In Afghanistan, Taliban Resurgence Seen
NEAL CONAN, host:
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In Kabul, Afghanistan yesterday, a U.S. military cargo truck lost its brakes while driving down a hill and crashed into a line of civilian cars, killing as many as five people. The traffic accident triggered a riot. As crowds burned cars, smashed into stores, and chanted, death to America. The anger and frustration suggests deep mistrust of both coalition forces and the Afghan government.
It also comes amid an offensive by Taliban forces in the south and southeastern parts of the country. Nearly 400 Afghans have been killed and Taliban commanders boast that they are now 12,000 strong and effectively control much of four provinces. The Taliban and its al-Qaida allies pose a stronger challenge now then at any time since they were routed by American-led forces five years ago.
Journalist and author Ahmed Rashid says regional rivalries are partly responsible, but puts the majority of the blame on the Bush administration, which he says failed to keep its promises to rebuild the country. Failed to deploy enough troops. And it was distracted by the war in Afghanistan, and Iraq, gave the Taliban and al-Qaida time to rebuild.
If you have questions about what's happening in Afghanistan and why, give us a call, 800-989-8255, that's 800-989-TALK. The email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Ahmed Rashid is the author of several books on the region. He writes for London's Daily Telegraph and the International Herald Tribune, among other media. And he joins us now from his home base in Lahore, Pakistan. Nice to speak with you again.
Mr. AHMED RASHID (Author and journalist): Thank you.
CONAN: You write that both the Karzai government in Kabul, and the Pakistani government, are both very angry with Washington. Of course, those are supposed to be American allies, there. Let's take them one at a time. Why is President Karzai upset?
Mr. RASHID: Well, I think there are a lot of frustrations being felt within the Afghan government and by the Afghan people, and that's what came out in Kabul. You know, what we saw, the public reaction in the streets, and the violence that took place.
There's a lot of frustration because the promises of reconstruction, of jobs, of economic development, of better security; all this that the international community had promised, has really not been fulfilled. I mean, here you have riots in what is the richest city in the country. Kabul is much better off than other cities, but still there's a lot of frustration there.
CONAN: And you write that they're frustrated over the withdrawal of American forces, 3000 men supposed to be pulling out by the end of this year.
Mr. RASHID: There's the replacement of American forces, gradually, by NATO troops. But the problem with NATO is that some of the countries who are sending contingents of troops, will not fight. We've got the Dutch, the Spanish, you know, the Germans - they say they will go there for reconstruction purposes and peacekeeping, but they will not fight the Taliban.
Now, that creates an enormous insecurity for the Afghan government and for Karzai in particular, because the real threat being faced in the south now, is this Taliban resurgence.
CONAN: The Taliban, though, is clearly being supported by Pakistan, is it not?
Mr. RASHID: Well, certainly, you know, there's a lot of Taliban who fled to Pakistan after being defeated in 2001. They were never defeated, in fact they were routed, if you like, from Afghanistan. They re-gathered, a lot of them, in Pakistan. They're now coming back. And Pakistan is being, you know, is an ally in the war on terror. It has arrested a lot of al-Qaida members. It has lost a lot of troops also in fighting al-Qaida in the northwest frontier province. But to the south of that, what we're seeing is where the Taliban are active. There has been really no government pressure to curb their activities and their across-border activities - crossing into Afghanistan and being able to raise logistics and recruits to take across.
CONAN: And that brings us to the other part, why then is President Musharraf, of Pakistan, upset with Washington?
Mr. RASHID: Well, I think the first thing is, he's becoming very unpopular. Military rule is becoming very unpopular, and his options are becoming very limited. But I think what has triggered that is the United States' alliance with India.
President Bush went to India a couple of months ago and organized this huge deal about recognizing India's nuclear program - nuclear weapons program -without doing the same for Pakistan. And that certainly annoyed the military very much.
There's a lot of tension also between the Americans and Pakistan over the issue of Iran. The Americans want to interview Dr. AQ Khan, the master of the Pakistani bomb, because he also supplied a lot of equipment to Iran. And the Pakistanis are not allowing that to happen. And there's a lot of tension over, of course, the fact that the Taliban are in Pakistan and the government is not doing anything.
CONAN: In fact, you suggest that, for at least elements of the army, is using the Taliban as a proxy force in Afghanistan.
Mr. RASHID: Well, that, of course, was the case in the '90; and to some extent it's true now. It's a way for Pakistan to exact pressure on the Americans. Pakistan is also very angry and upset that India has now taken on a major role in Afghanistan. It has opened consulates in Kandahar, in Jalalabad, along the border - the western border with Pakistan. And Pakistan accuses India of subverting Pakistan, you know, now from Afghanistan. So it's a very complicated situation, and really it has been the failure of the Americans to have a coherent policy both towards Afghanistan, towards Pakistan, and to protect this fledgling (unintelligible) government, which has always been very fragile; to protect it, if you like, from interference by the neighbors.
CONAN: And the issue along the - what India is alleged to be doing - India denies it - but is supporting a rebellion of sorts in Baluchistan, a restive Pakistani province.
Mr. RASHID: Well, yes. I mean, there is an insurgency also going on in Baluchistan Province, in Pakistan. The army has been in action there. The army has accused Baluchi tribal leaders of leading this separatist movement. And the army has also made the accusation that India - Indian-Asians based in Afghanistan have been funding this movement. Now, India has denied it; the Beluchis denied it. But this certainly a cause of considerable anger in Islamabad from the generals - and they blame the Americans for this, because they say the Indians are in cahoots with the Americans not only on the nuclear side and on other issues, but also in Afghanistan.
CONAN: Hmm. And as you look at the claims of the Taliban leaders to say, we now are back in affective control of much of four provinces; we have forces 12,00 strong - is that credible?
Mr. RASHID: Well, I mean, probably not all of it. But I think certainly in the south - in five provinces in the south, the countryside is very much, at least during the night, under the control of the Taliban. And some of the major cities, like Kandahar, I mean we've seen fighting 10, 15 miles from Kandahar. That means the Taliban are able to come up to the city gates of what is the second largest city in Afghanistan. Now that's, you know, pretty frightening, given that there were supposed to be 3,000 American troops based in Kandahar.
One-third of the entire force in Afghanistan is based in Kandahar, and you have Kandahar Province and the Taliban be able to walk up literally to the gates of the city.
CONAN: Who is, how are they paying for this? It's not cheap to run forces anywhere in the world. I understand the Taliban is probably less expensive than the Tenth Mountain Division, but nevertheless, it does cost money to run these operations.
Mr. RASHID: Well, certainly. But I think here two things have happened. I think first of all al-Qaida has been involved. Don't forget Osama bin Laden and his number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian, still very much in this part of the world. I think they've had a great deal to do with helping reorganize the Taliban, and link them up with people in the Middle East, link them up with the Iraqi al-Qaida. There's been a lot of cross-pollination, if you like - Taliban fighting for the Iraqis, the Iraqis coming to Afghanistan and training the Taliban.
And also, of course, there's the drugs trade. The Taliban are very well embedded into that. They - a lot of other people get profit from the drugs trade, but so do the Taliban. And certainly it's a billion dollar business. It's more than enough money to keep the Taliban movement afloat.
CONAN: Let's get some listeners involved in the conversation. Our guest is Ahmed Rashid, a journalist and author based in Lahore, Pakistan who's been covering this region for along time now.
If you'd like to join us, 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail address is
CHUCK (Caller): Hi. Thanks very much.
CHUCK: And, I have long found your guests' comments very interesting, for years now. And I was wondering if he would attribute our current problems in Afghanistan, to our having transferred power to the warlords - as opposed to having done the hard work of nation building and developing a viable democratic central government?
Mr. RASHID: I think that's very true. I mean, I think for the first three years after 9/11, you know, the warlords were ruling Afghanistan, with the full support of the American military. The American military were funding them, they were paying their salaries, they were helping arm them, et cetera.
And the reason for that, of course, was Iraq, because the American attention was diverted to Iraq. It wanted to maintain a sort of semi-peaceful situation in Afghanistan, and did not build up the central government. And certainly we're seeing, you know, the results of that now, where President Karzai's security forces have not been even able to keep control of Kabul, or contain these riots and the looting that took place.
CHUCK: IS there any way we can go back and do it right?
Mr. RASHID: Well, I think now, certainly, the Americans have moved away from supporting the warlords. There's much more support from the European Union, from the U.N., from the Americans also, for the central government. But what is needed now, of course, is just much more money. There's never been sufficient money given to Afghanistan. Alto of the money that was supposed to go for nation building, again, went to Iraq.
And secondly, Afghanistan does need foreign troops. Now, I don't think most Afghans are opposed to foreign troops, despite the riots yesterday. I think people would still welcome foreign troops if it was seen that these foreign troops were also coming in with real reconstruction, and rebuilding the infrastructure.
I mean, if you just take Kabul, I mean, Kabul is about three million people there. Only about one-third have electricity. This is five years after 9/11, and this is the capital city of Afghanistan. So you can imagine what's going on in the provinces and the smaller towns.
CHUCK: How could the warlords be induced to relinquish power?
Mr. RASHID: Well, there has been a process of disarmament and demobilization of their militias, but a lot of them have taken part in the elections and a lot of them are sitting in parliament, or they're nominees are. Now, I think, you know, unfortunately, I mean this is a kind of situation you, one has to put up with.
But their power has been much diminished. The question now is, is the United States going to lead an initiative, with the European Union, with other rich donors, to actually concentrate some money and aid to Afghanistan, and really build up the central government; something it has failed to do in the last four to five years.
CONAN: Chuck, thanks very much.
CHUCK: Thank you.
CONAN: We're talking today with Ahmed Rashid about Afghanistan, and you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And let's get another caller on the line. This is Daniel - Daniel calling from New Haven.
DANIEL (Caller): Hi. I found the news coverage, when it has existed, has been, dealt with little more than, you know, a lot of the elections and things like that, but it's - I've been to Afghanistan as a photographer since 2001, and my girlfriend's working there now as an, for an aid organization. And I don't know, the events yesterday don't seem like they should be that much of a surprise since the Taliban, from what I've seen and heard, has never really left. And we'd get a very different story here, from NPR, among other news organizations. I was wondering what the comments there would be on that.
CONAN: Ahmed Rashid?
Mr. RASHID: Well, I agree with you. I mean, I really think we, you know, the American media has completely failed to cover Afghanistan and all that is happening. I mean, you take the case of CNN, your largest TV organization. They have not had a regular correspondent in Kabul for a year and a half. Now here's a country which has 20,000 American troops; and the largest American news organization does not have a guy there covering even the American troops, if nothing else.
So, I think all the, you know, the newspapers, the TV networks, are guilty. And I think the - perhaps a lot of people are very shocked at what's happened because they're really not seeing this steadily deteriorating situation that has been taking place in Afghanistan.
I think the big shock yesterday was the fact that it happened in the capital. And the capital, where there are American troops, where there are NATO forces, where there are Afghan security forces, and none of whom were, seemed to be able to have, to control the situation. I think that was the really big shock.
CONAN: Daniel, thank you. Let's see if we can get one more caller in. and this is Joe - Joe calling from Sacramento.
JOE (Caller): Hi, thanks for taking the call. Briefly, I think that we're again, depending way too much on the United States. Your guest is suggesting that we need to throw money at solving this problem, but the root cause is that the local people need to take ownership. That, you know, if we went in there and did prop up the central government and spent 20 billion a year, people would be saying, oh, it's a puppet regime. It's not real. And the problem could even become amplified and much worse. So, I think we need to rethink the United States being the policemen and the solution for every problem in the world. Thank you.
CONAN: Thanks for the call, Joe. Um, is, well, just - we just have about a minute or so left, Ahmed Rashid, but just on the situation of Afghan's military forces, there has been a number of years to train them up, get them organized and underway. How is that progressing?
Mr. RASHID: Well, out in the field, I mean, they are fighting the Taliban. They're very much in the lead there in the south, fighting the Taliban. They didn't seem to be very effective yesterday, in Kabul; and maybe their command and control was very poor, and they didn't get good intelligence, or they didn't react fast enough. But they have certainly been, you know, there's something like 35,000 now who have been trained, who are part of what is called the Afghan National Army, the regular Army. American trainers are embedded with them, they fight alongside NATO forces and American forces, and they have performed very, very well.
But, you know, they're still half their strength. I mean, they have to be at least 60,000 or 70,000 before they can be effective nationwide.
CONAN: Ahmed Rashid, as always thanks very much. We appreciate it.
Mr. RASHID: Thank you.
CONAN: Ahmed Rashid, an author who writes for London's Daily Telegraph and the International Herald Tribune, among other outlets. He joined us today from his home base in Lahore, Pakistan.