From a Reporter's Notebook: Afghanistan One Year Later: The Struggle for the Soul of a Nation

Sep 25, 2002

Afghanistan is less stable today than it was six months ago because of U.S. reluctance to provide security outside Kabul and the international community's failure to deliver the full amount of the reconstruction aid it promised, says Ahmed Rashid.


JOANNE MYERS: On behalf of the Carnegie Council I would like to welcome members and guests to our Worldview Breakfast program.

This morning it gives me great pleasure to welcome Ahmed Rashid back to the Carnegie Council. As this is Ahmed's third visit since the publication of his internationally best-selling book The Taliban, I'm welcoming back an old, special friend, one who has been away but has not been forgotten.

He is a friend whose return you eagerly await, knowing that when he does appear and begins to share his thoughts with you, tells you what he has seen, where he has been, and gives you so many insights about what is happening in the region of the world he calls his home, you know you will learn a great deal.

The events that followed September 11, 2001 made many people aware that even a distant country like Afghanistan cannot be left to disintegrate into anarchy and chaos without consequences for the entire world. In a climate of continuing uncertainty, whether we are speaking about Afghanistan, Pakistan, or Central Asia, there is one voice that stands out from the others to remind us what we may tend to ignore. And although his voice is sometimes restrained, when he speaks about the challenges facing Afghanistan or about the continuing political instability and the fragility of the new government in Kabul his words speak volumes about the dire plight of the Afghans and those in Central Asia.

Coming from anyone else such views might be open to question, but Ahmed has been studying Afghanistan's politics, its culture, and Central Asia for most of his adult life. Those of you who read The Far Eastern Economic Review, The Daily Telegraph, or The Wall Street Journal are already familiar with his eloquent and authoritative prose.

Ahmed is often introduced as the author of The Taliban and of the recently published Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia, but today I would add that I see him as something more—also an astute political observer, almost a soothsayer, as well as a giant among the journalists covering this area.

When he concludes his talk this morning there is little doubt that you will have a better understanding of the events unfolding in this region, and perhaps you too will begin to share his long-time fascination with Afghanistan.

Please join me in welcoming our guest, Ahmed Rashid.


AHMED RASHID: Thank you very much for inviting me. After seeing this illustrious group of people—half the UN seems to be sitting at this table—many more people should be up here trying to explain what is going on in the world, rather than me. I am very humbled that so many ambassadors and business leaders have come.

Let me start on the plus side and briefly list for you what has been achieved in Afghanistan in the first year and how it fits with what the United States and the UN had aimed to do.

First, the Taliban and al-Qaeda are defeated as a military force. A large residue is left, which will need a mopping-up operation for some time to come, but militarily they are defeated.

Second, the political process that was initiated by the United Nations at Bonn in December 2001 is very much on-track. It is a four-year program, which was to culminate in June with the Loya Jirga, which was effectively held. Hamid Karzai was elected President. He is probably the most legitimate president in the entire region. If you look at the military dictatorship in Pakistan, the autocratic regimes in Central Asia, and the conflict between government and other factions in Iran, he probably has more legitimacy than anyone else.

Three, the impending humanitarian crisis which people feared has been averted by some very timely humanitarian work by UN and other agencies. There is no mass starvation in Afghanistan and no crisis, despite the unexpected return of now 1.7 million refugees in the last nine months. This a staggering sum when the UN had estimated approximately 400,000. And, even though resources have been stretched to the limit, they are being provided for to a limited extent.

Four, the Afghan diaspora has begun to return in a meaningful way—not just people who are being sent by governments or who have latched onto foreign NGOs, but actually normal people, living in California and Washington and other places. They are not all coming back to stay, but they are coming back to set up a shop or start a taxi service or give their cousin or brother money, and that is increasing optimism and injecting money into the economy.

That is on the positive side, and it is a particularly great achievement for the UN, because nobody would have thought that you would have reached this position by September.

The next stage is a census so that the economic work and reconstruction can begin, and after that elections in 2004.

Now there are some very critical issues for the international community to deal with to avoid a very quick reversion to what Afghanistan had become before 9/11.

The first is a security issue. The international community pledged to the Afghans at Bonn that there would be a security force—not only in Kabul, but outside as well. The Americans, however, blocked the force after December, because they said it would interfere with the ongoing war against al-Qaeda.

The Europeans sent 5,000 peacekeepers to Kabul. It worked extremely well. But the last campaign against al-Qaeda took place in March, and we did not see a shift in U.S. policy towards ISAF and the expansion of a security force until last month—and, even then, it is half-hearted. The Pentagon is saying: "We don't mind now if ISAF expands to other cities; but we're not going to do it. You do it." This is not good enough for the commitments made by the United States at Bonn, nor for the international community, because no one is under any illusion, given the presence of some 10,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, that the United States has to play a leadership role in Afghanistan.

The United States toppled the Taliban regime, it is leading the international security effort in Afghanistan, and it must play the leadership role in urging Europeans or Muslim countries: "Please go ahead, try and put together some soldiers, and we will back it with air cover, logistics, whatever else is needed on the military front." Certainly, security is very badly needed.

The second issue is reconstruction. A conference in Tokyo in January 2002 pledged $4.5 billion to Afghanistan, out of which $1.8 billion was supposed to come this year. So far, we have received only about $900 million. Tokyo has come in for a lot of criticism because it failed to do a number of things which even at that time were very important:

  • It failed to differentiate between humanitarian aid and reconstruction aid. Much of this $900 million, 90 percent of it, has gone towards humanitarian aid to avert starvation and all the erupting crises.
  • Second, absolutely no timetable was set for the pledges made by the international community and there was no pressure on the European Union, the Arab world or the United States to deliver.
  • Third, there was inadequate preparation as to how direct funds could reach the Kabul government to provide it with resources to run itself. The idea of a central trust fund to be used by the Kabul regime to pay salaries and start up its ministries failed.

If the international community is to remain committed to Afghanistan and to the Afghan people, another Tokyo conference is extremely important. It should be held at a very high level to address some of these outstanding issues. A well-prepared conference is absolutely essential to lay down the priorities, at least for the next two years until the election process takes place.

So the international community has failed to deliver on security and reconstruction. It has failed to deliver on the timetable that the UN had set up. If we now see a deteriorating situation inside of Afghanistan, you cannot lay all the blame on Hamid Karzai. He has no army, insufficient resources, no bureaucracy, nor any meaningful state institution. He has only the ability to talk to warlords and keep the peace until he can garner the resources for extending the writ of his government.

What was the whole idea behind Bonn? Installing this post-Taliban government in Kabul, which was supposedly ethnically balanced. But we have installed a group of people who individually had tensions with each other, but had very little in their hands to give the people of Afghanistan. This partnership between the Afghans and the international community was to provide the Afghans with the resources to re-start a central government—institutions, economic aid—and, most importantly of all, to extend its authority across the country.

Unfortunately, the government in Kabul is weaker today than three months ago. It is up to the international community to help resolve this issue.

Another security-related issue is the building of the new Afghan army. The Americans have taken the lead here by trying to raise money and training troops. But the U.S. strategy lacks the big picture view. Afghanistan has dozens of warlords—some with armies of up to 30,000 men, and others of 500 and 600 men. Many of these have been in the pay of the United States in order to fight al-Qaeda. Now, that was quite acceptable and logical during the war period, up to March; but once the actual threat of war had declined, and once the United States had decided that it wanted to help build a new army and it was enlisting international support—the Germans are responsible for the police, the Italians for the judiciary—it was essential to reduce the power of the warlords to strengthen the central government and get these new institutions off the ground. This has not happened.

We have U.S. commanders now insisting that we call these warlords "regional leaders." They get very upset when journalists call them "warlords." Reducing warlordism is a multidimensional track, not just a question of beating the warlord on the head and saying, "Send all your boys home."

This track is linked to reconstruction and demobilization. You must provide these kids with skills and jobs; you've got to send them home to their farms with packages of seed and fertilizer, so that it is more attractive for them to go home than to stay fighting for this warlord. And then, you must exert pressure.

But the United States has failed to exert any kind of pressure, and the relationship continues with these warlords as it was during the war.

As a result, there are two major internal problems of concern.

The Tajiks of the Northern Alliance who were anti-Taliban, who were the troops on the ground with the Americans and coalition are the major clique in Kabul. They have come to dominate the main security/ intelligence/police apparatus. There is rising resentment of their dominance among the Pashtuns, their main ethnic rival, in the south of the country. The Pashtun belt is an enormous anarchy and continuing political chaos, and the Pashtuns have been unable to put together the leadership which would fill the Pashtun vacuum in Kabul. The Tajiks have taken enormous opportunity of this. Marshal Fahim, the Defense Minister, remains arguably the most powerful person in Kabul.

People are very upset at this inside Afghanistan, but there is very little that Hamid Karzai can do until the Americans are willing to rein in Fahim. They must firmly ask him: "Do you want to be a warlord for one year, or would you like to be defense minister for twenty years? And if you want to be a defense minister for twenty years, you have to act like a defense minister of the whole country and not the warlord of your particular ethnic group and faction."

The other major issue for instability is the problems in the Pashtun belt where there is growing alienation and isolation of the Pashtuns. The Pashtuns make up 40-to-45 percent of the population. They are the historical rulers of Afghanistan, and their linkages with the Pashtuns in Pakistan make them even more powerful.

In the last few weeks, a reorganization has been carried out with the use of some al-Qaeda elements, many Taliban foot soldiers, but with a new kind of leadership that is coming from an old renegade from the 1980s, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Anybody who knows Afghanistan knows Gulbuddin as a ruthless person. He received the bulk of the American military aid that went to the Mujahideen in the 1980s. He was backed very strongly by Pakistan. He also killed probably more of the Mujahideen than he did Soviet troops in the 1980s, and hundreds of Pakistanis who were opposed to him. It's very depressing for many people to realize that Hekmatyar is back in the picture ten years later.

Hekmatyar is trying to remobilize the Pashtuns on the basis of jihad against the Americans and Pashtun nationalism against the dominance of the Tajik faction. He sent several messages to the wire agencies talking of the "genocide of the Pashtuns" being carried out by Americans and Tajiks. This is just what you need to completely destroy the minimum of ethnic harmony that has been established in Afghanistan.

But the Pashtuns have genuine grievances. Many of them supported the Taliban, so they feel they are being victimized. Furthermore, most of the civilian casualties by the bombing have occurred in Pashtun areas. They feel that the Americans are supporting the Tajiks against the Pashtuns because of their backing for Fahim. They feel that the Tajiks themselves are a major problem and that they should not be occupying all the seats of power.

Many of these hard-liners feel that Hamid Karzai is a pawn in the hands of the United States and a stooge of the Tajiks—Hamid Karzai is a Pashtun—and he is doing their bidding.

And, most importantly of all, there has been no reconstruction effort made at all in the south to win hearts and minds. After the assassination attempt against Karzai in Kandahar, there has been a reaction of panic in Washington. President Bush now is pushing through the $180 million road from Kabul to Kandahar and on to Herat, which will cut through the Pashtun belt.

I am appalled that the United States will provide $50 million of this $180 million. The U.S. is unwilling to fund this as a separate project. So AID is being squeezed for this initiative, HIV programs, population control, disaster relief programs. All the loose change that is lying around within the Treasury is being allocated to get all this back.

Yet $50 million for a road is not big bucks. You are sending exactly the wrong message—not only to departments of government, but also to the Afghans. Congress and President Bush should have made a separate fund for this road a priority. AID has numerous ongoing development programs which will be seriously jeopardized by their money going for road construction.

In short, we are seeing in the Pashtun belt that people's lives have not changed and thus the continued sympathy for the Taliban.

Another factor in the region which has affected many people is the way in which the king was handled both by the international community and the Karzai government. King Zahir Shah returned to Afghanistan in April to participate in the Loya Jirga. There was enormous pressure for him to be a head of state, or at least play some official role. But he was sidelined in a very crude way by international diplomats. He was shoved aside and he has never been seen since in a political sense, although he is still in Kabul. The Pashtuns believed that the King, who is a Pashtun, would have the authority and the "blue chip" prestige necessary to rein in the other factions and ethnic groups.

I have heard, for example, that the assassin who tried to kill Hamid Karzai in Kandahar was not a fundamentalist, not a Taliban, but perhaps a supporter of the king and furious at his treatment by Karzai. So the Pashtun belt includes not only fundamentalists, extremists and the ex-Taliban or Gulbuddin, but also have supporters of the king who are extremely angry at the moment.

We should also remember two historical facts about the Taliban. How did the Taliban come about? Why were they so popular in the beginning? They promised the Pashtuns and the Afghans two things: security and stability. And they did deliver that. It was the stability and security of the graveyard, but after you have been at war for twenty-three years, the Taliban were a relief for many Afghans. They are not talking about economic aid and education—all that comes later. They want stability and security. That is a job that the Taliban did provide and that the international community has failed to deliver thus far.

Let me just say two words on Iraq. I am extremely depressed by the situation.

First of all, when Iraq is attacked, there will be a huge distraction from Afghanistan. No matter what kind of commitments are made and rhetoric is used, it's the classic problem of U.S. policy: Can the United States do two things at once? Can you remain committed to Afghanistan in the way that I have outlined and fight Iraq at the same time? Iraq will pull men, resources, and diplomatic effort.

If the Iraq issue weren't on the front page today of every paper in the United States, the Afghan issue might have made it to the papers. The debate might have become more important and people would be discussing what the United States should or should not do in Afghanistan. That has just disappeared.

Secondly, the war against terrorism is not over. I keep telling people, "You are digging up al-Qaeda in all these countries around the world, through an intelligence war. These are al-Qaeda underground."

In Pakistan and Afghanistan, al-Qaeda or their parties—the Pakistani Islamic Party or Taliban—are rocketing U.S. bases in broad daylight. They carry out bombings in Karachi in broad daylight. They are not underground, in that they act openly with impunity. So the war against terrorism in this part of the world is ongoing. It's not a military war, it's an intelligence and police war.

Certainly, the international alliance that was built up after 9/11 will be dealt a mortal blow. Will European or Muslim states be willing to cooperate with the United States, once Iraq is attacked and there is upheaval?

It is only the international coalition that can raise Afghanistan and help Pakistan out of this absolute quagmire into which it has sunk. There is a chance that Germany may take over the leadership of ISAF forces in Kabul in December when the Turks leave. Look at the state of relations right now between Germany and the United States. Will German commanders be able to operate with American commanders in Afghanistan for the security of ISAF? Something needs to be done very drastically. We are only two and a half months away.

I hope the Dutch will play a role. Joint leadership of ISAF by two European countries would be very good.

Here is the first sign of what an Iraq will do in the global coalition to help Afghanistan. You've got a split right now, and there are no American troops in Iraq yet. What happens when there are American troops in Iraq?

What happens afterwards in Iraq? If the United States, if the West have not got it right in Afghanistan yet, what is the guarantee that you will get it right in Iraq, that you will do the nation building, that you will construct a representative and balanced government, and most importantly of all, that you will have staying power? The Western nations have not shown staying power in Afghanistan, unfortunately.

Let me make a final point on Afghanistan, related to 9/11, the clash of civilizations, and Islam versus Christian. Afghanistan was surely to be the test case for the Muslim world.

What was the feeling in the Muslim world—because of the Middle East, because of American policy towards the Palestinians and the Israelis? "We hate Americans. Americans bomb us." That's all they know. "They attack Muslim countries, they bomb us."

Afghanistan was going to be the litmus test of "Yeah, Americans bomb you, but they also build you; they can also rebuild you, and support a government which is reasonable and moderate." That has not happened in Afghanistan. That was a test case for the Muslim world in general, to show that the Americans are not out to gun down every Muslim in the street.

My reasons for opposing Iraq are very selfish, in that I am perhaps more concerned about what will happen in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia than in Iraq itself.

Let me conclude by talking about the media.

One of the great things that is happening in Afghanistan is that even with 80 percent illiteracy, there is a huge flowering of the media. People are watching satellite dishes, radio stations are booming, and some seventy publications are already coming out.

After The Taliban, I put a quarter of my earnings from the book into a media fund for Afghanistan—the Open Media Fund for Afghanistan. We provide grants to print media projects which are meaningful for helping the UN peace process, reconstruction, and consolidating the nation. We do not take government money. We have raised money from foundations, the media, and other big organizations—Soros, Rockefeller, Dow Jones, CNN, AOL have contributed. We also accept donations from private individuals.

We have funded eight varied projects, including a children's magazine, which we are trying to get into the schools and into mass circulation through the UN, because children have no reading material whatsoever in the schools. There is also a women's magazine dealing with the re-education of teachers and nurses who have lost out on all these years of not having practiced their profession. There is a fantastically funny satirical magazine, which is the equivalent of Spy or Private Eye, in Kabul. Afghan professionals are bringing out a magazine about the reconstruction of the country to try and have a voice, so that it's not just foreigners talking about reconstruction.

At the moment we are sitting on thirty proposals. We have raised approximately $250,000, out of which we have already spent $220,000 in five months. Compared to the European Union, we are the fastest-giving. This is the critical time when we need to support already-funded projects with continued resources.

There is no printing press. There is no distribution system. There is no telephone. There is no Internet. There is no electricity. Can you imagine operating a newspaper under these conditions? Everything has to be self-created and self-monitored.

If anyone is interested in helping us, please come up to see me afterwards. Thank you very much.

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