Ahmed Rashid is the author of Pakistan on the Brink: The Future of America, Pakistan, and Afghanistan and several books on Afghanistan and Central Asia. He lives in Lahore. (April 2015)

Pakistan: The Army Steps In

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and army chief General Raheel Sharif, Islamabad, Pakistan, August 14, 2015

The suicide bomber who killed seventy-two people on Easter Sunday in a park in Lahore, Pakistan has drawn condemnation from around the world. Far less noted, however, has been the attack’s devastating effect on relations between Pakistan’s army and civilian government, which threatens to bring further instability to the country’s Punjab heartland.

Afghanistan: Threatening News

The Tolo TV news studio, in Kabul, Afghanistan, October 18, 2015

At least seven people were killed when, January 20 in Kabul, a suicide bomber drove a car laden with explosives into a minibus taking forty journalists and staff of Afghanistan’s Tolo TV home after a day at the office. With the Tolo TV massacre, public patience for President Ashraf Ghani is running out.

From Mumbai to Paris

Police searching for a suspect of the Paris attacks in Brussels, Belgium, November 16, 2015

Much of the ISIS playbook in Paris—the meticulous planning, the selection of soft targets, the multiple simultaneous attacks by different teams used to create a sense of chaos in the streets, the mayhem created—was inspired by the extremist group LET’s attack in Mumbai in 2008. LET’s most important innovation in jihadi warfare is the use of mass attacks on civilian targets.

Can Afghanistan Hold On?

Afghan National Police on patrol in Kunduz Province, Afghanistan, November 2009

For the new Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour, the current Afghan offensive is a shrewd political move. Now, the entire Afghan state is threatened. The government in Kabul has already lost most of its popular support, and may not survive another major victory by the Taliban—especially if a large Afghan city is captured.

Why We Need al-Qaeda

Residents of Idlib, northern Syria, celebrating Jabhat al-Nusra's defeat of government forces, April 24, 2015

The Arab Spring is now on the verge of turning into an Islamic 
fundamentalist winter, whether we like it or not. With Arab money and persuasion, al-Qaeda’s Syrian and Yemeni branches have changed profoundly and are gaining capacity for local governance. However
 distasteful the jihadist ideology behind them, these efforts suggest an
 alternative that may be considerably less threatening than the Islamic State.

Russia: Twenty Feet from War

Russian Sukhoi Su-27 jet fighters perform during an air show in St. Petersburg, Russia, April 25, 2015

At the Tallinn conference, Baltic presidents and NATO officials were unusually blunt in describing how Russia poses the gravest threat to peace since World War II, and how the conflict in Ukraine and the loss of the Crimea has left the Baltic states on the front line of an increasingly hostile standoff. Amid these tensions, the thought of a plane crash leading to war seems scarily plausible.

The Fierce Pressures Facing Pakistan

Pakistani Shiite Muslims protesting a suicide bomb attack on a Shiite mosque in Peshawar with portraits of the victims, February 20, 2015. At least twenty-three people were killed in the attack on February 13, for which the Taliban claimed responsibility.
No one should be surprised to read that in Pakistan the army has taken charge, established military courts, derailed democracy, brought television and other media under military control. Nor should one be surprised to learn that foreign policy and national security were being directly run by the army. Many similar situations have occurred in Pakistan since 1958, when the army first came to power in a gradual coup, declared martial law, and ruled for a decade. The country has for years been under partial military rule, outright martial law, or military authority disguised as presidential rule. But the arrangement that has evolved over the last six months is the strangest so far.

Waking Up to the New al-Qaeda

A suspected al-Qaeda militant (center) holding an Islamist banner,

Almost from the moment the massacre at Charlie Hebdo was first reported last week, there was speculation that the attack might have been tied to ISIS. But while ISIS represents an extraordinary threat of its own, the Paris attacks have demonstrated that the greatest danger to the West is al-Qaeda’s Yemen branch.

ISIS: What the US Doesn’t Understand

ISIS fighters in a military parade in northern Raqqa province, Syria, June 30, 2014

In contrast to al-Qaeda, ISIS has not made the US and its allies its main target. Where al-Qaeda directed its anger at the “distant enemy,” the United States, ISIS wants to destroy the near enemy, the Arab regimes, first. This is above all a war within Islam.

Pakistan: The Allure of ISIS

Pakistani Taliban at a training camp in South Waziristan, Pakistan, December, 2011

The Pakistani Taliban’s new announcement of support for ISIS is a startling indication of how much ISIS is changing the jihadist landscape. For a younger generation of Islamic militants in Pakistan and Afghanistan, it suggests a readiness to bring ISIS-style tactics to their own campaigns.

ISIS: The New Taliban

A fighter with an ISIS flag and weapon in Mosul, Iraq, June 23, 2014

Like the Taliban, ISIS’s political outlook is distinct from both traditional Islamic fundamentalist parties, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, and global terrorism organizations like al-Qaeda. The extreme version of Islam it imposes terrifies local populations and demoralizes armies and governments. But as the Taliban showed before it, this way of ruling cannot constitute a viable political program.

Pakistan: Worse Than We Knew

A pro-Taliban rally in Quetta, the capital of Pakistan’s Balochistan province, circa 2002
For forty years Pakistan has been backing Islamic extremist groups as part of its expansionist foreign policy in Afghanistan and Central Asia and its efforts to maintain equilibrium with India, its much larger enemy. Now Pakistan is undergoing the worst terrorist backlash in the entire region.

Why, and What, You Should Know About Central Asia

An Uzbek patrol in the Fergana Valley, on the Uzbekistan–Kyrgyzstan border, 2002
Central Asia has reached a turning point and what comes next really worries it. Will the Taliban return to conquer Afghanistan and open the way for the Central Asian Islamist groups that are closely linked to al-Qaeda and have increased their forces while based in Pakistan? Will populist riots reminiscent of the Arab Spring sweep through the region? Will the weaker states, lacking economic resources, become hostage to China or Russia? Will the most important regional organization help them overcome instability or will it continue to help them avoid making serious reforms?

Pakistan: A New Beginning?

Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan's presumptive prime minister, campaigning in Lahore, Pakistan, May 9, 2013

Although opposition leader Nawaz Sharif was favored going into Pakistan’s fraught parliamentary elections on Saturday, nobody predicted that his party would win so convincingly. The weeks leading up to the vote were marred by the worst election violence in the country’s history, combined with widespread fear that a divided electorate would fail to produce a government with sufficient clout to deal with growing intolerance, multiple insurgencies, and an imploding economy. But the strong victory by Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (PML) amid high voter turnout now holds the promise of greater stability—and with it the possibility that a civilian government might at last be equipped to tackle some of these challenges.

Pakistan’s Extremist Democracy

The aftermath of a bomb that killed 84 people at a Shia market in Quetta, Pakistan, February 16, 2013

This spring was supposed to open a new chapter in Pakistan’s tenuous embrace of inclusive democracy. At midnight on March 17, following constitutional rules, the Pakistan government of Asi Ali Zardari stepped down and the national assembly was dissolved, in preparation for national elections in May, which will mark the first time the country passes from one elected leadership to another. And yet a terrifying escalation of extremist attacks against religious minorities and aid workers since the start of the year has shown the government and the security forces’ utter failure to deal with a festering culture of intolerance.

A New Conflict in Kashmir?

Indian troops patrolling the Line of Control between India and Pakistan in Kashmir, January 2013.

For nearly a decade, despite constant tensions—and even large-scale terrorist violence—between Pakistan and India, there is one thing the two nuclear-armed states have kept largely intact: their 2003 cease-fire agreement in Kashmir. Over the past week, however, that agreement has suddenly seemed in danger of unraveling, with alarming killings along the defacto border between Indian and Pakistani Kashmir and threats of further escalation by senior officials on both sides. Though it has until now received little attention in the international press, this new confrontation poses a grave threat to the entire region. We ignore it at our peril.

Why I Love Leonard Cohen

At Cambridge University in the 1960s, we marched against the Vietnam War to the songs of Bob Dylan, but romanced young ladies to the poetry and songs of Leonard Cohen. Together, the poetry of Dylan and Cohen was the epitome of good taste—demanding political commitment, spiritual yearning, romantic obsession, and a great deal of intense discussion.

The Return of ‘The Runaway General’

President Barack Obama and General Stanley McChrystal at the White House, May 2009
When Soviet forces began to pull out of Afghanistan in 1988 they were leaving behind a mixed group of Afghan forces, much as the Americans will be leaving behind a mixed group when they complete their pullout in 2014. First, there was the president of the pro-Soviet Republic of Afghanistan, …

Why Are We Abandoning the Afghans?

A young Afghan National Army soldier playing volleyball on the grounds of the battle-scarred Darulaman Palace outside Kabul, March 23, 2012. The former king's residence, the palace was destroyed in the 1990s during heavy fighting in Afghanistan's civil war.

What will Afghanistan look like in 2014, after a dozen years of occupation, more than 2,800 NATO soldiers killed, and an expenditure of $1 trillion? If the participants in this week’s NATO summit in Chicago are to be believed, what they will leave behind is little more than a series of fortresses in enemy territory: Kabul and the other major cities will be protected by Afghan forces, while the countryside falls back into the hands of the Taliban. NATO leaders all but acknowledged that much of Kandahar and Helmand provinces—where 30,000 US marines had launched “the surge” two years ago to root out the Taliban—would quickly revert back to Taliban control once the Americans left.

Security vs. Reconciliation: The Afghan Conundrum

A woman waiting for a taxi, Herat, Afghanistan, February 6, 2012

Presidents Barack Obama and Hamid Karzai are both entangled in a series of strategic conundrums, which so far have not been addressed. Karzai is determined to secure an agreement with the US allowing for the presence of US trainers and special forces in the country well beyond 2014. Washington would like to do the same, while also pursuing reconciliation talks with the Taliban. But the Taliban are vehemently opposed to any such US-Kabul agreement and will only agree to a deal with Kabul when all foreign troops have left. Thus Karzai will find it impossible to conclude both a security agreement with the US and a reconciliation agreement with the Taliban. The two aims are mutually exclusive.

Hope in a Sea of Dictatorship

An elderly woman heading to a polling station in the village of Kyzyl Birlik, outside the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek, October 30, 2011.

Pakistan’s decision to close down US and NATO supply routes to Afghanistan has forced Washington to rely on Central Asian countries that are hardly known for democracy and rule of law. Tajikistan is a base for Islamic extremists, while Uzbekistan, which controls the main northern supply route to Afghanistan, has only deepened its reputation for large-scale human rights abuses. And yet there is some exceptionally good news from the fledgling republic of Kyrgyzstan, which has shown itself determined to establish a working democracy. Will the US, with ever fewer options in Afghanistan and Pakistan, be able to capitalize on the all-too-overlooked Kyrgyz example?

Afghanistan: A New Sectarian War?

People from the Hazara Shia community, Afghanistan, 2006.

Throughout a decade of terrible conflict in their country, there is one kind of violence Afghans have largely avoided: between Sunni and Shia. On December 6, however, all that changed. In coordinated attacks aimed at Shiite Muslims in three Afghan cities, bombs killed 63 people and wounded 150. Lashkar-e-Jhangyi, a Pakistani militant group affiliated with al-Qaeda, has claimed responsibility for the attacks. Its aim appears to be to start a sectarian civil war.

What the Taliban Say They Want

A photograph believed to be of Mullah Mohammed Omar
An important message by Mullah Mohammed Omar, the leader of the Taliban movement in Afghanistan, has been released on the occasion of Eid—the end of Ramadan.* It is the longest and by far the most forward-looking political message he has ever sent, offering the Taliban’s latest views on several …

What the Taliban Want

A photo believed to be of Mohammed Omar

An important message by Mullah Mohammed Omar, the leader of the Taliban movement in Afghanistan, has been released on the occasion of Eid—the end of Ramadan. It is the longest and by far the most forward-looking political message he has ever sent, offering the Taliban’s latest views on several central issues that are uppermost in the minds of US and NATO leaders, Afghans, and governments around the region as the US begins a withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan.

Pakistan: Al-Qaeda Now

Osama bin Laden, the tall, shy, lanky, but mesmerizing Saudi, gripped the imagination of tens of thousands of Muslims for three decades and became the bane of the world’s armies and intelligence agencies. His ideology of global jihad and his acts of terrorism changed the way we all live, our …

Pakistan and al-Qaeda’s Future

Local people outside the compound where Osama bin Laden was caught and killed late Monday, Abbottabad, Pakistan, May 3, 2011

For three decades Osama bin Laden, the tall, shy, lanky, but mesmerizing Saudi, has gripped the imagination of tens of thousands of Muslims and became the bane of the world’s armies and intelligence agencies. Now he has been killed in a US commando raid on his safe house thirty miles from Islamabad, ten years after he carried out the worst attack ever suffered by the United States and the worst terrorist atrocity in human history. His ideology of global jihad and his acts of terrorism changed the way we all live, our security concerns, and how we conduct politics and business while deeply scarring relations between the Muslim world and the West; his death will have similarly large-scale effects. Many of the security challenges we now face will be more subtle and intricate than the threats posed by al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups in the past.

An Army Without a Country

Protesters rallying to condemn the death of Shahbaz Bhatti, Lahore, March 2, 2011

The assassination on Wednesday of Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s Federal Minister of Minorities, killed in broad daylight in Islamabad by four gunmen is one of the most shameful acts of political violence committed by Pakistani extremists. That it comes just two months after the murder of Salman Taseer, the Governor of Punjab and one of the countrys’ leading liberal voices makes it all the more chilling. Yet the government and state’s reaction to the two killings has been even more shameful—raising the disturbing possibility that extremism is still being used by the security services in its efforts to oppose Western policies in the region.

The Way Out of Afghanistan

War is always a mixture of different, conflicting stories, depending on whether you are crouching in a ditch or sipping tea at the presidential palace. To have dinner with Petraeus and tea with President Hamid Karzai is a central part of the story, as is journeying to the edge of the city to tiny, unlit, unheated flats to talk to former senior Taliban officials who want to explain to you how the Americans and the Taliban can make peace. Everyone tells you the endgame has started in Afghanistan but nobody can tell you how it will end.

Tajikistan: The Next Jihadi Stronghold?

An image taken from Russian Independent Television showing Tajiks looking on after a car loaded with explosives blew up in the Tajik capital Dushanbe, January 31, 2005

It is autumn in Dushanbe, the Tajik capital, and for a brief moment, the weather is stunningly beautiful—perfectly crisp and sunny, but not cold. Much of the city’s low-lying, subdued architecture—a particular Central Asian hybrid—is quite attractive; the broad avenues, lined with large pine and chestnut trees, remind you a bit of Paris. But the atmosphere in Tajikstan, which shares an 800-mile border with northern Afghanistan, is anything but calm.

NATO’s Dangerous Wager with Karzai

At the close of its summit meeting in Lisbon on Saturday, NATO announced it had reached an agreement with the Afghan government to continue combat operations in Afghanistan for years to come. But it is far from clear that these plans—which postpone a transfer of responsibility for security to Afghan forces until 2014—will find much support in Kabul. Afghan president Hamid Karzai is a changed man. His worldview now is decidedly anti-Western. When I spoke with him earlier this month at the presidential palace in Kabul, Karzai told me that the US has been unable to bring peace to Afghanistan or to secure cooperation from Pakistan, which continues to give sanctuary to the Taliban. He rejects the barrage of US criticism at his government on issues like corruption and poor administration and says the original sin of all these faults lies with the Americans.