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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
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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.
Ahmed Rashid has given me insight into the problems of Pakistan, Afganistan and Central Asia, and how our involvement have created problems. Our lack of understanding on the issues, followed by poor policies has created anti American feelings, and perpetuated turbulence. Perhaps we need to understand other cultures, to appreciate them and not mold or predicate on them.
Top international reviews
The book is divided into 4 parts: `9/11 and War', `The Politics of the 9/11 World', `The Failure of Nation Building' and `Descent Into Chaos'. These sections are further sub-divided into chapters. I found the first two, and last sections, to be the most engaging.
The difficulties so far in the war on terror are described through the political framework of Afghanistan. First, the life of Afghanistan, after the US pullout at the end of the Soviet invasion, all the way through to 9/11, then post-9/11 through the attempted freeing of the country from the Taliban; then, through the attempted democratic political process which followed.
As ever, Rashid's expertise of his home country is second to none. Pakistan's role in creating al-Qaida and the Taliban is explained, Pakistan's continual escape from international condemnation and gaining the upper-political-hand in Afghanistan, sponsoring terror organisations - while the US was in neighbouring Afghanistan fighting those same organisations - has to be read to be believed. On the other hand what doesn't have to be read to be believed is the American administration's strategic blunders in Afghanistan, as is all too painfully evident. I felt the conclusion was a little short on substance considering the book is named after the last part of this book, but this is probably just anti-climax considering the revelations I had just read.
Recently, after having gone through a spate of books written in foreign languages and then translated into English, Rashid's phrasing and style was a joy to behold. However, in stark contrast to the intelligent analysis of the goings on in Pakistan and Afghanistan, are the descriptions of the US administration. Rashid possesses an extreme anti-American bias which does become tiresome after a while. This is probably due to him having simply used other writers such as Bob Woodward and Noam Chomsky. America bungles and hesitates to put troops on the ground, not because it is attempting to apply lessons from the Vietnam conflict or lessons from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (which has become known as the Soviet's Vietnam), but because America is an `empirical colonist.'
Whatever reputation Rashid acquired in the upper echelons of international diplomacy with Taliban , he's sure to have squandered it with the introduction to this book alone. Whatever his reasons for his anti-American outlook, it is bizarre that a book intended as a wake-up call and plead for the US to rebuild Afghanistan (not to mention the whole of Central Asia) should descend into polemic and other conspiracy theories which do him no favours.
An example of this contrasting viewpoint is when Rashid describes a Pakistani operation in southern Waziristan, and his descriptions in the following chapter of the US:
Following a fatwa by Ayman Al Zawahiri (al-Qaida's number 2) decreeing the assassination of president Musharaf, Pakistan finally became convinced of the need for action against the Taliban, allegedly. What followed was an operation into the region; Two weeks of fighting later - with helicopter gunships, fighter jets and tanks, along with 50,000 refugees from surrounding villages - the total lack of coordination between the Pakistani ISI and the Frontier Corps on the ground seemed strange. US officials knew the ISI had deep knowledge of the enemy's armaments and numbers, yet none of this intelligence seemed to have reached the forces on the ground. US officials in Kabul and Islamabad wondered if the failed operation was due to a lack of coordination or deliberate...
Turn the page after this, and Rashid describes a decision which was a step backwards for mankind. Not the chaos and misery the ISI inflicted upon its own people in the previous chapter, nor beheadings shown on al-Qaida websites, nor the instructions by the Taliban that young boys should kill their parents if they refuse to let them become martyrs, but because George W Bush did not grant al-Qaida or the Taliban POW status.
A useful clue for the reasons for this bias is Rashid's claim that radical Islamic group Hizb ut-Tahrir are non-violent. He also explains that Hizb ut-Tahrir shares many tenets with Wahabism. This is a bit like saying although Hitler shared many beliefs with Mussolini; Hitler wasn't as bad because he was a vegetarian. This reveals Rashid is more than likely a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir and probably goes a long way towards explaining why he does not reveal anything about Pakistani/Saudi relations, which would've given this book added depth and a new dimension. You will not see Rashid talk about the single greatest obstacle in solving the War On Terror: Pakistan's nuclear weapons.
Amazingly enough, in the context of the war on terror, it seems that the condemnation of the Taliban or al-Qaida is enough for those in the British establishment to `prove' oneself as a moderate Muslim. No wonder MI6 unknowingly employed al-Qaida's top man in Europe for intelligence gathering...
While this book will fill many peoples' knowledge gap in this area, due to the bias, it is deliberately limited. This makes it long on details, long on dispair but short on answers.
However, I still feel the information on Pakistan is brilliant and the analysis eye-opening. I would've liked some proper insights as to some of the Bush administrations' seemingly bizarre decisions, however until something more rounded comes along, I have rated this a 4 star read.
The author is clearly very knowledgeable on all aspects of the recent history of Afghanistan. He writes extremely lucidly and engagingly without ever appearing condescending to the reader.
Complaints - few or none.
Maybe the only thing that could be said is that the author has moved from being an observer (compare e.g. his Taleban book) to being now a (minor) participant in his role as an advisor to the UN. There are now clearly a few axes to grind. This colours the book occasionally and should be born in mind.