Ahmed Rashid: Bush Didn't Listen
Does Musharraf guide the Bush agenda?Lahore, Pakistan - "I've promised
myself I won't go back to America until the Bush administration leaves
. . . It's hopeless with them there," PostGlobal panelist and Taliban
expert Ahmed Rashid tells me in his bulletproof library outside Lahore.
For three decades, Ahmed has been investigating the nexus between the
Pakistan military and extremist groups, roving tribal lands in between
Pakistan and Afghanistan. Over the years, his books and articles have
been translated into all local languages, spawning many enemies
"bearded and non-bearded" who accuse him of undermining his religion
and his state. He's received so many death threats that he lives in a
house encased in sheet metal. A spindly man with a fat shotgun guards
the iron gate entrance.
Knowledge is a dangerous thing for Ahmed. When I told the Pakistani
Press counselor in DC that I would be visiting Ahmed, I was told "not
to put that in writing because Islamabad won't accept your request."
Ahmed's family shares the burden. Over a pasta lunch, Ahmed's Spanish
wife tells me with a laugh how anxious her family back home still is
about her safety, two decades after she left Spain. Their
eighteen-year-old daughter chuckles, and pets one of their three dogs.
Ahmed believes his research is worth the risk. The mountains and
valleys surrounding Afghanistan are among the least understood parts
of the globe, he says. And he believes his findings help policymakers
understand and alleviate tensions in the volatile region. He's shared
his research with the world and has had high hopes, particularly for
successive U.S. administrations. In recent years that hope has been
Until Bush came into office, Ahmed thought his words mattered to
America. In the 1980s, he discussed Taliban resistance with
ambassadors over tea. In the 1990s, he collaborated with policymakers
to raise Afghanistan's profile in the Clinton White House. But during
the Bush administration, he feels his risky research has been for naught.
The administration has "actively rejected expertise and embraced
ignorance," Ahmed told me inside his fortress. Soon after the Taliban
fled Kabul in late 2001, Ahmed visited Washington DC's policy elite as
"the flavor of the month." His bestseller Taliban had come out just
the year before. The State Department, USAID, the National Security
Council and the White House all asked him to present lectures on how
to stabilize post-war Afghanistan.
Ahmed traversed the city's bureaucracies and think tanks repeating
"one common sense line": In Afghanistan you have a "population on its
knees, with nothing there, absolutely livid with the Taliban and the
Arabs of Al Qaeda . . . willing to take anything." The U.S. could
"rebuild Afghanistan very quickly, very cheaply and make it a showcase
in the Muslim world that says `Look U.S. intervention is not all about
killing and bombing; it's also about rebuilding and
reconstruction…about American goodness and largesse."
Many lifelong bureaucrats specializing in the region shared Ahmed's
enthusiasm, and they agreed that after decades of violence, America
could finally turn Afghanistan around through aid. But the biggest
players in Bush's government, Ahmed says, had already shifted their
attention to Iraq "abandoning Afghanistan at its moment of need."
America has done the same thing to Pakistan, says Ahmed. After 9/11,
the current administration embraced Musharraf's military regime
unquestioningly because it waved a big stick and assured Bush it would
smash terrorists with it. America took Musharraf at his word.
Meanwhile the dictator "pursued a dual strategy," hoarding U.S. funds
while letting pockets of extremism grow.
For years Ahmed has been accusing Musharraf of deceit and calling for
America to pressure him to democratize. Now, Ahmed says, America's
vocal, singular focus on terrorism makes it "virtually impossible to
convince average Pakistanis that the war against extremism is not just
America's war, it is theirs too." This lack of local buy-in
exacerbates the threat of transnational terror.
From Ahmed's hazardous vantage point, short-sighted political
appointees have overruled America's foreign policy bureaucracy, making
expertise like his less relevant -- and that has created a more
hazardous region for everyone.
Still, Ahmed hopes the U.S. will start listening to people like him
and take a long view in their engagement with Pakistan and
Afghanistan, beyond the current 'War on Terror.' Otherwise, Ahmed
says, history will keep catching up with the U.S., especially if the
Americans in charge ignore it.
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