Prince Ali Seraj guides MintPress through Afghan history, explaining the players and forces that have shaped the mineral-rich Central Asian nation and thwarted its chances for a better future that is more in line its glorious past.
Forced into exile by the Soviets in 1978, Afghan Prince Ali Seraj has remained instrumental in his country’s affairs, working from afar to reaffirm Afghanistan’s independence under the grip of foreign powers. A member of Afghanistan’s royal family and one of the keepers of Afghan tradition, Prince Ali has vowed to restore Afghanistan to its former glory.
Prince Ali spoke with MintPress News this month, keen to set the record straight on the “evil” — including the Taliban and radicalism — which has ravaged Afghanistan and thwarted its chances at a brilliant future.
A nationalist and a humanist, Prince Ali has a very clear understanding of what forces have been at work in the region, wielding instability and bloodshed to better redefine Central Asian geopolitics.
With regional stability very much riding on Afghanistan’s ability to assume control over its institutions and future, the insight the prince provides is invaluable. He brings clarity and historical context to an issue which concerns us all — terror.
Afghanistan has suffered a tumultuous few decades and is one of the first countries in the region to have witnessed the rise of radical Islam.
Looking back, do you think that the threat which is al-Qaida has been addressed in a satisfactory manner? How do you understand this threat today in light of events in the greater Middle East?
Prince Ali Seraj (AS):
Afghanistan issues are not black and white — there are lots of grey areas. First and foremost, it is absolutely crucial for everyone to understand that the threat which the Taliban is and has been has everything to do with Pakistan. It actually originates from Pakistan. Terror never originated from Afghanistan; it was planted in my land and imposed on my people by nefarious outside forces to ruin a land which holds so many promises. A land of plenty, my country and my people had their future ripped from their hands by an unscrupulous and evil power – Pakistan.
Ever since Afghanistan fell under the influence of the Soviet Union, Pakistan has sought to meddle within Afghanistan’s affairs, as it wants to expand its zone of influence and help create a buffer zone against India, its main challenger in the region.
When the Soviet Union came to Afghanistan, destroying everything in their wake, the tribes suddenly found themselves without a central government. The tribes of Afghanistan have historically rallied not around government policies but strong leaders. Tribal leaders seek strong leadership, not so much ideas or policies. … This is something that has eluded Western powers so far.
With a king in charge, the tribes of Afghanistan found themselves united under one banner; therefore, the country was stable. With that gone, tribal leaders began to pursue personal ambitions, leading the country to break along tribal and territorial lines. This in turn led to ethnic-related tensions and ultimately violence.
Even under Mohammed Daoud Khan’s republican system, the tribes still perceived the central government as the legitimate source of authority. Daoud was, after all, of royal blood, and they still referred to him as the king of Afghanistan. … They did not comprehend what a republic was.
When the communists took over, everything changed for the worst. Afghanistan’s unity unravelled and chaos ensued. … Under the Soviets’ system there was no longer a king to turn to or look up to; there was only a government with limited traction within Afghanistan tribal hierarchy.
Therefore, each tribe went behind its own strong leader. … The Uzbeks went to General Dostum, the Tajiks went to Massoud, the Hazaras went to Mazari, Khalil and Mohaqiq. As for the Pashtuns, they waited. With no real tribal leadership to guide them or unite them, this group remained in limbo, waiting for someone to step up to the challenge. It is this vacuum the Taliban exploited to assert control over Afghanistan and the Afghans.
The Taliban understood it needed the Pashtuns on its side if it hoped to control the country. … Pashtuns represent the ethnic majority of Afghanistan. Historically, the Pashtuns have been the warriors of Afghanistan. They always have fought to protect the country from foreign invaders. They have been the backbone of the Afghan nation for centuries. Pakistan understood this and played this to Afghanistan’s disadvantage.
Pakistan decided to bring Mullah Mohammed Omar Mujahid from across the Pakistani border to introduce him to the Afghans as one of their countrymen. Although he is a Pashtun, Mullah Omar is not and never was an Afghan. He is an impostor brought into Afghanistan by Pakistan to serve its agenda.
He entered Afghanistan with a group of Muslim zealots, who claim, the holy book in hand, that they would save Afghanistan and bring back the monarchy. … [this] of course was a lie.
They went straight to Kandahar, at the heart of Pashtun territory.
When they arrived in Kandahar, the people were already exhausted by the Soviet War and tribal in-fighting. They were, for all intents and purposes, drained out. Afghans in Kandahar no longer had a stomach for war so they laid down their weapons, hoping that the Taliban would bring back some form of order.
From Kandahar, the Taliban began to conquer Afghanistan.
In order to make the Pashtuns rally behind Mullah Omar — remember that until then the Pashtuns had no tribal or religious leader to speak of — Pakistan arranged for him to be taken to Kandahar holy mosque, where he was clothed with Prophet Muhammad’s cloak. They then gave him the title of “Emir al Moemin,” which means “leader of the faithful.” The Taliban sealed its hold over the people by sitting its legitimacy on Islam.
Mullah Omar was then sent to live somewhere in a remote mountainous location. Pakistan knew that for the charade to keep on playing they would have to remove their asset from within the public eye and reach. They could not risk seeing Mullah Omar exposed for the impostor that he is.
But Pakistan was not done with Afghanistan just yet. To gain true control, Pakistan needed fighters. And this is why they brought the likes of Osama bin Laden, who at the time was about to get thrown out of Sudan.
The ISI – Pakistan Inter-Services Intelligence – decided to bring him and some 4,000 of his Arabs to Afghanistan to fight their so-called “jihad.”
Bin Laden came with billions of dollars in his pocket. He went on to marry one of Mullah Omar’s daughters, thus sealing an alliance with the Taliban. After that, bin Laden quickly became instrumental in the rise of the Taliban and its splinter group al-Qaida.
This is how the Taliban gained control of Afghanistan – through religious manipulation and a deep understanding of Afghanistan’s tribal makeup.
Now let us jump forward to 9/11 2001 and the Twin Towers terror attack. I was in Washington at the time of the attack and advised President George W. Bush on how to engage in Afghanistan. While he took my remarks into account, his administration failed to pursue some of the policies I suggested it follow.
It took the U.S. Army only three weeks to get rid of al-Qaida and the Taliban with only 500 soldiers.
When U.S. troops first arrived in Afghanistan and initially pushed the Taliban back across the border and into Pakistan, mistakes began to happen. First and foremost, Washington did not want the world to know that Pakistan had been instrumental in creating and engineering the Taliban. It hid the truth.
Second, and this is important, the U.S. failed to understand that troops on the ground would not address any of Afghanistan’s issues.
When the U.S. “invaded” Afghanistan, followed closely by the British, the country did not need to be militarized. Afghanistan was a country exhausted by war, its economy was bankrupt. What Afghanistan needed was financial support.
Prior to the Soviet War [in Afghanistan, from 1979-1989], Afghanistan drew its resources from agriculture. Seventy to eighty percent of the population was involved in agriculture. When this sector of the economy collapsed, the whole of Afghanistan collapsed with it.
We could no longer produce our own food. … In my letter to President George W. Bush, I actually said that the U.S. should open its purse strings and help develop the Afghan economy. … Instead, the coalition spent billions of dollars on the military. Those billions of dollars could have been directed to bettering the lives of my people — but it did not happen and ultimately it allowed the Taliban and al-Qaida to stage their comeback into the country.
Allegedly, it cost the American taxpayer $1 million a year for the upkeep of each U.S. soldier. …
What really triggered the return of the Taliban and al-Qaida was America and its allies’ failure to materialize America’s Marshall Plan. This plan would have saved Afghanistan’s economy and brought stability to the country in a manner which the military would never have been able to. Unfortunately, Iraq happened and Afghanistan was put in the back burner.
Afghanistan was left to float on its own.
The Taliban found a vacuum and exploited it. The allies lost thousands of men to al-Qaida and the Taliban. Those groups were and are still funded by Pakistan ISI … . Pakistan is at the root of Afghanistan’s terror crisis.
Poverty, anti-Western sentiment, high unemployment, political instability, and lack of opportunities have played into the hands of radicals and against the very powers which came to oppose them.
This has been a trend across the region, actually. Rather than learn from their mistakes in Afghanistan, Western powers have copy-pasted their policies onto the Middle East and indivertibly helped prop up radicalism.
I fear that the Middle East will become a second Afghanistan, since the U.S. and other Western powers are following the same detrimental strategy.
The U.S. has actually fallen into the trap of the Taliban. The Taliban is like a dragon with a thousand heads, and until all heads are cut off, the U.S. should not withdraw.
Now we see foreign fighters from all over the place — Arab countries, Pakistan, Chechnya, and so on — flocking to the Taliban. … The majority of those fighters are not Afghans — this is what the people don’t know and don’t understand.
Afghanistan and Afghans are not the problem. Rather, it is the powers which dwell in Afghanistan — al-Qaida and the Taliban.
My question is: What are we going to do about the ISI? As long as Pakistan is allowed to interfere with Afghanistan there will never be peace. Pakistan is the real incubus of terror. Since 9/11, every terrorist activity worldwide has been initiated from Pakistan — 2004 Madrid train bombings, 2005 London bombings, the Shoe Bomber…”
In an opinion piece for Al-Jazeera you mention U.S. troops’ withdrawal, arguing that such a move has only led to the weakening of the Afghan army, which in turn you said prompted a resurgence in Taliban- and al-Qaida-related activities. How can Afghanistan regain control over its territories? How would you frame foreign assistance — not only militarily, but economically and politically?
“OK, I’d like to go back to the letter I sent to the White House in 2001. In it, I raised the following points, which I believe cover your question:
- Immediately make contact with the forces of Northern Alliance and ask for their assistance in supplying the ground troops. Even though Massoud [Ahmad Shah Massoud] has been assassinated, his legacy will continue the fight given the right backing. The alliance has about 15,000 fighters, with an additional 15,000 available. They have already agreed to support the U.S. plan and they have deep knowledge of the terrain and the culture of the country. Their many years of fighting experience will be very crucial in the battle for Afghanistan and the world.
- Make sure that their forces are well-supplied with every type of modern arms and ammunition with a readily available supply line to the frontlines.
- Pakistan must close all borders to Afghanistan and stop any shipment of fuel and ammunitions to the Taliban. Any Pakistani group breaking this embargo must be punished severely.
- Pakistan must recall all Pakistani religious students, civilians, and military personnel fighting in Afghanistan alongside the Taliban, to immediately return to Pakistan. Any Pakistan national arrested in Afghanistan thereafter must be treated as an enemy of the world.
- The former king of Afghanistan must be asked to come out of retirement and once and for all call upon his countrymen, across all ethnicities, to stand shoulder to shoulder with the world and help free the nation from the jaws of evil. He is still well-respected, and we feel that the citizenry will respond positively to his call. If he refuses, then he should be bypassed immediately for a younger leader or leaders acceptable to all Afghans and not just one segment of the population. Unless an acceptable multi-ethnic leadership group acceptable to all could be established, or the Loya Jirga (Grand Council) could be convened to pick a leader, a viable candidate could be the son of King Amanullah (1919-1929), Crown Prince Ehsanullah, who resides in Geneva. If he does not accept, then another member of the same family could be selected. The reason for this is that the king and the Amanullah family/King Habibullah family cut across all ethnic groups. The people know and trust them.
- Once the Northern Alliance ground troops are activated, then the U.S. and its allies must give total air support to the alliance for the duration of the battle. This is where the air strikes are important. The way must be cleared for the advance of the ground troops, especially if in the beginning no more than the 30,000 troops can be mustered. Care must be taken for the stinger missiles that still may be in the hands of the Taliban.
- Once the Taliban government is toppled, then the king, or former President Rabbani, or any such other person as acceptable to the populace, can be put in charge of a new government.
- The U.S. and its allies must immediately, through the U.N., assign a security force made up from countries that have not been involved in the Afghanistan turmoil. These troops could come from Turkey, Bangladesh, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and other such countries.
- The U.S.A. must establish a no-fly zone over Afghanistan, and until such time the new nation can re-establish its own military sector, [the U.S.] must provide it with the necessary ground and air security.
- Immediately, steps must be taken to provide Afghanistan with funds for the redevelopment and re-building of its infrastructure.
- Steps must be taken for the repatriation of the millions of refugees residing in Pakistan and Iran.
- Immediate steps must be taken to clear all the landmines left behind by the Soviets.
- Care must be taken that even if the Taliban hands over bin Laden, the Taliban government must be neutralized in order to prevent other terrorists waiting in the wings to take over bin Laden’s place.
Ever since the Soviets marched onto my country, laying waste any hope of unity and stability, I have argued that Afghanistan’s future [must] remain the hands of the tribes – that is their ability to rally around a common cause for the greater good of the people.
My life’s work has revolved around the promotion of this very simple, yet powerful idea. United, the Afghans can defeat any enemies, … separated, the Afghans are no longer a people, only a patchwork of tribes living side by side … no cohesion, no unity, no common thread to bring them together.
Afghanistan needs not a mercenary army whose loyalty is to its bankrollers. … Back in the old days each tribe had their own soldiers, and those soldiers would be mobilized should the need arise to defend the homeland. We need to go back to such a system. As it stands, Afghanistan’s National Army is not yet ready to defend the country against such a well-armed and well-funded enemy — the Taliban. How can we hope to defeat our enemies if we cannot achieve unity within society? People need to be rallied around a banner which they recognize. … The state needs to provide this, … otherwise I’m afraid Afghanistan will continue to stumble in the dark, looking for a sense of direction.
Now another point I would like to make: To assume that Afghanistan knows nothing of democracy and political self-determination proves to me that most do not know and do not understand the first thing about Afghanistan. Our tribal system is based on popular legitimacy, which, if I’m not mistaken, is the very basis of democracy. Tribal leaders cannot rule unless they have the support of their people. While this might fall in line with Western powers’ democratic experience, dismissing such a system would be not only dismissive and prejudiced but also short-sighted. As there are many forms of governments – parliamentary monarchies, presidential republics, parliamentary republics, and so on – there are too many ways to live in democracy.
The West has failed Afghanistan, and it is high time we return to the drawing table to devise a new strategy more in keeping with Afghans’ history and inner makeup.
More than anything, Afghanistan needs its tribes to be united. … If not, the Taliban and al-Qaida will never be defeated and chaos will only spread.”
Afghanistan is a key geostrategic jewel – it has been estimated that the country holds $3 trillion in untapped mineral deposits. In addition, Afghanistan offers an invaluable geographic vantage point, overlooking Iran, Pakistan, Russia and China.
Would you say that Afghanistan has become a battleground for foreign powers because of the riches its ground holds and its strategic importance in the region, as many analysts seem to believe?
It was Professor Michel Chossudovsky who wrote that, “The War on Afghanistan is a profit-driven resource war.”
“Afghanistan has over 10,000 mines, it is home to many precious rare metals and gems. It has lithium, which by itself is worth several billions of dollars. But mining in Afghanistan is not easy because of its mountainous terrain. Mining in Afghanistan is a costly and time-consuming affair, which is why the mining industry has remained this far under-developed. Companies would have to invest considerable amounts of money before seeing any tangible returns, which, paired with political instability and insecurity, has created a negative environment.
Such reality has meant that foreign investors, like China, for example, have been reluctant to commit funds and resources to Afghanistan.
Oil resources could be easily exploited, though.
But Afghanistan’s value is really geostrategic in my opinion. Foreign powers are using Afghanistan as a stick over Asia. We are still playing the Great Game. … As it so happens, little has changed over the past century — different faces, same agendas.
The Afghans have been the real losers here. … They are the ones paying the price.”
Do you agree with those analysts who have claimed that the United States is using Islamic radicalism as an excuse to justify military intervention? Many have argued that the U.S. has used terror as a weapon to push and expand its military foothold in Central Asia and thus assert its control over some of the richest regions of the world.
“No, I don’t agree with such assessments. The United States did not know what was going on in Afghanistan. … If anything, the U.S. was taken by surprise. The U.S. has been playing catch-up ever since 2001.
In 1979, when Carter was president, I took a delegation of Afghans to meet with Sen. Church, who was at the time the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, to tell him that if the U.S. were to take its eye off Afghanistan it would lose Iran.
At the time, the administration was not paying attention. The Carter administration assumed that our motivations were selfish, that all we wanted was our throne. … They did not listen to our warnings.
Fast forward a decade, and al-Qaida arrived in Afghanistan and Iran went to Khomeini.
When Reagan became president, things changed. He actually welcomed my input and his people called on me several times seeking advice on Afghanistan. This is when Washington began to pay attention, but by then the U.S. was already out of the loop.”
I’d like to go back to a point which you raised in your Al-Jazeera piece: Islam and the Taliban. You mention that the Taliban “needs to be challenged religiously.”
So far, Afghanistan and its Western allies have concentrated their efforts on challenging both the Taliban and al-Qaida in the battlefields, often playing directly into those radicals’ narrative – this idea that the West has come to lay waste Islam and its people.
How would you go about and defeat radicals?
“The Taliban must be challenged on Islam. They must be shown to have violated Islamic principles and the Pashtun honor code, known as Pashtunwali. The government must generate a debate and sow doubt.
The pillar of Islamists’ rhetoric is that they are engaged in a war against a non-Islamic occupying force — this must be challenged and destroyed. The government must stress that the only invaders are those agitators infiltrating from neighboring countries, intent on destabilizing and destroying Afghanistan. They should also mount a media campaign identifying suicide bombers — mostly non-Afghan nationals — and highlighting the hardship caused to innocent civilians.
Following the Taliban’s own example, the government should also make better use of TV, radio and social media. It should show those who are standing on the sidelines the true murderous face of the Taliban.
When a Taliban suicide bomber enters a mosque on Friday prayers at a time when it is most busy and yells, “Allah O Akbar” before blowing himself up, he is really killing Muslims in the name of Allah. That is a great sin and the gatekeepers of Islam must make an issue of this and condemn this action vocally and through the media.
It is crucial we destroy the ideology before driving all Taliban militants out.
Afghans need also to take responsibility for what has happened to Afghanistan. … We cannot keep blaming foreign powers for our troubles, as we have been instrumental in our downfall.
Afghanistan is an old nation, a nation which has withstood many invaders and through it all prevailed.
What Afghanistan needs more than anything is a strong unifying leadership, which will command respect from the tribes and inspire the people to stand once more for what is theirs. We are looking at the newly elected coalition government to fulfil this agenda. When this will happen, there will be no stopping the Afghan nation.
We have survived centuries of hardship and invasions from the hordes of Genghis, armies of Alexander, troops of the British Empire, to the forces of the Red Army. We will survive.”