Will Obama Bring Change To Afghanistan, Pakistan? Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid discusses the Bush Administration's policies concerning Afghanistan and Pakistan and speculates about the changes President-elect Barack Obama may bring to the area.
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Will Obama Bring Change To Afghanistan, Pakistan?

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Will Obama Bring Change To Afghanistan, Pakistan?

Will Obama Bring Change To Afghanistan, Pakistan?

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TERRY GROSS, host: ..TEXT: This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross. It's very likely the next major terrorist attack in the west is being planned by extremists in Pakistan, warned Nicholas Kristof in a recent New York Times column. He also warned that Pakistan, a country with up to 60 nuclear weapons, may be collapsing. My guest is journalist Ahmed Rashid who covers his country, Pakistan, as well as Afghanistan and Central Asia.

In a profile of Rashid in the New York Times, Jane Perlez wrote quote, "over the decades, Rashid turned out to be something of a prophet in the region. Now something of an elder statesman, he is sought after for advice by diplomats in Islamabad and Kabul and by policy makers in NATO capitals and Washington," unquote. Ahmed Rashid is the author of the bestseller "Taliban." His latest book is "Descent Into Chaos: The United States and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia." He co-authored an article in the November, December edition of Foreign Affairs about ending the chaos in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Ahmed Rashid is currently touring European countries giving lectures and talking with diplomats and officials. He was in Madrid this morning when we recorded our interview about Pakistan, Afghanistan and President-elect Obama. Ahmed Rashid, welcome back to Fresh Air. Do you agree with Nicholas Kristof that Pakistan may be collapsing?

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 he's very close to it. Collapsing is a difficult word when you've got a standing army of nearly half a million men and still an intact bureaucracy and a kind of government system. This is not Somalia. This is not Sudan. But what is happening, without a doubt, and I think Nicholas Kristof has kind of put his finger on it, is the collapse of government authority across large chunks of territory. Not just in the tribal areas where the Taliban are fighting the army, but also in Baluchistan province, that borders Afghanistan, where there's an insurgency going on, in other parts of Punjab where militant - Kashmiri militants and other extremist groups have taken control of the justice system, of the police.

So what we are seeing is an erosion of state authority, definitely a collapse in many areas of law and order and the justice system that has prevailed ever since the British days and partition. And an enormous fear now amongst people, ordinary people, about kidnappings, crime, being caught in a suicide bombing and of course, this is coupled with a very severe economic crisis.

GROSS: Every time you talk with us, the situation within Pakistan seems to be further deteriorating. What are some of the latest signs that you could see fighting within Pakistan?

Mr. RASHID: Well, I think the most frightening thing is now what is going on in the city of Peshawar. Peshawar is the capital of the northwest frontier province. It's a city of four, five million people. It's a huge metropolis, and it is now partly controlled by the Taliban, which is what Kristof says. And we've just had the most amazing, you know, journalists have been shot, diplomats are being kidnapped, an American - that is an American aid worker was killed in his car, all in the space of two weeks. And now, you know, journalists, aid workers, doctors, I mean all the do-gooders in society, civil society, they are becoming the major target, whether you're western or local.

Locally, I mean this year alone, I mean the police figure is that something like a 130 prominent people from Peshawar had been kidnapped for ransom. And that's probably very low because a lot of people are not admitting to being kidnapped because you know they're trying to get free their kidnapped member of the family.

GROSS: And the Taliban who are taking over parts of Peshawar, are they Pakistani-Taliban or Afghani-Taliban?

Mr. RASHID: No, these are very much Pakistani Taliban. They are from the tribal areas. They are Pashtun tribesmen largely. They are often backed by extremist groups from the other provinces in Pakistan, from Panjab. I think the really big difference that has happened, you know, over the last few months is that now the Pakistani Taliban really do seem to have developed a very clear agenda, an anti-state agenda, an agenda to undermine, destroy the present state set up and establish their own.

We just a couple of days ago, we had the very well coordinated, targeted assassination of a senior general in Islamabad who had commanded the Pakistan special forces, the commandos, who had probably gone after militants at some stage and here were the militants getting retribution, shooting aim on his driver in his car, well, you know after his retirement.

GROSS: This is obviously a really bad series of developments for Pakistan and the Pakistani people. Not to sound too self-centered here, but what does this mean for the United States?

Mr. RASHID: Well, I think it's causing enormous concern. I mean, I think everyday of deterioration in Pakistan is heightening the profile of Pakistan for the incoming Obama administration. I think you had many senior people, military people in the U.S., politicians, congressmen say that Pakistan is going to be, perhaps even more than Afghanistan or sometimes they're equated Pakistan, Afghanistan, but Pakistan is going to be one of the top foreign policy items on the Obama agenda, and it's going to be a very difficult call as to exactly how can Obama do something different from what has been done by President Bush.

GROSS: Why will Pakistan be so important?

Mr. RASHID: Well, I think Pakistan is really central. You know, at the moment in Pakistan, there's no doubt that the Afghan Taliban leadership and al-Qaeda leadership is, probably all of them, are probably living on the Pakistan side of the border. They make forays into Afghanistan, but they are living on the Pakistani side of the border. Pakistan has nuclear weapons. Pakistan has an army that has - that is perhaps very demoralized in having to fight these militants. There's very strong anti-Americanism in the army. In other words, the army has become less reliable as an ally for the west than it was - that it has been during the Cold War, 40 years ago. And then it was against the Soviets in the 1980s when the army was helping the Afghan mujahideen fight the Soviets. So, there are cracks developing in the army which are very, very, worrisome and dangerous.

I would reckon that something like one-third of the territory of Pakistan is presently out of bounds to journalists, to NGOs, to aid workers, to human rights people and to women's groups. Now, that means that in one-third of the country - and don't forget this is one of the 10 largest countries in the world, you don't have law and order. You don't have the mechanisms of state security to protect you if you're trying to operate there as a journalist or whatever.

GROSS: Can you clarify for us what you think the relationship is between the Taliban of Pakistan, the Taliban of Afghanistan and al-Qaeda? Are they all in league with each other?

Mr. RASHID: Yeah, I think they're coordinating very closely with each other. What is important to understand is that they all have separate agendas now. The Afghan, you know, they are - the Afghan-Taliban are fighting in Afghanistan, and the Pakistanis are fighting in Pakistan, but they are fighting in each other's country. They're helping each other. They're sharing equipment. They're sharing training. They're sharing camps and training areas and Madrasas, religious schools, where a lot of these suicide bombings are coming from.

For example, I mean there is a pool of suicide bombers now who are being based in the tribal areas and in Quetta, and these suicide bombers are very young. Many of them are young men, 14, 15 years old. They're coming straight out of Madrasas. They're being put into a pool where they can be drawn upon by commanders, either Pakistani commanders or Afghan Taliban commanders. So this is the kind of coordination that's going on.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Ahmed Rashid. He's considered one of the foremost journalist covering Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia. He lives in Pakistan. He's currently touring several European countries. His latest book is called, "Descent Into Chaos: The United States and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia." President-elect Obama says he wants to send more troops to Afghanistan and the military has asked for at least 20,000 more troops. What do you think troops can accomplish?

Mr. RASHID: Well, you know, I'm very hopeful having met, you know, a lot of senior people from Washington, I'm very hopeful that really what he has in mind is not just a surge in troops. And that's how it's being kind of portrayed in the American media, but a much more comprehensive surge. In other words, a diplomatic approach to the region and addressing the issue of the neighboring countries, much better aid and development, more money, not just more money, but better delivery and less corruption and less wastage that we've seen from many western donors over the past few years that has really angered the Afghans very much. A quicker building of the Afghan Army and the police so that they can take on more responsibility themselves. So all in all, it's a very complicated package. But I think what he's aiming for is and obviously, this has to be backed also with - at one hand, a surge in troops and on the other hand, perhaps a dialogue with moderate elements of the Taliban.

So we're talking about, you know, a multi-pronged or a multi-comprehensive kind of surge, which would move forward on many fronts at the same time. Now this is not something, I mean, I always joke with my American friends, you know, this is not something the Americans are used to doing because the Americans traditionally, you know, can't walk and chew gum at the same time. Here, we're asking, you know, the Americans to do like 20 things at the same time and coordinate it and make sure that they get it right. But I do believe that the new administration coming in is deeply aware of this problem, that a lot of things have to be done simultaneously.

GROSS: You mentioned that you see, as part of the larger effort you'd like to see happen, negotiations with moderate Taliban. What do you envision the negotiations with the Taliban looking like? What would they be about? And who are the moderate Taliban?

Mr. RASHID: Well, I think, you know, it's very difficult to say. But there's a large chunk of Taliban who are not ideologically committed, who are fighting for - because, you know, their brother was killed or their house was destroyed or their village was destroyed in the U.S. bombing or they are fed up with Hamid Karzai, the president of Afghanistan, for whatever reason. And I think a lot of these people can be bought across. You know, bribed, bought, persuaded, given a new life, et cetera. And so, I think the aim would be to try to create a wedge within the Taliban.

I don't think you can negotiate with the hardliners. I don't think this would be a negotiation about power sharing. I think this would be trying to create a wedge between ordinary fighters and perhaps some commanders in the field who are fed up, who've lost too many men in the war and who would be willing to settle down back in their villages.

And the second wedge, of course, would be to try and drive a wedge between the Taliban and al-Qaeda, to drive a wedge between what is considered a war against the occupation of Afghanistan under a local war rather than this whole idea of global jihad and you know, fighting the Americans and fighting everybody else on their soil.

GROSS: Obama wants Europe to send more troops to Afghanistan. Also, you are currently traveling through Europe now. You're speaking to us from Madrid. You've been meeting with officials in Europe during your travels. What have you been hearing about sending more troops?

Mr. RASHID: Well, everybody wants to have good relations with Obama. And the public here are very enamored with Obama. They're expecting great things from him, much better relations between Europe and United States. So, of course, the governments of the day, many of whom are very reluctant to send more troops and many of whom have troops in Afghanistan right now, but those troops are doing next to nothing because they are operating under such strict restrictions and caveats that they can't actually move out of their camps even. Countries like Spain, Italy, Germany, Sweden - I've been, you know, meeting a lot of the senior officials in four or five different European countries, and what they all tell me is that we can't say no to Obama.

And the indications are that Vice President-elect Joe Biden is going to be in Europe literally within the first week after the inauguration. He's going to be touring four or five countries here, and the first message he's going to be delivering is we want more NATO troops. We want more European troops, and all the countries that I have passed through, the foreign ministries, the defense ministries, they are grappling with this issue of how do we placate public opinion on one side, which is very much against the war in Afghanistan and against this particular countries' troops sending to Afghanistan, but at the same time, we have to say yes to Obama. So, we are caught between a rock and a hard place. We can't say no to Obama. We have to send troops, but we have to placate domestic opinion as well.

So - and some countries have actually jumped the gun. Just in the last few days, Sweden has announced that it will be sending extra special forces to Afghanistan as combat troops, which is a very big difference. Sweden has not sent combat troops before. Denmark is going to be sending combat troops. And clearly, the Americans are not asking for troops who are going to be sitting in barracks, in - without doing anything. They want combat troops. They want troops with equipment, who are going to fight the Taliban and be useful. And so I think, you know, this is - really, every - you know, everyone says that in the first three months or six months, Obama is going to have a honeymoon period in Europe, and you will not be able to say no to him.

GROSS: My guest is Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid. We'll talk more after a break. This is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid. He's widely acknowledged as one of the most informed journalists covering the region. He's the author of the books "Taliban" and "Jihad." His latest is "Descent into Chaos: The United States and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia."

You wrote a very interesting article recently with Barnett Rubin. And Barnett Rubin helped organize a meeting last month between senior Bush administration officials, Afghan experts from NATO and the UN to talk to Obama and McCain advisers. This was before the election, when the outcome wasn't yet clear. And the goal was to make it clear that the next president needed to have a plan for Afghanistan before he took office. Otherwise, it could be too late. In reading that, I was wondering what would too late mean. I mean, what's the kind of too late scenario that is implied here?

Mr. RASHID: Well, I mean the feedback from that meeting, I can tell you that both the Obama camp and the McCain camp - and this meeting took place before the election were absolutely shocked at how the situation had deteriorated in Afghanistan. They were not expecting such a negative overview by the administration and by the military. So, I think they both went home very chastened and made their leaders, McCain and Obama, very much aware of how bad the situation is in Afghanistan. So, I think, you know, that has really perhaps made Obama certainly even more conscious of the fact that Afghanistan and Pakistan are going to be his top priority.

GROSS: So - but in that scenario that, if the president doesn't have a plan in effect before inauguration, it'll be too late for Afghanistan. What is - what does too late mean?

Mr. RASHID: Well, I think, you know, what we are facing is going to be a very long and bloody winter offensive in Afghanistan. The Taliban and al-Qaeda don't normally launch winter offenses. They're in the midst of one today. I mean, over the next few months. And the reason is that they anticipate that in the next three or four months, new American troops are going to arrive. And they want to take as much territory and create as much mayhem as possible before the arrival of these new U.S. troops, and if possible, try and deter some of the NATO countries from sending more troops. So, this is a test of wills. This is a test of wills between the Taliban and al-Qaeda on one side, who want to preempt the Americans and the new administration, which wants to have a battle plan and implement it as quickly as possible, bring in more troops as quickly possible.

GROSS: Is there some kind of grand strategy that Islamic extremists have for taking over Pakistan or Afghanistan and making that a center of training for terrorist groups and a homeland for terrorist groups?

Mr. RASHID: Well, you know, I think in Afghanistan, the Taliban feel that they are winning. But they also know that they can't win because the western forces are holding the cities, and they have the fire power, and they can prevent the fall of the cities much like the Soviets were able to do in the 1980s. Now, all they can try and do is, first of all, take as much of the countryside as possible, take small towns, but also demoralize NATO powers. If they can kill sufficient numbers of small country troops, say from Sweden or from Denmark or from Holland or from countries like that, and then create a wave of public opinion back home to get these governments to withdraw their troops, that could lead to an unraveling of NATO.

GROSS: What do you think the Pakistani government and intelligence services can do to shut down the Islamic extremists' operations within Pakistan's borders?

Mr. RASHID: Well, I think there are there major things that the army needs to do. The first is to retrain some of its regular army units in counterinsurgency. This is something that they've been refusing to do despite American appeals to do so. They've been refusing because they think the main bulk of the army should be trained against India, on the plains of Punjab, and they don't need to be trained in counterinsurgency.

I think the second very important thing is that the regular army, after being retrained, much of it should be moved to the Afghan border rather than remain on the Indian border. But for this, of course, there have to be more peaceful guarantees from India that India will not pose a threat.

And I think the third thing is really that the army has to be, in a sense, reeducated about what the national interests of Pakistan are. It has to be reeducated about the threat from the Taliban and al-Qaeda because this has always, for the last 10, 15 years, we supported the Taliban. I think many soldiers and officers are very confused. So, for so many years, we support the Taliban. Now, we're supposed to be killing the Taliban. Well, what's changed? Just because the Americans have told us to do this - I mean, what has changed? And I think we have not really been through a proper reeducation, a re-orientation program within the military.

GROSS: Ahmed Rashid will be back in the second half of the show. His latest book is "Descent into Chaos: The United States and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia." I'm Terry Gross and this is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross. We're talking about the deteriorating situations in Pakistan and Afghanistan and the challenges that will face the Obama administration there. My guest is Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid, who is considered one of the most knowledgeable journalists covering the region. His books include "Taliban," "Jihad," and his latest, "Descent into Chaos: The United States and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia." Last week, there was an American air strike in Pakistan. Where was it and what's the significance of this air strike?

Mr. RASHID: Well, this was the first missile strike, there'd been something like 20 in the last six weeks, the first missile strike that actually took out a target that was outside the tribal areas. The tribal areas is this semi-autonomous zone between Afghanistan and Pakistan, which belongs to Pakistan, but which Pakistan says it has no authority over. Now, this missile strike took part in what we call the settled areas of the Northwest Frontier Province. And one of the targets was Rashid Rauf, a Pakistani extremist, who apparently was the link man between al-Qaeda and a gang of extremists in London, who in 2006, were plotting to explode ten airliners over the Atlantic as they were going to the United States. He had been under arrest, he'd escaped into the tribal areas, and the Americans and the British had been trying to get him for a long time, and finally, they did so. But the real significance of this was that, you know, these missiles landed outside the tribal areas, in the settled areas. Now if that continues, it is quite likely that the protests from the tribal people, from the public and from the government against these missile strikes are going to be stepped up considerably.

GROSS: Secretary of Defense Robert Gates issued an order in July directing the military to work with the CIA to find targets in the tribal areas of Pakistan without needing the approval of the Pakistani government. And this is, I think, the first time that the green light has been given to find - to do air strikes without permission from the Pakistani government. I don't know if the action last week was a part of this new directive, I don't know if there was permission from the Pakistani government or not, do you?

Mr. RASHID: Well, again, you know, I have no idea about that. I mean, there's been talk about a secret agreement between the Americans and President Zardari in which he will allow the Americans to do the strikes, but he will protest at the same time because of public opinion at home. But the real significance of this strike was that it was an expansion or an extension, if you like, of these missile strikes. Are we now going to see more missile strikes in the Northwest Frontier Province that is in the settled area of Pakistan? Could those missile strikes even expand to Quetta, to where the Taliban leadership are living.

Now, clearly these missile strikes have been very effective in rattling, you know, al-Qaeda and the Taliban leadership, because they are very unpredictable. They have taken out a number of top leaders of the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistani Taliban and Arab members of al-Qaeda. But because of these missile strikes in the tribal areas, what we've seen is that these militants have moved away from the border region, into the interior of the country. And clearly, American satellites and drones are following them as they move into the interior. Into what, you know, are called the settled areas. And does this now mean that American strikes are going to continue wherever these militants may move?

GROSS: I guess that's a frightening thought, in a way, for the people who live in the settled areas and might have missiles...

Mr. RASHID: Well, absolutely.

GROSS: Landing near them.

Mr. RASHID: Absolutely. That's why we've seen, you know, all these protests in the tribal areas and a lot of resentment because, of course, along with these missile strikes has been considerable civilian casualties, because unfortunately these militants use civilian homes to hide in, where there are women and children. They use civilians as guards, if you like, and when a missile targets a house where several militants are having dinner or lunch or sleeping, alongside them are killed - are quite a few civilians.

So that has led to a quite wide-scale protest in the tribal areas. But it must be said at the same time that a lot of Pakistanis in other parts of Pakistan were not feeling these particular missile strikes are feeling very relieved simple because they are so fed up with the extremism and the suicide bombings that these militants carry out inside Pakistan, that they're quite happy to see, you know, these American missile strikes which are taking out some of these missiles. So there's a divided opinion as to, you know, whether the Americans are doing a good thing or a bad thing.

GROSS: I know you've been following some of the conspiracy theories that have been spreading in Pakistan about what the U.S. motives really are. Can you tell us about some of those conspiracy theories?

Mr. RASHID: Well, we wrote about this quite extensively in our article in foreign affairs, and what we're really pointing to is the fact that there's a widespread belief in Pakistan, but more particularly in the Pakistan military, that America and India are in cahoots. America, India and Israel are in cahoots to undermine or even possibly break up Pakistan. Now, this stems from a number of things. This stems, for example, from the nuclear agreement between President Bush and the Indian government which was sealed just recently. The fact that the Americans have almost legalized the - India's nuclear program while keeping Pakistan's nuclear program still undercover.

The fact that India and America have got such a close relationship, and the fact, generally, that what has been put out by the intelligence services, and by the ISI in particular, you know, over several months earlier this year was that India and Russia have been backing and arming the Pakistan Taliban. And even the American CIA has been involved in backing the Pakistani Taliban. Now, I think sensible Pakistanis find that quite absurd, because the Americans who are fighting the Taliban are hardly going to be spending money and time arming the Taliban. But that is, unfortunately, a very widespread belief in right-wing circles in Pakistan, in religious circles and even in a section of the military. Now...

GROSS: Can I just stop you? What would the motives be for the people who believe this conspiracy theory, what did they think the United States' motives would be for supporting the Taliban and then fighting the Taliban at the same time?

Mr. RASHID: That the breakup of Pakistan would give India total hegemony over the whole region, which is what the U.S. wants. And eventually the U.S. wants India to confront China, because China is it's long-term rival, and Pakistan is a friend of China so it's better we - it's better the United States try and eliminate Pakistan so that India can then become, you know, the main rival of China. So I mean, that is certainly, you know, one of the motives. The second motive is that Pakistan is the hub of Islamic extremism and anti-Americanism and that, you know, by destroying Pakistan, the Americans will have got rid of their kind of oldest enemy, although you could well claim that Pakistan is probably one of America's oldest allies in Asia ever since it, you know - the country was created in 1947.

So the real crux of the issue today is that many Pakistanis do believe that India and America and Russia are helping arm the Taliban. And it's very difficult for liberal voices, for liberal Pakistanis to try and counter that. I mean, of course, you know, I counter that in my book, in this current article but, again, the - a lot of the media which is controlled by the right, the intelligence services which have an enormous grip on media and on public opinion, as it were, in a country like Pakistan where democracy is not strong, where Parliament is not strong. Unfortunately, these views do have a lot of appeal.

GROSS: It's really scary to think that Pakistan's intelligence agencies subscribe or people within it subscribe to this conspiracy theory.

Mr. RASHID: Well, I think Pakistan's intelligence agencies were really faced with the problem of how to explain the criticism from the international community and from critics inside Pakistan that, you know, why was Pakistan - why is Pakistan still supporting the Afghan Taliban? Why has Pakistan not moved against the Pakistani Taliban much earlier? After all, these same Pakistani tribes who the army is now fighting were around two, three, four years ago, and the army was in cahoots with them. The intelligence services were in cahoots with them, because we were supporting the Afghan Taliban.

Now, I mean these questions are very embarrassing for the military. And one way to answer these questions is not to blame yourself or to become self-critical about your own policies or how your own policies might have been wrong. The one way to answer these questions is to say, oh, it was our old enemy India who was doing everything or is still doing everything. And of course, the Indians couldn't be doing this alone, so they are backed by the Americans. And the whole conspiracy theory becomes completely out of control.

GROSS: My guest is Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid. We'll talk more after our break. This is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is journalist Ahmed Rashid. He's considered one of the leading journalists covering Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia. He lives in Pakistan. His latest book is called, "Descent Into Chaos: The United States and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia." You know, we haven't talked about Iraq. But America still has a lot of troops in Iraq. We're working on a deal with the Iraqis for a withdrawal agreement. So, how optimistic are you that this agreement will be agreed to on both sides, and that there will be an orderly, structured, timely withdrawal of American troops?

Mr. RASHID: I am optimistic that there will be an agreement, because I think for the first time the Iraqi government wants an agreement and the Americans want an agreement. Or at least the new administration under President Obama will want an agreement. So I think that's a, you know, a very big plus. There are, of course, other problems. The major problem is that because of this so-called, you know, Iraqi awakening, the arming of thousands - almost a hundred thousand Sunni tribesmen, the government is faced with, you know, what to do with these people if - once peace comes to Iraq. And because you've got 100,000 armed tribesmen who helped, first of all, defeat al-Qaeda.

They played a very important role in helping defeat al-Qaeda in Iraq. But today, these people are armed. They can't form part of the police or the regular army, and the government is going to face an acute problem of dealing with them. The other thing, which I think the Obama administration is going to do very quickly and which the Bush administration failed to do, is to bring the neighboring Arab countries of Iraq around the table into some kind of agreement of non-interference inside Iraq and help to stabilize Iraq. In other words, you need a regional agreement in the Middle East by the neighbors of Iraq, which must include Iran as well, to help stabilize Iraq. And I think that, again, that rational agreement was totally missing from the Bush effort.

It partly, of course, led to the very low-level dialogue that the United States has with Iran right now. I think under Obama we'll see a stronger dialogue with Iran related to stability in Iraq. And I think that agreement is going to be very, very important, because that is ultimately the guarantor for Iraq's future survival. And that these neighboring countries, even countries like Syria and all, who've been allowing suicide bombers to come into Iraq, who've been aiding and abetting al-Qaeda, sending bombers into Iraq, even countries like Syria should be brought on board so that they stop the undermining of Iraq.

GROSS: Obama recently said on "60 Minutes," I think capturing or killing bin Laden is a critical aspect of stamping out al-Qaeda, and Obama described bin Laden as not just a symbol but the operational leader of al-Qaeda. Do you think he's still the operational leader of al-Qaeda, and do you think that capturing bin Laden would be important outside of its symbolic value?

Mr. RASHID: I think it would be. I think bin Laden is still very much - he's not a hands-on daily operator, but he's certainly a strategic thinker. He is giving a strategic direction to al-Qaeda. He is encouraging al-Qaeda to do certain things. Of course, we don't know exactly. But, for example, I mean, the decision made to import a lot of Arabs from Iraq who had battle experience in Iraq, members of al-Qaeda, importing them into Pakistan and letting them train Afghan and Pakistani Taliban. Now, who took that decision? It was a critical decision. It was taken perhaps 18 months ago. It has been critical in training the Taliban in suicide warfare, in mine-laying, in these new types of explosives that they're using against American forces and Afghan forces.

Now somebody took that decision and somebody decided that, you know, this is what needs to be done. Iraq is a lost cause, let's bring these Arab fighters to Afghanistan. Somebody has taken the huge, kind of, advancement that the al-Qaeda has made in getting involved in the drugs mafia now worldwide in order to make more money out of drugs so they can fund their movement. Somebody has taken these very important strategic decisions. Now, it could be Osama, it could be lesser people. But one senses that these kinds of strategic directions are being taken by Osama. So he's still very important, I think.

GROSS: Any final thoughts you want to leave us with?

Mr. RASHID: Well, you know, I think I'm extremely hopeful that the Obama team and the U.S. military are now speaking from one page on - as far as Afghanistan and Pakistan are concerned. They're speaking about a regional settlement that is involving the neighboring countries of Afghanistan in an eventual settlement. They're talking about more troops, but also talking about talking to the Taliban, which is very encouraging. They're all - they are both are talking about a comprehensive surge, which is not just a question of more troops but more and better development and reconstruction in Afghanistan.

They're talking about a resolution to Cashmere and helping getting India on board so that India helps Pakistan feel a little more secure, so that it can move some of its troops to the Afghan border. So I think, you know, all these things - many of these things which we had written about in the foreign affairs piece, many of these things have now been adopted in the last few weeks by the American military, by General Petraeus, by Admiral Mullen, the chairman of Joint Chiefs, by the Obama team, by some of the transition people who've been speaking out, and I hope by the new secretary of state, whoever he or she may be.

GROSS: I think - I think that this is the first time I've spoken to you over the years, and we've been talking for more than eight years, that you actually sound optimistic about U.S. policy in your region.

Mr. RASHID: Well, I think I am optimistic. I mean, first of all, Terry, let me just say if you cover Afghanistan for 30 years, and there has been a non-stop war there for 30 years, there are many corners I have turned and at many corners I have felt optimistic and been let down very soon. But certainly, this is a corner that is being turned now with Obama, the new president, and Europe realizing its responsibilities, the region now becoming much more in the forefront. I think this is a corner, and certainly I'm optimistic that we can turn this corner and hopefully that we can actually achieve some modicum of peace and stability in the region.

GROSS: Well, be well, be safe. And thank you, as always, for talking with us. I really appreciate it.

Mr. RASHID: Thank you very much.

GROSS: Ahmed Rashid is a Pakistani journalist. His latest book is called "Descent Into Chaos: The United States and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia." He spoke to us from Madrid.


I want to let you know about a special program we've planned for Thanksgiving Day. We're going to pay tribute to pianist Dave McKenna, who died in October at the age of 78. We'll feature his Fresh Air performance and interview, and a new interview about him with his sister Jean. Here's one of his solo piano recordings.

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