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on July 11, 2008
Ahmed Rashid has long been a leading expert on Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Muslim states of Central Asia that were once part of the Soviet Union. In 2000, the year before 9/11, he published 'Taliban', a book which politicians rushed to read after the attack on the Twin Towers; and if Central Asia catches fire, they will doubtlessly rush to his following book, 'Jihad', first published in 2002, which is an equally authoritative account of the dangers lurking in that area.

After a brilliant introduction of 21 pages, the first three chapters of the present book give the story of American involvement in Afghanistan before 9/11. The characteristic unreliability of American policy is brought out: help given to the Islamic forces and to Pakistan while the Soviets were in Afghanistan; then a total lack of interest in the period after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, when Afghanistan was first torn apart by competing war-lords and was then overrun by the Taliban.

No longer in need of Pakistan, the USA then imposed sanctions on that country because it, like India, had carried out tests of nuclear weapons.

The next 15 chapters are essentially a sequel to the author's Taliban, and chronicles in great and sometimes in dense detail, right up to early 2008, the story of Afghanistan and Pakistan after the expulsion of the Taliban at the end of 2001 and the installation of Hamid Karzai as interim President. The victory had been not only been swift (it took two months), but had also been cheap for the Americans. They had fought the campaign from the air, leaving the land fighting to the war-lords of the Northern Alliance. The Americans lost just one man killed. Karzai was installed as interim president. This easy victory led the Americans to believe that it could be copied in Iraq, an attack on which the neo-cons had planned even before the Afghan war. Once the Iraq war began, the Americans concentrated on that and paid much less attention to Afghanistan, on which they wanted to spend as little money as possible. Rumsfeld was explicitly not interested in `nation building': helping Afghanistan to develop a healthy infrastructure..

From this all sorts of mistakes arose:

1. It seemed easier to use the armies of the war-lords than to build and train an Afghan National Army.

2. Karzai, a Pashtun, had no control over the Tajik and Uzbek war-lords. They refused to disarm or to let their men be integrated into a national army. Occasionally they fought each other; they collected tolls which they refused to hand over to the government; and they alienated the Pashtun majority. For a long time Karzai dared not confront them. When eventually he managed to form a new government without them in 2004, he proved indecisive in implementing a programme of reform.

3. He was unwilling to stamp out the cultivation of opium and the drug-lords, one of whom was his own brother. Drug dealing corrupted the entire administration and the police. The Allies did not provide money for planting alternative crops and would not allow their armies to interdict the drug trade for fear of alienating the tens of thousands of farmers who depended on it.

4. The worst problem is Pakistan. Osama bin Laden and the Al-Queda forces, as well as the fleeing Taliban found sanctuary in the tribal areas of Pakistan. These were already home to what would become the Pakistani Taliban, who helped them to rebuild their forces and joined them in incursions back into Afghanistan.

For a long time the Americans were not interested in the Taliban and did not take it seriously; but they did want Al-Qaeda people handed over, and for this they needed Musharraf's help. Musharraf did this (if he could find them!), and in return sanctions on Pakistan were lifted. For a long time the Americans did not realize the close connections that had been built up between Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. But Musharraf, the Pakistani Army and the ISI (the intelligence service) protected the Taliban and gave it much covert help and even direction. This was largely because they saw Karzai as a potential ally of India. Karzai pleaded with the Americans and the British to pressurize Pakistan to give up supporting the Taliban; but these found the alliance with Pakistan too important, and pretended to believe Musharraf's denials, aided, as these were, by the ISI very occasionally giving them information about the whereabouts of Taliban leaders.

But while this was just enough to appease the Allies, it was also enough to enrage the more extreme sections of the Taliban, who in any case were egged on by their al-Qaeda allies to attack Musharraf and his police as American lackeys. Musharraf emerges from this book as being as devious as he is foolish.

5. When the Americans focussed on Iraq, NATO took over as the Western instrument in Afghanistan. But each of the 37 countries which provided troops drew up its own rules about what these troops could - or more importantly: could not - do. Some confined them to reconstruction and humanitarian work; some were specifically prohibited for fighting the Taliban; some were not to interfere with poppy growing; those stationed in the more peaceful north were prevented from helping the hard-pressed - and always insufficiently numerous - troops in the south. Of the 45,000 troops stationed in Afghanistan in 2006, only 15,000 were available for fighting. In the absence of a unified command, it is not surprising that the Taliban began to reestablish itself in large areas of the East and South from 2003 onwards and have been gaining in strength ever since.

There is much more in this troubling book - for example a comparatively brief account of the danger of al-Qaeda and other Islamic organizations establishing themselves in Uzbekistan and the other secular Central Asian republics, where tyrannical and corrupt governments are propped up by the Americans simply because these, too, suppress Islamic (along with all other) groups.
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VINE VOICEon July 16, 2009
As the Obama administration rolls-out an ambitious new counter-insurgency strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan teeters on the edge of political collapse this detailed account of recent events in "the region" by the veteran Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid could not be more relevant. Unfortunately, it is marred by the author's biases, naïveté, and hyperbole.

Although I take issue with many points in this book, Rashid's central argument is a valid one. Namely, that the US never took Afghanistan seriously after the Soviet withdrawal and consistently underestimated the threat from both the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Rashid's biggest gripe is the Bush administration's federalist "warlord strategy" for initially stabilizing Afghanistan and the lack of meaningful nation building efforts since 2001, especially after the invasion of Iraq. He is an unabashed proponent of building a strong central government in Kabul and stripping the regional ethnic bosses of their power, both military and political. But most of all Rashid is disappointed - almost personally offended - that his voluminous writings and recommendations for how to fix Afghanistan and Pakistan have been consistently "ignored" by the Americans, his presumably erstwhile friend Hamid Karzai, the hated Musharaff and his cronies, and, to a lesser extent, the international community. After the first few hundred pages, his whining self-promotion really starts to grate.

More surprisingly, one gets the sense that Rashid is every bit as ignorant of realities on the ground and a prisoner of his own worldview as the Bush administration neoconservatives that he attacks with such scorn and relish. Consider his take on the early days of Afghanistan invasion: "Yet this was not an occupation, and the Afghan people were literally on their knees begging for a greater international presence so that their benighted country could be rebuilt." Rashid proceeds to paint a vision of a future Afghanistan that practically amounts to Tajiks and Pashtuns grilling franks together on their backyard BBQs. He roundly condemns the US for being naïve and arrogant, and then suggests that only the US can fix a country like Afghanistan. The US could not handle Hurricane Katrina, cannot stem the flow of drugs or illegal immigrants across its borders, and cannot keep up with the rest of the industrialized world in primary education, yet we are expected to build an economy from the ground up in Afghanistan, eradicate poppy production and the heroin trade, and educate a population whose literacy rate is roughly one-in-three?

Rashid is also personally disgusted by the lack of coordination and planning between and among international aid organizations, government development agencies, and the UN, all of which has contributed to the inept civil reconstruction effort. There is no doubt that many mistakes have been made and there is plenty of waste and inefficiency in nation building projects. However, as a business executive in a company of slightly less than ten thousand employees I know all too well how difficult it is to keep different teams on the same page and not working at cross purposes - and that's in a relatively confined, secure environment. That coordination across organizations of such size and diversity is nearly impossible is a perspective that Rashid does not consider; he does not even appear to be aware of it.

Finally, Rashid writes with a flair that often dips into obvious exaggeration, which calls his many other claims into doubt. Consider this gem: "Up to twenty pickups or Toyota Land Cruisers armed with missiles and rockets that could bring down helicopter gunships would travel at 150 miles per hour across the sands." It sounds more like the script for a Ridley Scott movie. Just for the record, the top speed of a 2008 V8 Toyota Land Cruiser on a closed test track is 130 miles an hour - I checked.

In closing, it should be noted that Rashid writes that "this book is an attempt to define history in the making rather than a scholarly reappraisal years after the event." In that sense, he should be given a certain license to promote his version of events, but he takes it a bit too far, at least for this reviewer.
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This timely and critical book gives and experts overview of the current situation in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Uzbekistan and should serve as a wake uo call for policy makers interested in the region and people interested in the threat that instability and renewed Islamism pose. Here we are walked through the current unending war in Afghanistan and given a tour of the history of the American relationship with Pakistan before the author plunges into the nitty gritty of what is taking place. The book examines both the opium crop in Afghanistan and the renewel of the Taliban and their offensives against coalition and government troops. We are given an account of the rise of Islamism and the endurance of Al Quiada in the tribal areas of northwest Pakistan and the coming apart of the Musharreff consensus in the wake of the death of Bhutto.

As a last vignette we are taken to Uzbekistan where the author asks 'who lost this country?' In fact this last part is where 'central asia' comes into play but it should have been beefed up. Instead of one chapter detaling the problems in Uzbekistan the book should have included discussions of the rest of 'Central Asia' which appears in the subtitle. What of Kyrgizistan and Turkmenistan and Tajikistan and the threats that might emerge from them?

The other subtitle is the question of 'nation-building' and here we are asked to consider the 'failure' of American arms, diplomacy and money. In Pakistan it is not a question so much of failure but rather of the inability of the U.S to invade the parts of that country which have been taken over by Al Quaida. In fact Pakistan is failing not only in the NWFP tribal areas but also in Baluchistan. Afghanistan, once a success, is being overun and the opium crop is funding the thugs turned drug barons turned Islamists. A short chapter on the nuclear issue also details some of the threats from increased instability or the fall of Pakistan.

An important and well written work.

Seth J. Frantzman
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on February 10, 2010
Ahmed Rashid is a Pakistani journalist who has written many books and articles about developments in Central Asia, including Afghanistan and Pakistan itself. His book on the Taliban (Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia) was much read after the terrorist attacks of '9/11', and as a result, his newest publication titled "Descent Into Chaos" has been a bestseller.

Rashid is very well informed about the region and sheds great light on the complicated matter of its political and economic contradictions. Moreover, he does so in a readily accessible, journalistic style which will enable many readers to learn a lot in a short time about this war-torn part of the world. He gives a short history of Afghanistan as well as Pakistan, explains the interrelatedness of the two countries through the strategy of the Pakistani military class to support the islamists, points out the Pashtun prevalence in both countries, describes the connections with the rest of Central Asia (particularly Uzbekistan), and finally deals with the extensive American-led Western involvement in the area including the current occupation. In addition, he provides much critical commentary. Some of this is good, and some of it is not. The main lines of the book are very worth listening to. The main lesson is that it is not worthwhile to invade a country like Afghanistan, no matter how bad its current government, if you're not going to be willing to sacrifice a great deal of funds and time as well as ground troops in rebuilding it in one's own image. Another important lesson is that one cannot deal with Afghanistan without dealing with Pakistan, which means the military class there must give up its dictatorial rule under pretext of fighting India, and that the 'tribal' areas of Pakistan must be decolonized and brought under the domain of Pakistan's regular laws and political structures. Only a serious democratization in Pakistan can really combat islamism in the 'tribal' areas, and this in turn is the prerequisite for combating islamism in Afghanistan as well as Kashmir. Many people will not like Rashid's support for 'nation-building', but surely he is right in stating that if one is going to undertake regime change in countries with terrible tyrannical governments, it immediately becomes the responsibility of the regime changer(s) to assure that country's reconstruction. Otherwise, the benefits will be minimal and the destruction and chaos maximal. He also emphasizes the important lesson that although islamism is not at all popular in either Afghanistan or Pakistan, its latent support comes from its ability to create stability and legitimate rule in areas wracked by warlords and clan systems and where no central government operates, or where the central government is too corrupt and negative to be supportable. This means that Western support for tyrannical secular governments such as that of Islam Karimov in Uzbekistan, with the aim of combating islamism in this manner, is always counterproductive. The same goes for the current policy of using warlords as the main political leaders at regional level in Afghanistan, which will surely lead to trouble in the future.

There are however also serious flaws in his book. Precisely because Rashid knows many of the people involved, he has many personal preconceived notions about the leading figures involved, which distort the narrative. For example, Ahmad Shah Massoud and Hamid Karzai are both depicted as generally 'good' figures, which can surely be doubted (in fact Massoud is explicitly considered a heroic patriot, in exactly those terms). Rashid also constantly involves himself in the narrative and puffs up his own importance in these affairs, including through his friendship with the well-known American specialist in Afghan affairs, Barnett Rubin. In all these things he works precisely the opposite way from the excellent approach of Robert Fisk, who always relativizes his own importance and describes the individual figures through their actions and what they tell him, without needing to give his own commentary on how patriotic they are or not. Finally, the book is fairly repetitive and seems padded out, with a lot more detail involved than is strictly needed for a journalistic overview of the recent events. It is all the more dubious for this reason that his use of sources is arbitrary and ineffective - he only uses footnotes randomly, and many statements and even quotations are entirely unsourced, even if they are remarkable. In this way, Rashid's superficiality and partisanship get in the way of what is an informative and useful narrative.
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on June 19, 2009
Ahmed Rashid certainly knows the area of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia pretty well and he doesn't forget to let you know how he is an expert.

There's a good rule of thumb that if an author's name is bigger than the title of the book, you can expect marginal writing. Well Ahmed Rashid's name is now bigger than his writing. He spends a lot of time talking about how he

Rashid has his biases and that is fine but the first few chapters including the introduction are little more than a diatribe about how the United States messed up everything and how its mostly our fault and if we had only listened to him and his select friends like Hamid Karzai, then everything would be great.

Rashid uses a lot of hindsight to criticize the United States and doesn't even attempt to see other points of view. For instance, he faults CENTCOM for not moving elements of the 10th Mountain into Afghanistan for the sole purpose of accepting the surrender of some elements of the Taliban who instead had to surrender to the Northern Alliance. Well, Rashid either doesn't see or even try to see the connection between events he discusses earlier, we were trying to get Central Asian Republics (and Russia) to allow us to use their bases and not just to station troops but to use them as a springboard for deployments to Afghanistan. Russia stalled and so did the dictators from Central Asia. We also needed to be sure that we weren't sending in brigades into a remote nation without a way to keep them in supply.

Rashid also is obviously a fan of Karzai and paints him to look like some glorious liberator who single-handedly defeated the Taliban when no one would listen to him. Karzai is an opportunist who fell out of favor with the Taliban in the 1990's and had to flee.

Rashid is rightfully critical of the ISI and Musharref but somehow its America's fault that the ISI did what it did.

Rashid seems to make a point to not even discuss the attacks on 9/11 except to be a backdrop for the politics in Pakistan. I found that interesting.

While the book has a lot of good information, its tough to figure out how much of it is fact and how much of it is Rashid's opinion. Many of his sources are not direct quotes. Many of his sources are unnamed "analysts" or "senior leaders." While I understand why journalists need to protect sources, how much weight can be given to these unnamed sources or the context of their statements?
A glaring unsourced event was when he claims the US Government put pressure on Rabbani to step aside and how we made a veiled threat to the man about taking him out. Then later that day, a Predator strike just barely missed his house on accident of course. No sourcing on this event what so ever.

Rashid seems to have expected the United States to put all its focus on this region from 1989 onward, ignoring everything else that was going on in the world. Its this sort of monday-morning quarterbacking that I have a hard time swallowing. Had we been attacked by FARC terrorists on 9/11 instead of al Qaeda, I can guarantee that a Colombian journalist would have penned a similar book about how the US Government should have seen the threat of the FARC.
Rashid is very knowledgable about that region but it is unrealistic to expect the United States Government to have a similar understanding. While Rashid can afford to focus on one region, the US cannot. Rashid does not care to understand this.

Rashid knows a lot and has a lot of connections in this part of the world but he could have done better on this book. Rather than looking to blame America for all the woes, he would have done a better service by giving both sides. General Franks was not just some aloof commander who didn't want to get involved in Afghanistan; he had his own considerations, as did everyone in the USG. This is not to say that we do not deserve some blame but it gets a little old reading this book.

Rashid started off as a good journalist...his first couple of books were well researched and he painted a good picture of both the Taliban and Central Asia. With this book, he has clearly gotten a big head from the rocketing sales of his books. This happens with a lot of authors and they stop doing journalism and start doing commentary.
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on March 17, 2010
I am not going to say much about the book apart from telling you that if you are someone who prides him/herself on being well informed and especially if you are from the US, Pakistan, Afghanistan or India then you would be making a huge blunder in not reading this book not to mention owning a copy. The contents are chilling, mind boggling and will leave you like the sheeted dead squeaking and gibbering ere the mighty Ceasar fell. The import of my message is: Even in today's dollar driven world, there are still people like Ahmed Rashid who put their life on the line everyday by simply doing their work. I am from India and I really dont know why the ISI havent either assasinated Ahmed Rashid or atleast maimed him so that he cant continue his work. God forbid this should happen but read the book and you will find out that the man has earned the ire of the ISI. The amazing thing is he lives in Lahore!!! He is truly one Lion Hearted guy. His pen is startlingly unbiased and his passion shines forth as a truly concerned citizen of the region and not just Pakistan. His love for Afghanistan seems very evident in fact. A truly altruistic man, a Pakistani I lift my hat off to, a man I would love to meet, shake his hand, ask his autograph and tell him that night and day I pray for his safety and the continuation of his work. God bless you Ahmed Rashid.
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on April 29, 2009
For a brief moment after 9/11, something extraordinary seemed to happen in europe and america - a conversion of the Left and of the Right. Shocked by the largest terrorist attack in history, a feeling that things could not go on as they were - that the world has been transformed - transcended conventional political alliances. Thus a strange coalition of conservatives and liberals agreed that promoting democracy - by force if necessary - was both moral and necessary (See Paul Berman's Power and the Idealists: Or, the Passion of Joschka Fischer and Its Aftermath on several different - and not so different - paths to the same goal)

It was to be a short lived coalition. Disillusioned by the failure of the Bush Administration's policies, many in the both the Left and right have drifted back towards their previous positions. Some who refused disillusionment tried to sketch a middle course between a traditional position and a democracy promoting ideology (see for example Amitai Etzioni's Security First: For a Muscular, Moral Foreign Policy, or Francis Fukuyama's call for `Wilsonian Realism' in America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power, and the Neoconservative Legacy, which I haven't read).

Those who continue to hold the faith have a tough task - to explain failure away. Fortunately for them, the gross incompetence of the Bush administration offers a plausible answer. They can make a plausible case that the end was worth achieving and within reach - and that the blunders of the United States had lost it.

Ahmad Rashid's book is one such effort. He is in favor of the Afghani war, and thinks that its apparent failures - see the title - are consequences of inept US policies. His book is compelling and well written, if at times over long and unfocused - in some of the middle chapters, you can't spot the narrative beneath the wealth of examples, incidents, and personalities which Rashid forces on us. But Rashid's book is not entirely convincing - as much as one would like to, not all the blame for the mess in Central Asia can be laid at Bush's door.

After the Soviet forces withdrew from Afghanistan, American and World interest in that part of the world waned. Afghanistan was left in a state of civil war, with various warlords fighting for control over the country, and over its Opium trade. Then out of the anarchy, a new group rose. Fundamentally Muslim, utterly reactionary, and militarily victorious, its members, mostly former anti-Soviet Mujahadeen, called themselves the Taliban - Afghani for students.

An interesting question, and one that Rashid does not pay enough attention to, is why the Taliban became anti-American. Funded and Supported by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, both American client states, composed mainly of former Mujahadeen and thus anti-Russian, this mostly parochial group with little interest in global affairs could have become yet another distasteful US ally in the region. Instead, the Taliban fell under the spell of al Qaeda and its charismatic, anti-American leader - Osama bin Laden.

Afghanistan's support of al Qaeda made things difficult for its Western neighbor, Pakistan. Pakistan was a US ally, but shared interests with the Taliban's Sunni Islamism, with which it cooperated in its struggles in Kashmir. Trapped between its Superpower sponsor and its ideological ally, Pakistan tried to appease both, pressuring Afghanistan to relinquish bin Laden - to no avail.

With the September 11 attacks, everything changed, and everything stayed the same. When the twin towers collapsed, Pakistan's military dictator, Pervez Musharraf realized that "America would react like a wounded bear". Overruling more extreme members of his regime, Musharraf aligned itself with the US in the so-called "War on Terror". Pakistan allowed the US to raid Afghanistan from its territory, shared intelligence, and generally proved a helpful partner in the war.

But only to a point - while Pakistan was helping America to fight the Taliban, it also helped the Taliban, feeding it with information, supplying it with funds, and allowing its members to escape into Pakistan. Partially, this was done by ideologically pro-Taliban individuals and groups within the Pakistani establishment. But it was also probably an example of a policy frequently employed by America's unsavory allies: play both sides. By strengthening the anti-American Islamist opposition, Musharraf made himself a necessary evil, one the US would not be able to do without. This kind of strategy has been employed by America's allies since at least the Cold War. It is a difficult balance to strike, but some US allies, notably Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, have been doing it for decades (see Inside Egypt: The Land of the Pharaohs on the Brink of a Revolution).

Rashid is highly critical of the Bush administration's support for Musharraf. The US has showered economic and military aid on Pakistan, and made no comment regarding Musharraf's schmoozing of the Taliban or his sham democratic "reforms". But it is not obvious that the US had any real alternative courses of actions. Indeed, as US Pakistan relations worsened (a consequence of the growing realization of the extent of Pakistani-Taliban cooperation, the democratic victory in the November 2006 Congressional elections, and I suspect, although Rashid doesn't say so, the improving relations between the US and India which came at Pakistan's expense), pressure on the Musharraf regime mounted, leading eventually to his fall from power. But the situation did not improve. In fact, as the Obama administration took office, things were worse than ever.

Rashid's criticism is more credible when it comes to Afghanistan. There, the main problem was US penny pinching, as the Bush team wanted to win Afghanistan while also fighting a war in Iraq and cutting taxes. The administration's short sighted policies were inept in both direct and indirect ways. The US project in Afghanistan lacked proper funding and resources for doing what had to be done, whether in terms of security or reconstruction. Furthermore, in order to fight al Qaeda and achieve security at low cost, the US sponsored various Afghan warlords (euphemistically rechristened "regional leaders"). This undermined the central, more-or-less democratically accountable government, and gave power to thugs who were often happy to double cross the Americans and the Afghani people in quest of personal gain.

But even in the case of Afghanistan, it is not obvious that America is ultimately to blame. Despite Rashid's assurance that "the tragedy of Afghanistan was how feasible reconstruction actually could be..." (p. 176), the truth was that the situation in Afghanistan was dire. Afghanistan had been ravaged by the Soviet Invasion, Civil War, the Taliban regime, and the anti Taliban war. Information about Afghanistan was hard to come by, and country was torn between various ethnic groups. Rashid's criticism goes all around - Afghanistan's president Hamid Karazi, the United Nations, the NATO nations, as well as the Bush and Blair administrations - none escape his wrath.

Unfortunately, foreign aid is difficult under the best of circumstances (See William Easterly's The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists' Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics and The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good). The Bush administration, as incompetent as it surely has been, was hardly the first to fail in the attempt to rebuild a nation. Indeed, examples for failed Nation Building are far more numerous than instances of success (see The Best Intentions: Kofi Annan and the UN in the Era of American World Power). Rashid never seems to doubt that the situation could improve, if only decision makers try harder. But some battles are unwinnable, and the attempt to save Central Asian may very well have been doomed from the start.
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on June 19, 2008
The author of this book is based in Pakistan and is one of the leading journalists in the world covering Pakistan and Afghanistan. You may not agree with everything he says but you should pay close attention because he has sources throughout the region. One of his main points is that America has failed miserably at becoming informed about local realities and is trying to impose a vague concept of a "war on terror" on long term regional political realities that are far more complex. For example, how many Americans understand that the "border" between Pakistan and Afghanistan is the "Durand Line" an absurd creation of British imperialism. This left a good part of the Pashtuns living in Pakistan instead of Afghanistan. You might also want to read Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia, the author's excellent history of the Taliban. Another good book is Kabul in Winter: Life Without Peace in Afghanistan

America needs a greater sense of humility in dealing with Central Asia. Afghanistan is one of the oldest places in the world. Alexander the Great campaigned in Afghanistan. There is good military history of the place called Afghanistan: A Military History From Alexander The Great To The Fall Of The Taliban I have more books in my Listmania list on Central Asia for those who are interested.
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on August 10, 2012
The subtitle of this book is "The United States and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia." After reading the book, it isn't really clear that the Bush regime was ever serious about building viable nations among the ones listed. Such initiatives as were undertaken were promptly crippled by a mix of incompetence and indifference. In the midst of this, the Musharraf regime gradually escalated its support for the Taliban, which encroached on more and more of Afghanistan, while maintaining a schizophrenic policy of fighting only those jihadists who were opposed to military rule in Pakistan (a small subset, as Inter-Services Intelligence did its best to be jihadists' best friend). These latter efforts made it possible for President Bush to pass off Musharraf as America's indispensable friend in the region, behind only Karzai of Afghanistan (whom the author knows personally and frequently saw in 2001 before Karzai returned to take up the leadership of his country).

The saddest chapter of this book is certainly chapter 14, "America Shows the Way: The Disappeared and the Rendered." The second paragraph of this chapter begins, "For the greatest power on earth to wage its 'war on terrorism' by rejecting the very rules of war it is a signatory to, denying justice at home, undermining the U. S. Constitution, and then pressuring its allies to do the same set in motion a devastating denial of civilized instincts. America's example had the most impact in Afghanistan, where no legal system existed; in Pakistan, ruled by a military regime; and in Central Asia, where the world's most repressive dictatorships flourished. By following America's lead in promoting or condoning disappearances, torture, and secret jails, these countries found their path to democracy and their struggle against Islamic extremism set back by decades." (Page 293) In light of all this, I found it appropriate to substitute the word "regime" for "administration" after the word "Bush" in the first paragraph of this review, just as I did with Musharraf in subsequent paragraphs. These two leaders brought themselves down to bin Laden's moral level. They are justly the villains of this book.

The book was published in 2008 so the author (Ahmed Rashid of the justly praised "Taliban") expresses no opinion on Presidents Obama (of the United States) or Zardari (of Pakistan), but from the gist of his writing here, it is easy to conclude that he would say they have failed to address the real underlying problems in Pakistan: the weakness of democratic institutions and the military's obsession with India, which led Musharraf to push to the brink of war even after 9/11 (see pages 116-117). At least some Pakistanis saw that this was the case and appealed to the United States in a now-infamous diplomatic memo to help stave off the threat of a military coup; but this hardly inspired confidence in the government that was appealing for help. Ahmed Rashid is no Islamist and seems to want a Western-style democracy in Pakistan, but after the catastrophe of the Musharraf regime neither he nor anyone else can see the way to get there.

The dust jacket's statement "al Qaeda is stronger than ever" might have been true in 2008, but it's a difficult argument to make in 2012 with bin Laden dead and the organization increasingly irrelevant to Arabs, its original core constituency, in the wake of the Arab Spring. Only one other of Rashid's assumptions is really questionable, the one he states on page XXXVIII of the Introduction: "In fact, barely enough was done by any organization in the first few years when 90 percent of the Afghan population continued to welcome foreign troops and aid workers with open arms. The international community had an extended window of opportunity for several years to help the Afghan people -- they failed to take advantage of it." Rashid seems to honestly believe (at least, he implies more than once) that the Taliban would have withered and died had the West only invested in the right programs to build a better Afghanistan from the beginning. While I would not presume to know the region or its people better than Rashid, I wonder if any country in the world that had been through what Afghanistan has, would be really happy with the latest set of invaders just because they built roads, schools, and a functioning government. (After reading this book, of course, it is clear that the Taliban rely so heavily on Pakistan that in a sense they are invaders themselves; but a Pashtun in Afghanistan will rarely see a Pashtun from Pakistan as an outsider.) There is also the Musharraf regime's spectacular investment in the Taliban, whom it apparently saw as its only allies in Afghanistan. No amount of American aid could get Musharraf to see the Americans in Afghanistan as allies and even at the height of the 2001 war to oust the Taliban, some Pakistanis who had been sent by their government before 9/11 were fighting on the Taliban side (Musharraf once successfully importuned the Americans for a local cease-fire to get some of them out; see page 91.) The Taliban was and is not going to go away, but even then, it's true that the window of willingness in the West to invest in Afghanistan began closing as the Taliban grew stronger, and military "solutions" began to take the place of nation building.
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Ahmed Rashid is a journalist, and a good one at that. He is courageous, and the reader cannot help but marvel that he has not met an "untimely end" due to his criticism of various leaders. From his base in Lahore, Pakistan he has had a vital "South-central Asian" perspective on many of the events that have become of essential importance to the United States, and to a large extent, the Western world, in the "post 9/11 era." His "beat" is Afghanistan, the five central Asian "'stans," India, and his native country. His book Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia, Second Edition, written in 2000, became essential reading for American policy makers a year later.

Rashid's book is an essential compliment to Junger's book WAR. Junger covers the combat conducted over a year's period, by one unit of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, in a remote valley near the Pakistani border. To quote Junger: "The men know Pakistan is the root of the entire war, and that is just about the only topic they get political about." Rashid covers in detail the internal political situation in Pakistan, most tellingly, the "double game" that has been played, and continues to be played by the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI), which is Pakistan's intelligence agency. Numerous members of the agency openly support the Taliban, while paying lip service to the Americans that they are fighting them. One of the most astonishing vignettes told by Rashid is dubbed "the Great Escape." It occurred on November 15, 2001, when there was an imposed lull in the fighting at Kunduz, so that Pakistani planes could fly in and evacuate members of the ISI, and untold number of Taliban, to Pakistan, thwarting the efforts of the United States, and the Northern Alliance, in the very early days of the ground combat in Afghanistan post 9-11. Rashid documents again and again how the American leadership turns a blind eye to the ISI's double-dealing, and continues to support General Musharraf's dictatorial rule of Pakistan, and his double-dealing with the reactionary forces of Islamic fundamentalism.

But there is much else besides. Rashid knew Hamid Karzai before he become Afghanistan's current leader. He gave a concise account of his background, and the logic behind his selection by the Americans. Karzai is a Pashtun counterweight to the Northern Alliance. His coverage of "the Stans" is incisive. Each ruled by a dictator, who milk the Americans for rights to bases. Graft and corruption are the norm; the ruling elite become fabulously rich, which only helps fuel an Islamic fundamentalist backlash in each of these countries. Telling, Rashid echoes a variation of a once famous question in the American `50's: Who lost Uzbekistan? Rashid also provides vital explanations of what he terms "Al Qaeda bolt-hole," which are their sanctuaries in the Northwest frontier provinces. Is Osama Bin Laden still there? Rashid draws no definitive conclusions, but the continued lack of real interest in bringing him to justice, almost 10 years after 9/11 remains disturbing.

Rashid frequent travels to the West provide an opportunity to report on the Western leaders as well. He renders scathing indictments of the American "neo-con" leadership, Cheney, Rumsfeld et al., and how they blew a truly wonderful opportunity in Afghanistan by refusing to engage in even modest "nation building," a term anathema to them, and their almost total focus of Iraq, which created the conditions for the Taliban to become resurgent.

Is imitation the sincerest form of flattery? A telling anecdote is on the author's website, easily reached via Google. George Bush, in his book Decision Points lifted Rashid's account (without attribution) of the meeting between Karzai and a Tajik warlord on Dec. 22, 2001

But I did have some problems with the book, and found it a bit of a slog to finish. Journalists, to generalize somewhat, seemed inclined to produce "cut and paste" books from their work. The book could use much tighter editing; for example, three times in three pages the reader is told that East Pakistan became Bangladesh in 1971. The history of Pakistan, as related in Chapter Two, has a "stream of consciousness" style about it. And there are numerous misspellings, the type that even a reasonable publisher would have caught via "spell-check." Rashid clearly has his opinions on various individuals, for example, "brutal," "corrupt", and renders them, but sometimes without providing the reader with his basis. Another reviewer, Timothy Graczewski, calls the author out on his statements about Toyota Landcrusiers travelling 150 mi/hr in the open desert. Did he mean kilometers? Doesn't matter. Anyone who has travelled in the open desert knows, that, save for perhaps the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, you cannot travel that fast due to the wadis, and innumerable dry water courses that would destroy the suspension on any vehicle.

Overall though, a vital, essential book. It was published just before President Obama took office. With the President's increased focus on this area, including augmented troop levels, Rashid's account is more important than ever, and will almost certainly be the most comprehensive view of the area that will be available in the West. 4-stars.
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