History, Profiles, Reviews, Occasional Meanderings

When the story gets in the way of facts: Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Ahmed Rashid syndrome

When the story gets in the way of facts: Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Ahmed Rashid syndrome

Ibrahim Moiz (Copyright, rights reserved etc)

12 April 2014

With the American-headed NATO occupation of Afghanistan—a war as unnecessary and now even less popular, at one approver per six Americans1 on the latest count and certainly far worse figures abroad from the United States, than its Iraqi contemporary—drawing down as America’s longest and joint-least successful campaign yet, a misinformation machine is whirring into action to try and ensure that the occupation leaves with some semblance of dignity.

The once-sensible Carlotta Gall, whose once-sensible father Sandy Gall has been an energetic cheerleader of the Afghan occupation for awhile now under the presumably straight-faced excuse of caring for “these people”2, recently penned a wildly presumptuous and factually light article3 regarding the “real enemy” in Afghanistan, Pakistan’s Islamist-dominated and purportedly hostile-to-our-values-whatever-they-be intelligence network, and rounded it off with an emotive appeal to the women’s education that will purportedly be lost to the resurgent Taliban (never mind that even the Afghan Taliban’s default position, as admitted by their more discerning critics, was not anti-women’s education per se, simply anti-women’s education in the absence of “Islamic” infrastructure that could safeguard the women’s “honour” in public partly thanks to the international isolation caused by a loud and blatantly counterproductive feminist campaign in the 1990s that totally ignored the ground situation in Afghanistan and the fact that the Taliban’s Northern Front opponents were as dismissive of women’s education—even if this caveat is indefensible considering the galling treatment of women under the Taliban, the core concerns have still not been addressed under the purportedly more progressive occupation4). Carlotta Gall has done some fine reporting in her time, but this was a blatant attempt to legitimize and apologize for an occupation that though not entirely without positive  side-effects (since some members of NATO, most notably the locally popular Turks who refused to participate in combat against their coreligionists from the start and have remarkably lost only two soldiers in the entire 13-year conflict, which should be a lesson for nearly everybody else in the coalition on conduct5) is overwhelmingly unpopular inside and outside Afghanistan.


No single figure exemplifies the exceptional durability of misinformation in Afghanistan than loudly trumpeted celebrity-expert Ahmed Rashid, who has made a career out of analyzing Afghanistan despite being consistently on the wrong side of the facts since the war he urged began in 2001. Assuming that Rashid’s self-styled regard and respect for the Afghan people is genuine, it is to be fervently hoped that he does not turn his regard or respect towards any other unfortunate group since his interventionist recommendations, shallow analyses and shameless arrogance have brought nothing but foreign invasion and occupation upon the same place he claims to admire and yet wants to save “from itself”6.

The only foreign intervention that Rashid opposes, an opposition that would only make sense if there were any prospect of it happening, is that of Pakistan over Afghanistan. There can be no excuse for Pakistan to occupy Afghanistan, of course, but nor has there ever been any inclination to have more than a sympathetic regime in Kabul, both to back up Pakistan’s infamous “strategic depth” doctrine and, more importantly, to develop a natural partnership with the only other country in the region that claims a similarly diverse mix of ethnicities, a similarly Islam-dominated public narrative and a broadly similar culture and history. Largely thanks to Rashid’s exaggeration of Pakistani control over the Afghan Taliban—a group that was largely raised, educated in and sympathetic to Pakistan, yes, but one that time and again would display its political independence from Pakistan in the years leading to its downfall7—the NATO conquerors of Afghanistan, and their then-favoured puppet Rashid’s old friend Hamid Karzai, was able to spin its Taliban rivals during the early years of the occupation into a “Pakistani occupation force”. NATO diplomat and apologist for the occupation Chris Alexander (also enthusiastically endorsed by Rashid as a “perceptive Canadian”) recounts in his The Long Way Back, the “moving” speech that Karzai made early on where he warned Pakistan, a neighbour whose army had not once set foot in Afghanistan except fleetingly in support of the 1980s anti-Soviet jihad and also rightly arranged the refuge of millions of Afghan refugees in Pakistan, not to attempt to conquer Afghanistan in a doomed repetition of its Russian and British predecessors8. Alexander, a politician personally invested in the occupation, unsurprisingly chose to ignore the irony that Karzai was speaking as the figurehead and client of an American-headed invasion that included Russian and British support, and which is now set to meet the fate of its imperial predecessors.

Not that Pakistan’s army and particularly intelligence, with their often ominous vice grip in politics and a hyper-sensitive intolerance for local criticism, do not merit criticism; among Rashid’s few legitimate gripes is the Pakistan intelligence’s mishandling of Humayun Abdul-Haq, the veteran Islamist commander (and a rare Northern Front commander of integrity, enough to oppose the indiscriminate NATO air assault on Afghanistan even when it was aimed at his Taliban rivals)9 whose relative independence and popularity turned the Pakistan intelligence against him and him, in turn, against them. The needless blanket ban that Pakistan gave to Rashid’s often overly simplistic but nonetheless fairly palatable first book, Taliban, may have turned Rashid irreversibly against the state’s army and intelligence; the remainder of his Afghan trilogy, Descent into Chaos and Pakistan on the Brink, were so one-eyed and selectively twisted to vilify the army beyond any reasonable journalistic standard.

Descent into Propaganda

For those who don’t want to waste their time on these books, Rashid basically blames the Pakistan army for not being submissive enough to the heavy-handed American counterpart that arm-twisted it into a self-destructive support of the NATO occupation that flew in the face of its policy and interests, and then cherry-picks facts to whitewash the chequered record of his notoriously crooked and thuggish friends in the nominally left-wing Pakistan People’s Party: he ends up concluding that despite its notorious abuses in the “war on terror”, epitomized in the dungeons of Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay and Bagram, America should apply an even more muscular approach to the Afghanistan war10. In 2008, when Descent into Chaos sold and when the Afghanistan occupation was being popularly portrayed as the “good”, justifiable foil to its obviously contrived Iraq counterpart, these became popular pieces of conventional wisdom and the bedrock of Barack Obama’s now notoriously ruthless, bloody and secretive “Af-Pak” campaign.

As best demonstrated in the run-up to the Iraq invasion, the best misinformation contains elements of technical factual truth selectively picked to paint a more dubious narrative. It was true, for instance, that Iraq had once possessed chemical weapons and invaded neighbouring countries; what was usually left out was that the United States had played a major role in supplying those weapons and encouraged those invasions, first to neutralize the Iranian revolution in 1980 and then to justify the crackdown on Saddam Hussein’s regime in 199011. Without these caveats, an illusion had emerged that Iraq posed a powerful and dangerous threat to the world, and this illusion had helped justify a blatantly aggressive and unjustifiable invasion.

Similarly, certain individual facts in Rashid’s books are true, but selectively picked and twisted to create a narrative that not only describes Pakistan and the Taliban as nefarious bedfellows, which though also vastly exaggerated is still true in terms of the Afghan occupation that both groups have tried to undermine12, but more dangerously America as a well-meaning but clumsy liberator whose main fault is not being aggressive enough in Afghanistan. Now that it has been long-confirmed, though still not often enough remembered, that America turned down repeated conditional but not unreasonable offers from the Taliban to hand over Osama bin Laden in 200113, it is clear that the invasion of Afghanistan was as aggressive, unjustifiable and exploitative of the trauma of 9/11 as its Iraqi successor. Yet Ahmed Rashid, even as he offers a token condemnation of the abuses—epitomized by the sadism in the dungeons of Abu Ghraib, Bagram and Guantanamo Bay14—of the “war on terror” whose Afghan wing he cheered on, draws the bizarre conclusion that America’s mistake was to not be aggressive enough, not only in Afghanistan but also Pakistan. Given the book’s tremendous popularity among policy-making Western elites and reviewers in 2008, it would not be unreasonable to surmise that Barack Obama’s subsequent intensification of the war in Af-Pak—in a campaign characterized by indiscriminate drone warfare and a shroud of secrecy even more effective than the clumsier version espoused by his predecessors—drew considerable inspiration from Ahmed Rashid.

The Sycophant as Analyst

Even for the barely-informed reader, as this writer had been when he first perused Descent into Chaos in 2009, Ahmed Rashid’s blatantly selective chronicle not only of the post-2001 world but of regional history in general was striking. Only a seriously, seriously sycophantic partisan of Hamid Karzai, for instance, would immediately react to the horror of the 9/11 attack by immediately phoning Karzai to congratulate him on imminent American support for the removal of the Taliban, as Rashid blithely recounts in an opening section of the book that is devoted to unceasing flattery of the Afghan president. Not shock, not incredulity, not horror, but glee that his old mate would politically benefit from the deaths of three thousand people15. (Among the first articles on post-invasion Taliban was Rashid’s droolingly titled “How my friend outwitted the mullahs”16 in British paper The Daily Telegraph). And though posthumous elegies towards Benazir Bhutto—another dubious but polished politician who would become the democratic darling of Western commentators at the same time as Karzai—were more understandable considering the recent assassination of Bhutto and her undeniably courageous stance in the final months of her life, the whitewash not only of the “still-beautiful” Bhutto but, more dangerously, of her far less savoury Pakistan’s Peoples Party—a corrupt feudally ensconced political dynasty posturing as a liberal left-wing progressive party—is alarming17.

On the other hand Pakistan’s army and intelligence—which, again, deserve to be critiqued as stringently, but not so one-sidedly against, as their civilian counterparts—is set as the unmistakable villain of the piece, as a convenient scapegoat, along with every mildly Islamist party not in bed with NATO, for every one of the region’s problems. (This precedent in Rashid’s would soon be followed by a wave of American officials, their clients and their court scribes, from Peter Tomsen and Mike Mullen to Christine Fair and Christina Lamb). It is true that Pervez Musharraf* left power at the same time as Descent’s publication having alienated nearly everybody in Pakistan. But it is also true that Musharraf, and the Islamist commanders—Muhammad Aziz, Mahmood Ahmed and Muzaffar Usmani—who launched his coup in 1999 did so, however wrongly, in a wave of popularity across Pakistan after a decade of abuse both by the Pakistan People’s Party and the Muslim League Party of Nawaz Sharif.

It was not the fact that Musharraf was a dictator that would make him unpopular—compared to most dictators, including his predecessors the Western-oriented Ayub Khan and the Islamist Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, Musharraf was a rather liberal character and only an increasingly desperate attempt to maintain power in 2007-08 turned the criticism from his pro-US stance to the dictatorial nature of the regime18—but his publicly perceived obeisance to America’s interests, which would include the immediate sideline of the Islamist commanders and the first full-scale invasion of the traditionally loosely governed FATA borderlands in Pakistan’s history, rather than popularly perceived Pakistani interests. (Though in what can be termed dubious mitigation to Musharraf on this count, there is good evidence, some of it furnished by Rashid, that the Pakistan military was not as beholden to the Americans as it then seemed, and in fact helped the Afghan Taliban resurgence then and still sympathized with in Pakistan in 200219). In other words, the very same stance that Rashid blames Musharraf for—dubious loyalty to the support he pledged America—is precisely the opposite of what actually made the dictator unpopular, which is that “Busharraf” was seen as an “extension of the United States”20.

The reason Rashid concocts this flawed narrative is simple: his own favoured party, the PPP, was also seen as an American puppet—as Musharraf himself is quoted as saying in both Descent and Brink—and therefore to brand American obeisance as the cause of unpopularity would quickly also delegitimize the PPP. Indeed, that class of pro-American sycophants dubiously self-described as “Pakistani liberals” (since they are anything but left-wing or progressive except in their blanket denunciation of any religiosity, which isn’t very liberal either) are the only Pakistanis with any sense or, laughably, integrity in Rashid’s account. And here again we have the meticulously cherry-picked facts to form this narrative.

Do More

It is now well-known that the sprawling Pakistan intelligence service’s political deputy, Ehtisham Zamir, rigged the 2002 elections21, leading to a militarily-backed Islamist Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal provincial government of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa even as many fringe Islamist groups were banned to appease the United States following the escalation of border tensions with India. Such an election, obviously, can have had no legitimacy, and its results should not be taken seriously as a barometer of any actual popularity. Yet Rashid, just moments after describing Ehtisham’s since publicly-admitted role in the rig, claims that the PPP’s relatively respectable quarter of votes were a sign of their popularity22. Again, this is a logical fallacy—the election results should not be taken as a sign of either popularity or lack thereof for any party, not only the Majlis that who won (by the same logic that Rashid applies, it can be argued that Islamists were still the most popular runners because not their entire support can have been rigged). The PPP’s respectable results, therefore, are as unverifiable as the Islamist Majlis’, yet Rashid has the temerity to claim that because they were defeated in a rigged election (as were several other parties), the PPP were really the most legitimate. The election was rigged only against them, by Rashid’s logic, since Musharraf’s regime was so frightened of them (never mind that Musharraf subsequently rescinded corruption charges against Bhutto’s husband and his own successor, Asif Zardari, when facing a severe crisis in 2007—so much for that theory23).

Simultaneously, Rashid drums up his excessive criticism against Pakistan’s army by claiming that—rather than bully Pakistan into abandoning two decades of foreign policy in support of Islamists and into launching a needless invasion of its own borderlands, which was what the United States did in the aftermath of 9/11—the United States was not hard enough on the Pakistanis (this story continues in the Western press to the current day and has turned into an elaborate victim-blaming tale where the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan’s insurgency is not the fanatical overreaction to an American-coerced invasion of FATA—a fact that has been identified by numerous local and foreign experts including Rahimullah Yusufzai, Peter Bergen, Brian Fishman and Michael Scheuer24, and which has very little to do with less extreme military associations with Islamists—but in fact Pakistan’s own fault for catering to popular local Islamist tendencies and not having crushed their Waziristan border tribes punishingly enough.

The dubious proof for this assertion comes not in any facts, figures, or historical events—each of which is studiously ignored by Rashid—but rather by the personal individual regard that American officials of the time—a few of them like commander Tommy Franks, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld closet dictators at heart—had for Musharraf, whose image as a tough leader against Islamist insurrection they liked25. Though political relations can be highly personalized, the constant pressure that America exerted on Pakistan to “do more”—a refrain that has been repeated louder and louder since Ahmed Rashid contrived an excuse for it—and the subsequent civil war in Pakistan’s borderlands, a direct result of American pressure on Pakistan, flies in the face of Rashid’s assertion that, because some of their officials happened to personally like Musharraf, America did not control Pakistan enough. Though Rashid is of course entitled to his personal political ideology, it appears that—as a lifelong opponent of Pakistan’s army who spent his youth trying to agitate a revolt in Balochistan, thereby preceding the likes of the bloodthirsty Tehrik-e-Taliban26—the “regional expert” lets his biases get in the way of facts far too often.

A Little Knowledge…

This is demonstrated in an array of alarmingly shoddy assertions that the excellent Central Asia expert Adeeb Khalid, in reviewing Ahmed Rashid’s work on the area, has described as “mixing arrogance and ignorance in equal measure”27. Some of these are popular myths—such as, among others, the claim that the Hazaras are descendants of the thirteenth-century Mongol conquerors28, when in fact they long predated the Mongol conquests and are among the many Turkic peoples of medieval Central Asia28. Others are simply politically convenient fudged pieces of conventional wisdom disguised as bold truth-telling: the most glaring example, in which Rashid quotes Pakistan founder Muhammad Jinnah’s speech on the non-communal nature of Pakistani citizens under the law as an example that Jinnah was a diehard secularist29 (because, you know, only secularists can have had any tolerance for religious minorities, except for that thousand years of Islamic rule where by and large the vast majority of minorities, with the occasional aberration, flourished under a no-secular antecedent of modern Islamism) and that obviously the evil military-cum-mullahs had hijacked his vision, is a staple myth among the Pakistani pseudo-liberals whom Moeen Cheema has aptly exposed here30 as having no progressive agenda for Pakistan other than the de-Islamization of a Zia-created Islamist straw man.

Jinnah was never a dyed-in-the-wool Islamist, of course, and his references to Islam were always more in spirit rather than letter (as opposed to mainly doctrinaire modern Islamists). But having a British air and British attitudes did not divest him from coming to care deeply about the Islamic nature of Pakistan: in other speeches, he approvingly quoted the example of the Righteous Caliphs and went out of his way to cite the Prophet Muhammad (may Allah bestow peace and blessings on His servant the Prophet) as a role model for Pakistan’s ideology—rather than secular favourite Mughal emperor Akbar, whom Jinnah’s rival Louis Mountbatten originally chose to cite31. As Akbar Ahmed notes, Jinnah may not have begun political life as a particularly Muslim leader per se, but he certainly shifted that way by the end32.

There is also the small matter of historical context. The Pakistan Movement emerged at a time when Muslim states throughout the world were heavily influenced by secular ethnocentric nationalism, largely inspired by the apparent success of Kemal Ataturk in Turkey (more than a few dictators in Muslim states have drawn their inspiration from Ataturk)33. Compared with its contemporaries34, the Pakistan Movement was practically fervent in its appeal to Islam, even if it was in no way as doctrinaire as modern Islamism.

Moreover, the Pakistan Movement drew its numbers not only from the Muslim League and subcontinental Muslims who wanted self-rule, but also significantly from Islamists of the 1920s “Khilafat Movement”, which had agitated for the return of the Ottoman Sultanate after its dissolution. In fact Jinnah and the influential poet Muhammad Iqbal, both of them admirers of the staunchly anti-Ottoman secular Turkish leader Kemal Ataturk for his military and political strength rather than his ideology, had to convince skeptical supporters of the Khilafat Movement to withdraw their hostility for Ataturk, so that even today Pakistan’s officials fondly see Ataturk not as a militantly secular ethnocentric dictator with totalitarian instincts but as somebody who rescued Muslim Turkey from imperial Europe35. (This is one of the gripes that many more extreme Islamists have, since they assume, like the secularist Pakistan “liberals”, that historical whitewashing of Ataturk implies subscription to his ideology and tactics36).

In historical fact, it is true that even had Jinnah and the Pakistan Movement leaders not been explicit Islamists—especially in the rigorist twenty-first century sense—they contained a significant number of Islamist supporters (Ottoman caliphate-revivalist Islamists, no less) in their ranks and advocated a definite Muslim modernism for the state’s ideology37. Ahmed Rashid, in his (probably deliberate, but possibly genuinely ignorant) selective and lazy quote-dropping, assumes that none of this is significant, and tries instead to reassure the reader that Islamism is simply an invention of the evil military-mullah nexus and that it was invented, not simply intensified to an extremely doctrinaire and rigid sense, by Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq. And whatever one’s idea of Islamists, they have, at least, spent decades garnering grassroots support by supplying local social services at a local level in countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Egypt, as opposed to the self-described “liberals”, who have spent the same time carping about mullah-military partnerships and getting kudos from the Western intelligentsia.

Since the Pakistan army and intelligence is responsible for everything the average Western tour guide may not like about Pakistan, Rashid then blatantly seeks to rewrite a history that he has no excuse for not knowing. In characteristic blame-shifting, Rashid’s work skims over the Balochistan separationist conflict, making sure to chronicle each and every Pakistan army abuse, of which there are more than a few, but completely whitewashing the abuses of the thuggish Baloch leadership: Rashid also completely forgets that the bloody Balochistan war of the 1970s was launched by Zulfikar Bhutto, head of the wonderful, enlightened, progressive, secular Pakistan People’s Party, and that ironically it was the Islamist dictator Zia-ul-Haq, however otherwise ruthless and deplorable, who ended the war and began long-overdue development in the long-neglected province38. This bald historical fact, which undermines a significant portion of the argument, is ignored. No, sir, the army is to blame here as well, because Ahmed Rashid says so.  This selective view of history has been, consciously or otherwise, aped by a number of recent experts (mainly affiliated with Washington think-tanks and invested in continued interference in the region) because it provides such an easy excuse to brush aside any and every opposition as that of militarily brainwashed mullah sympathizers. It is against this backdrop that even the most reasonable stances of parties such as Tehreek-e-Insaf, who recognize that you can’t drone extremism out of a community but have to take more measured steps, are viewed as military-mullah proxies and “beardless Taliban” by even the once-reputable Dawn newspaper39.

The Looming, Sinister, Irreconcilable Threat what Wasn’t

Then there is the matter of the country that has made Ahmed Rashid’s name. Under the pretext of caring for the Afghan people and wanting to “save Afghanistan from itself” (an actual quote)40, Rashid also blithely contrives politically convenient tales about the state of the war in Afghanistan. In his world, both Karzai and most of his American counterparts are well-intentioned and well-meaning—their respective failures stem from lack of assertiveness, not from corruption, brutality, malice or—perish the thought—an illegitimate and contrived invasion of an impoverished state. The “psychotic Paks”41, as established, are “the bad guys”. And long, long after the break between the fanatically expansionist Al-Qaeda and the severe but essentially local Islamist Taliban should have been well-known to an “Afghan expert”, Ahmed Rashid leverages his standing among media and government elites to perpetuate the lie that the Taliban were “out to get the West” and could not be reconciled with. This self-fulfilling scenario only bears out as long as NATO occupies Afghanistan.

In describing the Taliban’s resurgence, Rashid paints a barren landscape where fanatical, irreconcilable and by implication obviously aggressive Taliban commanders have cunningly exploited well-meant incompetence and American lack of aggression to claw their way back with Pakistani support. The truth is rather different: it has been the disproportionate intensity of America’s war in Afghanistan, and the corruption of its client government, that has fuelled an insurgency that has received both local Afghan and Pakistani support. Rashid names four commanders—Daadullah Lang, Abdul-Ghani Baradar, Abdul-Razzaq Akhoundzada and Akhtar Usmani—as irreconcilable and violent lieutenants of Mohammad Omar well-known for their commitment to global jihadism42.

The truth, however, is that with the exception of the brutal Daadullah—a close coordinator of Al-Qaeda who was in fact sacked by the Taliban for the alienation that his excessive violence caused among locals in the type of gesture of accountability that America has failed to employ in both Iraq and Afghanistan43—none of these Taliban commanders were, in fact, committed to arbitrary globalist jihadism: the other three had, along with Omar’s secretary Tayyib Agha and fellow Taliban commander Ubaidullah Akhound, agreed to surrender to NATO in 200144 and had only launched the insurgency when it became clear that the NATO-backed Northern Front commanders were abusing defectors and ransoming them off to Guantanamo Bay.

Indeed Abdul-Ghani Baradar, Omar’s second-in-command, had been trying to settle politically with Karzai’s government at the same time as he was leading the insurgency, apparently with Omar’s approval. When Baradar negotiated without the permission of the Taliban’s Pakistan secret service backers in 2010, they arrested him and launched a sharp wave of crackdowns on the Taliban’s leadership45. Not missing a beat, Rashid ignored his earlier error and instead chose to focus on the Pakistan intelligence’s ruthlessness as another sign of insufficient commitment to America, though even then Baradar had wanted nothing to do with America and had gone through Gulf Arab channels while marking the withdrawal of NATO as a precondition to peace.

Another example of an insurgent Islamist commander alienated into insurgency by NATO-backed government excesses is Jalaluddin Haqqani. Western commentators like to remark on Jalaluddin’s close links with Pakistan intelligence as a “fountainhead of jihad”46, which is certainly true enough. But Jalaluddin, who though a staunch Islamist has also been pragmatically nimble in politics throughout his career, has never been irreconcilable either: it is too often conveniently ignored that the Haqqanis only launched their insurgency after Jalaluddin’s initial outreach towards the Karzai regime was rebuffed by US-backed Northern Front thugs: Jalaluddin’s brothers Ibrahim Umari and Khalil-ul-Rahman Ahmed, sent to negotiate a deal in 2001-02, instead received beatings and imprisonment for their pains—to the annoyance of even Karzai, who may be self-serving but also pragmatic enough to realize he could not afford to make such enemies47. This was, contrary to Rashid’s alarmist hype, a completely avoidable conflict.

The War’s Cheerleaders: Very Serious People who know very little about very much

At the time of this post, Ahmed Rashid (like Karzai) seems to have realized, partly anyway, that his warnings of Pakistan-Islamist relations have become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Though he spent the early years of the war painting the Afghan Taliban, for instance, as a complete tool of the Pakistan military establishment, the truth was always more complex: though the Taliban were and remain broadly sympathetic to Pakistan in ideological and strategic matters, they were always somewhat suspicious and tactically independent of Pakistan during their regime, as evidenced numerous times by their refusal to accept Pakistan’s diplomatic, military and intelligence agencies’ tactical advice48. As Gilles Dorronsoro and Antonio Giustozzi, among others, have shown, local Islamist tendencies in Afghanistan, like Pakistan, well predate Pakistan’s “strategic depth” campaign and are rooted in anti-authority movements that are by now ingrained into the local populace and that are only further exacerbated by a foreign occupation49. Despite their ideological affiliations, the Taliban were no more proxies of Pakistan than, say, the Northern Front were first of Iran and Russia and, after 9/11, of NATO.

But the war that Rashid enthusiastically supported thrust the Taliban more firmly into the arms of Pakistan’s intelligence, which was one of the very few friends they had left. The relationship is now so close that the Taliban continue to oppose their namesake, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, when it attacks the Pakistani state, and were even briefly misreported as having killed the TTP’s current head, Fazlullah Hayat, in a skirmish last October, a month before Fazlullah became TTP leader50. This ultimate failure of Rashid’s misinformation may be a cruel blow to his deluded ideology—he has now, at long last, come to realize that foreign military intervention cannot “save Afghanistan from itself”51—but it has come at the needless expense of thousands of lives. The self-defeating and destructive occupation, in spite of Rashid’s protests of love and fascination for Afghanistan, will remain the political legacy of his work.

The intellectual legacy, meanwhile, is a field of ideologically altered retellings of history, extreme by even Rashid’s standards, that take any remotely independent local politics—whether they are Afghan or Pakistani—as being inherently biased and too brainwashed to realize how beneficial foreign military occupation is. With “Very Serious People”, ideologues posing as experts, ensconced in high positions—from hardline neoconservatives like career propagandist Bill Roggio to “liberal hawks” like Christine Fair and Bruce Riedel—continuing to cheerlead the occupation of Afghanistan, the campaign of misinformation about the war has become so ingrained in Western discourse that any objection, even when it comes from fairly Westernized politicians like Imran Khan and even when it comes from Westerners like the five sixths of Americans who now thankfully realize, is seen as inherently flawed and not sophisticated enough to understand the purported intricacies of what typical Very Serious Person Joe Klein laughably called “the most complicated issue imaginable”52.

Even the brutal attack on Malala Yousafzai, who herself seems a we;;-meant person with a good cause (it is hard to over-emphasize how important women’s education is, especially in impoverished parts of the world) but whose loathsome father Ziauddin is a member of the self-described “Pakistan liberal” intelligentsia that once advocated communist interventionism and now advocates Western interventionism, has been shamelessly exploited for political ends: the occupation apologist Christina Lamb, who ghost-wrote Malala’s wildly popular autobiography, took the opportunity to rewrite a considerable amount of Pakistan history and substitute fact for opinion in an attempt to blame every on the evil military-mullah nexus (Tanveer Khadim has written a cracking review53 on it here). And prevalent in the media is an even subtler propaganda method, whereby the identity of the attackers—who came from the Tehrik-e-Taliban, unaffiliated in any practical way and in fact strategically opposed to its Afghan namesake—was described as simply “Taliban”, with the unspoken implication that it was the better-known Taliban, the unrelated Afghan insurgency against NATO, that was to blame and therefore that the NATO occupation was A-OK since it would defeat those women-hating scum.

No Mistakes here, just Pakistani Treachery

However much criticism the Afghan insurgency, its Taliban head and its Pakistani supporters, may deserve, they have at least to some degree learned from their mistakes out of necessity if nothing else: the Quetta shura now has a public accountability office under former Taliban minister Qudratullah Jamal54, while Mohammad Omar has given permission to his lieutenants in the field to apply and interpret sharia more discreetly (and, according to observers, most of them have tended to be more flexible in their application than they were during the Taliban’s notorious stint in power)55. A major reason for the Taliban’s resurgence is also the speed, relative fairness and accessibility with which they can deliver justice, in a way that the multi-million-dollar NATO-backed regime has failed to do so.56

The Taliban—the barbaric, backward enemy—in short, have survived by learning to a considerable degree from their mistakes. This is in marked contrast to most Western policy-makers: there is a reason that renowned regional experts such as Barnett Rubin, Rahimullah Yusufzai, Gilles Dorronsoro and Antonio Giustozzi rarely appear in the media—because the even-handed and objective version of events they explain is politically inconvenient to those who want to justify and perpetuate this conflict, which relies instead on self-justifying and selective accounts from the likes of Bill Roggio, Christina Lamb and, probably most influentially, Ahmed Rashid. Since the Western intelligentsia and its local apologists have been bent on rewriting history to justify an increasingly unpopular and very-much avoidable occupation, they are unable to see their mistakes, let alone learn from them. And that, more than any Pakistani military or Taliban designs could ever have hoped to achieve, is the reason they entered, bungled and have lost this unnecessary war.


  2. Doris Lessing,
  4. See, among others, Ahmed Rashid’s Taliban (2000, IB Tauris), 107
  5. Karen Kaya,
  7. See among others Iftikhar Murshed’s Afghanistan: the Taliban Years, Kamal Matinuddin’s The Taliban Phenomenon: and Riaz Mohammad Khan’s Afghanistan and Pakistan: Conflict, Extremism and Resistance to Modernity. These accounts, written by Pakistan officials (and therefore liable to be taken with some salt) are surprisingly forthright and objective; Murshed, for instance, is exasperated with the Taliban; Matinuddin, a former army commander from the generation of Pakistani soldiers that was beginning to become more pietistic to which Zia-ul-Haq also belonged, is admirably even-handed in his treatment of both the Taliban and the Northern Front; finally, former foreign secretary Mohammad also critically examines the Islamist, or pro-Islamist, tendency in Pakistan, particularly among the military and the rising middle class (one very valid observation he makes is that Pakistanis too often tend to conflate political liberals with anti-religious amoral libertines). Additionally, Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, Abdul-Salam Zaeef, is positively contemptuous of the Pakistani government, though he does spare a more positive impression for interior minister Moinuddin Haider and the Islamist intelligence officers Mahmood Ahmed and Faiz Jilani. The Taliban’s extradition of Kashmiri militants to India in 2000 is another example of Taliban and Pakistani interests diverging.
  8. Chris Alexander, The Long Way Back (2011 Harper Collins)
  9. Gilles Dorronsoro, Revolution Unending (2005 Hurst & Company), 324. It is very easy for pro-Northern Front Western observers to posthumously pay tribute to Abdul-Haq as a possible future leader, but he was as critical, if not more, of heavy-handed Western role in Afghanistan as he was of Pakistani interference, towards which he had initially been lukewarm before the Pakistan intelligence began to heavily favour Gulbadin Hekmatyar.
  10. Rashid does describe the abuses in these prisons, as well as in the oppressive regime of Uzbekistan dictator Islam Karimov, quite well, which makes it even more baffling when he subsequently decides that the answer is an even greater interference.
  12. The Quetta board that oversees the Afghan Taliban is closely linked to the Pakistan secret service, see Thomas Ruttig, 445 in Talibanistan for an example.
  13. These included appeals by Abdul-Wakil Muttawakil, Mohammad Omar’s secretary and aide-de-camp, as well as deputy prime minister Mohammad Abdul-Kabir shortly after the invasion.
  14. See note 10. Apparently no matter how ghastly the occupation, NATO can always redeem itself. I wonder if the same parameter would have applied to the Soviet occupation? William Maley’s The Afghanistan Wars (2002, 2009) while a well-organized read, is so bafflingly selective in describing the atrocities of the Northern Front—which, apart from Hekmatyar, are always apologized for with a caveat or so—and those of the Taliban, which at every stage are shown as proving its irreversible and intransigent extremism. Maley also takes snide swipes at more sensible experts like former CIA officer Milton Bearden who correctly identified the disastrous implications of the Northern Front’s return—its atrocities, by and large, had wrecked Afghanistan in the early 1990s far more than the Pakistani interference he chooses to blame for every hurdle to peace along the way—and never once questions the bloody NATO conquest the same way he would the bloody Soviet occupation.
  15. See the first chapter of Descent into Chaos.
  17. See the last chapter of Descent into Chaos.
  19. The airlift that Pakistan’s secret service provided fleeing Taliban officers with and the support given by Islamist activists to settle in Quetta are well-documented in Descent into Chaos.
  20. Peter Bergen, The Osama bin Laden I know, page 400.
  21. Descent, also
  22. Ibid.
  25. Descent.
  27. Adeeb Khalid, Islam after Communism (2006), 3.
  28. As described erroneously in Taliban.
  29. Revolution Unending, 44. Possible germane to this argument: though Dorronsoro’s work is excellent, I disagree with his sharp distinction between Islamic fundamentalism, traditionalism and Islamism. Most Islamic fundamentalists (a term I don’t like but shall use for brevity’s sake) in my experience are Islamists—though I suppose the royalist fundamentalists of Saudi Arabia are an exception—and despite frequent differences betweenoften quietist traditionalists and Islamists, most Islamists see themselves as traditionalists trying to revive Islamic tradition—to them, the traditionalists are often corrupted or compromised (an exaggerated but not entirely unreasonable claim, as traditionalist Muslim scholars have often been coopted to front for repressive regimes in places like Central Asia).
  31. Akbar Salahuddin Ahmed, Jinnah, Pakistan and Islam: The Search for a New Saladin
  32. Ibid.
  33. Egypt from 1955-70, Soviet Central Asia, Baathism, Kurdish/Arab/Pashtun/Baloch/Turkish chauvinism among others. In stark contrast to these militantly secularist politicians, the Pakistan movement—including, by the time of his death, a considerably more Islam-oriented Jinnah—always placed a strong emphasis on Islam, at least as an identity marker. In this way they were not Islamists or secularists per se—they belonged to the camp of twentieth-century Muslim leaders who espoused a more modernist political stance that would be compatible with Islamic values and traditions. Such “Muslim modernists” were often close to Islamists; the founder of the Arab League, Abdul-Rahman Azzam, is an example, and was a friend and longtime collaborator with Muslim Brotherhood founder Hasan Banna. Another example is the first native ruler of Egypt in two millennia, Muhammad Naguib; he had close links with Islamists (under which pretext he was eventually deposed), and his top jurist, Abdul-Razzaq Sanhuri, sought to form a legal system based on Islamic principles with the necessary modifications. These men were not Islamists in the modern political sense, but they were far closer to Islamists than they were to militant secularists like their successors.
  34. Among the many reasons for Afghanistan-Pakistan partnership (regardless of strategic depth, which is a flawed, Pakistan-centric and military-centered doctrine) is that both are the only states in the region with a number of prominent ethnic groups (unlike, for instance, the predominantly Tajik Tajikistan or the predominantly Uzbek Uzbekistan), a vaguely defined and far-reaching Muslim sense of identity, and a largely shared history and culture, particular but not exclusive to the two neighbors’ large Pashtun populations.
  35. Naeem Qureshi, Ottoman Turkey, Ataturk and South Asia
  36. Extremist Islamist militants like the TTP commander Adnan Rasheed are as dogmatic as secularist revisionists like Ahmed Rashid in insisting that Pakistan was a fundamentally secular invention and therefore, in TTO’s propaganda, a sinful state. Both sides totally ignore the extensive religious dimensions of the Pakistan movement, which comprised Muslim separatists, secularists and Islamists in a broad tent.
  37. Akbar Ahmed, Search.
  38. It is rather ironic that the civilian prime minister Bhutto relied on a callous scorched-earth specialist, Tikka Khan, to govern Balochistan, while Islamist dictator Zia-ul-Haq chose the far more prudent Rahimuddin Khan.
  39. Dawn assistant editor Cyril Almeida’s unambiguously titled and fact-free “The man who sold out Pakistan” is a particularly disgraceful piece.
  41. A quote I’ve always liked from American diplomat Robert Komer from a US cable in the 1965 Pakistan-India campaign, referring to Pakistan’s frenetic hawkishness on the liberation of Kashmir. In 1965, Pakistan’s strategy of attacking India was based on the misled assumption that the oppressed Kashmiris were ready to revolt at anytime; the Kashmiris, as it was, had been somewhat resigned to their oppression and had no idea that a Pakistan army was coming to “liberate” them. The result was a military impasse and a strategic blunder. 1965 was a classical Pakistan campaign in that despite face-saving tactical and individual brilliance and courage, the strategy was hastily and poorly planned.
  42. Descent.
  43. Though low-ranking American soldiers aught with their pants down (in some cases literally) have received token reprimands and punishments, the blatantly lying officials and commanders have gone scot-free for their deception and blatant misconduct in the “war on terror”.
  44. Ruttig, Talibanistan, 439 describes how even hardliners like Ubaidullah Akhound, who had planned the bloody 1998 conquest of Mazar-e-Sharif, and Abdul-Razzaq Akhoundzada, who had led the 1996 conquest of Kabul and executed Mohammad Najibullah and Humayun Abdul-Haq, were prepared to accept the result of the Bonn Accord in 2001 that placed Afghanistan under Hamid Karzai at the fore of Afghanistan’s new regime. In short, even the most experienced and hawkish Taliban leaders were prepared to redconcile, a fact that is rarely appreciated for political reasons.
  45. Ibid.
  46. The name of a book on the Haqqanis by Vahid Brown.
  47. Fountainhead of Jihad, 123.
  48. Note 7.
  49. Such Islamist movements as the Khadam-ul-Furqan (Servants of Providence), Harakat-e-Inqilab (Revolution Movement) predated Pakistan military interference (and indeed had brethren in Pakistan’s jamaats) in the 1970s: most of the “older” generation of mujahedin such as Jalaluddin Haqqani, Gulbeddin Hekmatyar, Burhanuddin Rabbani, Nasrullah Langariar Mansur and others trace their careers back to these roots. Islamist movements were nascent at this time in both Afghanistan and Pakistan and the roots still survive. Dorronsoro’s Revolution offers the best analysis I have seen on them, though Antonio Giustozzi’s Decoding the New Taliban (2011) also does a meticulous job as well.
  51. Worth another cite.
  54. I hate citing the loathsome neoconservative propagandist Bill Roggio on anything, but this was the first link I found:
  56. Both Talibanistan and Decoding the New Taliban have comprehensive analyses of the local courts that have served to legitimize the Taliban as a fairer and more indigenously rooted political option than an inaccessible, corrupt and foreign-imposed regime.

One response to “When the story gets in the way of facts: Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Ahmed Rashid syndrome

  1. Pingback: The politicization of information | layyin1137

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