Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani journalist based in Lahore, has been reporting on Central Asia for more than a quarter of a century. He worked as the Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review for 22 years, until the magazine shut down, and has since written for such organizations as the Daily Telegraph, the International Herald Tribune, The Wall Street Journal and the BBC. FRONTLINE/World correspondent David Montero talks with Rashid about Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf’s failure to deal with extremism, his misplaced focus on suppressing middle-class dissent and why extremism has begun to flourish even in settled areas of the country.
DAVID MONTERO: At the same time that we saw [Islamic fundamentalist] Maulana Fazlullah grow in strength, we also saw the government arresting between 5,000 and 10,000 lawyers throughout the country. In Musharraf’s mind, who is the real threat to Pakistan?
AHMED RASHID: Well, I think he has used this imposition of an emergency to deal with the first threat that he faced -- the political and legal threat -- which is why he has put the middle class into jail, basically. But the excuse given for the emergency, for foreign consumption, was the fact that he had to crack down on extremism.
Q: The perception, you are saying, is that he used this [threat of extremism] as an excuse?
A: He used the imposition of an emergency, giving the perception to the outside world that this was being done to crack down on extremism. Whereas, in fact, there was no plan to crack down on extremism; there were no additional measures taken to deal with the extremists. The entire crackdown was against the middle classes of the country: the lawyers, the politicians, the professionals, the NGOs [non-governmental organizations], who were protesting and demanding constitutional rule. So this was a move done, I think very blatantly, in order to keep himself in power.
Q: And what is the consequence of neglecting what’s happening in the frontier provinces? Musharraf has concentrated his efforts on arresting the middle class, as you said. What do you think is going to be the repercussion for the frontier?
A: I think the consequences are very serious. He has neglected the threat of extremism for the last two or three years now, as it’s been building up. There have been constant compromises with the militants. There have been ceasefires with the militants. And I think this dual policy of attacking and having ceasefires has really led to demoralization.
Q: Can you describe for us this dual policy that Musharraf has had with regard to militants?
A: I think this dual policy that he’s had with the militants -- that is, at times attacking them, because of American pressure to do so, and at times having ceasefires with them, relieving them, giving them compensation and money -- all this has led to acute demoralization in the army. It has led to [the] mass desertions that we’ve seen from the military and paramilitary forces. It’s led to the surrenders. And it’s also led to acute demoralization among the public, so the public now thinks that the army is both unwilling and incapable [to fight] the extremists.
Q: Why is this problem growing in Swat, specifically, and in the North-West Frontier Province in general? Is it neglect, a lack of political will?
I think the problem is growing, very clearly, because Pakistan gave the Afghan Taliban sanctuary in 2001. We should remember that the Taliban were never defeated by the Americans. They were routed, and they fled Afghanistan and came to Pakistan. The ISI [Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence] gave them sanctuary both in Baluchistan Province, in the North-West Frontier, and in the FATA [Federally Administered Tribal Areas], and they’ve been living there ever since. They’ve reorganized. Mullah Omar is well known to be in Quetta under the protection of the ISI. And as long as the ISI continues to give protection and sanctuary to the Taliban, whereby they could reorganize and re-galvanize their struggle in Afghanistan, I think -- and I’ve been warning this since 2002 -- that the result of such a policy would lead to the creation of a Pakistani Taliban. And that’s exactly what’s happened, because the Afghan Taliban and Al-Qaeda that are living in Pakistan have nurtured a whole new generation of Pakistani extremists, the Pashtuns. The Pashtuns have helped them settle down in the tribal belts and have also been, if you like, their fixers or their front men -- fighting for them, helping them, dealing with all their dirty problems. And these Pashtun radicals have now become what we call the "Pakistani Taliban."
Q: And it’s interesting that it’s not just in FATA anymore. Maulana Fazlullah is in Swat, a settled area. So what does that tell you?
Well, very clearly, the movement is moving out of the tribal areas and is linking up with many of these movements, like Mullah Fazlullah’s movement, which have been around for the last 20 years. So what is happening now is that the Pakistani Taliban and Al-Qaeda are linking up with movements that have been around, within the Pashtun tribes, for a very long time. And, secondly, they’re linking up also with urban extremists in the Punjab. These are groups that were fighting in the Kashmir in the '90s, who were fighting in Afghanistan in the '90s, who’ve carried out acts of terror in Pakistan, and who’ve also been known to be fighting in Iraq in recent years.
So, for the first time, what we’re seeing is a linkage between Pashtun tribal movements in FATA, linking with other Pashtun movements in the settled areas and also linking with non-Pashtun extremist groups in the urban areas of Pakistan. So I think this is a very, very dangerous phenomenon.
Q: Do you think Washington is being taken for a ride?
A: I think Musharraf has been running rings around Washington. I think the blanket support that the Bush administration has shown Musharraf -- he has taken advantage of that. He has fostered Afghani and Pakistani Taliban on Pakistani soil, knowing full well that the Americans weren’t concerned with the Taliban until recently. They were only concerned about getting Al-Qaeda. And he has exploited that weakness of American strategy, unfortunately.
This is something, of course, that President Hamid Karzai has been pointing out for a very long time. That the real threat is coming not from Al-Qaeda, but the real threat in Afghanistan is coming from the Taliban. So I think Musharraf has been very successful in basically distracting the Americans from having a proper policy regarding Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Q: Do you think Washington is waking up a little bit? We’ve seen some form of pressure coming from Washington.
I think pressure now is growing because Washington is extremely concerned about the future of Pakistan and the growth of extremism in Pakistan. And I think Washington and the intelligence services have now finally realized, and are admitting publicly, that Al-Qaeda and the Taliban leadership are both based, not along the Pakistan/Afghanistan border, as they used to say; they are now categorically saying that they are based in Pakistan. Now I don’t know the truth of that, but clearly the Americans, by saying so, are putting the pressure on Pakistan for the first time.
Q: The army is calling this operation in Swat a victory, because the militants have fled. But we’ve seen yet another militant in Pakistan disappear and go into hiding. Maulana Fazullah is nowhere to be seen. So how do you think this operation has gone?
I think the operation has been a total disaster. The military moved in, as usual, far too late. The fact is that this movement has been going on for two years. This could have been nipped in the bud two years ago by a small police operation. Now, you needed to send in 20,000 troops in order to clear these militants out. I think the militants have used the classic tactic of guerrilla war. The moment you face an offensive, you disappear into the mountains, and that’s why you see so few militants killed or captured. And none of the leadership has been captured. They’ve all fled, basically. And they can come back at any time.
I think what they’re banking on now is that the military will have to occupy the Swat Valley. This is going to demoralize the soldiers, and, over time, the militants are going to be able to come back. Or gather, once again, and perhaps take another valley.