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Ahmed Rashid: ‘Enormous Anti-Americanism’ Spreading in Afghanistan

March 22, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
Despite escalating tensions after the killing of Afghan civilians, allegedly by a U.S. soldier, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan said he believed that pausing the drawdown and keeping 68,000 troops on the ground is a good idea. Ray Suarez discusses the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan with journalist Ahmed Rashid.
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TRANSCRIPT

RAY SUAREZ: And for more on the situation in Afghanistan and negotiations with the Taliban, we turn to veteran journalist and columnist Ahmed Rashid. His new book is “Pakistan on the Brink: The Future of America, Pakistan and Afghanistan.”

Welcome back to the program, Ahmed.

These recent events, the Quran burnings, the killing of Afghan civilians, the urinating on the corpses of dead fighters, today, in testimony on Capitol Hill, you heard Gen. Allen call them a blow at the core of the relationship. Is he right? Is it having that effect?

AHMED RASHID, journalist: It is certainly having that effect.

And it’s creating enormous anti-Americanism amongst the Afghan people and in neighboring countries also, Pakistan and Iran. And there’s a vicious cycle. There could be a vicious cycle now, with American troops getting more and more frustrated and taking actions, Afghan and Taliban also retaliating.

We’ve had six U.S. soldiers killed in the last two months by Afghans. So, I mean, that has been, you know, very depressing. And certainly the two sides will have to improve their relations. I think one of the major problems has been — for the government and for a lot of the Afghans has been the dispute over the strategic compact that is going to be signed between the Americans and President Karzai.

The Afghans want the Americans to stay on after 2014 for another three or four years with special forces and trainers. But they also want to be in control of them and they want the Americans to stop certain things like night raids, which the American special forces carry out against the Taliban.

So the Afghans in a sense want their cake and they want to eat it, too. And the Americans are saying, if we stay, we will have our conditions for staying, and you have to accept those.

RAY SUAREZ: One thing that happened most recently is the Taliban has broken off the still quite early talks about future peace in Afghanistan.

Was this in direct response to these events that we’ve been discussing, or were there other things at work when the Taliban broke off the talks?

AHMED RASHID: There were other things at work.

And I think the Taliban have taken a very mature attitude, because they could have broken off the talks on any one of these incidents that happened. They condemned these incidents, but they didn’t break off the talks. I think what they’re really complaining about are the delays of promises made by the Americans in the first confidence-building measure, which was due three or four months ago and is expected to be a prisoner exchange in a way.

And that, you know, has been delayed. And unless we get over this first hurdle, it’s going to be difficult to get real talks going between the two sides, especially on winding down the violence and the military attacks that they launch on each other.

What we want is to get over this prisoner exchange issue quickly, so that talks can start and the Taliban can offer a reduction in some kind of violence like suicide bombing or IEDs, these mine — the mine warfare carries out. And the Americans in turn can offer some kind of reduction also in the attacks that they launch.

RAY SUAREZ: In the book, you take us deep inside those negotiations begun quite clandestinely in Germany with go-betweens, safe passage for Taliban fighters to get from Central Asia to Western Europe. But then they’re scotched by Pakistan, Pakistan working at cross-purposes to the United States and Afghanistan.

Tell us about that.

AHMED RASHID: Well, you know, Pakistan was — these talks were organized by Germany and the Gulf state of Qatar.

And there was first long meetings between the Germans and the Taliban. And then they called the Americans in. And the meeting with the Americans have been going on for more than a year now. And Pakistan of course was bypassed in this.

And what Pakistan had wanted all along was that, given the fact that the Taliban are sitting in Pakistan, the leadership is mostly in Pakistan, that the Pakistanis expected that they would be the main, if you like, deliverer of talks with the American because they had the Taliban on their soil.

And what happens is instead is that the Americans, if you like, go pass — bypass the Pakistanis. So there is an issue here, and don’t brief the Pakistanis for quite some time. Now — now I think the Americans do acknowledge the fact that Pakistan needs to be brought on board if and when relations between the two countries are resumed, because of course for four months we have had this complete breakdown in relations.

American officials have not talked to Pakistani officials at all.

RAY SUAREZ: In recent months, the United States passed its 10th anniversary in Afghanistan. Can the U.S. achieve its objectives there is if it has a Pakistan that doesn’t see the future of the country in the same way?

AHMED RASHID: Well, I think three essential things are needed, which President Obama stressed at the beginning of his administration, but they have been kind of overwhelmed by events.

The first thing really is a regional consensus amongst the neighbors that they will not interfere in Afghanistan and that they will not muddy the waters by funding one warlord or the other, which is what happened in the ’90s and promoted a civil war. That has become much more difficult because of tensions with Pakistan and tensions with Iran right now, of course.

The second thing is to get President Karzai to do more, to build a consensus for talks with the Taliban. Large numbers of Afghans are opposed to the talks with the Taliban, including non-Pashtuns who live in the north of the country.

And the third thing simply is obviously restoring a relationship with Pakistan and progressing in the talks of the Taliban at a much faster pace than the Americans have been doing, and then getting the Pakistanis — to not finger-point them and say, you’re harboring all these Talibans, got to go after them, get rid of them — this is what the Americans have been doing for the last eight years, and it hasn’t worked — but showing the Pakistanis that there is progress in peace talks, and if you want to come on board, which you need to because Afghanistan is your neighbor, then you also then have to give deadlines to the Taliban to stop using your country as a safe sanctuary.

So what I’m suggesting here is that the Pakistanis will be brought on board and can be brought on board once the Americans show a real determination that they’re serious on ending the civil war in Afghanistan.

RAY SUAREZ: Ahmed Rashid, you call your book “Pakistan at the Brink.” Can it be pulled back from the brink?

AHMED RASHID: Yes, it can, I think, certainly, because I think there’s an enormous awareness now amongst people, ordinary people, the middle-class businessmen, that change and reform is needed.

Where we are stuck is with the ruling elite, the military and the political elite. They are very reluctant to change and reform. But I think enormous public pressure is building. And partly that is due to the crisis, the economic crisis, the social crisis. People are fed up. And they realize that the country is going down the tubes and that their leaders need to do something. And if these leaders don’t, I think we will see new leaders on the horizon.

RAY SUAREZ: “Pakistan on the Brink: The Future of America, Pakistan and Afghanistan.”

Ahmed Rashid, good to talk to you.