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'Salman killed over blasphemy law'

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HARD TALK: Ahmed Rashid speaking at the Jaipur Literature Festival

He's been among Foreign Policy Magazine's top 100 thinkers for two years running and is considered an expert on geopolitical issues. The Lahore-based journalist and best-selling author Ahmed Rashid spoke to TOI-Crest during the Jaipur Lit Festival, about his books, the situation in Pakistan and the role India can play in the region.

Yours was the first book on the Taliban and after 9/11 everyone from the White House to journalists were clamouring for copies. How did you come to write the book?

I wrote about Afghanistan from 1978 when the Soviets invaded, but after the tanks left, after all the foreign correspondents left, I was the only one who kept following the situation. So I saw the rise of the Taliban from the very beginning, when it comprised real nationalists who were fighting for the lands they had grown up in and had been displaced from by the Soviet occupation. Later on, there was an influx of Pakistani students, Arabs, Pashtun jihadis who had no real connection to Afghanistan as they had grown up in refugee camps in Pakistan, extremist groups like Lashkar, Kashmiri groups, everyone.

They were indoctrinated with a twisted interpretation of Islam. That's when the Taliban started becoming a hostile force. So I wrote Taliban, but no one wanted to read about some obscure group sitting in the mountains in Central Asia. Finally, an academic publisher ran off 5,000 copies. Then 9/11 happened and within six months, it sold 1. 9 million copies in English alone.

Since then you've written a number of books on the region. What's new in Descent into Chaos?

Descent into Chaos comprehensively covers the period of 1997 to 2007. With Taliban, it was my story, my experiences, my reporting. No one else was covering it. There was no reference to do because I was the first to write about it. But Descent into Chaos was harder as so much has been written and said about the region after 9/11. It took four years to complete. I had to gather material from all over and include a number of people and places - Bush, Kabul, NATO, Tony Blair, Guantanamo Bay, Pakistan, Angela Merkel...

I wanted to provide the international as well as regional perspective. I also wanted to show how the US had failed Afghanistan. They never wanted to help, Afghanistan was just the sideshow. All they were interested in was Iraq. Even President Obama's efforts now might be too late. In 2001, aid for development should have been poured in. That was when the Americans were being seen as liberators. But over time, people realised nothing was being done for them and the troops came to be seen as an occupying force, and now the Americans are facing a resurgence of the Taliban. Even if Obama sends in experts, it's too dangerous for them to travel through the country for reconstruction work without being attacked by the Taliban.

On Pakistan, you recently wrote that hundreds of lawyers had lined up to defend Punjab governor Salman Taseer's killer but his wife could not find even one to prosecute him. Why is that?

Salman was killed because he opposed Pakistan's new blasphemy law. Certain aspects of the Taliban's thinking and the ideas of extremist groups have penetrated all sections of Pakistani society - the middle class, educational establishments, military and police. Salman's killing by his own elite bodyguard proves this. And people are scared.

Has the US presence in Afghanistan increased terrorism in Pakistan?

Most Pakistanis think the terrorism is because of the US occupation of Afghanistan, but it is because we allowed the Afghanistan Taliban to settle in Pakistan. We welcomed them in and they lived with families in Pakistan. Over the years, there's been an ideological change in the country, especially among the Pashtuns. Rather than just fighting the Pakistan Taliban - which our Army is doing at great cost to life and resources - we should send the Afghan Taliban back.

Is Pakistan really, as you say, descending into chaos?

I would say yes. We are facing a crisis unlike any other we have seen before. We have a political crisis on our hands with lack of strong leadership, we are facing economic trouble - inflation, unemployment, lack of infrastructure. Relations with India and Afghanistan are tense. There's terrorism, extremism, and then there are floods. But Pakistan, unlike Afghanistan, is a functioning state. It can correct itself.

What needs to be done to correct it?

The major problems are with foreign policy, which is in the hands of a military that has not changed with the times, a military that is still fighting the Cold War. Pakistan also needs to improve its education system, change the jihadi rhetoric that is taught in madrassas and government schools. We need a revival of the political principles that Jinnah founded Pakistan on. He wanted a democratic state not an Islamic one. It is also in India's interest to work for the stabilisation of Pakistan, for if Pakistan goes down, all of India's problems - terror, insurrection, drugs, crime - will spiral out of control. I fear there will be further destabilisation.

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