trips to Afghanistan. Nobody knew anything about them. I had become steeped in the country’s Islamic factions. In 2000, there was very little interest in Afghanistan, a place of famine and drought. Nobody wanted to be there. I kept taking trips to Afghanistan, convinced that the Taliban was something unique and important.
I went with my manuscript to London and New York. Nobody would touch it. They said, “What is this? Who are these people? Who is going to be interested in the Taliban?”
Fortunately, a publisher in London took it up. Then, just before 9/11, Yale University Press published it in America. It received some good reviews and started selling quite well. When 9/11 happened, the book just exploded.
Q: You came to speak in the University of Montana’s President’s Lecture Series in April 2003, one month after the invasion of Iraq. You were critical of American foreign policy. The United States had invaded Afghanistan in October 2001 to overthrow the Taliban. You said that by diverting manpower and resources from Afghanistan to Iraq, the United States had made a disastrous strategic error. Was Operation Iraqi Freedom the critical error of the United States in Afghanistan, or was the mission in that country hopeless from the start?
Rashid: No, certainly not. The mission in Afghanistan was very doable, in my opinion. When American troops came into Afghanistan immediately after 9/11, they were welcomed because people were fed up with the Taliban. They were hungry and starving. Agriculture had collapsed. It was a dire situation.
The Americans came in with the promise that they would change the system and improve living standards. But, unfortunately, a big mistake was made when [George W.] Bush and the people around him—Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz—decided to demolish the Iraqi dictator. Moving away from Afghanistan to Iraq was a huge mistake, because Afghanistan was doable.
Q: In your writing about extremism in Central Asia, you have emphasized the decisive importance of economic stability. In Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia, your 2002 book, you presented an economic interpretation of terrorism, arguing that economic conditions created an opening there for radical groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the IMU. You wrote, “A well-fed, well-housed, and fully employed population would not provide recruits for the IMU.” Is the problem of terrorism in Central Asia fundamentally economic? What about the role of radical Islamist ideology as an independent variable there?
Rashid: The economic facts are very important. The Soviets had failed to develop the five Central Asian republics in any meaningful way. They were extracting oil, gas, and minerals, but without really investing anything in Central Asia. So when freedom came, when independence came, they were unprepared.
The whole of the former Soviet Union was in disarray. There was a huge economic crisis in Russia. People were begging in the streets. It was even worse in Central Asia, where people had depended on Russian payments and investments. Suddenly, all that was gone, and people were left with very little.
It took many years to revive the economy, even at the low level of the Soviet era. Economics played a very big recruiting role for the Taliban and other radical groups. They were able to offer jobs and salaries. Islamist ideology had its own power, but it spread in a social context of extreme poverty and want.
Q: In 2008’s Descent into Chaos: The U.S. and the Disaster in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia, you analyzed the policy failures of the American War on Terror, stating that the Taliban and al Qaeda were on the rise because of U.S. policies. Which policies did you have in mind?
Rashid: As for Afghanistan, the United States had promised aid to rebuild the country following the withdrawal of the Soviets in the late 1980s but never followed through. The United States basically abandoned the country, which then disintegrated into a civil war among the various ethnic groups and warlords. It was a horrendous situation. This was the real start of radicalization and extremism there.
So there was this belief that the Americans were to blame for the civil war because they left so early and had not imposed a Pax Americana in Afghanistan. A decade later, with Operation Iraqi Freedom, history repeated itself, with the Americans once again deserting Afghanistan and focusing on Iraq. The second time, the Americans did try to some extent, but many of their methods and ideas were not really relevant to a tribal society.
Q: I would like to talk about your most recent book, Pakistan on the Brink: The Future of America, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, which appeared in 2012. You described Pakistan as a failed state with more than 100 nuclear weapons. What accounts for the failure of Pakistan?
Rashid: Pakistan emerged in 1947 out of colonialism and British rule in terrible condition. There were millions of refugees. Muslims came from India who wanted to settle in Pakistan. There were millions of Hindus wanting to leave the territory of Pakistan and resettle in India. During that period began the downward spiral of these two groups fighting and killing each other. They could not find a mutually agreeable solution to their problems. That was the start of Pakistan’s antagonism toward India.
The Pakistani military is still obsessed with taking on India, defeating India, and trying to make sure that India has as little influence as possible in the region, for example, in areas like Afghanistan. This narrow thinking has been in place from the beginning of Pakistan’s history.
The competition between Pakistan and India continued all through the Cold War, with the Pakistanis enlisting the Americans to supply them with heavy weapons while the Indians enlisted the Russians to do the same. So much time and energy were wasted building up the military on both sides in place of economic development. India, however, managed to develop a civilian economy. Pakistan, unfortunately, did not.
Q: Has anything changed in the past decade to modify your depressing view of the situation in Pakistan?
Rashid: Yes, the situation is much worse now than when I wrote Pakistan on the Brink in 2012. We have now a huge economic crisis. We are in desperate need of loans to keep the economy going. We have, too, an incredibly adverse political crisis, with politicians refusing to find common ground. We also have a foreign policy crisis because we don’t have friends in the region, apart from China. The Chinese have helped us out a lot, but the fact is that Pakistan is very isolated in the region.
Q: What does Pakistan’s friendship with China mean for its relationship with the United States?
Rashid: This will be difficult for Pakistan. The United States has become much more strident by insisting that its allies take a stand against China. Pakistan has a very strong and long-standing relationship with China. Right now, it is receiving a Chinese loan of over $2 billion to back up its bank reserves. But Pakistan also cannot do without the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, which are American institutions used to bribe other countries or cause them to fail.
America insists that other countries follow their agenda. Pakistan is really trapped in two different systems and needs both of them. The Americans are insisting that Pakistan should abandon its relationship with China, while China, not so publicly, insists that Pakistan should abandon its relationship with the United States. When you are poverty-stricken and have no friends—and you have a political crisis and an economic crisis with extremism rampant in your country—you cannot take a stand against anyone.
Q: You have said that Pakistan, in recent years, has re-established relations with Russia. I wonder what the Pakistan-Russia relationship is like today with the war in Ukraine raging.
Rashid: The Russians have offered oil as well as gas to go through a pipeline which would cross Central Asia from Russia to Pakistan. But the problem here, of course, is that Russia is under very heavy sanctions by the United States and the international community because of Ukraine. If Pakistan takes on any major Russian project, it probably will face punishment from the United States. And that is the last thing it can afford.
Russia is primarily the ally of India, and Pakistan is trying to break the connection between them and gain influence with the Russians. That is difficult to do because of American opposition to any dealings by Pakistan with Russia.
Q: One of your articles dealing with the Middle East appeared in a March 2017 issue of The New York Review of Books, “Trump in the Middle East: The New Brutality,” where you discussed the drastic militarization of U.S. policy in the Middle East. You concluded that in his administration, the American effort to win the hearts and minds of Muslim peoples had come to an end in favor of military force alone.
Rashid: [Donald] Trump had no policy in the Middle East that was at all understandable. He tried to make peace with those states by ignoring the Palestinians, and today we have perhaps the biggest uprising by the Palestinians in Gaza. It is the worst violence between the two sides we’ve seen in many years. That is a result of Trump’s policies and the failure to address the Palestinian issue, which America continues to do in a milder sort of way.
Q: In March 2022, you told me that the war in Ukraine would not be the only consequence of the U.S. defeat in Afghanistan. Other problems would likely grow worse, including those involving India and Pakistan, Iran and the Arabs, Yemen, Libya, and Myanmar. Has this unraveling that you foresaw a year ago happened?
Rashid: Although there have been some positive signs, as in Iran and Saudi Arabia, if you look at the state of the world right now, I think that there has been a huge rise in conflict and unrest over economic problems and hunger in many different places. I feel very much that the lack of diplomacy and economic planning have a direct impact on these problems, and others as well, such as climate change. We are not doing anything to reduce the problems that we face. To control climate change, we will have to think in terms of fighting a war, but hardly anything of significance is being done.
This interview was first published by The Progressive in the June/July 2023 issue and online on June 15, 2023.