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Ahmed Rashid on The Taliban

Ahmed Rashid is the author of the best-selling "Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia." As a correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review, Rashid has spent 20 years traveling with the Taliban and covering civil war in Afghanistan.

CNN: What can you tell us about Taliban defectors since the air strikes began?

RASHID: Taliban have not broken up or split, as many people expected. The hard core of the Taliban is very much in place, and they're resisting U.S. attacks, along with their ally, bin Laden. I think the reason for this is that there is no political alternative entity to which the Taliban can defect. The Taliban do not accept the Northern Alliance, because it is made up of non-Pashtuns. What is needed is an anti-Taliban resistance force in the south part of the country, and a political alternative backed by the Western alliance to give moderate Taliban a way out.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: What proportion of the Taliban forces are "moderate?" Basically, what percentage would be likely to defect?

RASHID: It's very difficult to give a figure, but essentially, the moderates are those Pashtun tribesmen who joined the Taliban later on. I call them "fellow travelers." They joined because the Taliban were winning, and it was convenient to join them. These fellow travelers are not ideologically committed the way that the hard-line Taliban are. They will switch sides when they see that the Taliban are losing. But again, I say that they need a political entity to switch sides to, and not enough international attention has been paid to helping create that alternative political entity.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: What does the word Taliban mean? Does the name in itself carry some significance? Finally, how do Afghans view the Taliban?

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RASHID: Well, Taliban means "student of an Islamic seminary." The Talibs, or students of these schools, have existed for thousands of years. Traditionally, Islamic boys have gone to these schools, studying the Koran, Islamic law, in order to become preachers. The Taliban were also initially students at Islamic schools, studying at refugee camps in Pakistan. They took this name because it's a symbol of Islam, and a symbol of doing good, and bringing people around to an Islamic viewpoint, imposing law and order. It was a name that was initially very welcomed by many Afghan people.

CNN: How severe has the damage been to the Taliban camps?

RASHID: Well, the U.S. has been very selective in its bombing campaign so far. It has not bombed Taliban front line positions outside Kabul, for example, because it is trying to delay an attack on Kabul by the Northern Alliance. Only two days ago did it start bombing Taliban troop positions in the north of the country. So we expect this military campaign to go on for some time.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Do you believe the Taliban have the military forces and accessories to fight a long war?

RASHID: Well, the Taliban are not going to fight a frontal war. They're more likely to break up into smaller guerilla units and try to harass U.S. forces on the ground, and also continue fighting the united front. I think the large Taliban units that still remain on the ground will soon break up, partly because of U.S. bombing, and partly because they'll adopt new tactics to resist the U.S. Special Forces that we hear have already been inducted into Afghanistan.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: What are the chances that China will supply the Taliban with weapons through the Iraqis?

RASHID: I think it's very unlikely. The Chinese are at the moment supporting the war against terrorism, although they would prefer that the U.S. action be taken under the auspices of the United Nations. China also faces a terrorist threat, because hundreds of Uighurs, or Chinese Muslims, who live in Western China and who are trying to create an independent Islamic state in Western China, have been trained by the Taliban and fight for the Taliban. China has generally oppressed very strongly any Uighur sentiment for independence, and China is clearly likely to use this war against terrorism to step up its own repression of the Uighurs.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: How do the old Mujahedeen commanders -- now in Peshawar -- view the Northern Alliance?

RASHID: The Pashtun commanders do not like the Northern Alliance at all, and many of them who fought the Soviets and then retired are trying to form an anti-Taliban force in the Pashtun belt, in southern Afghanistan. They want to create a counter-force to the Northern Alliance, and they also would like to form an alliance with the Northern Alliance. It will be very dangerous if the Northern Alliance capture Kabul on their own, without support from the Pashtun.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Is the Taliban's main source of funding bin Laden and opium?

RASHID: Certainly, these are two of the sources of funding for the Taliban, but actually, the bigger source of funding before the war started were the taxes that the Taliban raised from the smuggling of consumer goods between Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia. My own estimate is that something like 60 percent of the Taliban budget, which is estimated at around $100 million a year, came from these smuggling sources. The rest probably came from opium and bin Laden.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Why are they turning this into a "holy" war in the name of Islam, and why has such an extreme from of Islam become so popular?

RASHID: The Taliban did not start out with this ideology of global jihad. I think bin Laden has played a major role in influencing their ideology, and in persuading them that they have a major role to play in undermining Western countries and attacking America. The Taliban were initially extremely simple people who were not worldly-wise, and who in fact never really had a foreign policy for the first four years of their existence. It's only when bin Laden met up with the Taliban in 1996 and 1997 that you see the rhetoric of the Taliban change to one of global jihad.

CNN: Do you have any closing comments for us today?

RASHID: I think the main issue at the moment, to try to bring this war to an early end, is the formation of a broad-based multi-ethnic government in Kabul, based around the effort of the former king, Zahir Shah. And the international community must have a political strategy that must be in line with its military strategy. At present we have an aggressive military strategy, but no aggressive political strategy by the U.S.

CNN: Thank you for joining us today, Ahmed Rashid.

RASHID: Thank you so much.

Ahmed Rashid joined the chat room via telephone from Lahore, Pakistan and provided a typist. This is an edited transcript of the interview, which took place on Friday, October 19, 2001 at 11:00 am ET.


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