As the international community is focused on the Middle East, where crises and conflicts follow one another with an unprecedented pace, few people seem to have realized that Pakistan and Afghanistan are experiencing a very delicate phase of transition, whose outcome will certainly contribute to determining future international balances. We spoke about that with Ahmed Rashid, one of the most prominent scholars of the region.
The United States has changed the timetable for the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. Do you think this decision can really have an impact on the situation in Afghanistan and prevent the Taliban from regaining control of large portions of the territory during the impeding season of fighting?
I think the first issue about keeping the American troops longer in Afghanistan is all about increasing the morale of the Afghan army and the morale of the government and the elite in Kabul, so that they don’t flee the country and they don’t carry out currency withdrawals etc. I think the other reason is that President Obama also wants to ensure that the money he has promised for Afghanistan until 2017 will continue to come and be paid for by Congress. If all the troops had withdrawn by next year, I don’t think Congress would have been interested in funding Afghanistan any longer. So I think this move is also geared towards his own constituency and his own parliament. I think he wanted to increase the cooperation between the international community and Afghanistan. If the troops had been withdrawn we would have seen a lot of other countries also withdrawing money, troops, help, support etc.
How much has the threat coming from the Islamic State influenced that decision?
As far as Isis is concerned, I don’t think Isis is a threat as yet in our part of the world. I think we still have far more direct threats, like the Taliban, like al Qaeda, like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and these other kinds of groups which are far more active rather than Isis, which is still something that is far away and which doesn’t really have a connection with South Asia.
Do you see any real chance for the negotiations between the Afghan Govt. and Taliban to succeed?
I think the aim of President Ashraf Ghani and of the Americans and of the Pakistani is to try and get talks going again. I think it is very important that talks do start, as all the countries of the region realize that, at the end of the day, nobody can defeat the Taliban, and certainly not the Afghan army and the Afghan state. There needs to be a compromise, there needs to be something which is worked out, a power sharing deal between the Taliban and the Afghan government. Until that happens we are not going to see peace.
You have followed the evolution of the Taliban since the birth of the movement. Have you noticed in the last year any significant change at the ideological level such as to make possible their effective participation in the political life of a tolerant and democratic Afghanistan?
The first thing that has happened because of the peace process and the talks about talks and the hope that there will be talks, is that the Taliban movement has divided very seriously. The Taliban movement, remember, was always very monolithic under the leadership of Mullah Omar. First of all there has been a lot of divisions over the issue of talks, because there are hardliners in the Taliban who don’t want to see talks, they think that they can reconquer Kabul and rule the country again. The other thing is that we are seeing also moderate Taliban urging, pushing for talks.
Also I think there has been a lot of questioning of Mullah Omar for the first time, because people have not met with him, he’s not appeared for many years, nobody has seen his face. People think that he is being held by the Pakistanis or he’s in some kind of jail or something, the Taliban want to see him, and they need to see him before they can come to a decision on these talks issue.
It looks like Pakistan is now eager to play a constructive role in the negotiations. How heartfelt is the position of the authorities in Islamabad and how much actual influence do they exert on the Taliban?
We will never really know until the Pakistanis force the Taliban to the table for talks. I have certainly been very critical in the last few weeks saying that, although clearly the new army chief has made it part of his philosophy that he will persuade the Taliban leadership to talk to Kabul, nothing has happened yet. We’ve seen many things happening on the Afghan side, we’ve seen president Ghani be extremely helpful in delivering benefits to Pakistan. What we have not seen is Pakistan doing anything and delivering any benefits to Afghanistan, and I would like to see that happen quickly. And of course the biggest benefit that we can do will be about getting the Taliban into direct talks with the Kabul government.
The new Pakistani strategy in Afghanistan is just a part of a broader counter terrorism strategy, which involves military operations in FATA, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and other parts of the country. What prompted the Pakistani authorities in this apparent change of course?
What the army has realized is that they can’t continue talking about counter terrorism but doing nothing about it, and that terrorism is now a major threat to the stability of Pakistan and to the stability of the army itself. A lot of the terrorists and a lot of the terrorist attacks that have occurred in Pakistan have been carried out by retired or serving army personnel. This is a very dangerous situation, which could get out of hand, and Pakistan could become like Iraq or Syria. I think certainly the army wants to avoid that. However, although under the last army chief General Kayani there was a realization in the military that something needed to be done, nobody was willing to do anything. Under General Raheel Sharif the change is that the army is finally wanting to do something about it and I think they do have a strategic plan to combat all the extremist forces across the country, although so far we’ve only seen action in one part of the country, in the North West.
According to the Pakistani interior minister, ninety-five groups in the Punjab – many of them armed and trained in the past by the Pakistani army’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) – are determined to wage endless jihad against India and retake the disputed territory of Kashmir. General Sharif said he will deal with these groups but there are many doubts about his will and ability to do so. In a recent interview he also called for making collective efforts to give the next generation a terrorism-free and prosperous Pakistan. What is your opinion?
I think it is going to be absolutely crucial for Pakistan to deal with the groups in Punjab. And so far we haven’t really seen the government or the military dealing with this groups properly. So I think at some stage there will be action against them but when and how long for, and how long will they be in a position to blackmail the government, if you like, I cannot say. However, if you are going to fight terrorism, you have to fight it across the border; you cannot be selective and fight only certain terrorists.
Again, we have to see whether the rhetoric is going to match the deed and whether the army is going to carry out what it said it would.
Even if general Sharif is genuine in his will to fight terrorism, don’t you fear that the fight against Punjabi groups could create divisions among the army and so destabilize the entire country?
I do not think that the action taken against the Punjabi groups will be in the same way that we’ve seen the action against the Pakistani Taliban. I think it will be much more about reconciliation, incentives, economics, jobs, re-education; I think it will take a different form than what we have seen so far.
In recent months, China has shown a growing interest in Afghanistan and many believe that its ability to influence Pakistan could prove decisive for the negotiations with the Taliban. Do you really believe that China is replacing the United States as the main player in the region?
I think China will play a very positive role in the light of the peace talks. China is putting pressure on Pakistan to bring the Taliban to the table and it is also promising a lot of economic aid to Afghanistan and to Pakistan once there is really peace in this region. So China is playing both an economic and a political role, which is very helpful given that the Americans are in fact leaving this region very soon.
Don’t you think that by playing the Pakistani card China could anger India and so affect the stability of the broader region?
Chinese are making every effort to persuade Iran, India, Russia, Saudi Arabia, all the neighbouring countries, that what it is trying to do in Afghanistan and with Pakistan is in the interest of the whole region, it’s not just in the interest of China or just in the interest of Pakistan. It is in the interest of everyone. Now, the Indians may have a problem with Pakistan playing such a major role but eventually they will have to accept that peace and stability and talks with the Taliban is still a better option than what we have today.
Which is your opinion about the situation in Yemen and its possible effects over Pakistan and Middle East?
I think that is very dangerous. What is happening in Yemen is a domestic civil war, it is not a war fought by proxies like Iran and Saudi Arabia. Now the Saudis are trying to internationalise the war and bring it outside Sana’a. I think that this international alliance will anger all the Shiite minorities right across the world. Remember: every Muslim country has a Shiite minority (including Pakistan, where it represents about 20% of the population, Ed.)