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TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. President Obama inherited the war in Afghanistan, and now he has to decide on a strategy. General Stanley McChrystal, the top commander of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, warns that the mission there will likely fail without a significant change in strategy. He's asked for 40,000 more troops.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton supports sending more troops. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell has expressed skepticism that more troops would lead to success. Vice President Joe Biden has proposed an alternative plan that would involve concentrating on air strikes against al-Qaida cells using special forces and missiles.

We invited Pakistani journalism Ahmed Rashid to give us his analysis. He lives in Lahore. He's been a frequent guest on our show since 2000, when he published his book "Taliban." He's covered Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia for about 30 years. His latest book is "Descent into Chaos: The U.S. and the Disaster in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia." He has an article in the current edition of the New York Review of Books titled "The Afghanistan Impasse."

Ahmed Rashid, welcome back to FRESH AIR. General McChrystal has warned that we'll fail if we don't have more troops in Afghanistan, but in order to win or have success and not fail, we need to define what winning is, what the mission is, which is one of the things President Obama is trying to do now. What do you see as the options there - of the optional goals for the United States and NATO in Afghanistan?

Mr. AHMED RASHID (Journalist; Author, "Descent into Chaos: The United States and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia"): Well, I think if the commitment slows down in any way, I think the Taliban will take Kabul within six months to a year, and the situation will deteriorate enormously. The Taliban will then seek local allies: Pakistan, Iran, possibly China, the Arab Gulf states. And we will be back to the 1990s, where of course the civil war in Afghanistan was fueled by neighboring countries with various proxies.

Now, I think the McChrystal plan is, basically, he's asking for more troops on the basis of the new counterinsurgency strategy that was introduced into Afghanistan last year by General Petraeus, who had introduced it in Iraq earlier, where it has been quite successful. But the problem in Afghanistan is, as far as the U.S. military, is that you can't implement this counterinsurgency strategy with the numbers of troops that you have. They're just too few. So that's why I think primarily the demand is for more troops.

And his other main trust, of course, is that there has to be a civilian backup, as there was in Iraq at the end, in other words more civilian experts, technocrats coming in to build capacity in the government and carry out development, invest in agriculture. Some of this has already started. I mean, Richard Holbrooke has hired - the ambassador to Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke, has hired a number of civilian technocrats who are already starting programs on the ground.

But all this is going to need some more security, more troops, more money and more time. And I think in Washington, the question of time is the most critical thing because the Democrats, you know, don't want to be in the midst of a war during the congressional elections next year, and the Republicans would like to see the Democrats bogged down.

GROSS: Well, let's get back to something you said right at the start, which is that if we pull out troops, or if we don't put in more troops, you think the Taliban will take over Kabul within six months. That's a pretty dire prediction. What makes you say that? What evidence do you have that that would happen?

Mr. RASHID: Well, you know, already they are all over the country now. I mean, in the last 18 months, they have spread to the north and the west, where they were never there before. Now, at the moment, certainly what is holding them back from taking major cities - they would like to capture Kandahar in the south of the country, which is the second-largest city in the country and which is their political capital and then their spiritual home. What is keeping them at the moment is obviously the firepower of the Americans and NATO, their air power, the artillery, the troops that they have on the ground and also the fact that there has not been yet a public upheaval against either the government or the presence of the Americans and, in fact, most Afghans don't want the Taliban back.

But I think the big fear is that if the Afghans see that the Americans are somehow slackening, and NATO is slackening in its commitment, and they're just going to do a holding operation - which is exactly what Bush did for so many years when he was preoccupied with Iraq - and the Americans are just going to do a holding operation, I think a lot more Afghans are going to start - get off the fence and side with the Taliban, not out of because they like the Taliban but out of fear, out of terror, out of being, you know, wanting to be on the right side at the right time because Afghans are great artists at making decisions as to be on the winning side.

GROSS: So from your perspective, what do you think the goal should be in Afghanistan?

Mr. RASHID: Well, Terry, you know, I believed right from the beginning that there was a minimal state in Afghanistan. We should remember Afghanistan was never colonized. So you never had the kind of British empire, French empire, build-up of justice systems and parliaments and all the rest of it that you had in countries, neighboring countries like India, like Pakistan. Afghanistan was never colonized. So the state built itself, in a way, and there was a minimal state, and its most successful period was actually from about 1920 to the Soviet invasion in 1979.

Now, there was 50, 60 years of complete peace, tranquility, development, a little bit of investment, a little bit of foreign aid from the Americans and the Soviets because they were both competing during the Cold War. And what I mean by minimal state is there was a basic infrastructure of roads. There was electricity in the cities. There was an economy, which was largely rural and agricultural, and people worked on the fields. There was a small export industry of fruits and vegetables and nuts and other things. There was a small army, a small police, and the state was able to have some influence in the 34 provinces of the country that there are now through the governors and the police chiefs. But now, the state was not able to penetrate to every single village, but it did - was able to exert significant authority. Now, that's what I call a minimal state, in other words a state which is not modeled on what we know in Iraq or in Pakistan as an ex-colonial state with certain standards and living and all the rest of it.

I think we need to re-create that minimal state. And the biggest failure of the last eight years has been to create an economy. The black economy, the drugs economy, is the biggest economy in Afghanistan. The white economy hardly exists, and why? Because the infrastructure was not build.

GROSS: You're saying that the goal should be to build a minimal state. That's a hard thing to do. I mean, do you think the goal should be, like, democracy-building or state-building or just eradicating the leadership of the Taliban, al-Qaida and other related groups that are a threat to the people of Afghanistan, Pakistan and other people around the world?

Mr. RASHID: Well, I think you have to do state-building alongside fighting an insurgency, and every year that you delay state-building in Afghanistan - in other words giving the people jobs and something to look forward to - every year, the insurgency is going to intensify, and the people are going to get more demoralized. So you need a civil program, which is what the original Obama plan stated in March, and it was very welcomed by everyone, a civil program that must be on par with the military program.

Now, the problem today is that, you know, six months down the road, we have actually the Obama's March strategy, which I thought was very productive and a big shift away from what Bush was doing. We have the Obama strategy now being questioned by Obama himself. And that, of course, is creating even more confusion in the minds of the Afghan public and the neighboring countries, and also, of course, it is raising the spirits of the Taliban.

GROSS: The people in America, a lot of people in America are really worried that Afghanistan will become a, quote, "quagmire," and the Vietnam analogy is being used in a lot of places, in other words that we'll not only sink in a lot of money, but a lot of our men and women will die in Afghanistan. A lot of families will be broken up, and it will perhaps still be impossible to accomplish the goal. And it will just kind of go on and on and on, making it more and more difficult to end it. Are you concerned about that? I mean, are you more confident than a lot of skeptics here are, that, you know, building a minimal state and defeating the Taliban and al-Qaida are actual, achievable goals?

Mr. RASHID: I still think they're achievable goals. But I do say that every day that it's delayed, it becomes more and more difficult because the Taliban make up more ground, and as I said, the people on the other hand get more demoralized. So the quicker we do this, the better it is - the quicker we put in these resources. Now, I quite understand the feeling, and you can see the figures. I think it's now over 50 percent of Americans think that, you know, the war is not winnable, and the Americans should pull out. Well, you know, my book and my articles are constantly pointing out that the last seven years have really been a failure both in countering the Taliban insurgency in the military side and in the civilian side.

And it's only now - you know, one NATO official said to me quite recently that actually this is year one for Afghanistan. We consider this as year one because this is the first year that there's a serious plan for Afghanistan. Now, I think that's very significant, and I mean - and I think many Afghans think like that perhaps, that, you know, Obama is seriously trying to address all the issues which were neglected by Bush. And I do believe that, you know, if these issues are addressed - but yes, they have to be backed by more troops and by this counterinsurgency strategy that is now being put in place in which the population will be defended by American troops and the growing strength of the Afghan army, and winning over that more-secure population will be the primary task. So I think, you know, I mean, this is doable, but as I said, the strategy needs time. It needs two years, three years.

GROSS: My guest is Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid. He's based in Lahore and is in Spain today, speaking to us from a studio in Madrid. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Ahmed Rashid. He's a Pakistani journalist based in Lahore, and he's been writing about Afghanistan, Pakistan and the region for about 30 years. His books include "Taliban" and "Descent into Chaos: The U.S. and the Disaster in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia." And he has an article called "The Afghanistan Impasse" in the current edition of the New York Review of Books.

I'm interested in your opinions on Joe Biden's suggested strategy. He's been recommending, the vice president has been recommending to President Obama, that what we do is attack the al-Qaida and Taliban leadership with drones, you know, with unmanned missiles, as well as with special forces as opposed to sending in more troops and relying on that to, you know, to knock off the leadership, hoping that that will solve the problem of the terrorist groups there. What do you think?

Mr. RASHID: Well, you know, first of all, I can't agree with this. First of all, a lot of the al-Qaida-Taliban leadership is living in Pakistan, and you can't use American troops to cross the border and go into Pakistan. The Pakistanis won't allow it. They're having a big problem accepting the fact of U.S. drones, which are killing quite a considerable number of top leaders, but not all of them, obviously. That's the first problem.

The second problem is that if we look back to 2001 and the failure to put troops on the ground for about four years, the Americans had absolutely no intelligence along this border, with the Afghan-Pakistan border, because there were no troops stationed there. And around 2004, 2005, when the insurgency got serious, and more troops did arrive, you had these, what are called forward operating bases set up along the border with Pakistan. And these bases were also carrying out, you know, minor development work, building schools, digging wells, et cetera.

And suddenly, the intelligence improved enormously as to, you know, who was hiding where, what was going on on the other side of the border in Pakistan. So what I'm trying to say here is that the Americans have only been successful in knocking out these leaders in Pakistan and in Afghanistan - they've knocked out quite a few in Afghanistan, too, especially Taliban commanders, mid-level commanders. They've only done that because the Afghan intelligence has been there on the ground and informed the Americans as to where so-and-so may be hiding. Now, Biden's plan will have much fewer people on the ground and much fewer soldiers on the ground, and the Afghan public will, instead of giving intelligence to the Americans, will go back to giving intelligence to the Taliban because they will see that the Americans are not serious, they're pulling out of here, they're reducing the number of bases, they're not doing development work that they were doing in our village or whatever.

The key to knocking out al-Qaida is intelligence, and the problem has been that that intelligence cooperation is growing now in Afghanistan. To put a stop to it by withdrawing troops or by not sending more troops, I think, would be hugely detrimental.

GROSS: But if we send more troops, do we risk being seen as an occupying force in Afghanistan?

Mr. RASHID: Well, I think, you know, certainly that's very paramount in President Obama's mind, and he's, you know, very conscious of that, and I think that's a question he asks of everyone, at least that's what I've been told. But I again would say that, you know, the Afghans still expect the foreigners to deliver on what they want, in other words nation-building: the jobs, the schools, the hospitals, et cetera.

Now, the Afghans know that as long as foreign troops are there, there might be a chance that we will actually get our economy going and that actually the money might come in for doing the right thing economically and socially. If the foreign troops leave, then we don't stand a chance in hell of getting anything, and we will go back to being in the stone age, and the Taliban will come and conquer us all over again.

You know, just compare Afghanistan to Iraq. In Iraq, you had a major movement against the American presence. It was not just al-Qaida. It was Iraqi nationalists, the old Iraqi army. You had, you know, people in the street. I mean, there were demonstrations, et cetera. Eight years and, you know, a lot of civilians have died at the hands of the Americans, unfortunately, because of bombing, but you still have not - you had protests, small protests. So you do not have a mass movement in Afghanistan which is saying: Americans out. People still want to reap the benefit of what they see as the troops mean development. And if the troops go, there's no development.

GROSS: What kind of partner now does the United States have in President Karzai now that we know that there seems to have been so much fraud in the election, and he seems to have been very involved in the creation of that fraud? I think he's lost his credibility in the eyes of the United States and in the eyes of the people of Afghanistan. So if part of our goal is to build a functioning state in Afghanistan, what kind of partner do we have in Karzai now?

Mr. RASHID: Well, I agree with you completely. It's been extremely demoralizing and absolutely tragic that this has happened, considering that in 2004, there was a presidential election that was run by the United Nations, and it went off pretty well. Everyone accepted the results. But this time around, you had the Afghans running their own elections, and you had this massive kind of collapse of, you know, authority and fairness and getting the vote out, et cetera.

Now, I think certainly, you know, this is a very serious problem, and certainly I think this is probably one of the factors being discussed in Washington right now as to what do we do next. Well, I think, again, the Bush period, if we go back to that, never really put down any benchmarks for the Afghan government and Karzai. They never put down markers that you have to do this, you have to get rid of so-and-so because he's corrupt, get rid of this minister because we know he's drug-trafficking, you know.

I think now what we are going to see is hopefully benchmarks and markers put down by the Americans for Karzai, and he will have to accept this if he's going to retain continuous support. I hope there is an awareness in Kabul as to how catastrophic this rigging has been to the whole of the last eight years, to the whole effort that the West and the Afghans have put in to try to rebuild their country.

It has really been catastrophic, and Karzai has to row back now pretty swiftly. And I think we might see signs of that the moment the election result is finally declared. At the moment, actually, the Election Investigation Commission is still counting what it considers to be bad votes. Once the results are announced, I think - I mean, there are two or three things the U.S. could do. They have to set benchmarks along with the international community. There's going to be a conference at the end of this year where the whole international community will probably be setting out a program for Karzai to follow. There will not be any acceptance of warlords or drug traffickers and all the rest of it in the Cabinet, as there were during the Bush period.

So in a sense, I think international toughness, and of course the stick will be that if you don't do this, some of the best aid programs may be halted or postponed for a certain period of time, and we will announce that it's being postponed because you, Mr. Karzai, are not implementing so-and-so and so-and-so. So the Americans can use that as a stick.

GROSS: It seems like it's going to be kind of hard for Karzai to straighten out now because from what I've read, it sounds like part of the way he won was to make deals with warlords, and those are deals that he probably has to make good on when he resumes his presidency. So if he's made deals with warlords that he has to make good on, how does he not make good on them? You know what I mean? It's like if he's that deep into it, how does he pull out?

Mr. RASHID: Well, actually, you know, in 2004, he made very similar deals with exactly the same kinds of warlords, and a lot of them were kept out. People who were inconvenient were kept out, and he can repeat that. You know, I mean, he's a great master of promising the same job to 300 people and then picking somebody who he hasn't promised the job to at all. I think there will be enormous pressure on him to drop these warlords. And I think he's conscious, too, that he needs more qualified - and technocrats in the Cabinet, ruling the provinces as governors and police chiefs.

I think he will be able - I don't think that is a major issue that he has to fulfill the demands that any warlord might - he can give them minor (unintelligible). He can promote development in their areas. He can give them money for development or whatever. But I think he will be capable of holding them off as far as political posts are concerned in the government.

GROSS: Ahmed Rashid will be back in the second half of the show. He's the author of "Taliban" and "Descent into Chaos: The U.S. and the Disaster in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid who we frequently call on to analyze what's happening in the region. He's covered Pakistan and Afghanistan for about 30 years and is the author of the bestseller "Taliban." His latest book is "Descent into Chaos: The U.S. and the Disaster in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia." His article "The Afghanistan Impasse" is in the current edition of The New York Review of Books. We've been talking about the challenges President Obama faces in deciding on a strategy for Afghanistan.

I've been reading, in the last few days - in The New York Times and the Washington Post - things that sound like hopeful signs that al-Qaida, the Taliban and other linked extremist groups are losing power and losing influence. Let me read you a couple of quotes. The first is from the Washington Post and this was reported yesterday, that the "U.S. and international intelligence officials say that improved recruitment of spies inside the al-Qaida network, along with increased use of targeted air strike and enhanced assistance from cooperative governments, has significantly reduced al-Qaida effectiveness and in the past year over a dozen senior figures in al-Qaida and allied groups in Pakistan and elsewhere have been killed."

And The New York Times reported on Sunday, "Many students of terrorism believe that in important ways al-Qaida and its ideology of global jihad are in pronounced decline — with its central leadership thrown off balance as operatives are increasingly picked off by missiles and manhunts; and more important, with its tactics, discredited in public opinion across the Muslim world."

And then a quote, someone who formerly headed the CIA's Strategic Analysis Program on Political Islam - and he said, "They're finding it harder to recruit. They're finding it harder to raise money. Al-Qaida is losing its moral argument about the killing of civilians." And he says that this is in part because a lot of countries with Muslim civilians have had Muslim civilians killed by these terrorist attacks.

So these seem like hopeful signs, like the terrorist groups are on the wane. What's your perception of that?

Mr. RASHID: Well, I would agree with what you're saying about al-Qaida, but I wouldn't agree with the Taliban at all. The Taliban is very much a mass movement. Al-Qaida certainly has been knocked around a great deal by the drone attacks; they've lost a lot of very senior people. But let me say a few things. Over the last two or three years, what we've seen is that al-Qaida has very cleverly given off a lot of the work that it used to do itself; they've given it off to the Pakistani Taliban or the Afghanistan Taliban.

Now what do I mean by that? For example, in the last six months we've had these numerous examples of Europeans coming for training in the tribal areas of Pakistan: Germans, Norwegians, Spanish, French. Now who has been training them? It's been the local Taliban. Now previously - and maybe there would be one Arab instructor who would come in for a few days or something - but mostly it's been Taliban who house the - who train, who give them, you know, the weapons to train with, who take them into battle for battle experience, whatever.

Now three or four years ago, when we were talking about training foreigners and Europeans especially, or Americans even, we would be talking about Arabs doing that - Arabs as members of al-Qaida. Today that job has been kind of, you know, subcontracted out to the Taliban. I think other things like fundraising, drug trafficking - I think a lot of the things that al-Qaida was directly involved in have been given out to other groups.

Now, for example, drug trafficking. Two of the major Central Asian groups, the Islamic movement of Uzbekistan and the Islamic Jihad Union are deeply involved now in drug trafficking and their whole role in drug trafficking has grown. So in other words, al-Qaida has given some of that over. Now they may - al-Qaida probably still gets money from that. They get a commission or they get, you know, a certain percentage, but the job which was done by Arabs is not done there anymore. So in a sense, al-Qaida is surviving by doing less and by having less of a profile.

GROSS: I'm sorry. I'm just still thinking about the idea of al-Qaida outsourcing to the Taliban.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RASHID: Well...

GROSS: I just think that's so interesting.

Mr. RASHID: It's certainly been happening.

GROSS: Yeah. I'm sure.

Mr. RASHID: I mean, you know, and remember the Taliban don't have an agenda of global jihad. They have a very local agenda, which is, you know, they want to throw the Americans out of Afghanistan and seize power. But they don't want to conquer the whole world like al-Qaida does.

GROSS: So okay, so if al-Qaida is outsourcing to the Taliban and the Taliban's goal is to just take over Afghanistan; but al-Qaida's goal is to, you know, conquer the infidels around the world - so if the Taliban take power in Kabul, does that open the door for al-Qaida to expand again and to stop shrinking and subcontracting, and to just expand and become more powerful?

Mr. RASHID: Well, you know, certainly over the last eight years the Taliban owe al-Qaida a great debt also. So it's two-way traffic. It's not just that al-Qaida is able to subcontract to the Taliban. The Taliban had been taken to Iraq. They've learned all these new tactics, IEDs, mines you know, ambushes, all this kind of successful stuff that al-Qaida was doing in Iraq and other things - especially, you know, using suicide bombing etcetera, etcetera. Fundraising, funding, drug trafficking - all these things that al-Qaida were deeply involved in have also benefited the Taliban to a very large extent.

So if this present Taliban leadership, at the moment - which I think is very diehard and can not be won over with talks and really wants to seize power - if this Taliban leadership remains in power and the Taliban movement remains a undivided movement, then I think the risk would be enormous that al-Qaida would be back also in Kabul.

Now that is why I think this line of talking to what is called moderate Taliban but, you know, it's a false word, that. What we mean here is that - can the Afghans, the Karzai, the Americans, the CIA - can they divide the Taliban movement, start dividing the movement between those who come into fold - in other words, commanders and foot soldiers who are not necessarily, you know, committed to Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader's ambitions - can they be won over with a proper program of reconciliation, etcetera?

So in other words, can you create splits in the Taliban movement and thereby weaken it? And that really has not happened in the last eight years, unfortunately. It's been talked about a lot. Everyone's talking about it but nobody has actually been able to achieve very much.

GROSS: My guest is Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid. He's based in Lahore and is in Spain today speaking to us from a studio in Madrid.

We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Ahmed Rashid, is a Pakistani journalist who is based in Lahore and he's been covering the region for 30 years. His book includes the bestseller "Taliban" and the recent book "Descent into Chaos: The U.S. and the Disaster in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia." He also has an article in the current edition of The New York Review of Books called "The Afghanistan Impasse."

As you've pointed out in your writing, one of the key components to creating peace and ending terrorists groups in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, one of the key components there is India because Pakistan is still in conflict to some degree with India. A Pakistani-based extremist group Lashkar-e-Taiba was responsible for the Mumbai attacks in India, and so Pakistan doesn't want to take all of its troops to fight terrorist groups, it wants to preserve some of its troops on the India border because they're still feuding. And then there's the question of Kashmir.

So could you talk a little bit about how you see India fitting into this equation and complicating things even more, as if they needed to get more complicated?

Mr. RASHID: Well, you're absolutely right in your analysis. I mean there's a complete standoff at the moment. The two foreign ministers of the two countries met at the United Nations last week and they failed to make any progress whatsoever. And we've got two very distinct positions. India is saying you must dismantle and break up Lashkar-e-Taiba because it carried out the Mumbai attacks. You must jail the leadership. You must put them on trial. We've got evidence that the leaders organized this, etcetera.

Pakistan is refusing to do this. Or rather the military, if you like, is refusing to do this because the military set up Lashkar-e-Taiba and it's still the main group which is backed by the Army for fighting in Kashmir and for mobilizing militant Muslims in India, so Lashkar-e-Taiba remains in tact.

The Pakistani position is we want the Indians to start discussing broader issues including Kashmir and the Indians have said we will discuss nothing except terrorism and until you stop Lashkar-e-Taiba, we will not have talks. So there's a complete standoff and I think the last six months have been you know, big sort of efforts behind the scenes by again - by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, by Richard Holbrooke, the special ambassador - to try and get the two sides together.

But I think now there's increasing evidence that the Indians are now - Indian intelligence is now presuming that there is going to be another major attack in India by perhaps Lashkar-e-Taiba or by Islamic militants. And if this happens we are then really faced a very dangerous situation, because last time it happened - last year and 160 people were killed in Mumbai, India did not go to war. India did not bomb Pakistan, India didn't raid Pakistan, but it warned Pakistan that if another attack happens, we will take military action. And so that is why there's an enormous deal at stake here, both for India and Pakistan, of course, and for the Americans and everyone else.

And for the Americans, given all the - what's going in Afghanistan, the last thing the Americans want to see is an India-Pakistan conflict or a ratcheting up of tensions - which, of course, will completely distract Pakistan from giving the Americans any kind of support in Afghanistan or in intelligence cooperation.

GROSS: Now we established, earlier, how difficult that's going to be for America to deal with President Karzai, but they'll probably put a lot of pressure on him to respond to the goals that America has set out for a decent state in Afghanistan. President Zardari in Pakistan - what kind of partner is he for America in dealing with terrorist groups that are based in Pakistan? I was reading that President Zardari's approval ratings are something like 25 percent right now in Pakistan.

Mr. RASHID: Well, you know, he has been seen as incredibly pro-American, in fact, possibly too pro-American. Now I think he's been making some of the right statements. He's been talking about peace with India. He's been talking about an end to all terrorist groups in Pakistan, all of them, including those who are fighting in Kashmir. He struck up a good relationship with President Karzai before these Afghan elections.

He's done a number of good things but, you know, the fact is that policy towards India and Afghanistan, and even towards the United States, and foreign policy in the neighborhood is still dominated by the military. The problem is that he has not been able to get his hands on the real reigns of power, you know, which is the relationship in the neighborhood. I think if he was allowed to do what he wanted to do, I think he would personally crack down on Lashkar-e-Taiba and start talks with India. But he's not being allowed to do that.

The other part of the equation is that there's a very dire economic crisis and we haven't had much international help in the last one year - although there've been a lot of talk about giving friends for Pakistan, giving donors, giving money, etcetera, but actually very little has come through. And there's a very dire economic crisis and he's getting obviously blamed for that.

And he's very unpopular because, you know, prices are going up and cost of living is going up, joblessness is increasing, and this has nothing to do with - well, it has a little bit to do with the global recession, but it's mostly a crisis that was building up during the period of General Musharraf, when he was ruling Pakistan and it's now kind of burst into the open.

GROSS: You've been a guest on our show many times, starting in 2000, when your book "Taliban" was published. And ever since 2001, you've been on the show usually several times a year, giving us your perceptions about what's happening in your region of Pakistan and Afghanistan. During the war in Iraq you were very opposed to the war. You thought it was a bad idea and now you are for more troops in Afghanistan. And I think to some people that might sound almost like a contradiction because there tends to be, you know, people who oppose war or...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...support wars or...

Mr. RASHID: Yeah.

GROSS: ...you know, who oppose American troops in other countries and those who don't. And apparently it's not a contradiction in your mind at all.

Mr. RASHID: Well Terry, first of all, I've been on the air - thank you so much for, you know, for bringing me on the air so many times. But I don't see it as a contradiction. I do believe what President Obama said that, you know, Iraq was a war of, you know, choice and this is a war of necessity - the war in Afghanistan. It is a war of necessity. And, you know, just dropping everything else aside, what I fear very much is that this Taliban model is spreading like wildfire in the region. I mean, you know, four years ago we didn't have Pakistani Taliban. We've got now maybe 10,000, maybe twice that number of Pakistani Taliban. We've got suicide bombings every day, every second day in Pakistan. That wasn't the case three or four years ago. You've got Central Asian Taliban. You've got this model spreading.

If - if this war was to wind down by the - by the Americans, by the West, the Taliban, I think, would - would inflict enormous damage not just on Afghanistan by probably seizing power in Afghanistan but they would step up their offensive in Pakistan also. And it would bring many of these fundamentalist groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba and other fundamentalist groups who may be fighting in Kashmir, may be helping the Taliban but not necessarily full - full-blooded engagement with the Taliban, all these fundamentalists would unite and we would have a major catastrophe in the region.

And by the region, I mean, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Central Asia, affecting possibly Indian Muslims, Chinese Muslims. This is - this is not something that's going to stop unless it is stopped, physically stopped, and politically stopped.

GROSS: So when you say the Taliban model had spread - the Taliban model in Afghanistan is a - is a local model. It's about getting power in Afghanistan and getting foreign troops out. When you say that model has spread, what does that mean, what shape does the Taliban take in other countries?

Mr. RASHID: Well, politically the Pakistani Taliban also, you know, wanting power in - in Pakistan, but they also helped the Afghan Taliban. And the Central Asian Taliban do the same thing. They would like to have power in Central Asia and carry out attacks in Central Asia. But they're also helping the Afghan Taliban. So Afghanistan is seeing that if Afghanistan could be won by the Taliban, all the other Talibans would benefit and grow from this. So there is enormous concentration on helping the Afghan Taliban to win and to drive out the Westerners and seize power once again in Kabul.

Now, on the other hand, they have local agendas but what they follow is this Taliban ideology. Now, what do I mean by that? I mean, the Taliban we saw in the '90s in Afghanistan - anti-education, anti-women, anti any kind of economic development - you know, it's amazing to think that the Taliban today even, eight years on after 9/11, they still don't have any economic plan. I mean, in all their pronouncements there is no social plan. There is no economic plan. There is no plan for education.

So the Taliban are exactly, politically speaking, they're exactly in the same position that they were 10, 15 years ago, and they haven't really moved forward. They haven't become more modern or more moderate or - you know, they're as extreme as they were before. And this would be devastating for Muslims in this region.

GROSS: Is it too late in a way? I mean, look, if the Taliban model has already spread to other countries, say the U.S. ups its troops 40,000 more and we succeed in keeping the Taliban out of power in Afghanistan, if the model has already caught on, has the damage already been done? Is it too late, would we be thinking all this time - manpower, losing American lives and European lives in Afghanistan when the model is already out there and the Taliban can - can maybe still just wait it out?

Mr. RASHID: I think two things. The first thing is that, as I said, all these Taliban's second major occupation is to help the Afghan Taliban. Because they see the Afghan Taliban's victory as key to the whole region. And if the Afghan Taliban can be defeated, I think there will be a - a huge ripple effect in the region, which will reduce the influence of the Taliban. The second point is that what Obama made in his March strategy, which was the so-called regional strategy - in other words, you have to get all the neighboring countries of Afghanistan to work together to resist the Taliban in Afghanistan and also to resist local terrorism in their own countries.

So that's why you've had U.S. diplomats in the last six months running around. And also one of the reasons why Obama was very keen to open relations with Iran, because Iran was critical to - Iran is a neighbor of Afghanistan. It's critical to bringing peace in Afghanistan. And certainly before the Iranian elections and all these deterioration over the nuclear issue and the election issue in Iran, the Americans were very keen that, you know, Iran could possibly be a help in Afghanistan. So this regional strategy is something that hopefully is going to reduce the influence of these local Talibans.

GROSS: Ahmed Rashid, thank you so much for talking with us again and be well. Thank you.

Mr. RASHID: Thank you very much.

GROSS: Journalist Ahmed Rashid lives in Lahore, Pakistan and spoke to us from a studio in Madrid. His latest book is "Descent into Chaos: The U.S. and the Disaster in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia." His article "The Afghanistan Impasse" is in the current edition of the New York Review of Books.

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