TERRY GROSS, host:
You might've heard NPR's Jackie Northam reporting on Morning Edition this week that since August, the U.S. has intensified an aerial offensive using unmanned drones, targeting the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Pakistan's lawless tribal regions along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Now, there's increasing concern that the U.S. could be dragged into a much wider conflict in Pakistan. My guest, journalist Ahmed Rashid, lives in Lahore, Pakistan, and has written several books about Islamic extremism in the region, including "Taliban," "Jihad," and his latest, "Descent into Chaos: How the War Against Islamic Extremism Is Being Lost in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia." He's joining us from a studio in Oslo, Norway.
Ahmed Rashid, welcome back to Fresh Air. It's good to talk with you again. The last time we talked on Fresh Air was in November. Have the Taliban made more advances in Pakistan since then?
Mr. AHMED RASHID (Author, "Descent into Chaos: How the War Against Islamic Extremism Is Being Lost in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia"): I think that is what is critical. And we have seen a very strategic shift in the last few weeks. The Taliban, the Pakistani Taliban, that is, helped by Afghan Taliban and Central Asians and Arabs, have retaken the Valley of Swat. This is a very strategic valley about 100 miles due north of Islamabad and quite far away from the tribal areas and the border with Afghanistan. It's been a dingdong battle between the army and the Taliban in Swat over the last one year. The Taliban had it, the army took it, then lost it, and now the Taliban have retaken it. And they've literally retaken the whole valley. They forced out tens of thousands of people; they've hung a lot of people; they set up their own judiciary, police system. They've ordered all bureaucrats and state policemen and lawyers and judges to leave or be executed. And dozens of people have been executed in public. All the girls' schools have been shut down. And the girls' schools actually now are being blown up, some 200 have been blown up, so that nobody can ever go back to these schools and start education again.
Now, what this has done strategically, there are very strong rumors - and I can't confirm this in any way - but there are very strong rumors in the Islamic underground that, in fact, a lot of the leaders of al-Qaeda, the Afghan Taliban, the Pakistani Taliban, who were hanging out and hiding in the tribal areas, were feeling the effects of these drones and have now actually moved into the Swat region. Now, if that is true, it's pretty devastating, because what that means is, first of all, Swat is very far away from the Afghan border. And for the Americans to use drones to cross - you're crossing almost half of northern Pakistan before you reach Swat. And I don't think the drones will be able to do that, politically speaking. So, that means that these leadership is well away now from U.S. missiles. And secondly, if this is true, and the leaders have come into Swat, Swat is very strategically placed. It has access to the fertile areas where millions of people live in northern Pakistan; it has access to Islamabad, the capital; it has access to Kashmir; it has access back to the tribal areas. It's a very strategic valley.
GROSS: I heard on the radio this morning that there's a military offensive, a Pakistani military offensive, against the Taliban in Swat. So, do you think that they might succeed in driving out the Taliban for real this time?
Mr. RASHID: Well, this offensive, I think, is a result of enormous public anger that has been expressed, that, you know, literally, say, you know, people have been asking in parliament, in the newspapers, you know, what the hell is the army doing? Why has the army lost all this territory? And I think out of this kind of embarrassment - and secondly, don't forget that in about 10 day's time, we're going to have Richard Holbrooke, the new U.S. special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan, visiting Pakistan for the first time. So, I think that the army is severely embarrassed at home; it is severely embarrassed internationally. And it has launched this offensive. Now, will this offensive be successful? Well, you know, we've been having these army offensives in many regions, in the tribal areas, and one is still going on in the Bajaur tribal area. And quite frankly, they haven't been successful. And partly the reason is that the Pakistan army is still declining to adopt a proper counterinsurgency strategy, as was used by the Americans in Iraq and is now probably going to be used by the Americans in Afghanistan.
And a proper counterinsurgency strategy means that you must have a political aim; you must be able to secure the area and protect the local population; and then, you must be able to bring in development and government structures. Now, actually, the army is doing just the opposite. It first moves out all the civilians, which is completely against any counterinsurgency tactics that anyone else is using. It moves out all the civilians, declares a certain area a kind of free-fire area, and then lets loose with bombing and artillery, hoping that it will kill lots of Taliban in these onslaughts. So, it's very untargeted, it's not winning over the local population, and many civilians are killed. So, I hope that this offensive in Swat will be more effective. But if the tactics and strategy are just going to be repeated of what we've seen in the past, it seems very unlikely.
GROSS: How close is Swat to where you live in Lahore? Forgive me for not knowing my Pakistan geography better.
Mr. RASHID: Well, it's quite a distance from Punjab. But Swat is adjacent to the North-West Frontier Province, and it's adjacent to large, you know, these settled areas of northern Pakistan, means that there are hundreds of villages and agriculture and considerable population, which then builds up as you come closer to Islamabad and Rawalpindi. And also, of course, you know, Swat was the tourist destination for Pakistani and for foreigners. It has wonderful climbing and walking and beautiful scenery. And as - because it was so popular amongst foreigners, even, it is the most highly developed valley in the country. It had 100-percent literacy. There are fantastic roads, electricity, you know, email. I mean, you know, this is not the stark, austere mountains between Afghanistan and Pakistan where al-Qaeda and the Taliban were hanging out before, where there was nothing, there was no civilization whatsoever, and you know, food had to be brought in on pack animals and taken up the mountains for days at a time. Now, you're talking about a valley, which has road access direct - you know, you could be in Islamabad in three hours. It's a very highly developed place, just the kind of ideal place that you would like to set up a terrorist base.
GROSS: The Obama administration plans to send about 30,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan over the next year and a half. What do you think the goals should be, militarily and politically, in Afghanistan?
Mr. RASHID: Well, you know, I think this whole counterinsurgency strategy that has been developed and then used by General Petraeus in Iraq is very important to be used in Afghanistan. And you know, the military strategy for a very long time in Afghanistan was that U.S. troops, when they went out, they went out looking for al-Qaeda. They didn't go looking for Taliban; they didn't go and look for - securing an area. They went looking for al-Qaeda. And what this new counterinsurgency strategy is all about is what Petraeus calls people-centric. In other words, the troops are going to be used to protect population centers and population areas and secure those areas, stabilize those areas, throw out the Taliban, kill the Taliban if there are anybody there, and then quickly bring in the development agencies so that development and reconstruction can take place.
GROSS: President Obama has appointed Richard Holbrooke to be the new special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, and he, of course, was key in negotiating a peace accord in the Balkans. What is your take, so far, on Holbrooke and the people who will be working with him in the area?
Mr. RASHID: Well, you know, Holbrooke is a very tough customer. I mean, he's an extremely able and capable diplomat. He has been known to rub people the wrong way, also. And I think with all his interlocutors, he's going to be very plain-speaking on the table. And this will be very different from what, for example, President Karzai has experienced during the Bush administration, where there was a lot of fudging of the facts, where nobody wanted to say anything bad about anyone or anything negative, nobody wanted to reassess the policy. Holbrooke is going to be someone completely different, I think, from that. I think two things are important. The first is that under Bush, the policy in Afghanistan was basically being run by the U.S. military. What Obama has done is that he's going to move policy back into the State Department. And I think that's terribly important, because strategy should be set by diplomats. No matter how good military officers are, and some of them are extremely good, they still have a very narrow definition of what peace and security and diplomacy is all about.
So, this is a very good sign, that we're going to have a leading diplomat, not a leading general - not General Petraeus, not Admiral Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs - leading this effort, but a seasoned diplomat. And the other thing that's happening, which is very different from the past, is that Holbrooke, first of all, is putting together a team of experts, American academic and other kinds of experts on economy, on Afghan society, et cetera. But he's also putting together a team of interagency representatives, which means that there'll be somebody there from the Army, from CENTCOM, from the CIA, from the Treasury, so that everybody who works with Holbrooke is reading off the same page.
GROSS: Do you think that Richard Holbrooke would include the Taliban in on any negotiations? And if so, who? Do you talk to the Taliban leadership? Can you really negotiate with that kind of ideologue who believes that girls shouldn't even be allowed to go to school?
Mr. RASHID: Well, you know, Obama has said that he is going to encourage President Hamid Karzai and the Afghans to talk to the Taliban. I don't think it's Holbrooke's job, necessarily. I mean, obviously, Holbrooke will play a very important behind-the-scenes role in determining the direction of these talks and what should happen. But the talks have to be held between Afghan to Afghan. And there is a level of dialogue already going on in Saudi Arabia between Afghan government representatives - in fact, President Karzai's brother and several other officials - plus, together with, what I call retired Taliban or Taliban who've been through the mill and have now kind of sitting quiet in Kabul. So, there is a dialogue going on, and hopefully, at some stage, this Saudi-sponsored dialogue will include real Taliban, fighting Taliban.
Yes, the Taliban have carried out horrendous acts against the Afghan people - there's absolutely no doubt about it - but many of these Taliban who have carried out these acts are not going to be part of the dialogue process. I mean, I do not envisage, for example, anyone being able to talk to Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban, because he has ordered - he shielded bin Laden; he helped bin Laden; he's ordered the most cruel punishments for Afghan people, for Afghan girls and women. Now, there are going to be a bunch of Taliban who are beyond the pale, because they are linked with al-Qaeda, they're part of global jihad. But there are other Taliban commanders and groups who are not fighting for global jihad. They're not fighting to bomb New York. They're fighting because they want to rid Afghanistan of foreign forces. Now, some of them have carried out very bad acts, but some of them are there because, you know, their brother was killed by a U.S. bomb; their house was destroyed; they lost their children; or they've been orphaned themselves, you know?
So many of them are fighting for very personal reasons and not necessarily ideological reasons. So, I think the idea of this dialogue would be to try and cream off the more moderate Taliban or the most nationalistic Islamic Taliban, those certainly who have nothing to do with the al-Qaeda and global jihad. You know, as far as talks with the Taliban are concerned, it's been demonstrated in the 20th century that almost all serious insurgencies have ended with dialogue and some kind of reconciliation. There's no way that you're going to be able to end this insurgency in Afghanistan, which involves such a large chunk of people, as the Taliban do now, which has spread right across the country. You cannot end this by shooting them all, by killing them all or by driving them back into Pakistan. Ultimately, wars are ended by dialogue and by peace negotiation.
GROSS: Let's get back to your country, Pakistan. What are your fears about what's happening in your country now? What's at stake?
Mr. RASHID: I mean, I don't think I've ever been so depressed in my life, frankly, so disheartened, so depressed. What myself and many other Pakistanis see is a total lack of leadership, either political leadership or on the military side. The politicians, the civilian politicians, which came in, you know, a year ago with such hope after the elections, that after eight years of military rule, you know, they were so welcomed. They're squabbling amongst themselves. To them, this extremist threat, the dangers about war with India over the massacre in Mumbai, the dangers of Swat and the extremists in the tribal areas, all this is secondary to kind of political squabbling over total, you know, nonsensical issues in Islamabad.
And the second biggest issue, which has been also very, you know, heavily ignored, unfortunately, has been the economy, which is just going down the tubes. And we have massive inflation, massive joblessness, and this has nothing to do with the global economy. Our economy was going down the tubes at least a year before the global crash in the autumn, last autumn. And the issue was not addressed by the civilian government. At the same time, when you look at the military, you see this kind of continuing desire to make India as the main enemy, to kind of not really take seriously this extremist threat, which is now occupying so much of Pakistani territory. You don't see the army taking a comprehensive counterinsurgency strategy; you don't see them dealing with the problems, you know, at hand. So, there is a lot of depression and unease in Pakistan.
GROSS: You mentioned how depressed you've become about the situation in Pakistan. Is the new Obama administration giving you and the people you know in Pakistan any reason for optimism?
Mr. RASHID: Yes. I think there's no question. I think the Obama administration is going to take Pakistan, Afghanistan, much more seriously. Also in the pipeline is an aid package, perhaps as much as $1 billion a year, for the social sector, for the civilian government, not just for buying weapons for the military. People are expecting a great deal. People - I think, you know, generally in the Muslim world what you're seeing is the publics are generally welcoming Obama very much. The regimes, the establishments, are very fearful because they don't know what's coming. They don't know how tough he's going to be. And that's very much the case in Pakistan. It's the case in Afghanistan, too. President Karzai is very nervous about Obama. He doesn't know how this is going to be different from Bush, because Bush never asked any embarrassing questions; Bush never made any real demands. Obama is going to be very different, and I think even for the Pakistanis. I mean, Bush never made any real demands on Pakistan in a tough-minded way. And so, I think the elites of these countries are quite nervous, but I think the publics are very happy and very welcoming.
GROSS: So, you've told us what's at stake in your country and how frightening things have gotten there. What's at stake for the United States now in Pakistan? Or maybe I should ask you about Pakistan and Afghanistan, because it seems to be coming more and more of a package deal in terms of, you know, the Taliban and the problems that unite the two countries.
Mr. RASHID: Well, I mean, I think in, you know, as far as Pakistan and Afghanistan are concerned, this whole regional strategy, it's very important that this plays out properly, that there is a positive response from the leaders in Pakistan and Afghanistan. But you also have to involve India, and I think Richard Holbrooke is well aware of that. The Indians have reacted very negatively to this regional strategy, because what they say is that, you know, the Americans want a solution to Kashmir. And you cannot link Kashmir, the Kashmir dispute, to the problem in Afghanistan. Well, of course you can, because the problem is that the Pakistan army is not taking this extremist threat seriously because it considers the India threat more serious and it still wants a settlement of Kashmir. Now, until you have better India-Pakistan relations and a solution to Kashmir, you're not going to convince the Pakistan army to go against these extremists. So, it's a very complicated conundrum here which we have to deal with. And don't forget, on the edges, you've got Iran, you've got China, you've got Russia, and you've got the Central Asian republics. They all fit into this regional strategy.
GROSS: Ahmed Rashid, thank you very much for talking to us. Be well, and I look forward to talking with you again.
Mr. RASHID: Thank you very much indeed, Terry.
GROSS: Journalist Ahmed Rashid lives Lahore, Pakistan. He joined us from a studio in Oslo, Norway. His latest book is "Descent into Chaos: How the War Against Islamic Extremism Is Being Lost in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia." I'm Terry Gross.