SPIEGEL ONLINE 08/05/2010 11:01 AM
By Gerhard Spörl in Lahore, Pakistan
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
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
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.
How Lahore Is Changing Its Ways
The view of the large bank buildings in the city’s downtown is oddly
obstructed by large billboards. Behind them, heavy sandbags have been placed
as a protection against firebombs.
Female students, their heads tightly wrapped in headscarves, are streaming
from the King Edward Medical University, a magnificent white structure from
the colonial era. Organized Islamists recently attacked a group of girls who
were not wearing headscarves, together with the young men who were
accompanying them. When a foreign organization wants to host an event —
like when Germany’s Heinrich Böll Foundation wanted to hold a farewell party
for its director — it has to apply for a permit. The permit comes with
conditions: no speeches with political overtones, no criticism of the
government, and women are not permitted to dance.
Lahore is treading warily and changing its ways. The city government is
desperate to provide the Taliban with as few potential targets as possible.
The city has been in shock since it was rocked by a recent series of
bombings and suicide attacks. European and Asian corporations are leaving
the city, a move that could be disastrous for Pakistan, which has only
managed to struggle through an ongoing economic crisis thanks to
international investment and billions in aid from the United States.
More than 90 people died in a double bombing of two mosques in late May.
Everything changed after the attack, which marked a turning point for
Lahore. It served as final proof that a Pakistani Taliban does indeed exist.
It cooperates with the Afghan Taliban and with bin Laden’s al-Qaida, and it
is now waging a war on two fronts, in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. For the
Taliban, Pakistan has more to offer than Afghanistan: an entire arsenal of
Out of Place
Rashid lives in an upper middle-class neighborhood where many security
precautions have been taken. Drivers are forced to slowly negotiate their
way around a series of barriers installed on the wide arterial roadway that
passes through the neighborhood, while soldiers wielding submachine guns
calmly examine the drivers and vehicles. The neighborhood, which is called
Cantt, is a residential area for members of the military and the
intelligence services. They live in large houses behind high walls, along
streets patrolled by security guards and police cars.
Rashid seems out of place in this environment. In his books, he describes
how the army and the Pakistani intelligence service nurtured and protected
the Taliban and other terrorist groups from the very beginning, in the
belief that they could manipulate them. But the strategy never works in the
long run, because the groups eventually start playing their own game.
Ironically, Rashid and his family now live in relative safety in a
neighborhood of which Rashid has a relatively low opinion — just as it has
a low opinion of him.
His office is in an addition to his house, a large room with bookcases
lining the walls. Hamid Karzai once sat on his sofa, before he became
Afghanistan’s president, and discussed whether he should return to
Afghanistan, and what he could expect to find there. The sound is turned off
on the TV set in the corner, just as US General David Petraeus, who
Washington has now sent to Afghanistan to set things straight, is talking
about how he set things straight in Iraq. Rashid turns up the volume as
Petraeus explains that he has a difficult job ahead of him, and that it’s a
tough situation, but that he’s there to win the war. He says it in a stoic
and determined voice. America is coming to its senses, says Rashid, but it’s
too late, much too late.
Iraq was more important to the Americans.
Rashid sees the world from two perspectives, as both a Pakistani and a
Briton. He was born in Pakistan, and now he has made Pakistan his home. But
he spent his formative years in England, from elementary school to
university (he studied at Cambridge). His father was an engineer, a product
of British colonialism, which had a knack for fostering local talent. After
the establishment of Pakistan, the family moved to London.
Rashid thinks in Western terms, and he knows how the West thinks. He makes
the strategists in the West uneasy, because he draws their attention to how
things work in this part of Asia. And he doesn’t make it easy for them,
because it isn’t easy.
In "Descent Into Chaos," his best book to date, Rashid describes the decline
Pakistan and Afghanistan have experienced since Sept. 11, 2001. The work
represents the sum of his experiences, and it is much more pessimistic in
tone than his earlier books.
Always a Step Ahead
The conditions in this part of the world are maddeningly complex.
Every country is seeking to exert influence on every other country.
All the countries in the region share borders with each other. Anyone who
considers Afghanistan must also consider Pakistan, because the Pakistani
military and intelligence service are determined to exert their influence in
Kabul when the Americans withdraw.
Anyone who considers Pakistan certainly has to take India into account,
because of the mutual paranoia that the two countries share.
Anyone who considers neighboring Iran cannot forget the country’s conflict
with the United States over its nuclear program. Iran, for its part,
suspects that the United States could use its bases in Afghanistan for
conventional attacks after a nuclear strike. And if the United States
decides to remain in Afghanistan for longer than anticipated, neither China
nor Russia will be amused.
The secret US military documents about the mission in Afghanistan uncovered
by WikiLeaks, excerpts of which were published last week by SPIEGEL, The
Guardian and the New York Times, merely confirm what Rashid has already
written: that the Pakistani intelligence service supports the Taliban.
Rashid, always a step ahead, says that, just a few months ago, Karzai would
still have been pleased about that kind of leak. But, he adds, because
Karzai senses that the Americans will not defeat the Taliban, and that talks
with the Taliban will also be unsuccessful, he is now seeking to improve
ties with Pakistan and Iran. And perhaps, says Rashid, Karzai even hopes to
strike a ceasefire and power-sharing deal in Afghanistan without the
Despairing of the West
Rashid has been invited to a lunch with Asma Jahangir, an impressive woman
who is very well known in Pakistan. She is a lawyer and advocate of the
Supreme Court of Pakistan. Attorneys like Jahangir and the Supreme Court
justices form Pakistan’s civil society, because the country’s civilian
politicians are weak, corrupt or both. The members of the liberal
intelligentsia are a thorn in the side of the religious fanatics, and as a
result must constantly fear for their lives.
The guests assemble in a room with paneled walls reminiscent of a British
club. Most are women in saris, all very self-confident and cosmopolitan.
They exchange pleasantries and discuss their opinions about Obama, US
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and General Petraeus, as if they were
guests on a morning talk show on US television. They have all spent years in
London, New York and elsewhere in the West. They are pinning their hopes on
the West, and yet they are also despairing of the West.
They are part of the Rashid generation, born shortly before or after
Pakistan’s independence. They are privileged, they have lived in the West,
and they can leave the country at any time if things become too dangerous.
But they are deprived of the one thing that members of the intelligentsia in
other countries that call themselves democracies have come to expect: the
opportunity to share in political power.
Controlled by the Army
Pakistan is in fact an army that controls a country. The country itself was
born in 1947, out of blood and violence, when a large share of the Muslims
living in what was to become India emigrated to the future Pakistan, while
the Hindus in Pakistan went to India, with both sides committing horrible
massacres against one another.
For the past 63 years, Pakistan has been governed by an alternating succession of
unstable military leaders and unstable civilian governments.
Both civilian governments and the military determine what the national
interest should be. Pakistan’s military leaders are against reforms.
Instead, they want to add even more nuclear weapons to their arsenal, in
their determination to be prepared for the worst-case scenario, a nuclear
clash with India.
After 9/11, the Rashid generation was more hopeful than ever that Pakistan
would either come to its senses or be forced to do so by the Americans. And
the United States is very active, pumping untold billions into the country.
But when push comes to shove, American presidents are more apt to strengthen
the Pakistani military, which they see as the last stronghold of
The day is coming to an end. Spain is about to defeat Germany in the World
Cup semifinal. Rashid is married to a Spanish woman, and the house is
starting to fill up with guests. Rashid is in good spirits after having
finished a successful interview with a daily newspaper.
He still has one wild story up his sleeve. This time it’s about him, about
his early years as a chronicler of his part of the world. There was a period
in Rashid’s life that preceded his transformation into a public
intellectual, a revolutionary phase that was no game.
It was 1968, and Rashid was a student at Cambridge. The student revolts of
the late 1960s were in their infancy, and Rashid was the Pakistani version
of his generation. They read Mao, Trotsky and Lenin, and Ché Guevara was
their hero. They were caught up in the great flow of emotions of the time,
which derived its energy from an abhorrence for the Vietnam War.
Rashid was one of four Pakistanis who called themselves the "London Group,"
a name that sounded important to them. They wanted to do more than read and
attend protests. They wanted to change their country, change it in
revolutionary ways. They began by flying to Beirut to attend a training
camp, where they completed a basic course in guerilla tactics and learned
how to use weapons.
Taking to the Mountains
When they returned to Pakistan, the country was in the midst of one of the
more difficult of its many difficult existential crises. After its
1971 war for independence, East Pakistan had seceded and renamed itself
Bangladesh. The entire country, already an artificial construct, seemed to
be on the verge of disintegration. The establishment was weaker than it had
been in a long time. As Rashid and his compatriots saw it, they had been
presented with an enormous opportunity to change the country.
But where would their revolution begin? Ché, their idol had fought his way
out of the mountains and into the cities. Pakistan was their Cuba.
And their mountains were in Balochistan, a poor province where the mountain
tribes, as tested by war as their Afghan counterparts, had been fighting for
independence, or at least autonomy, for years.
The four men established contact with the tribal leaders in the mountains.
They immersed themselves in a world that was as foreign to them as the moon.
They called themselves commanders, suggested ways to improve the farmers’
harvests and addressed problems of medical care.
They published newspapers and taught children. Rashid wrote poetry and short
stories in his spare time, fancying himself a writer in a revolution.
The Pakistani army sent 100,000 soldiers into the mountains. The ensuing war
claimed many lives, but it must have been a strange conflict, with the army
attacking in the summer and the guerillas striking back in the winter. It
dragged on in this fashion for 10 years. When life in the mountains became
intolerable for the women and children, Rashid was put in charge of
resettling them in Afghanistan.
That was how he first came to Afghanistan, where he entered into
negotiations with local clan leaders and warlords to determine where the
families from Balochistan should be allowed to settle. He went on to Kabul
on foot, and so it transpired that he was in Kabul in the winter of
1979/1980, when the Russians marched into the city. He had the good fortune
that most historians never have.
The new situation in Afghanistan also affected the interests of the
Pakistani army. Anxious to rid itself of the pointless war in Balochistan,
it signed a ceasefire agreement with the tribes and offered the four
revolutionaries the opportunity to return to the cities, promising them
Rashid traveled to London to visit his parents and attend to his health. He
saw a dentist, sought treatment for back pain and recuperated after years of
physical exhaustion. Then he joined forces with a French photographer who
had taken pictures of the Soviet tanks in Kabul, and the two men started
knocking on doors at British newspapers. Of course, Rashid was interested in
writing about the struggle for freedom in Balochistan, but the editors at
foreign desks only pricked up their ears when they discovered that the two
men had priceless material on the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan.
And so Rashid ended up writing his first major article about Afghanistan and
the superpower that had invaded the country to change conditions there.
Losing His Optimism
Was it worth it, spending almost 10 years masquerading as revolutionaries in
the mountains? Rashid laughs and shrugs his shoulders. At least something
new came of it, he says.
He could just as easily have died in Balochistan, and then he would indeed
have become a minor Pakistani version of Ché Guevara. Instead, he began to
travel and tried to understand what was happening in this complicated world
into which he had been born. He became a historian, with a constant
awareness that one day the conflict that had been raging in Afghanistan for
years could spill over into Pakistan.
That day has come. For the Taliban, Lahore is Pakistan’s New York.
Ahmed Rashid, who has always been an optimist, is slowly losing his