"Hatred against America is growing among the Afghans"
Iqbal Khatak, an eminent journalist and the representative of the Paris-based "Reporters Sans Frontiers" (RSF) in Pakistan, is considered an authority on Afghanistan. Khattak reported the War Against Terror and Loya Jirga to both international and national media. In an exclusive interview with Amna Khaishgi, Khattak shares his experiences in Afghanistan. Excerpts:
How do you define the present Afghanistan?
Present Afghanistan presents new problems for its people and the region. Today’s Afghanistan is facing more explosive situation than before because the democratic world went against basic norms of democracy. The gulf between majority Pukhtoon ethnic group and minority Uzbeks and Tajiks is widening because of the US undemocratic sectarian demands before the Loya Jirga. The Afghan story is not over yet. Future of that country seems as bleak as the future of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.
Can we expect the return of Taliban?
I don’t think that Afghanistan will witness what it experienced during September 1996 and November 2001. But if the international community fails to deliver what it promised in Tokyo Conference to rebuild the country with massive financial pledges, Afghanistan may experience another form of Taliban-like rule. The Afghan people were really fed up with certain policies of the Taliban regime. Afghans cannot live without music, which the Taliban banned. However, I fear if majority Pukhtoon ethnic group, more than 50 percent of total Afghanistan population, continues to suffer in the wake of the US-imposed undemocratic sectarian demands allowing a minority group to dominate the transitional authority things may take a dangerous shape. Afghan Pukhtoons may be forced to think seriously about their future course of action. And whatever happens then you may call it "Taliban-like" situation, but with a different shape and approach. Some political parties in Pakistan have made the plight Afghan Pukhtoons an election issue to exploit popular sentiments that Pukhtoons on Pakistan side holds for the Afghan Pukhtoons.
How is Loya Jirga working in Afghanistan? Has it brought social and political changes?
Loya Jirga is a key component of Afghan tradition. The Afghan people resolve their political problems when consensus is difficult to reach at center or provincial level. The Emergency Loya Jirga in June this year was a success from narrow perspective. However, unwarranted interference from the Americans blocked the democratic norms to make democratic decisions. I was in Kabul during the Loya Jirga and I have heard a number of participants who were openly criticizing ‘interference’ from outside the world’s largest white-colored tent. The Loya Jirga, if free from outside dictation, is more than true example of Afghans’ way of democracy. Majority vote is accepted and decision taken promptly. I think the Emergency Loya Jirga was a golden chance to give real representatives of the people a chance to speak out and take decisions on their own. We have experienced that past Jirgas never failed because of non-interference from the outside world. Americans lost a good opportunity to rid the country of warlords. As they still need the warlords to hunt for al-Qaeda or Taliban operatives. Afghanistan is still in danger of sinking into a deeper crisis once ISAF forces go back and no central authority is established till that time. Worst form of anarchy may visit the Afghan people, suffered a lot for a long time.
Where does Hamid Karzai stand in the present Afghan political system? Will he have any future in the Afghan political structure?
Karzai stands absolutely nowhere as far as Afghan political system is concerned. He is totally banking on the US support. The assassination of his vice-president Haji Abdul Qadir, a Pukhtoon Afghan leader from eastern Nangarhar province, on July 6, forced Karzai to ask for American commandos-led protection. It shows his insecurity among all-powerful warlords, particularly from Northern Alliance. During the Loya Jirga time, Karzai used to enjoy considerable support from his people. People considered him as the hope because he has good ties with Hindus (India), Shias (Iran), Sunnis (Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries) and goras, a reference to Europeans and Americans, which can help Afghanistan pull out of years-long war and destruction. However that support seems to be despair, Majority Pakhtoons have now started considering that he is still under the Panjshiris’ influence and real power rests with the Northern Alliance. Many Afghans assumed that he did not take care of his ethnic group members. Remember Karzai is also a Pukhtoon from southern Kandahar province. His future heavily depends on what he delivers to his people. We know US bombardment to targets Pukhtoons only and many Afghans are mincing no words to criticize his silence. How do you define the present psychology of the Afghan nation? Will they be able to survive in this era of globalization? A decade-long freedom war against Russia and as long civil strife has broken the Afghans psychologically, politically and financially. They are psychologically very weak at the moment. They don’t know what is going to happen to them and their country. What they know is Afghanistan is doomed to plunge into factional fighting if post-Taliban transitional government does not rise above factions and ethnic background. They are not much bothered about globalization. Their main worry is possible return of anarchy and hunger to Afghanistan. The slow-moving international community’s contribution may add to their woes.
Do you think War Against Terror in Afghanistan was justified? What marks that has left on Afghanistan?
If you call bombing a wedding party or innocent civilians a war on terrorism then I’m afraid you have psychological problem and you must consult a psychiatrist. I don’t know how much the Western world or the American people are aware of the fact that who and where these terrorists were trained. A poor man from a poor country in Asia is difficult to get a visa for any European country or the US, but a millionaire terrorist can get it very easily and join any flying club in the States; thanks to capitalism. We are punishing innocent Afghans for the crime that they did not do. The Americans and their allies have so far killed around 1,000 innocent Afghan civilians. The death toll may be high. Osama was America’s darling when he was spending his own money to recruit mercenaries to fight the Russians. Taliban were acceptable to the Americans when they appeared ready to help Unicol and other big US petroleum companies. When the Taliban stopped listening to the outer world’s dictations they all of a sudden became the worst enemy of human being. My criticism of the US-led war on terrorism does not mean I support the Taliban regime. I have my own reservations regarding their way of ruling their people. Believe me, hatred against the Americans is fast growing among the Afghans. Only warlords are happy with the American forces because they receive dollars and arms in return for their support to the war on terrorism. These warlords use the war to punish own rivals because tribal rivalry. The American forces never verified any intelligence information, which resulted in bombing of innocent civilians. Will the US government tell the world how many al-Qaeda or Taliban operatives were killed or arrested so far? Does it not underline the war failure that still prime suspect Osama bin Laden and supreme Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar are at large? The marks of the war are very deep and much time will be needed to heal these wounds.
Are madarsas and fanatic clergy still powerful in Afghanistan?
Sans guns, I think, not. But with guns they are powerful and will be. If you take away guns from former mujahideen leaders clergy’s power will be dramatically reduced. Traditionally, madrasas in both Pakistan and Afghanistan are main source of education among the poor people’s children. But in early 1980s the madrasas were radicalized and militancy was introduced in these madrasas where previously only Islamic teachings were taught. State patronage to the clergy made them all-powerful. If you end the state patronage then see how strong the clergy is.
Does the word Jihad still vibrate in Afghanistan?
The Afghans can do whatever they can for the sake of Islam. They demonstrated it when the Russians invaded their country. We know petro-dollars and US-made weapons were also key factors behind the Russians’ retreat, but all this was not possible without the Afghan people’s great sacrifices. The Loya Jirga very strongly experienced Jihadi vibrations when the Kandahar governor, Gul Agha Sherzai, was speaking against Taliban and those who use Islam for vested interests. "Go away," all the participants, shouted at him and the strong Kandahar governor left his speech incomplete. In underdeveloped world, religion can be easily exploited. And Afghanistan is the world’s poorest state! The word jihad is frequently being used in Afghanistan these days to eliminate poverty and illiteracy. The Afghan leaders are using the word because it is more attractive than other slogans.
Do you think NGOs like RAWA and other national and international organizations are performing their duties responsibly?
I don’t agree the way some Afghan and foreign NGOs work for women because they try to ignore ground reality. RAWA now demands "a secular democracy" in Afghanistan. Is this possible? I can bet this will never happen. It may happen if you eliminate the whole Afghan nation. These NGOs, I think, are more interested in westernizing the Afghan women than educating and improving their living standard and earning them their due rights in the society. To bring change in Afghan women status in their society the NGOs need to respect Islamic values and local traditions.
How do you rate the status of the present Afghan media and its contribution?
I worked closely on Afghan media since 1998. I am representative of Paris-based media watchdog organization Reporters Without Borders (RSF) in Pakistan. During my visit to Kabul in June this year, I found the post-Taliban Afghan media struggling to ensure press freedom in the country; a development, which was never seen in the past. But much work is needed to make the Afghan media professional as it is divided on ethnic lines and lack professional approach. At the moment, more than 100 publications are bringing out mostly weekly papers and magazine. Some NGOs are funding many newspapers. But the question is will these publications be able to stand on their own feet. This is a serious question I doubt they will not. Many publications will banish once foreign funding is stopped and since there are no economic activities to make money through commercial advertisement many weeklies will collapse on account of financial crisis. Above all, the Afghan media is still under threat from warlords and the UN-backed government. A Kabul Weekly journalist told me that his newspaper has received threats from the government for its independent editorial policy. Moreover, the Afghan media has not gone out of Kabul city. It must reach out to other provinces also. I have gone through some magazine like monthly Zanbel-e-Gham (humor and cartoon-based magazine), which are quite impressive and make great contribution for a peaceful Afghanistan.
Did you see the return of Afghan Diaspora to the country? Are they contributing to national development?
More than 200 members of Afghan Diaspora have so far returned to Afghanistan. Among them are Interior Minister Taj Muhammad Wardak and Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani and many more. A UK-based NGO International Organization for Migration (IOM)'s Return of Qualified Afghans (RQA) programme is planning to help more Afghan professionals return to Afghanistan, following a new 1.4 million US dollars contribution from the British government's Department for International Development (DFID). However, hundreds of Afghan professionals in Europe, Australia, the US, and Scandinavian countries are unwilling to come back to their country mainly because of security reason and uncertain political situation in Afghanistan.
What role are international forces playing in Afghanistan? Do they enjoy both public and government support?
The UN-mandated International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) is mainly providing security in the Kabul city only. The international forces generally are doing a great job by helping the people of Kabul to feel secure. Curfew timing has been reduced by one hour. But if you talk to politically conscious people they say, "Afghans should be allowed to decide by their own." What role has Pakistan played in Afghanistan? What it its present status? Pakistan has played a role for which the US has asked it. In simple words, there is not much difference in the Pakistan and the US policy towards Afghanistan. If you ask the similar question from the US and whatever is the reply I think the same can be applied on Pakistan as far as its role in Afghanistan is concerned.
What is the status of Pakistan prisoners and Jihadis in Afghanistan? What measures are the two governments taking for their rehabilitation? Are they still eager to continue their Jihad against the West?
Hundreds of Pakistani prisoners are still under detention either with the Afghan government or local warlords. Pakistan took up their detention with the Karzai administration and Kabul set free more than 300 prisoners who were not hardened Jihadis or members of al-Qaeda network. I spoke to a number of such prisoners in Peshawar upon their release and they did not regret to have gone for jihad. They say they will again go anywhere in the world if a call for jihad is made. How do you see the future of Afghanistan? I am not quite hopeful if one looks at present Afghanistan. There is still confusion and you don’t know what will happen. Even the Afghans are faced with similar problems and that is what preventing them from coming back to their country. Pakistan hosts still more than two million refugees from Afghanistan and there are many more in the Europe and America.