The News on Sunday: What is the context and significance of the Paris attacks?
Ahmed Rashid: This is not an isolated incident. It follows the bombing of the Russian plane, the Beirut and Ankara bombings, and lastly Paris — all in the space of the last eight weeks. To many commentators, this means the ISIS has declared war on the West in the same way as Osama did before 9/11 and then carried out 9/11. But I don’t think so. I think what the ISIS is doing is that it is punishing those countries that have been part of the coalition that is bombing it. And we can expect more punishing attacks against other countries.
ISIS is not acting in a defeatist mode. And by these tactics it can split the coalition; it can try and get the countries to leave the coalition. But the reaction so far seems to be that every country is going to step up the bombing of the ISIS. This makes it very different from al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda wanted to destroy the West and the capitalist system. It wanted to accentuate the West’s problems vis-a-vis the Arab states, etc.
The second thing to note is how this attack copies the tactics used by Lashkar-e-Taiba and the anti-Indian groups. And if we compare it to the Mumbai attacks of 2008, the splitting of the group into three teams, the very good reconnaissance of soft targets, the use of hand weapons and suicide bombings as the last resort, it is very similar. It also shows the ideological bent of the ISIS: they are not out there to commit suicide. They are using the old tactics which was to fight to the death. But they carry suicide belt so that they blow themselves up and be not captured. That is something they want to avoid. If they can’t be killed, they will kill themselves.
TNS: You have written about it in your recent piece in The New York Review of Books. Is it just on the level of inspiration or is the LeT involved in a more physical way with ISIS?
AR: There is no evidence to suggest that the LeT is a part of the ISIS. But I think as a tactic of war, they are very impressed [with Let]. Of course, such attacks are very complicated. You have got to get explosives, guns, bomb makers and trained personnel to use those weapons. For ISIS, to do all this in the heart of Europe is complicated. It is not like training someone in Iraq’s desert which is very easy to do compared to this.
TNS: To go back to what you said about al-Qaeda and ISIS and how they are different, is ISIS more serious about establishing a caliphate and this is only a reaction?
AR: Al-Qaeda’s aim was to first fight the faraway enemy — to fight the United States and to topple capitalism. They wanted to destroy the economic system of the West. And that is why those towers were chosen as they were in the heart of the financial system of the United States. I don’t think the ISIS is saying to the West we want to topple you and destroy your capitalist system. ISIS would probably describe these attacks as part of a defensive and not as an offensive strategy.
I think the entire focus at the moment is at defending the territory they have captured and to capture more territory, to spread wider in the Muslim world. We have seen them in Afghanistan; it seems they are in Bangladesh, they’re expanding in South Asia. I don’t think they will be very successful here. Nevertheless, they do want to expand across the Muslim world.
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TNS: Do you think this attack would weaken the ISIS in some way?
AR: What we have seen in the last forty eight hours is complete reluctance of the Western countries to put boots on the ground. Unless there is a commitment to put troops in, either to help the Iraqi government or the Kurds or the Syrian moderate opposition, we have seen a very trepid response so far from the West. Obama seems to have made that clear. Obviously, they have stepped up bombing but we all know that, after Iraq and after Afghanistan, bombing is not a sufficient answer.
TNS: Why this reluctance at this point in time?
AR: Obama wants to leave a legacy whereby he has pulled out US troops from around the world. It’s essentially a non-interventionist policy. He’s got fourteen months to go for his presidency. So, there is huge reluctance not to speak of the financial cost and there is a very strong anti-war lobby in the US. They have to be very careful because you can’t judge at the moment which way the US public will go. The sense of all this is that after all these useless wars, which they have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, they have yielded very little in terms of stability. Obama is reluctant to put troops on the ground and no European country is going to do this on its own. So, the US is now going to be the deciding factor.
What I hope and what should happen and can happen is that the US and Russia come back together again and evolve a common strategy, what these Vienna talks are hoping to do. If the next round of Vienna talks is successful and after Paris we see the Russian coalition (with Iran) and the American coalition joining hands and taking on the ISIS collectively, that could be a huge improvement.
TNS: When you talk about bringing the US and Russia together as a unified front, do you mean looking at some kind of a diplomatic solution of this problem?
AR: There are two very big cleavages today. The first is the superpower cleavage which is between Russia and America as America has imposed sanctions on Russia because of Ukraine and Russia is backing Assad, prolonging Assad’s rule. It has put troops on the ground, it is bombing, etc. The US is opposed to all this.
The second cleavage is even more dangerous — the regional cleavage between the Arab states and Iran. The Arab states consider Iran to be a greater threat than ISIS. By Arab I mean the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia, their coalition is fighting not against the ISIS but in Yemen. Many people would say that this is a complete waste of time and effort. The Arab states, which are committed to fighting the ISIS and early this year did send in bombers and air force etc., have moved out of the coalition and are focused against Yemen. That cleavage also needs to be healed. Iran is to take some positive steps to convince the Arabs that they are not trying to infiltrate into the Arab peninsula. The Arabs also need to take some positive steps towards Iran, acknowledging the nuclear deal and welcoming Iran and stop harassing the Shia populations in their territories.
So, if these two cleavages are dealt with now and healed, we could see a diplomatic solution to Syria happen quite soon. And that would be of enormous help.
TNS: Are these cleavages going to fall in the purview of the Vienna talks?
AR: It is too early to say if these cleavages are going to fall within the purview of Vienna talks. I was at a conference in the Gulf recently. Even after Paris, the antagonism against Iran by these Arab states is very severe. It will need a lot more diplomacy and measures taken by both sides before this gulf is bridged. A political solution in Syria will change the whole scenario against the ISIS. It would bring about a legitimate government in Syria, which could then ask for help from the Arab states, from the West — to combat the ISIS and regain its lost territory.
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TNS: It took quite some time to weaken al-Qaeda. How long is it going to take to destroy the ISIS?
AR: It is very difficult to say but the answer lies in what kind of unity the world is going to show against the ISIS. Remember the alliance against al-Qaeda after the 9/11. It was the whole world, including Russia. Don’t forget Nato was part of the deal and no Muslim country was left out. You have a very different situation right now where half of the world is not with the Americans; it is with the Russians. Big powers like India don’t want to get involved. They are standing out. India was giving help to America during the 9/11. So, we are looking at a very different scenario compared to 9/11.
TNS: Is it also time to look back, on the making of the ISIS and the conditions under which it came into being?
AR: I agree. ISIS has come about because of the accumulation of mistakes made by the Bush administration and its failure to rebuild Iraq after conquering Iraq and laying claim to it and allowing the situation in Syria to fester. For example, if the Vienna process had started three years ago, we would not have been in this mess. There wouldn’t be an ISIS, if we had a Russia-US rapprochement two-three years ago to save Syria.
The fact is that everybody stepped back from Syria and let the civil war continue. You know the price the Syrians have paid; half their population has become refugees and three to four hundred thousand people have been killed. It is tragic but perhaps this is not exactly the moment to start reflecting on whose mistake it was. But, historically and academically, it would be proved that the Americans really messed it up very badly.
TNS: What repercussions do you see for the Muslims in Paris and Europe, especially the refugees, the immigrants?
AR: I think the main impact is going to be on the refugee policy. This welcoming of refugees in many of the European countries is going to end. It has already ended. Sweden, the second most-friendly country to refugees after Germany, has put up border control. So has Austria. And it is going to lead to huge confrontation because the flow is not going to stop but the limits as to where this flow would go and how it will be dispersed is going to stop. And we are already reading that the Germans have sent back hundreds of Afghans who they think are economic refugees and many Pakistanis are likely to be sent back.
TNS: What do you think should be the response of the Muslims living in the West now? Is there going to be a change?
AR: There was a wonderful statement by a maulvi in Lyon or somewhere yesterday, who was saying that everybody now looks at us Muslims with suspicion and stares at us as though we were a foreign body but he said he was as much French as anyone else with a white skin. So, they have to act responsibly and convince the people around what our faith stands for.
That is a very warming message. They have to integrate better into the French society. I was saying the other day that none of these European countries who had colonial empires and who imported labour from their previous colonies have had a productive, positive integrationist policy. All their policies for creating the so-called integration have been a big failure. There is so much ghettoisation. Muslim populations are shut into a corner; they can’t seem to get ahead, educate their children, integrate, etc. So, we are dealing with a Europe which has actually failed completely. They all have different policies but no policy has been a success.
Right now, Europe is faced with two challenges: one is to evolve a new integration policy which actually does integrate Muslim communities into the mainstream and then, secondly, deal with these migrants on an emergency basis.
Imagine what would happen if a fascist or neo-fascist party came to power in Europe? It would be very serious.