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Rice Praises “Democratic Future of Afghanistan” As Fierce Fighting Continues in one of Bloodiest Months Since 2001 U.S. Invasion

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Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrived in Afghanistan today for talks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Her visit comes during one of the bloodiest months in Afghanistan since the US-led invasion in 2001–over the past few weeks more than five hundred people have been killed. We speak with The Nation correspondent Christian Parenti interviewed Taliban fighters in Afghanistan and we go to Islamabad to speak Pakistani journalist and analyst Ahmed Rashid. [includes rush transcript]

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrived in Afghanistan today for talks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and other top officials.

Speaking at a press conference in Kabul, Rice expressed strong U.S.-support for Karzai saying “I don’t know anyone who is more admired and respected in the international community.” Rice also said the “democratic institutions and democratic future of Afghanistan are getting stronger and stronger every day.”

Her comments come during one of the bloodiest months in Afghanistan since the US-led invasion in 2001. US and coalition forces recently launched the largest military offensive in the country since the fall of the Taliban. Fighting across southern Afghanistan killed at least thirty-three people on Tuesday alone. Over the past month, more than five hundred people have died.

Last week, President Karzai criticized the US-led offensive. He said it was unacceptable that many Afghans had been killed in the fighting. He also said that the current focus on hunting Taliban militants did not address the root causes of the violence. Karzai said he wanted more emphasis on helping to rebuild the country’s economy, and strengthen its institutions.

Condoleezza Rice travelled to Afghanistan from Pakistan where she held talks with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf in Islamabad on Tuesday. She urged Musharraf to cooperate more closely with Afghanistan against the Taliban.

  • Ahmed Rashid, Pakistani journalist based in Lahore. He is author of three books including “Taliban” and most recently “Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia.” He has covered Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia for the past 25 years and writes for the “Far Eastern Economic Review,” the “Daily Telegraph,” and “The Wall Street Journal.”
    - Website: AhmedRashid.com
  • Christian Parenti, a correspondent for the Nation Magazine. He has reported extensively from Afghanistan. He recently spent six weeks in Afghanistan in February and March where he met with Taliban fighters.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go now to Islamabad to speak with Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid. He’s covered Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia for the past quarter of a century, is the author of three books, including Taliban and, most recently, Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia. He’s just returned from a trip to Afghanistan. We welcome you to Democracy Now!

AHMED RASHID: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. What is your assessment of the situation in Afghanistan right now, from where you’ve just come out of?

AHMED RASHID: It’s very, very bleak, on all sides. There has been a failure by the international community to deliver enough funding for reconstruction, enough troops for security, and this is something the Afghans have been warning about for a long time, two or three years. There’s been a failure on the side of the Afghan government and President Karzai, himself, to show really effective leadership and to get rid of a lot of corrupt and drug-induced warlords, who he’s been ruling with. There has been also a failure of the neighboring states, who continue to interfere, particularly the accusations that Pakistan has been harboring Taliban, which Karzai and most Afghans completely believe.

So what we have now, of course, is this — we have two problems. We have a major insurgency in the south, where no longer is it just the case of hundreds of Taliban massing, but thousands of Taliban are now massing to take on the NATO and American forces in the south. And we have a failure of governments in Kabul, where the international community and Karzai have been blaming each other for this debacle.

AMY GOODMAN: I also wanted to ask you about the Pakistani — about the journalist, Hayatullah Khan, the Pakistani journalist who was kidnapped, and most recently his body turned up, and he was found dead: what he was reporting on, what the allegations are by those who know about those reports, and what the Pakistani government is responding?

AHMED RASHID: Well, you know, that has been really a tragic case that, in fact, is just part of the ongoing situation in the border regions. The Pakistan army has moved into the tribal border regions of North and South Waziristan two years ago, in order — really at the behest of the United States, in order to try and get al-Qaeda and Taliban and other extremists who are hiding out there. They failed to really get anyone so far. There has been enormous bloody conflict. That whole region has been Talibanized; that is, the Pakistani tribes are becoming increasingly Talibanized and are demanding that the army withdraw, so that they can declare an Islamic state.

Now, in that process, the media has also been ousted, both by the Taliban and by the military. The military have insisted that the local stringers and journalists there report exactly what they say and don’t report the truth or anything they might see. And so what has happened over the last two years is that most journalists have actually fled or they’ve been forced to flee the region, and all we get now — the area is off-limits to journalists — and all we get are handouts by the military.

Now, in the situation Hayatullah really was trying to report, I mean, the incident he was reporting, was the fact that the Pakistan army was saying that they had launched an attack some months ago, last year, against an al-Qaeda/Taliban stronghold with helicopter gunships. In fact, he proved that the attack was launched by American missiles, you know, coming in from Afghanistan, which of course then created a political furor in Pakistan, because a lot of people then asked why the Americans are shelling Pakistani territory. So, I mean, he has really been punished for that, and his family have accused the military and the intelligence services of doing away with him. They, the military, of course, denies it. But there is no doubt that, you know, reporting from that part of the world now is becoming almost impossible.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Ahmed Rashid, Pakistani journalist, who is talking to us from Islamabad. His latest book is Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia. We’re going to break for 60 seconds and then come back and continue speaking with Ahmed Rashid and also Christian Parenti, correspondent for The Nation magazine, who also recently returned from Afghanistan, spending time with the Taliban.


AMY GOODMAN: Ahmed Rashid, on the line with us from Islamabad. We’re also joined in our Firehouse studio by Christian Parenti, correspondent for The Nation magazine, has reported extensively from Afghanistan. He was most recently there in February and March, where he spent weeks meeting with and interviewing Taliban fighters. Can you talk about your experience there and this issue of the rise of the Taliban, Christian?

CHRISTIAN PARENTI: Well, actually, I didn’t spend weeks with the Taliban. I did an interview with them during one day. But what was the question?

AMY GOODMAN: The question of the rise of the Taliban. You also were embedded with European troops in Afghanistan, right?

CHRISTIAN PARENTI: Yes, and U.S. troops. The reason the Taliban is on the rise is because of the failure of the U.S. occupation, and I think the fundamental background fact is that the Bush administration used Afghanistan as a stepping stone for Iraq, so that infected their occupation of Afghanistan in every way. They spent too little money. They sent too few troops, and they, in the interest of establishing quick stability or the appearance of stability, allowed the worst of the worst warlords to take over the government of Afghanistan, which is now really just a kleptocacy and just a ramshackle mess.

So, there’s also been the standard sort of corruption in contracting that we’ve seen in Iraq, so the poor Pashtun people in the south of Afghanistan where the Taliban is strongest, have a legitimate critique of their government, of the Karzai government, that it is corrupt and that it is immoral. Their solution to that is, you know, the Taliban version of an Islamic state. So that’s the fundamental problem, is the failure of this occupation to create anything like a just government that is free of corruption and trying to achieve development.

AMY GOODMAN: And in the day that you interviewed Taliban fighters, what did they say?

CHRISTIAN PARENTI: They said that — they were very clear about being based in Pakistan, about getting support from the I.S.I., so I don’t think that’s a theory. I think that Pakistan is playing both sides of the fence. They pretend to be the indispensable ally to the U.S. in the war on terror, and General Musharraf has achieved remarkable rehabilitation by playing this role. He’s had sanctions removed. He’s had aid increased. He’s had his plebiscite recognized as something legitimate.

But at the same time, Pakistan is pursuing a traditional agenda of trying to keep Afghanistan weak. Part of this has to do with the fact that the Pashtun areas are divided by the Pakistan-Afghan border, the Durand Line, and Afghanistan has always been controlled by the Pashtuns, to this day. So the last thing Pakistan wants is a strong Pashtun-governed state, while in Pakistan, the Pashtuns are an impoverished and restive minority.

So, it behooves Pakistan for other reasons, as well. There are undammed rivers flowing from Afghanistan into Pakistan. Pakistan dominates Afghanistan’s markets. The Pakistani intelligence and military have written and spoken openly about wanting to use Afghanistan as strategic depth or fall-back room in case there’s a land war with India.

So they never abandoned this that traditional agenda, fifty year-long, really, agenda, of trying to control and keep Afghanistan weak, but they just pretend that they have. So that’s the — the Taliban fighters that I met and the spokesmen that I interviewed there were very clear that they operate out of Pakistan and with the support of elements of Pakistani intelligence.

AMY GOODMAN: Ahmed Rashid, your response from Islamabad, and also Condoleezza Rice going to Pakistan and now in Afghanistan?

AHMED RASHID: Well, I think there’s no doubt that Condoleezza Rice was in Pakistan to try and get, you know, perhaps further reassurances from President Musharraf that Pakistan would not aid and abet the Taliban from Baluchistan province, and winning back the confidence of President Karzai, who has been scathing of America in recent weeks, partly because of America’s silence on this whole issue of Pakistan aiding the Taliban. I think she has tried to get some kind of commitment from Musharraf. She’s probably taken that commitment to Karzai and said, you know, certain things will now happen.

I think we still have to see what kind of pressure the Americans really can put on Pakistan. We should remember — I mean, the Americans are bogged down in Iraq, there’s no conclusion in Iran. Everybody in this part of the world is seeing America as extremely weak, as extremely powerless. So if you have your own local agenda, if you have an extremist agenda, this is the time that you can snub the Americans and, you know, tell them to go home, because they’re not in a position to do anything. And I think people in the States don’t really understand how a weakened America does encourage — unfortunately, does encourage enormous instability, because people feel that there is no check on what they want to do, particularly military dictators and other such.

AMY GOODMAN: And this issue of the Pakistani government, the military, the intelligence supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan, destabilizing Hamid Karzai?

AHMED RASHID: Well, you know, the Afghans have offered enormous evidence of that, and certainly when I was in Kabul just now, NATO and the American military officials talked very conclusively about the fact that Pakistan does have a double agenda. It has an agenda of officially supporting Karzai and the international community in Afghanistan, and it has another agenda of supporting the Taliban.

And the reason it gives for that is partly to keep Afghanistan weak, but another major reason the government is doing this is because it says that India has established an enormous presence in Afghanistan and is threatening and funding insurgencies in Pakistan from the Afghan side of the border. Now, certainly India has come back into Afghanistan after more than a decade, when it was ousted during the Mujahideen and the Taliban period, but there is now this kind of proxy war going on between India and Pakistan, which of course has gone on for the last 50 years on the eastern border, in Kashmir and other places. Now it is taking place on Pakistan’s western border, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: There was a report, Christian Parenti, from the Council on Foreign Relations, talking about Afghanistan as a failed state by many of the indicators of a state, around issues of poverty, etc., that it’s one of the worst in the world.

CHRISTIAN PARENTI: Indeed. It ranks, I think, 174th on all those indicators, the bottom being 178, and the security situation has deteriorated very radically in the last several months. It’s no longer possible for Westerners to drive safely from Kabul to Kandahar. So — there’s also reports that Pashtun communities in the north of Afghanistan are also — now have Taliban activity in them.

So it’s a total disaster, and there’s a hope by the Europeans, who are picking up a lot of the slack, that they can do a better job than the Americans, and they claim they’re better at counterinsurgency, but I fear that the situation is really beyond that and that the cancer of the Taliban has set in too deep and the money that’s been spent so far has been wasted. And I think what has to happen is there has to be like a radical restructuring of the Afghan government. There are 32 ministries. It has to be constricted, and there has to be a real commitment to ending corruption.

The U.S. forces, when I was with them, I was shocked at how little they knew. Some soldiers around Bagram, who were responsible for securing that valley, were being attacked in some villages and not others, and it’s a mixed area between Tajiks and Pashtuns, and the lieutenant in charge of this group didn’t know the ethnicities of different villages and didn’t know that there might be some sort of political explanation that went along with that, as to why they were being attacked in what were actually Pashtun villages and not in Tajik villages. So the whole thing is in utter shambles.

AMY GOODMAN: Ahmed Rashid, what would happen if the U.S. pulled out of Afghanistan?

AHMED RASHID: Well, clearly it would be a disaster, simply because others would follow suit. I mean, right now you’ve got a situation where NATO and very large European contingents of troops are, in fact, replacing the Americans. And there is the threat that, in fact, the Americans are going to withdraw something like 3,000 out of its 19,000 troops by the end of this year.

Now, that has sent shudders down the backs of the Afghan government, of President Karzai, who are very fearful of an American withdrawal, because it would really mean that even NATO, the European Union, the United Nations, all the other major bodies which are in Afghanistan, are either providing troops or money, would also reduce their presence. It’s a fact of life in this part of the world, that if the U.S. goes, then almost everybody else follows suit, and that’s what is really worrying. And, you know, we should note that Condi Rice, today in Kabul has actually made a great pitch, for saying, 'We are not leaving, We are here to stay. We will see this through. We will support Karzai to the end, etc., etc.' and that is really to reassure the Afghans that the U.S. is not just about to leave.

But the signals are very different. I mean, the signals coming from the Defense Department are that the U.S. wants to pull out some troops. It wants to cut funding from the DOD. What has been, I think, totally criminal, that is the — Rumsfeld informed Karzai several months ago that the Afghan army, which the Americans are training and funding, would not be as large as originally planned. They would get fewer weapons, and that from this year on, the Afghan government, which has absolutely no money, should be paying the salaries of the troops, rather than the Americans, who have been paying the salaries for the last two years. Now, you know, I mean, in the midst of a Taliban offensive, for Rumsfeld to say something like that is not much of a morale booster if you’re an Afghan soldier or an Afghan general.

AMY GOODMAN: Final word on this issue, Christian Parenti?

CHRISTIAN PARENTI: Well it’s — you know, I didn’t support the invasion of Afghanistan, but I take no pleasure whatsoever in seeing this occupation fall apart. And I think that the long-term effects of a collapse of Afghanistan will be disastrous for that region. And so people do need to, you know, hopefully prevent that. And basically a lot of money has to be invested, and there has to be a complete rethink of how everything — by aid agencies, by the Pentagon — is done. But I don’t see any chance of that happening under the Bush administration, because they are obsessed with and stuck in Iraq, and everything is hostage to that fantasy.

AMY GOODMAN: Christian Parenti, correspondent for The Nation magazine, just returned from Afghanistan in March. Ahmed Rashid, Pakistani journalist, talking to us from Islamabad; his latest book is Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia.

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