The Afghan Conflict Has Gone Regional

Monday 22 September 2008, by Emmanuel Martinez

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

In his recent book Descent Into Chaos: The United States and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia, Pakastani journalist Ahmed Rashid argues that in shifting its attention toward Iraq, the United States missed a golden opportunity to promote stability and prosperity in the beleaguered region. Alternatives’ Emmanuel Martinez recently interviewed this regional specialist and author of the bestselling book Taliban.

Alternatives: Is the resignation of General Musharraf from his post as the president of Pakistan another setback for the U.S?

Ahmed Rashid: It is a tough break for President Bush because he invested a lot in President Musharraf. The Bush administration has always worried about having their favoured leaders deposed because it doesn’t send a good message to their other allies, for example in the Arab world. The Americans realize that Musharraf wasn’t up to the task of convincing his army and secret services to do more against the Taliban.

A: The Americans have spent billions on Pakistan since 2001. How do you see their relationship?

AR: Their relationship is basically between Musharraf and Washington. The Americans weren’t looking to win the support of the Pakistani people, who never saw a penny of that money. Nothing was spent on social programs or economic development. Everything went to the army. The generals used the funds to further secure their hold on the country, a process that ended with a political crisis. The Americans didn’t play their cards well at all in Pakistan. They depended far too much on the Pakistani army, which didn’t do much in the fight against al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

A: But the Americans have known since 2001 that the Taliban was taking refuge in Pakistan with the blessing of the Pakistani authorities. Why did they look the other way?

AR: The Americans’ objectives in Afghanistan were quite narrow. They were only after the leaders of al-Qaeda. They didn’t want to reconstruct Afghanistan, stabilize Pakistan or close the book on the Taliban. Why? Because Washington wanted to concentrate its efforts on Iraq. The White House didn’t want to spend too much time rebuilding Afghanistan. This was a big mistake because al-Qaeda was able to regroup with the help of the Taliban.

A: And now the reconstruction of Afghanistan is more difficult…

AR: Yes, absolutely. The conflict in Afghanistan has now regionalized. There are Pakistani Taliban that have taken control of the northwest of Pakistan and are now aiming for the rest of the country. Some Taliban in Central Asia are leaving their bases in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. There are major problems with Iran too, who now shelter some Taliban.

A: But what were the Americans thinking after they spearheaded the defeat of the Taliban in 2001, that Afghanistan could rebuild without assistance?

AR: They didn’t have a plan to stabilize the country. The Americans didn’t want to engage themselves- neither in terms of troops nor money. They didn’t understand that this passive stance would allow the Taliban and al-Qaeda to comeback. And that is what happened. From 2004, Washington changed its tack but the most crucial period- the couple of years following the fall of the Taliban regime- was wasted.

A: Is this the period when the Americans lost most of their credibility?

AR: Yes. Afghans became disillusioned. The promises of reconstruction and development never materialized. And the Taliban took advantage of this to regain the trust of the people by saying, “look, the Americans aren’t interested in helping you.” Because they had their hands full in Iraq, the U.S. did the bare minimum between 2001 and 2004. This fed the anti-Americanism that is now rife in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It’s a serious problem for the next American president.

A: What will the next American president need to do to reverse this trend?

AR: A massive development plan is absolutely necessary. But the key will be diplomacy. The Americans need to engage themselves further in the stabilization of the region. Unfortunately, the branch of the State Department that is responsible for that part of the world is in the hands of neoconservatives and has thus far failed in its attempt to understand the situation.

A: Should the Americans negotiate with the Taliban?

AR: At the end of the day, yes. But right now the Americans are in a weak position so it isn’t a good time to start negotiations. Negotiations can’t start until the Taliban have been weakened.

A: What is your take on the relationship between Afghan president Hamid Karzai and the United States?

AR: Karzai is extremely dependent on the Americans, as they are propping-up his regime. At the same time he is bitter because, since 2001, the Americans decided to support warlords at the expense of the central government. He has also been frustrated by the fact that the Taliban can find refuge in Pakistan without the Americans seeming to mind. After years of having his cries fall on deaf ears however, the Americans have started to listen to him because, militarily, the situation on the ground has deteriorated so badly. Karzai remains unpopular among his fellow Afghans. Voters don’t feel like he has taken a strict enough line against corruption or the trafficking of drugs. Next year there should be an election in Afghanistan, if it takes place he could lose.

A: Why hasn’t the U.S. vocally condemned the human rights violations that are taking place in the countries of central Asia such as Uzbekistan?

AR: Washington hasn’t developed a coherent plan in regards to these countries. The important thing for the White House was to secure bases from which their troops could go into Afghanistan. The Americans have also used these countries as safe-havens for the interrogation of prisoners. Today, groups associated with the Taliban are growing in central Asia. Some send people to train and/or fight in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is a real threat. Despite its many differences, the region is quite unified. As a result, a regional approach is necessary to end the conflict.

A: Will this require more American troops?

AR: Yes, for a little while. But it is mostly a matter of more money for reconstruction, for civil society and for economic development. So far the vast majority of funds have been devoted to war efforts, which has been a big mistake.

Emmanuel Martinez is the editor-in-chief of Alternatives le Journal.

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