Author Interviews
11:21 am
Tue March 20, 2012

Ahmed Rashid: Pakistan Lurches From Crisis To Crisis

Originally published on Tue March 20, 2012 3:00 pm

In his latest book, Pakistan on the Brink, journalist Ahmed Rashid writes that he fears Pakistan "is on the brink of a meltdown."

"I fear almost anything could [send it over the edge]," he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "There could be a major terrorist attack in the U.S. or Europe which is traced back to Pakistan. ... Then there's a very, very critical economic crisis in the country. There's no investment, no money, there's no energy — I live in Lahore. We've had no gas for six months."

On Tuesday's Fresh Air, Rashid discusses the challenges facing Pakistan and Afghanistan in the post-Osama bin Laden era, as well as the complicated relationship the two countries have with the United States.

Last May, American forces stormed the compound in Pakistan where bin Laden was hiding for several years. Pakistan's leaders have repeatedly said they didn't know that bin Laden was living in a large house in Abbottabad, close to the nation's capital of Islamabad.

"What happened after the killing of bin Laden was that the whole government and military spin machine put everything onto the Americans, saying, 'This was an attack on Pakistan's sovereignty,' " says Rashid. "Fair enough; it was an attack on Pakistan's sovereignty because U.S. Special Forces entered Pakistan and killed him and then flew back. But what about this question that has been left hanging in the air, which is, 'Are we to blame for not chasing him down? Or are we to blame that there were people involved looking after him?' "

Since bin Laden's death, he says, retired senior army officials have repeatedly gone on TV to detail conspiracy theories about the death of bin Laden and the attacks of Sept. 11.

"The main thrust is that everything that has gone wrong in Pakistan is due to the American presence in Afghanistan," he says, adding that the Pakistani government hasn't denied these claims. "And when these leading figures from past administrations [speak about these conspiracy theories] there's no official denial."

Rashid is the author of several books, including Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia; Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil, and Fundamentalism in Central Asia; and Descent into Chaos: The United States and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia.


Interview Highlights

On criticism of the United States within Pakistan

"People are saying that the American presence in Afghanistan is causing all of this, which I think is a very simplistic explanation. But there's a lot of criticism of the United States and partly it's being sponsored by the government, by the army, by the right-wing fundamentalist parties. Because they find it easier to blame someone outside rather than look inwards and look at Pakistan's own problems and weaknesses and try and resolve them. ... The failure of Pakistanis to look inward into themselves and ask themselves the right questions rather than blaming constantly India, America or Israel — as Pakistan tends to do — is not resolving anything."

On Osama bin Laden hiding in Pakistan

"I think what Pakistanis were really shocked at was that there was no accountability at the end of the day. Because both the international community and Pakistanis were asking: Is the army here to blame for either goofing up — they couldn't discover him for 10 years and he was living in a splendid house in the middle of a well-known city ... or were some army officers culpable in hiding him? And that question has never been answered. Nobody was forced to resign."

On the Taliban

"The U.S. is trying to have talks with the Taliban, which have been suspended. Now, Pakistan is critical to all of this. Most of the Taliban leadership is living in Pakistan. Pakistan wants to be in on the negotiations. It needs to be in on the negotiations. Clearly, if the U.S. wants access to the leading Taliban figures, like Mullah Omar, it will have to go through Pakistan. So obviously there's a crying need for a relationship between the two countries."

On the length of war

"This war has gone on far too long. This is the longest war the U.S. has ever fought in its history. It's been over 10 years now. I think the U.S. military is tired and perhaps a demoralization has set in — the lack of purpose and aim. And we've seen that in these recent incidents. We've had three major incidents involving the U.S. military — this sniper who killed 16 Afghan civilians, the burning of the Korans and the U.S. soldiers urinating on the dead bodies of Taliban — there hasn't been really, at the moment, any disciplinary action taken by the U.S. military against any of these perpetrators. And that has angered the Afghans enormously."

On the repercussions of an attack on Iran

"I think this has totally been underplayed by the U.S. media. I think the repercussions in the region would be devastating, simply because the Iranians would not retaliate in a confrontational war with U.S. or Israel, if there were was a bombing. They would launch a guerrilla war, using their proxy forces all through the Middle East up from Lebanon all the way through India. ... These groups would unleash terrorist attacks on Americans and Europeans and Israelis and there would be a real mayhem. And this would particularly affect the neighboring countries of Iran, of which both Afghanistan and Pakistan are. They would be placed in a terrible quandary because they would be faced with the possibility of American forces using these territories to launch retaliatory attacks against Iran. ... The consequences I don't even want to think about."

On practicing journalism in Pakistan

"I'm on the board of the Committee to Protect Journalists and they consider Pakistan as the most dangerous place in the world for journalists. Seven journalists were killed last year. Countless others have been arrested, tortured, kidnapped, beaten, harassed, whatever. Journalism has become a very dangerous profession, from both the extremists and the authorities. That has become a big burden on affecting people's ability to write. A lot of journalists try and leave the country for a certain period of time. Others lie low and stop writing for several months. The whole place has become much more dangerous and that's a reflection of the growing anarchy in the country."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest is one of the most informed journalists in the world about the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. Ahmed Rashid has been covering the region for three decades and has chronicled the rise of the Taliban and of other Islamic extremist groups.

He wrote the book "Taliban" before 9/11, and after the attacks the book became a number one bestseller in the U.S. Rashid lives in Lahore, Pakistan. His new book is called "Pakistan on the Brink: The Future of America, Pakistan and Afghanistan."

Pakistan broke off relations with the U.S. last November, after American airstrikes killed 24 Pakistani soldiers. Today, a Pakistani parliamentary commission met to start drafting a list of conditions it wants the U.S. to meet before resuming relations. Those conditions include ending American drone attacks inside Pakistan.

But Ahmed Rashid told us he thinks the hard-line position taken by the parliament is only a temporary blip because the military and the government want relations restored with the U.S., and he thinks that will happen soon. Ahmed Rashid, welcome back to FRESH AIR. So your new book is titled "Pakistan on the Brink," and you write in the book that you think your country is on the brink of meltdown. What do you fear could send it over the edge?

AHMED RASHID: Well, I fear almost anything could. There could be a major terrorist attack in the U.S. or Europe which is traced back to Pakistan and the training camps that the terrorists have there. There could be such an attack in India, for example. The last time this happened, in Mumbai in 2008, India nearly went to war with Pakistan.

And then there's a very, very critical economic crisis in the country. There's no investment, no money. There's no energy. I mean, I live in Lahore. We've had no gas for six months.

GROSS: No gas at all?

RASHID: At all, at all. You know, everybody uses gas for heating and cooking. I mean, we are cooking on coal right now. I mean...

GROSS: No, you're cooking on coal?

RASHID: Absolutely. It's going back to the sort of Middle Ages, and there's electricity only about eight or 10 hours a day. The rest of the time it's off. So, you know, I mean, there's such a blistering economic crisis. How can industry and schools and hospitals and everything operate like this? So that's the secondary issue.

And the third is these insurgencies that are going on throughout the country. There's of course the Pakistani Taliban, who are extremist groups in the northwest who are trying to take control of territory and attacking the army. There's a separatist insurgency going on in Balochistan Province, which is inhabited by the Baloch tribal group, which has nothing to do with the Taliban, it's something separate, but they want to split apart, away from Pakistan.

And then there's the mayhem in Karachi, where hundreds of people die every month in the sort of multi-ethnic killing sprees that go on there. So it's a very critical situation.

GROSS: And so you have all these problems in Pakistan - financial problems, resource problems, insurgencies. Are a lot of people actually blaming America for it? Because America is often a very convenient target to blame for people.

RASHID: Well, people are. People are saying that the American presence in Afghanistan is causing all of this, which I think is a very simplistic explanation. But there's a lot of criticism of the United States, and partly it's being sponsored also by the government, by the army, by the right-wing fundamentalist parties, because they find it easier to blame someone outside than rather look inwards and look at Pakistan's own problems and weaknesses and try and resolve them.

And that's one of the major themes of my book, that the failure of Pakistanis to look inwards into themselves and ask themselves the right questions rather than blaming constantly India or America or Israel, as Pakistan tends to do - is not resolving anything. I mean, it's not leading us anywhere.

GROSS: Well, I want to hear more about the conspiracy theories because you write that some of these conspiracy theories, including conspiracy theories about America, are being spread by extremist Islamists who are very powerful in the mainstream of society, including the former army chief, General Mizra Aslam Beg, and the retired head of the ISI, the intelligence agency, Hamid Gul. So give me some examples of conspiracy theories being spread by people like them, who were at the top of the country when they were working.

RASHID: Well, this is the problem. There are a lot of retired army officers, senior army officers, who come on TV regularly and sprout out all sorts of conspiracy theories. Now, many of the faults that have happened have been because of the military's past policies, and there they are really trying to cover those policies up by blaming outsiders rather than blaming themselves.

So for example, I mean the very fact that General Musharraf, the former president, who was a military ruler, of course, allowed the Afghan Taliban to come into Pakistan after they were defeated in 2001, gave them sanctuary and then set them up as - to launch the counteroffensive in Afghanistan against U.S. forces in 2003, even while he was an ally of the U.S. - now, you know, I have written about that extensively in several books, but it's still denied in Pakistan. It's denied that we gave sanctuary to the Taliban, it's denied we gave support to the Taliban.

So you know, the Afghans rightly blame Pakistan for this insurgency that they're faced with, and whereas what, you know, military officers in Pakistan are doing is blaming the United States, completely wrongly.

And of course this feeds into the mainstream media and to mainstream thought processes and students and, you know, young people, and this becomes the truth, as it were. And it's very difficult for people, for the liberal media and people like myself, who are trying to give young Pakistanis an alternative narrative and tell them, look, this is not what happened, this is what happened, and the consequences are with us today.

And you have to first understand what happened before we can rectify the consequences.

GROSS: So if I were to tune on a popular Pakistan talk show, what kind of conspiracy theories might I hear being perpetuated by, for instance, the former head of the Pakistan intelligence service or the former army chief?

RASHID: Well, for example, both these gentlemen, Mizra Aslam Beg and Hamid Gul, the ISI chief, the intelligence chief, I mean, they both, for example, claim that, you know, Osama bin Laden was not killed when he was killed last year by the U.S. Special Forces. And this was all a myth that has been perpetrated by the Americans to embarrass Pakistan, the fact that Osama was killed in Abbottabad, which is a military town well inside Pakistan, where he was found, as you know, living in a safe house.

So - and there's the continuation of the myth about even 9/11, that 9/11 actually was a conspiracy by the Jews and by the Bush administration and, you know, it was never carried out by Muslims or Arabs. That myth still very much continues.

But the main thrust, really, is that everything that is going wrong in Pakistan is due to the American presence in Afghanistan. Now, that, you know, is ridiculous because where - you know, I mean how can you blame the economic meltdown in Pakistan, which is due to very local factors and forces, how can you blame that on the Americans, especially when the Americans have been pumping two to three billion dollars a year, giving it to the military to carry out operations on behalf of the Americans inside Pakistan, plus, you know, considerable amount of civilian aid.

Something like $20 billion has been given by the United States since 9/11 to Pakistan. Unfortunately, most of it has gone to the military. But you know, there's no recognition of this when these people appear in talk shows on the TV and radio.

GROSS: So if people like the former heads of the military and the intelligence service are advocating theories that bin Laden isn't dead and that 9/11 was the work of the Bush administration and Israel and the Jews, are people currently in power supporting conspiracy theories like that?

RASHID: Well, they're not - you know, the government, which is a civilian government, it's not a military government, but clearly, you know, foreign policy is very much run by the military - neither the government nor the military are denying this at all. And when these leading figures from past administrations come on TV and say these things, you know, there's no official denial.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Ahmed Rashid, who lives in Pakistan, and his new book is called "Pakistan on the Brink: The Future of America, Pakistan, and Afghanistan." And among other things, he's the author of the bestseller "Taliban."

So you know, you recently wrote in an op-ed piece in the New York Times that far more of your neighbors in Lahore, Pakistan have joined the list of America's detractors and that there's - just as Americans after 9/11 asked why do they hate us, that people in Pakistan are asking now why do Americans hate us so much. Why do people in Pakistan think Americans hate them?

RASHID: Well, you know, there have been a series of incidents over the past year, especially, but even going back before that. For example, the killing of - a contractor, a CIA contractor killed two, possibly three Pakistanis in Lahore last year, and that really antagonized a lot of people.

He was put into jail briefly, and then he was freed by the Pakistani authorities and whisked away to the United States, and he was not put on trial in any way. And that, you know, led to a lot - widespread anger in Pakistan. And you know, for example, again, you know, we see the drone attacks.

Now, for many years a large number of drone attacks against the Pakistani and the Afghan Taliban inside Pakistan - these drones, the drones were taking off from Pakistani airbases. So there was a connivance between the Americans and the Pakistanis. But now, of course, the army says these drone attacks are detrimental, they are creating unrest in the country, and they're all the fault of the Americans.

Well, it's not all the fault of the Americans because, again, General Musharraf had done a deal with the Bush administration whereby some drones flew out of Afghanistan, but some drones flew out of Pakistan.

GROSS: Well, also, you know, the Pakistani government had always denied that bin Laden could be hiding out in Pakistan. And of course he was discovered in Pakistan and killed there. So was that like an embarrassment for the Pakistani government?

RASHID: Well, of course it was a huge embarrassment, there's no question. But what I think Pakistanis were really shocked at, that there was absolutely no accountability at the end of the day, because I mean both the international community, the Americans and Pakistanis were asking: Well, is the army here to blame for either goofing up, that, you know, they couldn't discover him for 10 years and that he was living in this splendid house in the middle of a well-known city?

So you know, was there just total incompetence by the ISI, the Interservices Intelligence Agency, the local, you know, the military intelligence, or were some army officers culpable in hiding it? And that question has never been answered. Nobody was forced to resign. There was an inquiry launched, which was launched after considerable public pressure and pressure from parliament because the army didn't want it. That inquiry is still going on.

It hasn't come to any conclusion, and even if it does, I doubt whether it'll be any - it'll put the blame on, you know, demand - I doubt whether it'll ask the army to be responsible for the failure of intelligence.

And so what happened after the killing of bin Laden was simply that the whole government, military, media spin-machine put everything onto the Americans, saying this was an attack on Pakistan's sovereignty.

Well, fair enough, it was an attack on Pakistan's sovereignty because U.S. Special Forces entered Pakistan and, you know, killed him there and then flew back. But what about this question, which has been left hanging in the air, and that is, you know, are we to blame for not chasing him down properly, or are we to blame that there were people involved who were looking after him?

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Ahmed Rashid, and he is from Pakistan. He lives in Lahore. He's written extensively about Afghanistan and Pakistan and that whole region for about 30 years. He's best known for his bestseller "Taliban," which was published before 9/11. His new book is called "Pakistan on the Brink: The Future of America, Pakistan and Afghanistan." Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is journalist Ahmed Rashid, who's covered Afghanistan, Pakistan and that whole region for about 30 years. He's the author of the books "Descent into Chaos" and the bestseller "Taliban." His new book is called "Pakistan on the Brink: The Future of America, Pakistan, and Afghanistan." Ahmed Rashid lives in Lahore, Pakistan, and is on a visit to the United States.

You know, again your book is called "Pakistan on the Brink," and you really are afraid that your country is on the brink of collapse, both, you know, economically, socially, and in terms of power. In fact, you write that you think the president and the prime minister are afraid of the military. Are they afraid of a coup?

RASHID: Well, they're not afraid of a coup, and the army has categorically said that it will not try and take over, but of course what the army has been doing - for example, in the last six months we've had this long-running political crisis between the army and the civilian government in which basically the army is trying to run the government out of town. They're trying to force the government out of power.

And there have been all these court cases. The supreme court has been involved, many times on the side of the military, trying to get the president to resign. There are cases against the president, corruption, incompetence, and against the prime minister.

So we've had this long-running political crisis in which it's been very clear that the army really don't want, you know, this government to continue, even though there are going to be, you know, elections. Elections have to be held in 2013, next year. And they could be brought forward to the end of this year even.

So it's - what the government is trying to do is to just hang on till the elections and try and stop the military from forcing it to resign.

GROSS: So up until now, up until this week, when the Pakistani parliament started meeting to discuss the future of Pakistan-American relations, how far had the Pakistan-American relationship deteriorated?

RASHID: Well, certainly the whole of last year they deteriorated steadily, and then in November of last year there was this shooting incident where NATO helicopters killed 24 Pakistani soldiers on the Pakistan side of the border. And after that the Pakistanis suspended all contact with the Americans, refused to cooperate on the border with Afghanistan and stopped all visits.

So since November, we've actually had a complete breakdown in relations, which is the first time this has happened in - well, in decades. And of course it's had a huge knock-on effect because if you, you know, break relations with the U.S., it affects the Europeans, the aid, the donors, the banks, the international lenders, and this is - in the last three or four months, this has all contributed to the downward slide of the Pakistani economy and other things.

And one thing the Pakistanis did which was very critical to the war in Afghanistan was that it stopped the flow of traffic and goods that were going up to the U.S. military via the port of Karachi. Remember that Afghanistan is landlocked, and the major port for Afghanistan is Karachi in Pakistan, and 60 percent of supplies for the U.S. military were going up through Karachi and were being trucked up to the border and then into Afghanistan.

And that road was closed, and then the Americans had to depend on supply routes from Russia and central Asia coming in from the North. So the Americans have been very keen to get that route reopened and to restore relations, but there's been this interminable delay. It's now, you know, four months since this breakdown of relations.

And now there is the hope that once this parliamentary session ends, parliament will submit a list of demands that it wants carried out by the U.S., and then relations will be restored, and there will be meetings between U.S. and Pakistani officials to restore the discussions on all sorts of issues from, you know, intelligence, border control, the talks with the Taliban and Pakistan's economic problems.

GROSS: So it sounds like it's really crucial to the region that the relationship between Pakistan and the U.S. move forward.

RASHID: Absolutely. I mean first because, you know, Pakistan is in such dire straits, and you need a restoration of relations with the U.S., which will in itself restore international confidence and credibility in Pakistan, so that is very badly needed. But also because of the policies of the U.S. in Afghanistan, which are under enormous attack by President Karzai, the Afghan president, and there have been all these incidents with the U.S. military in the past few weeks, and at the same time the U.S. is trying to have talks with the Taliban, which have been suspended just a few days ago because of all these incidents that have taken place.

Now, Pakistan is critical to all of this. Most of the Taliban leadership is living in Pakistan. Pakistan wants to be in on the negotiations. It needs to be in on the negotiations. And clearly if the U.S. wants access to the leading Taliban figures, like Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader and others, it will have to go through Pakistan. So obviously there's a crying need here for a relationship between the two countries.

GROSS: Ahmed Rashid will be back in the second half of the show. His new book is called "Pakistan on the Brink: The Future of America, Pakistan, and Afghanistan." He lives in Lahore, Pakistan. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Ahmed Rashid, who has been covering the Afghanistan-Pakistan region for 30 years, chronicling the rise of the Taliban and other Islamic extremist groups. His new book is called "Pakistan on the Brink: The Future of America, Pakistan, and Afghanistan."

His previous books include "Taliban," which chronicled the rise of the Taliban and "Descent into Chaos," about Afghanistan and the first eight years after 911.

We've been talking about Pakistan. Let's talk about Afghanistan. President Karzai of Afghanistan has told the Obama administration that Afghanistan wants us out - not by the Obama deadline of 2014 - but by this new deadline that Karzai has imposed of 2013, next year. So the United States isn't prepared to do that. David Cameron, the prime minister of England, on his recent trip to the U.S. agreed we're going to stick to the agreed timetable of 2014.

What do you think would happen if the Obama administration actually agreed to President Karzai's demand and pulled out next year?

RASHID: Well, I think there'd be no doubt that the civil war would continue and the government would eventually fall and the Taliban would take control, if not of the whole country, they would certainly take control of Kabul. And that would lead to another civil war in the country because the non - the anti-Taliban forces who are mostly in the north of the country and the west would resist any kind of Taliban takeover.

So the real crisis obviously, is that this war has gone on far too long. I mean this is the longest war the U.S. has ever fought in its history. It's been 10, over 10 years now. And I think the U.S. military is tired and perhaps demoralization has set in, the lack of purpose and aim, and we've seen that in these recent incidents. I mean we've had three major incidents involving the U.S. military: the sniper who killed 16 Afghan civilians, the burning of the Qurans and the U.S. soldiers urinating on the dead bodies of Taliban.

Now there hasn't really been any, at the moment, disciplinary reaction taken by the U.S. military against any of these perpetrators and that has angered the Afghans enormously. But at the same time, it must be said that the lack of consistency in President Karzai's policies have also driven the Americans through the wall. He's, in the past few months he's been flip-flopping between wanting to sign a long-term strategic agreement with the U.S., which would keep U.S. forces there up to 2020 - limited U.S. forces. And at the same time he's telling the Americans, you know, get out right now. And somehow you have to walk a kind of fine line between understanding what he's trying to do.

GROSS: So you've printed a pretty grim scenario of what would happen if the U.S. pulled out its troops in 2013. So say we stay the extra year and keep to the Obama timetable of 2014, is the picture any different than 2014 then it is in 2013?

RASHID: Well, I think the crux of improving the picture is not the effort in the war but is the talks with the Taliban. Now for one year now the U.S. has been having talks with the Taliban. It was very reluctantly dragged to the table by allies, although - who have brokered these talks, they include Germany and Qatar, the Gulf state of Qatar and the British and others, but now the State Department is deeply involved in these talks. Unfortunately, a few days ago, the Taliban suspended these talks because of these recent incidents, but I'm sure they will be resumed very soon.

Now, I mean I've been very, very supportive of these talks, saying essentially the U.S. aim should be that before 2014, before U.S. forces leave they have to bring this war to an end. That's the only way the Afghan government will survive. If you're expecting that U.S. forces leave, the war continues and Karzai and the new Afghan Army then takes the place of the American Army and fights the Taliban, well, you know, that is going to be a failure because, you know, I don't think the Afghan Army, despite the billions of dollars that have been poured into it by the Americans, can really stand up to the Taliban over the long-term. So...

GROSS: Well, this is where your criticism of the Obama administration is strongest in the sense that you criticize the Obama administration for focusing on a military strategy instead of a political strategy. And you say that the military, the American military and intelligence have been in the driver's seat and Afghanistan.

RASHID: Yes. Absolutely. And I still think that's very true. I mean the U.S. military is still not fully behind talking to the Taliban. They, you know, although I don't see how they can expect it but they do expect to see and want to see some kind of military success. Now frankly, I just don't think it's possible. And if you want to, you know, withdraw your troops, you will have to find some kind of settlement for two reasons. One, you want, you know, the Americans and NATO, they want a decent withdrawal - meaning that, you know, this is not Vietnam that you're hanging from the treads of the helicopter and that you are being firing as you leave kind of thing. You need a honorable decent withdrawal, number one. And number two, you need to leave Afghanistan at relative peace with itself. In other words, you need, before you leave, some kind of cease-fire with the Taliban and the possibility of some power-sharing negotiations between President Karzai and the Taliban. And short of that frankly, then you're repeating the Vietnam scenario where you leave and, you know, six months later the enemy walks into the capital. That's, you know, that's something that would be horrendous to contemplate after a 10 year-long war.

GROSS: What do you think the Taliban would settle for in negotiations?

RASHID: No, I think really the Taliban have changed considerably. Now not completely but the attitudes towards things like - they made it very clear they want nothing to do with al-Qaida. They will not allow any foreign terrorists groups to seek sanctuary in Afghanistan. They're very clear about that. They, although they spend all these years in Pakistan and have received support from Pakistan, they are very fed up with the manipulation of the Pakistani Intelligence Services and the kind of pressures that they've been under in Pakistan. They want to return home to Afghanistan to be Afghans again, rather than to be appear as stooges of Pakistan.

So I think, you know, the Taliban right now, you know, want ultimately at the end of the day they will want some kind of power-sharing in the areas where they have the most influence and that is in the south and the east of Afghanistan. So and I think, you know, the other main reason why they're willing to negotiate - and don't forget, this was a Taliban initiative to negotiate. This was not an American initiative. The Taliban wanted to negotiate and sent messages for many, many months to the Americans saying we want to talk. And the Taliban initiative I think really comes from the simple fact that look, they know that they can't rule the country again because if they do they'll get totally alienated and ostracized and all money and aid will stop, just as it did when they were ruling the country in the 1990s and Afghanistan was near collapse. This time they know that what they need is a partner who has international credibility to some extent, so they need the Afghan government as a partner.

GROSS: Well, you know, in talking about the Taliban, the U.S. military tried a strategy with the Taliban of taking the lower-level Taliban away from the leadership. I believe the thinking was that some of the lower-level Taliban were there because there's no jobs so if you're with the Taliban you'll have some income, you'll have protection, if you're not with the Taliban you may be attacked by the Taliban, but that the lower-level people weren't necessarily ideologically wedded to the Taliban. So there was, I think, it was like basically an amnesty program that if you could leave the Taliban and the military would help you. You don't think this is a very effective program.

RASHID: Well, it hasn't been a very effective program. I mean I don't think more than two or 3,000 Taliban have come in on this program over the last six, seven years. Now this was a strategy that was fine in the phase when you did not have a political strategy, you had a purely military strategy to so-called defeat the Taliban. I'm talking about a period around 2005, '06, '07. But after that, when it became once Obama came in, it became very clear that no matter what forces you are going to put in and you were going to pursue this counterterrorism strategy which was, you know, articulated by General Petraeus of protecting the population etcetera, but at the same time you were going to have a political strategy to win the hearts and minds of the people and to win the Taliban, but also to try and open some kind of dialogue with the Taliban. I think this strategy becomes more and more irrelevant and in fact, dangerous because if you are taking out Taliban commanders, these are the very commanders that you want to be talking to in many instances.

Now what, where I think we - what I think, you know, the Western forces should be doing is that we should be looking at building confidence between the negotiate - the American negotiators and the Taliban. Now the way to do that is obviously you have to have military confidence-building measures. And by that I mean say, the Americans promised to do something like let's, you know, we'll stop night raids, these arrests of these Taliban commanders and killing of Taliban commanders by special forces in a certain province for say, one month. And then we'll ask the Taliban to do something similar: You stop assassinating government officials or stop laying landmines for one month in the same province. And then let's see if we can both carry this out and at the end of the month maybe we extend it, maybe we broaden it to other provinces and eventually we can end up through this process with some kind of cease-fire whereby then President Karzai comes in and then starts negotiating a power-sharing deal. So there's a logical process to this.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is journalist Ahmed Rashid. He lives in Lahore, Pakistan, and has been writing about the region for about 30 years. He is the author of the books "Descent into Chaos" and the bestseller "Taliban." His new book is called "Pakistan on the Brink: The Future of America, Pakistan, and Afghanistan."

Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Ahmed Rashid, a journalist from Pakistan, who is the author of the new book "Pakistan on the Brink: The Future of America, Pakistan, and Afghanistan."

I know that you negotiate with the people who don't see it your way. That's why you're negotiating with them, I guess. They're your enemy or they're your opposition. In the case of the Taliban they are so extreme. I find myself wondering if negotiations can really be effective. What are their demands? I mean part of what they want to do in life is behead people who don't agree with them, burn down girls' schools because they don't believe girls should be educated. They want women totally wrapped and hidden in the house, wrapped when they're outside, hidden in the house most of the time. So I mean how do you negotiate with people who want life to be like that? Unless they just want to live by themselves in their own community where they could do whatever they want. But, you know, who'd want to be in a position where you're beheaded because you want an education or you have acid thrown in your face because you want to go to school?

RASHID: Well, Terry, you know, as I said, I mean a lot of their attitudes have changed. I mean for example, they are fully allowing education. They are not burning schools in the last year and a half and they are allowing girls' education too. Now, I mean this is very facetious of me to say well, they're allowing education. I mean obviously, this is a very backward looking group and they are, as you said, very extreme. They still want, for example, they still don't accept the constitution of the country. They want the country to be ruled by Islamic law. Now, but I think the fact that they have changed and that the fact that these negotiations in a process of negotiation both sides change. You know, and I'm pretty sure that the Taliban will see the benefits at the end of the day of compromising on many of their social demands.

I think first of all, there's a common demand that both the government and the Taliban want, which is to end the war. The Taliban have suffered enormously in this war. They want to go home. They want to leave their refuge in Pakistan and go home to Afghanistan. And bringing about security in Afghanistan, bringing about an end to the war, this, as I see it is the main issue for the international community, for the Afghans right now, how do you bring the war to an end? Once you bring the war to an end then you can sit down and negotiate about, you know, the extent of Islamization or what kind of policies you have. Now, it's a risk. It's a risk, but then negotiations are going to be a risk.

GROSS: So the very controversial drone program that America has had to find terrorists in Afghanistan and in that border area of Pakistan and Afghanistan, Pakistanis are very opposed to the drones. I think they're not very popular in Afghanistan either. On the other hand, they've been reasonably effective in preventing cross-border raids by the Taliban and in tracking down some top al-Qaida members and other insurgents.

So the drones have also killed civilians, I should say. But do you think the drone program has been effective in getting the Taliban to want to negotiate because they've taken so many hits?

RASHID: I think it has, without a doubt. I mean, the Taliban have lost a lot of commanders and cadres because of the drone program, both in Pakistan and in Afghanistan. And don't forget, al-Qaida, which was hiding out in Pakistan, has been decimated by the drone program. All the top, you know, most of the top officials of the al-Qaida that planned 9/11 have been killed, largely by the drone program.

And it's helping the counterinsurgency efforts in Pakistan by the Pakistan army when they do launch their counterinsurgency, because the Pakistani Taliban have also been badly affected by the drone program. Now - but again, you know, you - maybe the drone program will not come to an end in the near future, but again, it can be moderated.

So, for example, right now, Afghan Taliban are on the list of people to be killed by the drones. Now perhaps down the road if you have negotiations and you have confidence building measures and all the rest of it, the Afghan Taliban leadership is taken off that list, and they are considered negotiating partners, not people that need to be killed.

But other people remain on the list, like al-Qaida or the Pakistani Taliban. So I'm saying even the drone program is not something inflexible. It can be moderated, fine tuned. You know, people on the list today can not be on the list tomorrow.

GROSS: So I want to change the subject a little bit here. We've been talking about Afghanistan and Pakistan. I should bring up Iran with you because the Israelis are considering bombing Iran's nuclear facility before Iran is able to make a nuclear weapon. There's some pressure in the United States to have Obama - the Obama administration work with Israel in doing that. If the Israelis were to attack Iran - Iran's nuclear facility - what impact do you think that would have on the region?

RASHID: I'm glad you asked me that, Terry, because I think, you know, this has totally been underplayed by the American media. I think the repercussions in the region would be devastating simply because the Iranians would not retaliate in a confrontational war with either Israel or the United States, if there was a bombing of Iran.

They would launch a guerilla war using their proxy forces all through the Middle East, from Lebanon all the way to India. You know, Iran, as you know, is a Shia country. All these countries have Shia minorities. Many of these Shia minorities have groups which are pro-Iranian and have been armed and funded by the Iranians. These groups would unleash terrorist attacks on Americans and Europeans and Westerners and Israelis. And there would be a real mayhem. And this would particularly affect the neighboring countries of Iran, of which both Pakistan and Afghanistan are. So, Afghanistan and Pakistan are ostensibly allies of the United States, but they're also neighbors of Iran.

And they would be placed in a terrible quandary because they would be faced of the possibility of American forces using these territories to launch retaliatory attacks against Iran, Iran retaliating with guerilla attacks and terrorist attacks in Pakistani cities, in Afghan cities, killing Americans, killing Westerners, et cetera.

And plus the anger, not to speak of the general anger of the Shia minorities in these countries, and the overall anger of Muslims everywhere. Because, you know, this - I mean Muslims would read this as being the third time in a decade that the U.S. has attacked a Muslim country - if we look at, you know, Afghanistan and Iraq as the first two.

So, you know, it would not just create anger in the Shias, but I think there would be, you know, the growth of anti-Americanism in the Muslim world amongst Sunnis, the mainstream Muslim sect, would also be enormous. And the consequences I don't even want to think about. I mean, you know, it would be very difficult to push through programs of democratization and liberalization, et cetera, et cetera, once something like this happened.

GROSS: And what about something like that coming on the heels of the Arab Spring?

RASHID: Well, again, I think it would jeopardize the Arab Spring enormously because there would be, you know, in a lot of these Arab countries the Muslim Brotherhood, you know, which was banned formally, has come to power in one way or the other. Now, the Muslim Brotherhood of today is not the extremist Islamic group it was 10, 15, 20 years ago.

It's in many countries, even Egypt and Tunisia and other countries, they have moderated their positions enormously and they want democracy, they want freedom for women, education, et cetera, et cetera. Now, the result of a bombing of Iran would result in an explosion of anger on the Arab street and force even groups like the Muslim Brotherhood to give up on their moderation and go back to being, you know, anti-American and all the rest of it.

And I think it would sabotage the Arab Spring, basically, the advances we've seen in the Arab world.

GROSS: My guest is Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid, author of the new book "Pakistan on the Brink: The Future of America, Pakistan, and Afghanistan." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: My guest is Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid. He's been covering the region for about 30 years. His new book is called "Pakistan on the Brink: The Future of America, Pakistan, and Afghanistan." You live in Pakistan and you've been covering that region for three decades. You've been writing about terrorism for decades. You've been explaining a lot of that region to the West as well as, you know, writing about it and being read in your region. Is it becoming more dangerous to be a journalist who, you know, reports the facts as you see it and also gives your analysis as you just see it? And your analysis isn't necessarily favorable toward, you know, the governments of Pakistan or Afghanistan. You're also critical often of the Obama administration. But is it dangerous to be doing critical reporting now in Pakistan?

RASHID: Well, it has become much more dangerous in the last two years. I'm now, you know, on the board of the Committee to Protect Journalists, the New York organization, and, you know, they consider Pakistan as the most dangerous place in the world for journalists. Seven journalists were killed last year in Pakistan. Countless others have been arrested, tortured, kidnapped, beaten, harassed, whatever. Journalism has become a very dangerous profession, from both the extremists and from the authorities. And so, you know, that has become, you know, a big burden, if you like, on obviously affecting people's ability to write. A lot of journalists have, you know, tried to leave the country for a certain period of time. You know, others lie low and stop writing for several months.

So, yes, you know, the whole place has become much more dangerous and that's, you know, that's a reflection of the growing anarchy in the country and the fact that there are so many armed groups now of all kinds and sorts. You know, you don't know who you're annoying half the time.

And likewise with the authorities. I mean, you know, we knew where the red lines were with the military, with the intelligence services, with the government. You know, you didn't criticize the army. You didn't criticize the nuclear program. And there were certain, there was a kind of self-censorship which was used by journalists which allowed them to survive.

But the tragedy now is there are no red lines. You don't know where the red lines are for the government. They can get angered about anything and clamp down hard.

GROSS: So without betraying your own security in this answer, what do you have to do to remain a practicing journalist in Pakistan?

RASHID: Well, you know, obviously, I have enhanced my own personal security and my family's security quite considerably. But, of course, I mean, you know, that's no guarantee. I mean what can you do? And, you know, travel and meeting people and going out, I mean, you know, a lot of this has been kind of restricted or is done under, you know, very tight security conditions.

GROSS: So it's gotten worse in the past few years.

RASHID: Yes, certainly. I mean, everything has gotten much worse in the last two years. And the last year, 2011, has been particularly horrific for the Pakistani press.

GROSS: Well, Ahmed Rashid, thank you so much. Be well. Be safe. Thank you for talking with us. I really appreciate our conversations.

RASHID: Thank you.

GROSS: Ahmed Rashid is the author of the new book "Pakistan on the Brink: The Future of America, Pakistan, and Afghanistan." He lives in Lahore, Pakistan. You'll find links to his previous FRESH AIR interviews on our website, freshair.npr.org, where you can also download podcasts of our show. And you can find us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair.

I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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