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September 9th, 2004
Hell of a Nation
Interview: Ahmed Rashid

September 9, 2004: Journalist and Author Ahmed Rashid discusses nation building in Afghanistan with host Mishal Husain.

MISHAL HUSAIN: Ahmed Rashid, welcome to WIDE ANGLE.

AHMED RASHID: Great pleasure to be here.

MISHAL HUSAIN: Now, that film has given us a glimpse of Afghanistan today. What would you say is perhaps missing from our portrait of the country?

Photo of Ahmed Rashid

AHMED RASHID: Well, I think what is so good about this film is that it raises a lot of the issues. It doesn’t necessarily go into them. But both the main characters raising the issues of women’s rights, of disarmament, of the electoral process, of warlords, all the Taliban resurgence … Now, naturally in a film of this length which is concentrating on one particular subject, you can’t bring up all the subjects, but certainly the two characters are talking about the issues which most Afghans are talking about.

MISHAL HUSAIN: The film also took us behind the scenes at the process that led to the loya jirga. What did you think of that whole process?

AHMED RASHID: Well, this is a country that is coming out of 25 years of war, and I think in choosing the delegates to the loya jirga and the loya jirga itself, there was an element of manipulation — by the warlords, by the government — but there was also a very legitimate process going on. If you saw the role that the women played in that for the first time, many of those women were there — were chosen in fact to be there, rather than being elected — they were very outspoken. Many of the delegates were very outspoken. Rafiq Shahir was opposing the warlord of Herat — Ismail Khan — and spoke up very strongly about him and received a lot of support. So yes, there was corruption, there was manipulation, but at the same time it was a legitimate process.

MISHAL HUSAIN: And you think that’s the way to start Afghan democracy?

AHMED RASHID: Certainly, and I think, you know, what we’ve seen in this huge enthusiasm for registering for the votes for the elections on October 9th — something like 10.5 million people have registered, when the UN had only been expecting about nine million. Now, even in this process there has been manipulation. There will be many people who have many cards — registration cards — there will be multiple registration, children, underage children have registered as well. There has been fraud, but at the same time it is a legitimate process.

MISHAL HUSAIN: Those are the presidential elections you’re talking about?

AHMED RASHID: These are the presidential elections that will be held on October 9th, which have been delayed three times. They were supposed to be held in June this year, they’ve been delayed until October and now the parliamentary elections will be delayed until April 2005.

MISHAL HUSAIN: Is that good enough, do you think, for a country in which the international community — and the United States principally — has been involved for the last three years?

AHMED RASHID: Well, I think really, people like myself and a lot of experts and critics and the media were extremely demoralized that these elections were being held at this time. I think they should have been delayed by perhaps another year. And I think the Iraq war, which of course was a total distraction from Afghanistan and the whole process of nation building in Afghanistan — the international community was just not committed for about a year and a half because of the disputes over Iraq. That should have led to a postponement, given that the promises that were made by the international community were not fulfilled.

MISHAL HUSAIN: How much of a difference, though, would a delay have made? Is it not possible that then you would have just prolonged the whole process, that the elections perhaps have provided a focus?

AHMED RASHID: No, I think there were several key things that needed to be done before the elections. And the most important element, which Rafiq Shahir talks about, is disarmament. Unless the warlords were going to be disarmed — it now seems very clear that the warlords are not going to be disarmed before the October 9th elections. This is going to allow them to have blocs of obviously, voters who they control, territory which they control, people from their regions to be able to vote en masse for their choice of candidate, that is the warlord’s choice of candidate. Now, I think the issue of disarmament, the issue of reconstruction, there should have been a better infrastructure in place — roads, water, power — so that you could have had something to show the people that this democratic process is not just a question of putting your thumb on a piece of paper, but actually, the international community has actually given something to the Afghan people. That is what is missing — disarmament and reconstruction.

MISHAL HUSAIN: Is disarmament really a realistic objective though, because over a period of time, guns have been very important to the Afghan people?

AHMED RASHID: Certainly, but I think, you know, you have a population which is 99 percent fed up and exhausted with war and warlords. They have the pressure, the public pressure on these warlords — they are really hated and despised. They are much weaker, politically speaking, than they were two years ago or five years ago. Unfortunately, what we’ve seen in this process is that the Americans have refused to put the weight of the U.S. military and the U.S. political process in backing disarmament. Disarmament was supposed to start in early spring of this year. The Americans refused to back it. They refused to give any statements; they refused to use military forces to back up the United Nations and Japan who were carrying out the disarmament process. And now that they have now realized — but it may be a little too late — you needed to have carried out disarmament in the last four or five months.

MISHAL HUSAIN: And why would you say that there was that reluctance to embrace a process of disarmament?

AHMED RASHID: The Americans were just very reluctant to get involved in any major aspects of the political process or in nation building. This has been the hallmark of the American presence in Afghanistan since the defeat of the Taliban. Now they will say to you that their main occupation is to try and track down the remnants of the Taliban, al — Qaeda, capture Osama bin Laden. The argument on the other side is that well, you will not be able to do this, to fulfill these objectives unless you have the people on your side and to have the people on your side, to get better intelligence, to have better mobilization in the rural areas, to do that, you need to do nation building, you need to do reconstruction.

MISHAL HUSAIN: And yet, the argument would be perhaps, from Washington, that the Americans have been consistently engaged in Afghanistan, that you have American money going to Afghanistan — you’ve got this troop presence that in an age of many, many demands, this is probably as good as it gets.

AHMED RASHID: Well, certainly, I mean it’s not just the question of the Americans — the whole international community, I think, has let down Afghanistan quite substantially. NATO had promised to have thousands of troops in Afghanistan for the elections — we haven’t seen that happen. The European partners in NATO are not sending sufficient numbers of troops for security. Everybody is now reluctantly playing catch — up. That is, the American forces there, NATO forces there will be providing a modicum of security at least in the major urban centers. But again, it’s not something that — you could probably guarantee a freer vote in the major urban centers, it could be much more difficult in the rural areas where the warlords are very powerful.

MISHAL HUSAIN: Let’s talk for a moment about what we see in the film in terms of the loya jirga which resulted in a new constitution for Afghanistan — how effective has that been?

AHMED RASHID: Well, the bottom line for the constitution was that it was passed, but it needs to be implemented. And, of course, if you look at all the things that need to be implemented, very little has been done because immediately after the loya jirga, which was held in December, you moved into this process of organizing the elections. And the elections have taken something like six months and they have sucked in all the NGOs, the United Nations, all the people who should have been doing nation building, reconstruction, disarmament. The elections are going to employ something like 120,000 — 130,000 Afghans, and for the last few months, the whole focus has been on the election. The American focus has been on the election. So unfortunately, the issues that you should have been dealing with, which are stipulated in the constitution — creating a justice system, creating a new police force, law and order, new rules for business, for investment, etc. — all these kinds of things have been delayed substantially because the entire focus has been on these elections.

MISHAL HUSAIN: Has it made any difference, having the constitution?

AHMED RASHID: Oh, I think it’s made a very big difference in the sense that people certainly feel that there is a — the rule of law is not necessarily implemented, but there is a rule of law there which can be implemented. And I think the debate over the constitution was very healthy, it really gave people a taste of democracy. There was a lot of polarization in the loya jirga, there was a lot of debate about women’s rights, about Islam, about the nature of the government, should it be a presidential system or a parliamentary system. Now all these issues have been an enormously educative process, I think, for the Afghan people. The only tragedy has been that six months later you had to organize an election. I think the concept of elections between the — for example the U.N. and the Europeans — they view elections as the end of a national reconstruction process. The Americans tend to view elections as something that you can just slap on as quickly as possible in order to give the veneer of democracy. And I think there are these two kinds of theories which have been — and obviously the Americans have won because the Americans are the major presence there.

MISHAL HUSAIN: So when President Karzai says he wants “Afghan — style democracy,” what does he actually mean by that?

AHMED RASHID: Well, I think what he’s talking about is that traditionally in Afghan society, there’s a lot of wheeling — dealing, there’s a lot of backroom deals that are struck between tribes, between ethnic groups, between leaders, and we’re seeing that process take place now. I mean there are something like 17 candidates who are standing against Karzai. In fact, many of them are trying to bring up a common candidate. There’s a lot of that kind of politics which goes on behind the scenes. I think the other issue that he’s addressing is basically the fact that clearly, this is not going to be a London parliamentary type of election. There is going to be fraud, there’s going to be manipulation, there’s going to be people voting twice and all sorts of things, but I think you know, this is something that has to be accepted, given that we are just coming out of 25 years of war, and this is the first election that has been held in Afghanistan for decades.

MISHAL HUSAIN: What about the role of political parties because President Karzai has also said that he’s not so keen on their role? Is that right? Is that also part of Afghan-style democracy?

AHMED RASHID: Well, I think that’s been one of his very big weaknesses, and I’ve talked to him several times about this. He’s refused to set up a political party or even a political front. And the argument against this is that the president should set an example in order to convince the warlords, in order to convince other people that what is needed is party politics. It’s not ethnic politics or tribal politics or backroom dealing politics. To have democracy you need a party political system. Karzai has refused to do this because he feels that a political party could exclude some ethnic groups or some tribes, and he wants to be all inclusive. But, I don’t think in the long term this is the way to go. I think in the long term, if democracy has to start up there, you need a party political system. And, of course, all the opposition has set up political parties, even though they are very weak.

MISHAL HUSAIN: But, does he have a point that perhaps, at this stage in Afghanistan’s democracy, that’s one way to look at it?

AHMED RASHID: Well, perhaps he does, but I think at the same time, he has to look at the long term, and I think he has to set the example. And I think there was a way where if you did not exactly set up a political party, you could have set up a movement, which could have been very inclusive of all the various ethnic and tribal groups and which could then have evolved into a political party once the parliamentary elections had taken place and once parliament was sitting.

MISHAL HUSAIN: What about the warlords themselves. We hear about them a lot in almost every context in Afghanistan. Who are the people that we are referring to when we talk about the warlords?

AHMED RASHID: Well, the warlords are really those leaders of the mujahideen who, many of them are those who fought the Soviets, who got control of territory and of large numbers of people. After the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, they then fought a bloody seven, eight year civil war which led to the rise of the Taliban and the Taliban subsequently defeated most of these warlords and threw them out of the country. After 9/11 these warlords came back, basically on the American payroll where these warlords were helping U.S. forces defeat the Taliban and al — Qaeda. And what many people expected was that over a process of 18 months to two years you would have the Americans distancing themselves from these warlords, supporting the process of disarming these warlords, strengthening the central government, speeding up the creation of a police and an army and a national army. But this didn’t happen. What happened was that the warlords in fact became stronger. They were still on the American payroll and they did not disarm, there was no real international pressure for them to go away.

MISHAL HUSAIN: And do you think now they are an obstacle to the development of democracy in Afghanistan?

AHMED RASHID: I think they’re a major obstacle. The fact is that many of these warlords do control large areas around the country. They have the largest militia, armed forces, in the country. They terrorize, they harass, they rape, they loot, many of their soldiers are out of control because they haven’t been paid or for whatever other reason. The lack of security in much of Afghanistan — I mean there are two main reasons for lack of security. One is the resurgence of the Taliban, but that is only taking place in the south of the country and the east of the country. In the rest of the country when people talk about lack of security, as they do in this film so much, it’s related to warlords.

MISHAL HUSAIN: So is it possible that these elections could actually legitimize the warlords as the elected representatives of the people?

AHMED RASHID: Well, certainly there’s a big danger of that. First of all, the warlords are putting up their own candidates to fight Karzai. I don’t think that their candidates will be successful, I think Karzai will win the election, but you then have an April parliamentary elections. Now, if disarmament does not take place by April in a sufficient manner, you are going to have these warlords getting these blocs of seats, winning blocs of seats in parliament and that is going to be a very dangerous situation because then they will be in a position to block reform, to block modernization, etc.

MISHAL HUSAIN: But can you really envisage an Afghanistan without the warlords or with their power really diminished when they’ve been so much a part of the country for so long?

AHMED RASHID: Oh yes, if we go back you know, before 1979, before the Soviet invasion there were no warlords, as such. I think most people, most Afghans, not only can envisage, but want to envisage an Afghanistan without warlords.

I think the enthusiasm that we’ve seen for these elections is not because people have some enormous understanding of democracy or intellectual understanding of democracy. What they see their vote doing is dealing with their local issues, and the number one local issue is security and disarmament, and secondly is jobs and education.

Now, their understanding of democracy is that if I vote, I will actually be voting for disarmament and jobs and education, and I think that’s how they see democracy. So I think it’s not difficult to disarm. I think there’s enormous popular support for it. This is not, for example, the situation in Iraq where there is enormous popular support for not disarming. It’s a very different situation in Afghanistan.

MISHAL HUSAIN: What are the implications if voters in Afghanistan who want to use their vote to achieve all these aims and their local issues? What happens if they don’t see the process deliver?

AHMED RASHID: Well, there will be an enormous disillusionment I think and we already have the Taliban coming back — they’re on the doorstep in southern Afghanistan. They still have the same ideology as they did before 9/11. It will certainly be very dangerous. I think the big danger is that the international community and the Americans are going to say after the October elections, “Whew! That’s over, let’s all go home now. Pack up and go home. Afghanistan is now a democracy — full stop.”

And that’s precisely the moment when you need to step up aid, you need to step up disarmament, you need to step up reconstruction, when an even greater commitment by the international community is needed to solidify the electoral process for at least another three to five years. You don’t want the next U.S. administration coming and saying, “We can just walk away from here now.” That would be absolutely criminal, I think, both for the Afghan people and in general for the war against terrorism.

MISHAL HUSAIN: There are reports of a Taliban resurgence in some parts of Afghanistan. Are they credible?

AHMED RASHID: Oh yes, certainly. There is a very serious Taliban effort to disrupt the election. They have been attacking aid agencies, election monitors, American troops, of course, Afghan troops and police. And they have promised that they will do the utmost to launch as many bomb attacks and military attacks up until October 9th to try and disrupt the elections.

So it is a very serious challenge, it’s a very serious situation. The American forces are going to be deployed and NATO forces are going to be deployed, but they’re just not there in sufficient numbers to guarantee security over Afghanistan.

MISHAL HUSAIN: And how has that resurgence actually happened? It’s now three years since we had the war which brought an end to the Taliban regime.

AHMED RASHID: Well, I think, the fact is that after the defeat of the Taliban, 20,000 to 30,000 fled into Pakistan. They are living there in the refugee camps. Many of them have been launching attacks using Pakistan as a base. The Pakistani authorities have been doing a lot to capture elements of al — Qaeda but they haven’t been doing very much to capture Taliban.

In fact, there has been no significant leader caught by the Pakistani authorities to date or handed over to the Americans or even handed over to the Afghan authorities. That’s one reason. But I think secondly, the fact is that they are getting money and support from al — Qaeda. They are very deeply involved in the drugs trade, which has emerged as a major financier of terrorism, not just in Afghanistan but in Pakistan and Central Asia and other parts of this region. They’re able also to say, “Well look, the international community promised you roads and electricity and water and development and they haven’t come up with it.” And, in many parts of southern and eastern Afghanistan that is true. There has not been that kind of development that people were expecting.

MISHAL HUSAIN: So they’ve been able to strike a chord then with people?

AHMED RASHID: I don’t think the Taliban are massively popular but certainly they have been able to strike a chord in the sense that the international community has not delivered the goods as it promised it would. And, secondly, some of the atrocities carried out by American troops, the bombing of villages by mistake, the killing of suspects in American bases who they’ve been interrogating as what happened in Iraq. These things have given the Taliban a handle which they have used.

Photo of Ahmed Rashid

Ahmed Rashid, journalist and author

MISHAL HUSAIN: And how much of a danger do you think they pose to the new Afghanistan?

AHMED RASHID: I don’t think the Taliban are massively popular. I think the Afghans have been enormously patient. If you look at what’s happened over the last two and a half three years, in the middle of all this Iraq happened. For 18 months the world completely ignored Afghanistan. There was a division between Europe and the Americans.

The international community was not willing to give money to Afghanistan, troops to Afghanistan. Iraq was a huge distraction in this whole process but the Afghans have been incredibly patient. We are not seeing any degree of the kind of anti — Americanism, for example, that you have in Iraq right now. We’re not seeing that in Afghanistan even though, the Americans have been there and made a lot of very bad mistakes.

MISHAL HUSAIN: And do you think their patience will last?

AHMED RASHID: Well, it’s not indefinite, and I really think the real test for the international community will come after these elections. Will it stay on? Will it stay committed? It’s vitally important that it does because if it doesn’t then groups like the Taliban are going to be able to make a comeback in a much stronger, ideological way, which will be dangerous for the whole region.

MISHAL HUSAIN: So, the presidential elections, which we’ve already seen postponed and now scheduled for October, is there any danger that they’re going to be delayed further? Or do you think this time we will see them happen?

AHMED RASHID: No, I think, they will happen, even though the Taliban will step up their attacks. There was a bomb blast in Kabul just recently. Ten people were killed including three Americans. We will see far more of these attacks but I think still, there is now such a momentum for these elections. There is enormous enthusiasm amongst the people. There’s enormous expectancy amongst the people. I don’t think a few terrorist attacks, no matter how lethal, are going to be able to stop the elections.

MISHAL HUSAIN: And the international community would like to see them happen now as well.

AHMED RASHID: Well, certainly. I think for the Americans it’s becoming crucially important. I think for President Bush himself, for his reelection, given how badly things are still going in Iraq, elections in Afghanistan in October, just a few weeks before the American elections, is going to matter a great deal to Bush’s reelection.

And to make it a successful operation is going to mean a lot. I think even for the Europeans, even for the other major donors in Afghanistan, a successful election or a semi — successful election will be enormously important.

MISHAL HUSAIN: So when you look at American involvement in Afghanistan today what do you assess as the ultimate goal for the United States?

AHMED RASHID: Unfortunately, the US for the first two years, I would say, up to the middle of 2003, were obsessed with trying to catch bin Laden, trying to reign in the Taliban and al — Qaeda and they gave, I wouldn’t say minimum but, far less priority to these other issues that we’ve been talking about — nation building, reconstruction, disarmament etc.

I think they finally woke up at the beginning of this year. They doubled their aid to Afghanistan. It’s gone from one billion to two billion now. And they’ve stepped up a whole series of processes. But I think it’s not been substantial. It’s not been enough. And it’s miniscule compared to the kind of money and commitment that’s going into Iraq, for example.

At the same time, because of Iraq and the divisions with Europe and the other big donor countries, we haven’t seen that kind of commitment from the Europeans and the other countries that we should have in terms of troops, in terms of money. As I say, Iraq has been a huge distraction.

MISHAL HUSAIN: So there’s a danger of promises not being delivered?

AHMED RASHID: Yes, certainly there’s a danger. I mean, nation building takes time, you know, and the Americans have a very short attention span, which is very unfortunate. It’s very unclear that if Kerry gets elected what he’s going to do in Afghanistan.

Is he going to stay committed meaningfully in the long term? That is, money, troops, presence, commitment. Not just rhetorical commitment, but an actual commitment on the ground.

MISHAL HUSAIN: Let me put to you though what the Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, said in August about Afghanistan. He said, “It’s so clear that the Afghan people are winning this struggle to rebuild this nation.” What do you think of that?

AHMED RASHID: Well, I think, there’s a lot of optimism in that statement. I don’t think that would be backed by many of the Afghans who we meet in this film. Rafiq Shahir, for example, makes a point that I wish we had disarmament before the elections but, nevertheless, I will still stand for parliament.

And I think a lot of Afghans would make the same point; That the kind of commitment that they had hoped from the international community has really not been forthcoming. I still think there’s patience, there’s a lot of willingness from the Afghans to wait for the international community to come up to the plate. But I think a lot of American politicians are now playing Afghanistan for the elections, for the American elections that is. And I think we have to be very clear in shifting the rhetoric from the reality on the ground. The reality on the ground is still a very mixed bag.

MISHAL HUSAIN: But, arguably, Washington would probably say that Afghanistan has come a very long way through the US involvement in the last three years. I mean, this was a state that was essentially a failed state three years ago. Hasn’t it come a long way?

AHMED RASHID: Oh it has without a doubt and I would agree with that. I mean the fact that we’re having elections just shows how far it has come. The fact that you’ve had a film just now which shows a women standing for parliament in Afghanistan after the Taliban era shows that. So of course there has been enormous change. I mean, you’ve got five million children in school when for a decade, I mean, there were hardly any children in school.

So it’s not that Afghans are bitter or entirely angry, but I think what we’re arguing is that more could have been done. The political process should have come as a combination of various major steps that needed to be taken to rebuild the failed state of Afghanistan. Rather than elections coming at the middle of this process, I think that’s where the argument is.

MISHAL HUSAIN: And do you feel optimistic when you look at the state of things today? This is a country that you’ve followed very closely for a long time.

AHMED RASHID: I’m very optimistic. But I’m optimistic not because of the international community so much but because of the Afghans. I think after 25 years of war the Afghans are really desirous of change. Over 90 percent of the population wants to live normal lives. They want to get up in the morning and go to a job. They want to send their kids to school.

Photo of Ahmed Rashid

I was there the first day the schools reopened in 2002. And for mothers to actually be able to wave goodbye and to send the kids to school. Mothers have not experienced this before. It was something completely new, something that you and I know very well but something that millions of people in Afghanistan had never experienced.

Now clearly they want more of this. They want more of normality, but normality means that a lot of political issues have to be addressed in a very hard way both by the Afghan government and by the international community. It can’t be done alone. The whole basis of the end of the war in Afghanistan was an agreement between the international community and the Afghan factions, and they both agreed that they had to work together to rebuild the nation.

And that has to continue. So, I’m very optimistic. The Afghans want that to continue. They don’t want the Americans to leave. They see the American presence there has been very important in order to be able to reconstruct their country.

MISHAL HUSAIN: How much has the role of women changed in Afghanistan over the last three years? Americans became very conscious about how women were treated and our film shows Nadira and other women becoming part of the loya jirga process.

AHMED RASHID: Well, it has changed enormously, but it’s changed mostly in the urban areas. You would not have been able to see this during the Taliban era, but you should remember that Afghan women were very active in the ’60s and the ’70s and the ’80s.They were working; they were teaching; they had jobs; they were not wearing the veil. There has been a step backwards and, really, many of the older women will tell you stories about what life was like before. And I think that’s what these young women are listening to and what they want to go back to. That is a situation where women can work and be normal human beings.

MISHAL HUSAIN: But how much would have changed perhaps in rural areas, then?

Photo of Ahmed Rashid

AHMED RASHID: I think the change in rural areas has been much slower and the reason for that is simply that development has really not reached many rural areas until now. I think the role of women increases in parallel with development. I think when you have power and water and jobs and education and all the rest of it, it brings not only women into the forefront, but it also does a great deal to re — educate men about the way they should be treating their wives and their daughters.

For example, still, there are many areas where men do not like their girls going to school. Now, all that will change because they will see their neighbor’s daughter going upwards, passing exams, getting skills which will be very useful to the community. So, you know, all of this is a question of development, and I think the problem in the rural areas is that we have not seen that level of development yet.

MISHAL HUSAIN: One of the warlords we see in the film is Ismail Khan of Herat. What do you make of the suggestions and the reports recently that he might actually soon be driven from his power base?

AHMED RASHID: Ismail Khan is a very powerful warlord in western Afghanistan and in recent weeks, he has been fighting other warlords of other ethnic groups and things are coming to a head, but things are coming to a head at very bad time because it’s happening just before the elections. If there is a move now to replace Ismail Khan it could lead to enormous uncertainty in Herat. On the other hand, Ismail Khan probably needs to be removed because it’s very unlikely that you can have a free and fair election in Herat with Ismail Khan there.

Rafiq Shahir, for example, was one of, in fact the only candidate in Herat city who opposed Ismail Khan when he stood for elections in the loya jirga. I think there are more candidates now who would stand for the parliamentary elections next year, who would oppose Ismail. But it shows the kind of grip that Ismail has. I mean, when you control the media, the schools, all aspects of economic aid and life in a city, it’s very difficult to oppose such a person.

MISHAL HUSAIN: And what would be gained by bringing him into the central government in Kabul?

AHMED RASHID: Well, I think this would be a kind of temporary solution. I hope that the long term aim of the next Afghan government, if it’s Karzai or anyone else would be eventually to send these warlords home, either to let them become politicians, let them become businessmen, let them do other things. But there’s also enormous demand for accountability from some of these warlords because some of these warlords have carried out huge atrocities against the Afghan people. So far, we have not seen any process of accountability in Afghanistan. There’s a demand for that. This is something also that has been resisted by the Americans, by the international community so that it does not impinge on the political process.

MISHAL HUSAIN: Tell us a bit about Rafiq Shahir. We get to know him during the course of the film, and he’s someone that you’ve known very well.

AHMED RASHID: I’ve known him for quite some time. Immediately after 9/11 I went to Herat and I helped fund this monthly magazine that his group is bringing out, which is the only independent magazine that’s coming out of Herat. Unfortunately, he’s now dealing less with politics and more and more with economics because Ismail Khan is putting so much pressure on him.

And, in fact, just before the loya jirga, the incident that he relates, when he was arrested by Ismail Khan, his wife phoned me, that same night from Herat in Pakistan, and I got onto the phone immediately to the United Nations, to the American ambassador, to President Karzai’s office to tell them that Shahir had disappeared, that Ismail Khan had arrested him.

And then a lot of people in Kabul started moving, asking questions from Ismail Khan. In fact, the Americans, the UN, the Afghan government all sent teams down to Herat the very next day to try to get him out of jail, and they managed to succeed. In fact, during the loya jirga, he was very embarrassed because he had been whipped extremely badly by Ismail, and I wanted to see his marks. In fact, you know, he took me aside and said I’m not going to show this to anyone else, but he lifted his shirt and he showed me the marks at the back, and his entire back was lacerated with whip marks. It was like something out of the film on Christ that came out, I mean the way that he was beaten. And the loya jirga took place like two months after he had been free. So he was very, very close to being killed basically.

MISHAL HUSAIN: Has the intimidation against him worked though, in the sense that he’s writing less about political issues today?

AHMED RASHID: Well, I mean, it’s a very difficult game — one day you’re down and the next day you’re up. Yes, the intimidation is there. It’s a constant. You know, he may be safe, but he’s working with a very large group of Heratis who are not as influential as him or as powerful as him, and he has to also think about protecting them and their security and it would be much easier, for example, for Ismail Khan now to go after them — lesser people, unknown people — rather than to go after him. So I think, you know, he has to play the game as it were.

MISHAL HUSAIN: Tell us a bit about the Afghan people. You’ve got to know them so well, you’ve reported from their country over such a period of time. What are the people of this country like?

AHMED RASHID: I think the people, a people who have suffered such extraordinary depths of inhumane treatment, whether it was the Soviets or the Taliban — 25 years of war — but a people who still come up smiling and still are extremely optimistic about the future and still want to be normal human beings, I think really is something to be, you know, very proud of.

And constantly, I mean I’ve been reporting Afghanistan for 25 years, and I think I would have given up the ghost many, many times if had not been this kind of optimism of the Afghans and these bad days will pass and good days will come. I think there’s an enormous resilience in these people and all they want is to be given a chance and I think that it’s critical that the international community helps them get that chance.

MISHAL HUSAIN: Ahmed Rashid, thanks for being with us on WIDE ANGLE.

AHMED RASHID: Thank you very much.

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