Fighter who traded his gun for a pen: A foreign correspondent's story

For years his warnings about Afghanistan were ignored, now his books are an indispensable reference. By Kim Sengupta

Ahmed Rashid's first contact with the media came when he was fighting alongside Balochi guerrillas in Pakistan. He had left the frontline and gone to the Afghan capital, Kabul, to organise welfare for refugees who had fled across the border to escape air strikes where he came across reporters covering the aftermath of the coup which had deposed the king, Zahir Shah.

The encounter led to Rashid abandoning the gun for the pen and a distinguished and colourful career as a reporter and writer. It was, he accepts, an unusual path into the trade. Growing up in a middle-class family in the Pakistani city of Lahore, the son of a retired senior Army officer, he had no ethnic or indeed any other intrinsic links to tribal Balochistan at the other end of the country. His parents, who had sent him off for an English education had no idea that their son's CV would end up reading –– Malvern College; Fitzwilliam, Cambridge and the Baluchistan Liberation Front.

"Well, it was 1968. I had just got a degree in political science and went to Paris where a student uprising was taking place, Russian tanks were crushing the Prague Spring, there were race riots in America. So I went off to fight for a people who were being oppressed," recalls Rashid. "We wanted to join in the struggle. We thought we were Marxists, we were radicals." Much of Rashid's subsequent career has been spent in charting radicalisation of the young, this time by Islamic extremists, and the rise of the Taliban and al-Qa'ida. For much of that time his was a lonely voice whose warnings that Afghanistan was turning into a training ground for global jihad were ignored by the West, which had lost interest in the country after using the Mujaheddin to fight the Russians in the dying days of the Cold War.

Rashid's investigations into Islamic extremists and how they were being nurtured by senior figures in the Pakistani army and intelligence services, the ISI, was a highly hazardous enterprise and triggered a brutal backlash. The military regime banned him from working in the country and Gulbuddin Hikmatyar, then the CIA's favourite homicidal Afghan warlord, declared that he was an apostate who must be killed.

"It was a very difficult time. I could get around the working ban by writing under different names, but I had to go into hiding for about three months after the Hikmatyar threat," Rashid said. "He had been responsible for killing a lot of people and he would have had no compunction about getting ridding me. I doubt if the security forces would have spent much time investigating the matter."

Rashid continued to write extensively for The Independent, The Guardian, the Far Eastern Economic Review and his current employers The Daily Telegraph, covering the conflicts and the international realpolitik of the region. Then came 9/11 and he was suddenly much in demand, as an analyst and a journalist. His book on the Taliban, published the previous year, became an essential reference for the media, the military, politicians and diplomats.

I told Rashid that many of the journalists who went to Afghanistan in 2001 were clutching copies of his book. Some of us also carried George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman, not only a roistering read but also one that gave a pretty good account of the First Afghan War in the early 19th century. "You probably found Flashman more useful than my book, it's always good to get things in historical perspective," he laughs.

"What I have always found strange is despite Britain's long history in the region there was so little knowledge about the place in recent times. There seemed to be an unwillingness to see what was going on there, they thought if they ignored the problem it would not affect them. That was never going to be the case."

Rashid recalls the problems he had in getting anyone even interested in the book after he had written it. "My agent at the time was totally dismissive, he said no one would be interested in obscure subjects like the Taliban and Afghanistan. I ended up going from one publishing house to another without much joy, but eventually a very small firm took up the offer and later they passed it on to Yale University Press and since then it has done quite well." Taliban: The Story of Afghan Warlords sold 1.6 million copies in the US alone, was published in 26 languages and pirated in a dozen countries. Other books followed, the publishers snapping them up with alacrity, as Rashid became an international public figure advising the United Nations, governments and aid organisations. In Afghanistan and Pakistan he was no longer just a journalist but a player, counting figures such as Afghan president Hamid Karzai among his friends.

With the backing of George Soros, Rashid has founded a journalism course in Afghanistan, which has been a major factor in generating the media in the country after a vacuum of three decades. He has pressed President Karzai to pardon Pervez Kambakhsh,who was sentenced to death for downloading an internet report on women's rights. A petition by The Independent to free Kambakhsh has obtained more than 100,000 signatures. "What happens to Pervez is of tremendous interest for journalism in Afghanistan, if he is not released it will be catastrophic for free speech in the country. I am glad of The Independent's campaign and I am totally behind it. I'll be reminding Karzai about Pervez next time I see him."

Rashid was in London last week to promote his latest book, a round of speaking engagements at think-tanks, colleges and public meetings and the Foreign Office following a similar trip to the US. The title of his new work, Descent Into Chaos, How the war against Islamic extremism Is being Lost in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia is self-explanatory.

Rashid points out that the West's forming of an Islamist international brigade to fight the Russians have now rebounded with a vengeance. Gulbuddin Hikmatyar, the American protégé who sentenced Rashid to death is now busy killing American and British soldiers and receives support from the Iranians, a part of George W Bush's axis of evil.

The training camps set up to train the Mujaheddin in Pakistan are now being used by the Taliban to send fighters into Afghanistan. British troops at Kajaki in Helmand, a hauntingly lovely place used for vacation once by the Afghan royal family, are now fighting out of the same bunkers and trenches once used by Russian troops. Those of us who go to Afghanistan frequently are aware of the Pakistani connection which allows the Taliban their training ground and safe havens across the border and to replenish the ranks from students in the madrassas. What Rashid gives us is a lucid and detailed description of how this takes place with official connivance and reminds us how much the West, and the Americans in particular, are authors of their own misfortune.

He found during his last visit to the US that the apathy of the outside world is still very prevalent despite the wake up call of 9/11. "The media, apart from a very few newspapers, seem to cover very little of what's going on in Iraq and Afghanistan for instance. And that's despite the fact that you have American troops fighting and dying there. In the UK there is a bit more focus on these places, there is definitely a difference in coverage."

Nevertheless, Rashid is dispirited by what he sees in the so-called upmarket papers in this country. "There are some really excellent journalists around but there is a definite drift downmarket," he says.

"It is also a shame newspaper sales are falling over here whereas they are booming in south Asia, people are getting not just one but two papers. But I remain a great fan of British newspapers. The Independent, for instance, gave me a chance to write about militant Islam and Afghanistan when this was being ignored elsewhere. Maybe what we are seeing now is just a fad, maybe serious news will come back into fashion again, I don't think you will ever have a shortage of journalists willing to do the hard stuff."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Sport
Seth Rollins cashes in his Money in the Bank contract to win the WWE World Heavyweight Championship
WWERollins win the WWE World Heavyweight title in one of the greatest WrestleMania's ever seen
Arts and Entertainment
Louis Theroux: By Reason of Insanity takes him behind the bars again
tvBy Reason of Insanity, TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap
videoThe political parody genius duo strike again with new video
Arts and Entertainment
tvPoldark, TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Ashdown Group: Web Developer - ASP.NET, C#, MVC - London

£45000 - £55000 per annum + Excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Web Developer -...

Ashdown Group: .NET Developer : ASP.NET , C# , MVC , web development

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Excellent benefits - see advert: Ashdown Group: .N...

Guru Careers: 3D Package Designer / 3D Designer

£25 - 30K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an exceptional 3D Package Designer / 3...

Guru Careers: Interior Designer

£Competitive: Guru Careers: We are seeking a strong Middleweight / Senior Inte...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor