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Video interview with Ahmed Rashid

Is the Taliban an insurgent or terrorist organisation?

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PAUL KING (Review Editor, NATO): Today I'm joined by Ahmed Rashid and we'll be discussing how terrorism has evolved in general and more specifically in Afghanistan.

Mr. Rashid is not only an expert journalists, who covers these issues, but also a best-selling author. He has written extensively on the Taliban, al-Qaeda and Afghanistan.

Mr. Rashid, welcome.

AHMED RASHID (Journalist and Author): Thank you.

I'd like to start by trying to define terrorism. What is terrorism? The Oxford English dictionary gives a definition including a policy to strike with terror those against who it is adopted, or the employment of methods of intimidation. Do you agree with these definitions in today's society or do you have your own?

Well, I think terrorism is basically aimed at civil society, civilians and anything that takes a life of civilians and disrupts civil society is terrorism.

Now of course, there's a very thin line between somebody's freedom fighter and somebody's terrorist, but I think in today's society there has been now, after al-Qaeda, a much sharper distinction in that those who kill civilians are terrorists.

You wrote at the end of last year on the occasion of the 50th birth of Osama bin Laden that al-Qaeda had created new bases in Europe, Africa and Iraq, had drawn in thousands of new recruits around the world and revived the Taliban movement in Afghanistan. How do you explain the success of an organization that's been targeted around the world in the last seven years achieving this?

Well, I think the hard core leadership has remained alive, which is quite remarkable, if you think about it. Osama bin Laden himself, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the number two. The hard core leadership has remained alive on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border despite all the efforts of the international community and Pakistanis and everyone else to catch them.

So I think, I mean, that has provided a huge boost.

Now large numbers of number threes and number four level leaders of al-Qaeda have been killed, but they seem to be very quickly replaceable. And they seem to have a kind of endless chain of people who are being able to replace them and I think that reflects the whole consolidation of the movement and the breadth of the movement, that this is a movement with almost infinite ability to be able to regenerate itself.

If I can ask you a bit about the Taliban, it seems that Taliban has several paradoxes and I'd just like to touch on some of them.

It's really about whether the Taliban is a terrorist organization or a counter... sorry, an insurgent organization. If you look at the Taliban on one hand they use terrorist techniques such as suicide bombings and IEDs. And on the other hand it can muster hundreds of fighters to engage western troops and can take over control of whole regions.

A recent U.S. report even estimated up to 10 percent of Afghanistan is in the Taliban hands.

So can you define, definitively, whether the Taliban is a terrorist organization, or an insurgency organization?

I think it's a mixture of both. And I think the Taliban is something very special. First of all, the Taliban were originally Afghans who were born and bred in the refugee camps and the madrassas, the religious schools in Pakistan.

Now that made them a transnational force. That is, that they operated equally well in both countries. They fought in one and they had a sanctuary in the other, or vice versa.

I think the second problem with the Taliban is that the Taliban have never lived under any one state control, in the sense that neither the Afghan state nor the Pakistani state have ever controlled them.

And secondly, they have never lived also under the regime of traditional Pashtun tribal society. So we really have this amorphous kind of mass of people who have never known any other authority, except the authority of extremism, if you like. And that, I think, makes them completely unique. It's not that they are coming... that they are sort of nationalist, or that they're nationalist terrorists or that they're nationalist insurgents. I think they're a mixture of all these things simply because their origins themselves are so amorphous.

And another paradox that I'd like to ask you about, or dichotomy, the BBC's John Simpson said that the Taliban's tactic in Afghanistan is to make people feel there is no safety anywhere. In other words, to increase a feeling of terror.

His colleague, only a couple of months later, David Loyn, said that in one of the Afghan villages he had visited people said that security was much better now that the village was under Taliban control.

So how is it that a terrorist organization, at least an organization that's murdered and mutilated and oppressed many people, how is it that kind of organization can make people feel safer?

Well, I think what they are able to do is they use terror tactics to gain control, to win over the population, to terrorize the population into submission, as it were, and to make sure that the area that they're in is cleansed of any information to the foreign troops or to the Afghan government, et cetera.

But I think what they then come in with, they come in with their idea of instant justice. Now what I think Afghanistan is suffering from acutely is the lack of justice, and this is at all levels of society. Whether it's food to eat, or schools to go to, but basically also who's going to resolve the myriad of internal disputes that have erupted in a society which has been at war for 30 years. Land disputes, women disputes, money disputes, all these kinds of things.

And what the Taliban offer is this kind of instant justice, and which is deemed by the majority of people to be fair, because it is based on sharia and Islamic law.

Now it may be a very brutal kind of justice according to what you and I may think, but it does have a resonance there, and I think that's why they're able to terrorize people into submission, but then very quickly gain their loyalty by carrying out justice, if nothing else.

We've seen in fighting on the Taliban side in the past that it can be characterized by... both in the past and the present, by people changing sides. That this can be sometimes an arrangement of convenience. How does this square with the new terrorist techniques of suicide bombings? Is this the Jihad taking a bigger stake in the Taliban organization?

I think what we've seen since 2005, 2006 has been a very major reorganization of the original Taliban movement, that restarted in 2003. And this reorganization, I think, was helped a lot by al-Qaeda. It was helped a lot with traffic through to Iraq and back again. Traffic to Pakistan and back again. So what we've seen is many of the tactics being used by al-Qaeda and other places have been imported in Afghanistan literally for the first time. I mean, the Afghans have been at war for 30 years, but they've never used the tactic of suicide bombing before in such a way. Now they are. Pakistan has never experienced suicide bombing, but now the Taliban in Pakistan are using suicide bombing.

And I think this is also due to the fact that the movement has become much more ideological. The Taliban were not believers of global Jihad and the whole bin Laden philosophy except for perhaps a handful of people. Today I think there's much more emphasis on this idea of global Jihad and al-Qaeda beliefs rather than just pure Taliban beliefs.

In terms of recruitment into the Taliban, many reasons have been given, the slow pace of change, corruption, the presence of foreigners, and of course, Pakistan is one of the poorest countries in the world as well. What do you feel are the most compelling incentives that people have to join the Taliban?

I think, we should understand first of all the Taliban is a Pashtun movement. That is it is rooted in the Pashto ethnic group who are divided between Afghanistan and Pakistan. There's some 15 million Pashtuns in Afghanistan, some 40 million in Pakistan. So Pakistan obviously provides a huge recruiting pool, two, three times the size of what Afghanistan offers.

And what this tribal belt or this border belt between Afghanistan and Pakistan, inhabited by the Pashtuns, has experienced over the last so many years, has been enormous economic deprivation, the lack of state control, the lack of state facilities, on both sides of the border. But especially on the Pakistan because at least Pakistan was a viable state, it was a functioning state, but it was not being able to provide these facilities to these people.

And I think that what has happened, what we've seen, is really a complete breakdown of state authority, and that has been replaced by the Madrassas, the Mullahs, religious parties and in Afghanistan's case, eventually the Taliban. In other words, these were parties who were fed up with the lack of any kind of facilities that had been given them, and then decided to go into the other extreme, which was basically to mobilize on the basis of Islamic sharia.

Now they have no economic plans, they have no social development plans, education plans, you know, but again what they believe in is a system where Islamic law is meted out fairly and squarely.

Now that doesn't bring, again, the economic benefits, which is why I think towards the end of the Taliban regime in 2000/2001, many Afghans were very, very disillusioned with them.

You mentioned in a previous answer Iraq as an example, and we've seen in Iraq that many locals became sick and tired of the instability, insecurity that had been caused largely by al-Qaeda-based organizations and they've actually turned on al-Qaeda and set up local vigilante groups to fight them.

With foreign elements also present in Afghanistan, do you see the same thing happening there?

Well, you know, I mean, unfortunately you can't compare the situation with Iraq and Afghanistan simply because the government in Iraq, for whatever it's worth, is much stronger. I mean, Iraq was a functioning state before the war. It had a bureaucracy, it had a government, it had a justice system, et cetera, et cetera.

Now the point is, in Afghanistan is what is the alternative? You can't really turn to the Afghan government because in a lot of the country there is no Afghan government. It's not a functioning entity. And if there are some bureaucrats representing the government they're not able to do anything for the people. They can't provide services, they can't provide jobs. They don't have the money for development, et cetera, et cetera.

So I think the problem in Afghanistan is that who do the people turn to if they turn away from the Taliban? They don't want to turn into the arms of the foreigners, and the foreign troops, et cetera, and they don't have a government on which they can depend upon. So I think this is the real problem. That you have a huge floating population of Pashtuns, which are paying lip service to the Taliban, simply because there's not a functioning alternative.

I'd like to look at terrorism in the international context now. You've described several terrorist organizations as transnational organizations and they obviously transcend borders. How do you feel this has happened? What's contributed to this occurring?

Well, in my part of the world, that is Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia, we should remember that this is a region where all borders are totally porous. These were borders defined by the British and the Czarist Russia, the colonial empires. They do not fit any of the ethnic needs of those ethnic groups that are living there. For example, all these borders have divided the ethnic groups. The Pashtuns are divided, you know, the Punjabis are divided, the Baloch are divided, the Uzbeks are divided, the Tajiks are divided. I mean, there's no single ethnical group there in this region which can claim to have got a state because of its ethnicity.

Now, so I mean that's a huge weakness, I think, and what we're seeing really is the unravelling of that. Perhaps a hundred years on from the colonial era, but we are seeing the unravelling of that.

Secondly, I think the fact that these porous borders make for very easy movement, very easy shipment of arms, ammunition, money, drugs, et cetera, and so all this helps fuel the movement. So I think we really... it's a very major structural problem now in this region.

So you have now, for example, you have a Afghan Taliban, now you've got the Pakistani Taliban and tomorrow you may have the Central Asian Taliban.

If I may give you an example from my part of the world as well, in terms of the transnational element, the end of February Mohammed Hamid was convicted of recruiting young men in London and preparing them to fight in Afghanistan. But he also wanted to recruit the guys that he was training to carry out terrorist acts in Europe. And in fact, he said to his fighters, just as they, the western soldiers wage war in our lands, you know it's "halaal", permissible, for you to do it here. So that's not an isolated incident, as you well know. There've been other instances in other European countries.

Now al-Qaeda justified 911 by pointing to the Palestinian struggle. Do you think that modern day terrorist organizations are starting to us Afghanistan in the same way?

Well probably yes, because I think what the extremist groups are propagating is that the West had come in, they had promised to reconstruct the country, development, et cetera. It hasn't happened. In fact, the West is now killing Afghans... more Afghans. It's using bombing, it's using heavy fire power to deal with a small bunch of insurgents.

So yes, I mean, Afghanistan has very much become an example of, if you like, the perception at least amongst the extremists as a failure by the West. The excessive wrong policies, excessive use of fire power, a disregard for local culture, local human beings, local people, et cetera. So it has become a kind of poster boy, if you like, for the terrorists.

And my final question is that you've made some accurate predictions in the past, so can I take advantage of you being here and ask you how you see transnational terrorism developing over the coming years?

I think it's going to grow enormously, simply because we now have... we're now seeing base areas for al-Qaeda develop in Pakistan, which was not the case before. If you look at the last six months and the kind of... the plots that have been stopped just in Europe, Germany, Spain, Britain, Denmark, almost all of them are traced back to the tribal areas in Pakistan.

Now and I think we're going to see a greater expansion of this. I mean, this was not the case two or three years ago. And God forbid if so many plots have been foiled, but the one plot that gets away and is successful, which may kill hundreds and hundreds of people, whether it's in Europe or the United States or somewhere else, it's most likely that that plot would also be traced back to Pakistan. And of course, then that is going to create an enormous international crisis because Pakistan will then be very much lumped, at least parts of Pakistan will be lumped very much as part of the terrorist arena.

KING: Mr. Hamid, thank you for talking to NATO Review.

RASHID: Thank you very much.

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