On the evening of September 11, Pakistani-born journalist Ahmed Rashid was sitting in the book-lined study of his home in Lahore, Pakistan, with the television on. He watched with horror as attacks began on the United States—first in New York, then in Washington, D.C. Like many others who saw it happen, he wanted his family close, calling his wife and two teenage children into the room. But unlike most witnesses to the devastation, he also knew instantly who was responsible.
"My gut reaction immediately was that no one but [Osama] bin Laden could have done this," says Rashid, an internationally renowned investigative journalist and expert on Afghanistan and Central Asia who spoke to PW by telephone when he was recently in London. Shortly after the attacks, Rashid called Yale University Press, the U.S. publisher of his 2000 book Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil, & Fundamentalism in Central Asia, telling the house "to get ready." Yale went to press for several thousand more copies of the book, which turned out to be conservative: before September 11, Taliban had sold a very respectable 15,000 copies, but after the tragedy, it began climbing the bestseller charts, spending five weeks on the New York Times list and becoming the first book from a university press ever to reach the coveted #1 spot.
But Rashid was not exactly celebrating. "It was unbelievable, of course. But my book was a success on the back of such a horror. I was very subdued; I wasn't exactly ringing up my friends or having parties," he says.
What he was doing was answering the phone, which started ringing incessantly two days later, after the United States identified bin Laden as the prime suspect and announced that the Taliban government of Afghanistan was harboring him. Rashid did one interview after another, speaking to as many as 60 journalists a day, while also managing to continue his own work as a correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review and the Daily Telegraph of London.
As his book became required reading for politicians as well as members of the media, Rashid became a trusted source for such international figures as Tony Blair, Kofi Annan and the foreign ministers of France, Germany and Turkey. "Several of them said that they wished they had taken notice of what was going on much earlier, which was very gratifying," he says. "But the biggest vindication for me as a Pakistani was when General Musharraf had to change his policy and stop backing the Taliban. In my books, and publicly, I'd been a huge critic of his policy."
The success of Taliban is all the more startling when one realizes that it almost never saw the light of day. Rashid says that when he came to London in the summer of 1999 to sell the manuscript, almost no one was interested. "A literary agent even pooh-poohed it and said I'd never be able to publish it," he remembers. Finally, one of the editors at HarperCollins nibbled. "About a week later, HarperCollins had a big cleanout and canceled about 100 authors, including me," Rashid says. He eventually sold the book to I.B. Tauris, and the rest is history. "The funny thing is that now I have a niece who works for HarperCollins in New York, and she's been calling me, asking for my next book," he chuckles.
Rashid typically puts in what he describes as "16- to 18-hour days" writing, working and promoting his new Open Media Fund for Afghanistan, which he officially launched in New York in early February. The initiative seeks to provide reading materials, restock libraries destroyed by the Taliban, train journalists and promote a free press in the new Afghanistan. It will be privately funded—some of it coming from Rashid himself, who is donating about a quarter of his royalties from the sale of his books. "I'm very conscious of the fact that journalistically, I've made a living off of Afghanistan for the last 20 years. This is my way of giving something back." Suddenly having money, he admits, is a bit strange, but it "doesn't mean very much."
Rashid will be returning to the United States in to promote his new book, Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia. He completed the manuscript last June and has updated it slightly to reflect the world after September 11. Originally slated for June 2002, Yale stepped up production for a February 25 release. The book traces the legacy of religion and brutality in the Central Asian nations of Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan—former Soviet republics too many Americans know next to nothing about. Rashid argues that the harsh repression of religion under Soviet rule left the region wide-open to the rise of militant Islamic groups after the Soviet Union's collapse, and that the continued repression of mainstream, tolerant Islam by the former republics' new regimes only fuels the anger these fringe groups. Yale will do a 50,000-copy initial print run and expects the book to be a major player on the news circuit.
He has no immediate plans to do another book, though he now has an agent. "I want to spend a year just setting up my fund and doing some reporting," he explains. "Ultimately, a book will have to be written about the changes in this region because of the war." However, he cautions, it will take some time for serious journalists "to absorb what has happened. There are going to be a lot of instant books coming out about the war and about terrorism, and I think that instant books that deal with this part of the world are just the worst kind of mistake."