Olivier Roy is one of the world’s leading experts on Afghanistan. He is a Senior Fellow at the National Center for Scientific Research in France. Mr. Roy has written many books on Afghanistan and political Islam, including a forthcoming work, “Globalized Islam,” which is scheduled for publication in 2004. This interview was conducted by Julie Sirrs on November 10, 2003.
TM: How would you rate the success so far of the US-led military campaign in Afghanistan?
Roy: The US military campaign has been a success, but as usual the political dimension has been overlooked, though for very different reasons than for Iraq. In Afghanistan, the US administration never wanted to be involved in any kind of “reshaping” or state building. It was a police operation, not a long term process of reshaping the area. Hence the fact that there are less than 10,000 US troops. If you add the ISAF forces, the ratio between population on one hand and occupying troops on the other is far better than in Iraq, because the US and Western troops in Afghanistan have been able to find enough proxies — even bad guys — and to install a state — even weak.
TM: Do you believe the Taliban or some other force could eventually succeed in collapsing the Afghan government?
Roy: I do not think that the Taliban could succeed in collapsing the Karzaï regime. That could be done only through a chain of events — withdrawal of US troops, regrouping of a Pashtun majority against the Karzaï regime and dereliction of the northern warlords.
TM: What do you think would be the best form of government for Afghanistan?
Roy: Federalism can’t work in Afghanistan, because federalism means domestic borders: fixing them would create a mess. A loose central government, with the monopoly of foreign relations, is the best option. It may become strong, but it does not need to be at the beginning, if it is considered by
the neighboring countries and the international community as the sole representative of the Afghan people. It means also that there should be only one strong man, whether the president or the prime minister.
TM: What is your opinion of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s ability to attract Afghans to his side now that he has resurfaced?
Roy: Hekmatyar could not attract many Afghans; he is a man of the past too, but he could bring support and experience to any anti-Karzaï Pashtun coalition. He has a great capacity for nuisance, because he has people who are dedicated and well trained.
TM: What do you believe was Iran’s motivation in releasing Hekmatyar?
Roy: Hekmatyar was not in jail in Iran, but in some sort of guesthouse. Iran has always dreamed of having an Islamic Pashtun Sunni connection in Afghanistan. They always failed to attract his loyalty but they tried very hard. They expelled Hekmatyar because they did not want to be accused of
harboring any anti-US radical elements and because they ceased to consider that they could manipulate him, although there certainly remain some ties between Iran’s intelligence apparatus and Hekmatyar, as a sort of routine contact, but with no political strategy.
TM: What is your view of the role Pakistan is playing today in Afghanistan?
Roy: Pakistan is deliberately undermining the Karzaï regime. They cannot stand the present government in Kabul. For them it is the renewal of the traditional Kabul/ New Delhi axis. They encourage any force fighting Karzaï while avoiding being caught red-handed by the Americans.
TM: Do you believe that al Qaida and the Taliban represent additional examples of the failure of political Islam?
Roy: Yes, both never cared about creating a true Islamic state; they put forward sharia, jihad and umma, not economy, social justice, or state institutions. While Turabi (a true Islamist) expelled Bin Laden in order to save his regime from US retaliation, the Taliban destroyed their own
“state” in the name of brotherhood with Bin Laden.
The Taliban are the sort of neo-fundamentalists I described in my “Failure of Political Islam.” Bin Laden also is not interested in the Islamic revolution: he wants the West to collapse first; he is an internationalist and does not care about establishing an Islamic state in a given country even
as a first step.
They do not create true political parties, front organizations — youth, unions, intellectuals, not to mention a women’s association which all the [other] Islamists did, from Hizbullah to Iran, Muslim Brotherhood, Refah etc. They do not bother about creating a political alternative to Western influence
and civilization, as all the Islamists claim to do: they ignore the political level and will be defeated for that very reason.
TM: How do you believe al Qaida and the Taliban can best be confronted in Afghanistan?
Roy: In Afghanistan, one should first push for a central government with more Pashtun participation. Karzaï is the right man in the right place. One should strengthen him and allow him to control the national army by putting it under his direct control. Ethnic balance in the government is the big
TM: What do you see as the greatest challenge ahead for Afghanistan?
Roy: The greatest challenge ahead is the ethnic divide between Pashtuns and non-Pashtuns, and more precisely the merging of Islamic fundamentalism with Pashtun identity, as illustrated by the coalition which took power in Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province.
TM: What do you think the world community and particularly the US should do to stabilize Afghanistan?
Roy: One of the first things to do is to coordinate the political and the military level among the international community. Fighting the Taliban is not a separate activity from state building. There should be a global and coherent approach (military, politics, development), aimed at strengthening
Karzaï, the state, and dealing in a pragmatic way with the local leaders in order to gain time for building the state. A second issue is Pakistan: more pressure should be added to decrease the de facto support they are giving to the opponents.
TM: Where do you think Usama bin Ladin is now? If he is in Pakistan, what do you think the US should do about it?
Roy: If bin Ladin is alive, he is in Pakistan. The Pakistanis are reluctant to go after him because it could mean a sudden increase in tensions with the radicals. They may also keep him to deliver him at a time of possible tension with Washington, which they did with Ramzi, Kansi, Sheykh Mohammed, Omar Sheykh, etc. to show that they are loyal allies and to be sure the US will close its eyes on other
The US will not intervene massively in Pakistan because the Americans don’t want to be embroiled there for military reasons and don’t want — this time for political reasons — to put into question the loyalty of the Pakistani regime. Moving against him could be possible only if the intelligence is so precise that a very punctual and short operation with special troops is feasible. But a failure — US troops massacred in Pakistan or bin Ladin escaping — would have a tremendous negative impact. But the consequence is that US troops are condemned to stay on the Afghan side of the border, while the others are given sanctuary on what has become Talibanistan — NWFP and Baluchistan provinces. It is an untenable position in the long term.