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Descent into Chaos: The United States and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan, a nd Central Asia Hardcover – June 3, 2008
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Long overshadowed by the Iraq War, the ongoing turmoil in Afghanistan and Central Asia finally receives a searching retrospective as Rashid (Taliban) surveys the region to reveal a thicket of ominous threats and lost opportunities—in Pakistan, a rickety dictatorship colludes with militants, and Afghanistan's weak government is besieged by warlords, an exploding drug economy and a powerful Taliban insurgency. The author blames the unwillingness of American policymakers to shoulder the burden of nation building. According to Rashid, the U.S. invaded Afghanistan and subsequently refused to commit the forces and money needed to rebuild it; instead the U.S. government made corrupt alliances with warlords to impose a superficial calm, while continuing to ignore the Pakistani government's support of the Taliban and the other Islamic extremists who have virtually taken over Pakistan's western provinces. With his unparalleled access to sources—I constantly berated [Afghan President] Karzai for his failure to understand the usefulness of political parties—Rashid is an authoritative guide to the region's politics and his is an insightful, at times explosive, indictment of the U.S. government's hand in the region's degeneration. (June)
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Pakistani journalist Rashid presciently warned about the problem of Islamic extremism in Taliban (2000), and in this work, he reviews the efforts since to defeat the fanatics. Sympathetic to the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, he proves to be highly critical of American-led strategy since and of the role in events of Pakistani leader Pervez Musharraf. Personally acquainted with many involved in the attempted reconstruction of Afghanistan, such as its president, Hamid Karzai, Rashid covers years of international military, diplomatic, financial, and civil-affairs endeavors; in fact, the imposing quantity of information he presents makes his point: nothing tried so far has rescued Afghanistan from being a failed state. Afflicted by warlords, opium cultivation, ethnic divisions, and a resurgent Taliban, Afghanistan prompts pessimistic analysis from Rashid. He describes the support and haven that extremists in the mountainous tribal areas on the Afghan-Pakistani frontier have received from Pakistani intelligence. He then suggests that reform in Pakistan may improve matters in Afghanistan, which is indicative of the political difficulties dealt with by this well-informed current-affairs observer. --Gilbert Taylor
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Rashid devotes around a third of his pages to recapitulating the history of modern Central Asia as previously recounted in "Taliban". While this may be a redundant feature for those who carefully follow Rashid's work, it is necessary background material. The majority of "Descent" adds more recent history as well as a trenchant analysis of the apparent failure of all parties: the US (indicted as the principal Western culprit), NATO (assigned secondary responsibility), Pakistan (the engine behind the Taliban) and finally, Afghani internecine conflicts, all of which contribute in near equal measure to the blossoming debacle now enfolding the entire region.
The basic premise of the book is that a regional and international solution of a genuinely comprehensive nature will be required to prevent development of a potentially catastrophic "descent into chaos". Taken in order of importance:
1). Pakistan; it's government, the pervasive and all-powerful security service (ISI). The long and sorry history of the State of Pakistan, embroiled in perpetual, fruitless and self-sustaining conflict with India is the prime motive force behind the Afghani farrago. An incendiary brew of pro-Islamist sentiment, anti-Indian maneuvering to efforts to "secure" a friendly (i.e., pro-Pakistani/anti-Indian) regime in Afghanistan and to secure survival of military despotism domestically have combined to support the Taliban in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and the Northwest Frontier Provinces. By providing logistic, military and non-military support, refuge, intelligence and political cover, Pakistan (acting via the ISI) has effectively demolished the effort to rebuild Afghanistan. By cynically and dishonestly manipulating foreign governments and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO), aid given directly to Pakistan (well over 10 billion dollars through 2007) to combat terrorism has been diverted into pro-Islamist efforts and huge sums have been stolen. Additionally, the Pakistani government has (acting through A.Q. Kahn) proliferated nuclear weapons technology to Libya and Iran, while destabilizing missile technology has traveled in the opposite direction from North Korea to Pakistan.
2). US and NATO; a litany of bungled, misdirected efforts was catalogued in the efforts of Western governments in Central Asia. The prime culprit was identified by Rashid as the US. With a singular focus on Al Qaeda to the exclusion of the Taliban (seen as a secondary annoyance) and opium cultivation; with comprehensive disregard for Afghani governmental corruption; with cultivation of local warlords and, most importantly, with cavalier disregard of the role of Pakistan in the problem, the Western partners, especially the US have contributed to destabilization of Afghanistan, Pakistan and the entire Central Asian region.
3). Local despots: President Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan is depicted as acting in connivance with the US, Russia and recently China to undermine democracy, promote "kleptocracy" and oligarchy. This regime was given prominent attention as an example of looming problems for Afghanistan's neighbors, a the issues in Uzbekistan extend to neighboring Central Asian countries. All of which have violent Islamist revolutionary groups to whom local populations, increasingly frustrated and exploited by their repressive governments are increasingly turning to violent Islamist movements as potential alternatives to existing regimes.
4). The current Afghani government: Indicted as corrupt, ineffectual and uninspiring, reflecting a tribal and warlord culture, now thought to control little territory outside Kabul. The multiple failings of the current president, Hamad Karzai were catalogued in sorry detail.
5). Other actors: These include Saudi Arabia, Iran, Russia and China. All have interests in the area and none are conducive to a stable, democratic and secular regime.
There are some idiosynchrasies in the book. Part of it reads like a personal travelogue. Other parts amount to a virtual "info-mertial" for the author. There are some redundancies in the text and a few glaring factual errors (such as representing on p. 324 that a group of Toyota Land Cruisers operated by drug barons was crossing the sands at "150mph").
Rashid offers no panacea for solving the mess in "the graveyard of empires", though he subscribes to the now widely held concept that the solution to Afghanistan lies in Pakistan. He provides suggestions, but the riddle of how to build a good, stable, secure government in the midst of a violent insurgency, especially when the entire region is experiencing similar problems cannot be dealt with by providing simple nostrums. It will take plenty of money (many, many billions of dollars) to improve the living conditions of the general population. It will require vast efforts to educate and provide for locals. It will need a sea-change in attitudes by governing elites regarding support for proxy warriors and their use in dealing with intra-regional conflicts. In other words, especially given the current economic situation world-wide, it appears hopeless. Unfortunately, the problems of the Central Asian region will not remain localized: given the current appeal of Islamism and the presence of nuclear weapons in the arsenals of the major players (India and Pakistan) the prospect for a cataclysmic debacle appear excellent.
In summary, this book is a good or perhaps excellent study of genuine Devil's Brew, one consisting of irrational religious elements, realpolitik actions by neighboring and remote nations, incompetence, poverty, tribalism, greed and ignorance; in short all the elements required for rapid and violent ignition. "...If something be not done, something will do itself one day and in a fashion that will please nobody", as Thomas Carlyle once wrote.
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