Ahmed Rashid on the Taliban in Kunduz 'Germans Will Have to Go on the Offensive'

Best-selling Pakistani author Ahmed Rashid discusses the recent Taliban attacks on NATO troops in Afghanistan and the elusive prospects of lasting peace in the Hinda Kush.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Rashid, was the recent suicide attack against German troops in Kunduz  the start of a new series of attacks in the north of Afghanistan?

Rashid: The Taliban are increasingly playing a political game with European members of NATO that are not on the front line. We saw how brilliantly the Taliban manipulated a government in the case of Italian journalist Daniele Mastrogiacomo. And I think we will see a stepping up of attacks against all of these countries that have strong domestic opposition to the deployment in Afghanistan.

SPIEGEL: Up until now, the Germans have beleived their their plan for reconstruction, which puts them closer to the people, is working better than the strategies of the Americans and British. Were the Germans just naïve?

Rashid: I think the whole concept of NATO countries carrying out construction while trying to avoid fighting is now a thing of the past. No matter what the policies may be of individual countries, all are at the war's frontline. And in order to prevent other suicide attacks, the Germans will have to go on the offensive to root out Taliban groups in Kunduz.

SPIEGEL:President Hamid Karzai has offered to negotiate with his enemies. But can one really talk to the Taliban?

Rashid: There is a hardcore leadership and following which is very ideological and which will not tolerate any foreign forces in Afghanistan and will not tolerate Karzai and his government. There is no way that you can negotiate with these people.

SPIEGEL: What would you suggest instead?

Rashid: I think you have to defeat them militarily, kill them, capture them. The other lot is that many of those who are being recruited are genuinely there because of joblessness or because some of their relatives have been killed by NATO or American forces. This rank and file is essentially winnable.

SPIEGEL: The Taliban behead traitors in front of the camera, they kill policemen and soldiers who are collaborating with the Western forces. How did the Taliban pick up these merciless practices -- even against Muslims?

Rashid: The Taliban are a cross-border phenomenon. They are Afghans, but they have been educated and brought up in refugee camps and religious schools, the madrassas, in Pakistan. So they have inherited two sets of cultures. One was the war against the Soviets which their fathers waged inside Afghanistan in the 1980s, and the other was the religious extremism that has been promoted in Pakistan in order to mobilize Afghans to fight the Soviets. And that process of radicalization and Islamization has led some of them to very easily adopt the ideology of al-Qaida.

SPIEGEL: It's not only the Taliban who are fighting the government of Karzai and the coalition forces. By now it's a whole bunch of opposing groups.

Rashid: The Taliban have struck up alliances with several key commanders. The first has been Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who bombarded Kabul in the 1990s and later went into exile in Iran after he was defeated by the Taliban. He is now based in Pakistan and his group is allied with the Taliban. They have the capacity to do a lot of urban guerrilla war, because a lot of the suicide bombings and urban attacks that we have seen have been carried out by the Hezb-e-Islami. The second major partner is Jalaluddin Haqqani, who is based in Waziristan in the tribal areas. Formerly he was a Taliban minister, but he was never really a Taliban. The third major alliance partner is this group of international fighters who are led, at least in part, by al-Qaida -- essentially the Arabs who are living in the tribal areas, but also Uzbeks, Chinese Muslims, Chechens, some Bangladeshis, Sudanese and Africans. So for the first time the Taliban have broadened their movement to strike up alliances, which is something they never did before. The Taliban have also helped mobilize Pakistani Pashtun tribesman against Islamabad for the first time.

SPIEGEL: Why have so many Pashtuns, especially in the south and east of the country, turned against the Afghan government and begun fighting against the Western coalition forces, who actually came to rebuild their country?

Rashid: What has been very critical was that the Taliban has offered protection to the farmers and the chance of continuing to grow poppy, which is far more lucrative than any other crop. The propaganda against the Western forces has been that eventually these people will come to eradicate those crops. So the Taliban have the winning propaganda line.

What NATO Can Do

SPIEGEL: What can NATO do to win over the farmers and villagers in the south?

Rashid: It's not easy. NATO went there to do development and reconstruction. But until security improves, the NGOs are not going to be willing to go in there to help create alternative livelihoods.

SPIEGEL: So you're saying that the Americans and NATO need to defeat the Taliban before the real reconstruction work can begin?

Rashid: The issue in the south is that you have this very strong Taliban presence which you have to fight and resist. And if you don't do that then, frankly, you're not winning over the people. People will use you, they'll take your money, maybe, but they won't be won over by you. A lot of these NATO countries, even in the south, are still persisting with this idea of, 'We can do reconstruction and development differently from the Americans'. From my point of view, that's an illusion.

SPIEGEL: How are al-Qaida and the Taliban organizing the resistance, and how do they communicate with each other?

Rashid: We know that Osama bin Laden and Ayman Al Zawahiri, bin Ladens deputy and doctor, are most likely living in Pakistan. The extremist groups in Pakistan have provided al-Qaeda with a very solid logistical base since 9/11 that includes safe houses, travel, transport and communication. I don't think bin Laden is using those facilities, but other members of al-Qaeda certainly are. As do many Aghans and their intelligence services, I believe that Mullah Omar lives in Quetta. I think he's been kept there very carefully by Pakistani intelligence services and I think the other top commanders are coming and going quite easily as they meet and coordinate.

SPIEGEL: The Pakistani government strongly denies the presence of leading Taliban and al-Qaeda commanders in Pakistan.

Rashid: For a guerrilla army with thousands of fighters it is absolutely impossible to be able to arm and clothe, feed, pay and supply that number of forces without a safe sanctuary. After 9/11 the military really adopted a dual-track strategy. They went after al-Qaeda, the Arab component. What the army did not do, though, was to run down the Taliban and the Pakistani extremist groups fighting with the Taliban. And of course they were indirectly helped in this strategy by the Americans because the Americans were only interested in catching al-Qaida and not the Taliban. And this is not a rogue policy carried out by some former agents or some extremists within the military. It's a state policy.

SPIEGEL: What Pakistani interests lie in the background?

Rashid: The military perceives it to be in the national interest to maintain a proxy in Afghanistan and that, traditionally, has been the Taliban. The military also believe the foreign forces will soon leave Afghanistan and that India must be denied any foothold in Kabul. The denial of having strategic interests in Afghanistan is part of the Pakistani foreign policy, and this tradition of denial has been a historical fact ever since we came under military rule.

SPIEGEL: To what extent does President Pervez Musharraf steer foreign policy?

Rashid: He gives strategic direction to the policy, but I don't think he would get personally involved in the day to day. What I mean by strategic direction is that the Taliban are a pro-Pakistani force, they will oppose the Indian presence in Afghanistan. The thinking is that they should be supported just in case the Karzai government falls, the Americans pull out or NATO is defeated.

But I think, unfortunately, that the ISI has taken great liberties in interpreting its original mission. If the message to the ISI has been to turn a blind eye as the Taliban regroup and reorganize, then the tendency of the ISI has been to say, 'We don't just turn a blind eye, we actually go and help them'. And the governments of Balochistan and the North-West Frontier Province are supporting the Taliban. These two provinces are ruled by an alliance of religious parties. So, for example, the Taliban has been importing weapons and ammunition from the Gulf. But they have been able to import them officially through Karachi as part of the imports of the Balochistan government.

SPIEGEL: President Musharraf himself seems to be a prisoner of domestic politics. How is he supposed to be able to operate against his own security apparatus?

Rashid: The army has always relied upon the fundamentalists to be the front line of their foreign policy, whether in Kashmir, whether in Afghanistan or in Central Asia. The extremist groups have always provided the manpower, the cannon fodder. You have to remember that Musharraf won an election in 2002 that was rigged, in which the army allied itself with the MMA, the alliance of religious parties. If Musharraf were to move tomorrow against the Taliban in Pakistan he would also have to move against his political allies -- the fundamentalists. Can he afford to do this in an election year like this?

SPIEGEL: What steps would you take in order to strengthen the moderates, who represent the majority of Pakistanis. And how can the fundamentalists be isolated and weakened?

Rashid: A discreet but clear ultimatum to Pakistan with the threat that the West could end cooperation, aid -- all those kinds of things. The military has to be made aware that this support to the Taliban is not acceptable and the lives of European soldiers are more important to Europe than anything else. And the Western forces in the south of Afghanistan must have a common strategy to get the balance right between aggressive action and reconstruction and development. NATO last year hung on by the skin of its teeth, literally, in the south. The only reason it hung on was through the use of air power. We now know, according to some estimates, that air strikes may have killed up to 1,000 civilians.

SPIEGEL: The Germans don't want to deploy troops in the south and they don't want to engage in combat in general. Do countries like Germany bear responsibility for the possible failure in Afghanistan?

Rashid: The Germans have failed completely with their police training program. They were sending local, provincial policemen, aged 45 or 50 years old, who had no concept of Muslim culture and no concept of training. That has been a disaster. But we need the police to provide security, keep the peace, fight drugs, establish the writ of the state and to establish the writ of Karzai. Now the Americans have taken over, they are training an 80,000 member police force. This failure has been very critical.

SPIEGEL: If the mission fails and peace and stability are not established in Afghanistan, what consequences could that have for the Western world?

Rashid: If Afghanistan fails, it will provide a base for international terrorism in a much more sophisticated and advanced way than what we saw before 9/11. Look at what has happened to Waziristan, the tribal area, which I today consider to be the center of (the) international terrorism. These international extremist groups have been able to operate there and they still do. Can you imagine that being duplicated on a much larger scale?

SPIEGEL: What would the consequences be for a region that already includes three neighboring nuclear powers -- Pakistan, India and China -- and may soon see a fourth with Iran?

Rashid: The real danger would be the break up of Afghanistan. The Talibanized Pashtun in the south could split away from the non-Pashtuns. As a consequence you would have a state of permanent instability, which it could not develop economically. It would be a region which no one could control anymore and it would be a much more brutal kind of civil war.

SPIEGEL: What can be done to prevent this scenario from happening?

Rashid: Unfortunately, the indiscriminate use of air power has turned the population against NATO in the south and has changed the situation. NATO used air power to protect its troops. You need more troops on the ground, both Afghan and foreign. If NATO continues with a similar use of air power to fight the Taliban in 2007, it will lose the war of hearts and minds.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Rashid, many thanks for this interview.

Interview conducted by Susanne Koelbl.