The Taliban's New Target Losing Faith in Pakistan's Future
Long a home to Pakistan's intellectual elite, the tolerant city of Lahore has become a favorite target of the Taliban. The development is causing the country's leading writer, Ahmed Rashid, whose books are required reading in the West's military academies, to lose his optimism that the Islamist militants can be defeated.
The small photo hanging on the wall in his office depicts a serious-looking man with a long, black beard, dressed entirely in white. The man is one of those Afghan warlords who have made life hell for would-be conquerors from the East and West for centuries. Ahmed Rashid, standing next to him, stares at the camera with the same blank expression on his face.
The man in white is Jalaluddin Haqqani, the leader of a clan in eastern Afghanistan. The picture was taken 22 years ago. At the time, Haqqani was still poking fun at the Taliban, who he saw as uneducated hicks, born in Pakistani refugee camps, indoctrinated in Islamic religious schools and led by zealots from Palestine, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. At that time, the Taliban still had to learn how to wage war, and it made many mistakes. Its leaders were constantly losing an eye, an arm or a leg.
The Taliban fighters were uneducated and unaware. The history of their Pashtun people was unknown to them, they were unfamiliar with the history of their country, and they had never lived in a real city. Haqqani, on the other hand, was a warlord for his clan and was well-traveled. He once met with former US President Ronald Reagan in Washington. Haqqani, now 60, was a real Afghan. That was the way he saw himself, and it was how Afghanistan saw him.
Rashid chuckles quietly as he rocks back and forth in his desk chair, his hands behind his head. He is a friendly, 62-year-old man with the booming voice of a storyteller. A man without pretentions, the Pakistani intellectual has become the chronicler of this part of the world.
Both men were wrong at the time. The warlord firmly believed that important Afghan warriors had to be like him. His mistake was that he didn't take the Taliban seriously. And Rashid underestimated the immense power that lies in the simple faith of the Taliban. Its members have no problem with death, and they turn it into a political weapon. They have since learned how to wage war, and waging war has become their life. They are also not the puppets of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden, but rather a deadly threat in their own right.
Experiencing History at First Hand
Rashid has made many trips to Afghanistan in the last 30 years. He has acquired an encyclopedic knowledge of this part of the world, and he is a singular figure, because he not only describes history but has also experienced it himself.
Rashid happened to be in Kabul in 1979 when Soviet tanks invaded the country. He was in Kandahar in 1994 when the Taliban captured the city, creating a bloodbath in the process. He became a firsthand witness to a tragedy in this strange, remote part of the world, and he had already written his books by the time it occurred to the rest of the world to turn its attention to Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia.
The West first learned about the origins of the jihadists and their mentors from Rashid's books. And Rashid was the first to write about the things the West now knows about Afghanistan's warlords -- the Haqqanis in the east, the Dostums in the north and the Khans in the west --, and about their conflicting alliances with the Pakistani, Turkish and Iranian intelligence agencies. "Taliban," his most famous book, is still required reading for officers in British and American military academies.
Rashid wrote it in 1999, two years before the 9/11 attacks. He described who the Taliban were, how they interpreted Islam, who their influences were and what role bin Laden and his Arabs played. It made the Pakistani intellectual into a world-renowned figure. Suddenly he had acquired a monopoly on explaining and interpreting a new phenomenon in world politics. A million and a half copies of "Taliban" were sold in the Anglo-American world alone, and it was translated into 26 languages.
Read in the White House
Rashid has been a sensation since then. After the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the White House ordered 28 copies of his book. Then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld met with him to discuss his opinions, and Rashid was showered with invitations from the likes of neocon luminary Paul Wolfowitz and British Prime Minister Tony Blair. President Barack Obama invited him to dinner before his inauguration, at a time when Obama himself was apparently not very well informed about the situation in Afghanistan.
Hardly any other intellectual enjoys a comparable level of authority. Given his fame, Rashid could almost be forgiven for being conceited.
In Germany, the writer Hans Magnus Enzensberger was similarly influential, but unlike Rashid, Enzensberger wasn't interested in being an adviser to political leaders. In France, Bernard-Henri Lévy has taken on the role of the public intellectual, a role in which he has both rendered great service and demonstrated his need for admiration. The British prefer serious scholars like Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash.
Tolerance Under Attack
But Rashid doesn't live in Munich, Paris or London. Instead, he lives in Lahore, Pakistan, a country plagued by constant unrest and danger. The Taliban, a group he has written about extensively, has expanded its efforts beyond what it sees as the national liberation struggle in Afghanistan. It is now in Pakistan, and it is in Lahore, a place filled with many of the things that it hates and wants to destroy.
Lahore is still a beautiful city, a Pakistani jewel, with its Badshahi Mosque, its Shalimar Gardens and its landmark fortress behind imposing walls. The British left behind a large number of schools and universities. It is a city where mopeds overloaded with people dominate street traffic. But it also has its fair share of old-fashioned donkey carts.
On the surface, Lahore, a city of 10 million, is still a refreshing exception among Asia's big cities, cleaner and less overheated than New Delhi, Karachi or Bangkok. It also seems more open-minded. The city's most popular talk show host is a transvestite. At the same time, Lahore is a place where open-mindedness has now come under attack.