For three decades, Ahmed has been investigating the nexus between the Pakistan military and extremist groups, roving tribal lands in between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Over the years, his books and articles have been translated into all local languages, spawning many enemies “bearded and non-bearded” who accuse him of undermining his religion and his state. He’s received so many death threats that he lives in a house encased in sheet metal. A spindly man with a fat shotgun guards the iron gate entrance.
Knowledge is a dangerous thing for Ahmed. When I told the Pakistani Press counselor in DC that I would be visiting Ahmed, I was told "not to put that in writing because Islamabad won't accept your request." Ahmed's family shares the burden. Over a pasta lunch, Ahmed’s Spanish wife tells me with a laugh how anxious her family back home still is about her safety, two decades after she left Spain. Their eighteen-year-old daughter chuckles, and pets one of their three dogs.
Ahmed believes his research is worth the risk. The mountains and valleys surrounding Afghanistan are among the least understood parts of the globe, he says. And he believes his findings help policymakers understand and alleviate tensions in the volatile region. He's shared his research with the world and has had high hopes, particularly for successive U.S. administrations. In recent years that hope has been dashed.
Until Bush came into office, Ahmed thought his words mattered to America. In the 1980s, he discussed Islamic resistance with ambassadors over tea. In the 1990s, he collaborated with policymakers to raise Afghanistan's profile in the Clinton White House. But during the Bush administration, he feels his risky research has been for naught.
The administration has "actively rejected expertise and embraced ignorance," Ahmed told me inside his fortress. Soon after the Taliban fled Kabul in late 2001, Ahmed visited Washington DC's policy elite as “the flavor of the month.” His bestseller Taliban had come out just the year before. The State Department, USAID, the National Security Council and the White House all asked him to present lectures on how to stabilize post-war Afghanistan.
Ahmed traversed the city’s bureaucracies and think tanks repeating “one common sense line”: In Afghanistan you have a “population on its knees, with nothing there, absolutely livid with the Taliban and the Arabs of Al Qaeda . . . willing to take anything.” The U.S. could "rebuild Afghanistan very quickly, very cheaply and make it a showcase in the Muslim world that says ‘Look U.S. intervention is not all about killing and bombing; it’s also about rebuilding and reconstruction…about American goodness and largesse.”
Many lifelong bureaucrats specializing in the region shared Ahmed's enthusiasm, and they agreed that after decades of violence, America could finally turn Afghanistan around through aid. But the biggest players in Bush's government, Ahmed says, had already shifted their attention to Iraq "abandoning Afghanistan at its moment of need."
America has done the same thing to Pakistan, says Ahmed. After 9/11, the current administration embraced Musharraf’s military regime unquestioningly because it waved a big stick and assured Bush it would smash terrorists with it. America took Musharraf at his word. Meanwhile the dictator "pursued a dual strategy," hoarding U.S. funds while letting pockets of extremism grow.
For years Ahmed has been accusing Musharraf of deceit and calling for America to pressure him to democratize. Now, Ahmed says, America’s vocal, singular focus on terrorism makes it "virtually impossible to convince average Pakistanis that the war against extremism is not just America’s war, it is theirs too.” This lack of local buy-in exacerbates the threat of transnational terror.
From Ahmed's hazardous vantage point, short-sighted political appointees have overruled America's foreign policy bureaucracy, making expertise like his less relevant -- and that has created a more hazardous region for everyone.
Still, Ahmed hopes the U.S. will start listening to people like him and take a long view in their engagement with Pakistan and Afghanistan, beyond the current 'War on Terror.' Otherwise, Ahmed says, history will keep catching up with the U.S., especially if the Americans in charge ignore it.