Book Review: Descent Into Chaos – Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Threat to Global Security, by Ahmed Rashid

By Babak Moussavi

Descent Into Chaos Image 2“We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality”.

The question to be asked, over 11 years after the war in Afghanistan began, was whether the unnamed, neoconservative Bush adviser who uttered the foolish comment above was deluding himself about US power, or was dreaming up a nightmare. For the Afghan people, as well as those of surrounding countries, the question is not merely abstract: the reality that was “created” was chaos.

Ahmed Rashid’s explanation for the chain of events since 9/11 (up until 2008, which was when Descent Into Chaos was published) is that it was a toxic combination of massive incompetence and dangerous ideology. Most of us, with the benefit of hindsight, would surely agree. Mr Rashid, a well-respected Pakistani journalist and author of an authoritative text on the Taliban, was usually close to where the action was taking place during the dark years of the “war on terror”, however, and has provided a meticulously detailed account of the seven years that followed for Afghanistan, Pakistan and their central Asian neighbours.

The recent history of the region is broadly well-known, thanks to the intense media coverage that captured the post-9/11 US bombing campaign of Afghanistan, and which has kept up ever since as a result of the deployment of NATO/ISAF troops there. But the devil, as usual, is in the details. The policy decisions taken by the US in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Taliban had some catastrophic effects. Mr Rashid points to the failure to deploy troops where they were needed, such as along the border to stop al Qaeda fighters from simply fleeing into Pakistan, as they proceeded to do, as a pivotal example. But most crucially, he laments the total reluctance to engage in that dirty concept known as ‘nation building’ (indeed, the sub-title to the US version of the book is: The United States and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia). Borne out of ideological opposition, the neoconservatives were only concerned with ‘defeating the enemy’ and capturing or killing the terrorists. This disastrously short-sighted policy was to have some extremely costly effects.

President Hamid Karzai

President Hamid Karzai

In 2013, ISAF troops are still being killed in what Mr Rashid would describe as an unnecessary war with a resurgent Taliban, who could have been dealt with many years ago. Because of an abject failure to engage in genuine development and the construction of proper political institutions, however, it was never going to be ‘mission accomplished’. Hamid Karzai, the first President of post-Taliban Afghanistan, and a man who Mr Rashid has known personally for many years, may have been the man to unite the country given his credentials and Pashtun ethnicity, but his failure to establish a political party and insistence that the parliament be composed of individuals with no party or manifesto meant the political system could not establish credibility or mass support. Compounding this error was his blind eye towards corruption, and unwillingness to tackle the warlords who had played a part in ousting the Taliban and who continued to hold onto power around the country. Amongst these were General Rashid Dostum, who was accused of horrible war crimes:

[S]everal thousand surviving Taliban prisoners were packed into container lorries – stuffed in like sardines, 250 or more to a container – so that the prisoners’ knees were against their chests and there was no air to breathe save for a few holes punched through by machine-gun bullets. The prisoners were driven to a jail in Dostum’s home town in Shibherghan. Only a handful of people in each of the thirty containers survived the journey – in one container only 6 out of 220 survived, according to UN officials.

But blame for this ‘warlord policy’ doesn’t entirely lie with Mr Karzai. Rather, it was a policy tolerated and supported by the Bush administration; in particular, US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Mr Rumsfeld comes across particularly awfully in Mr Rashid’s book. His insistence that they were not to engage in nation-building allowed him to justify the warlord policy as the method for ensuring stability. Some stability it was. The warlords became increasingly unpopular with local populations, given that they frequently acted like repressive tyrants, which was not much of an improvement on the barbarous Taliban. Mr Rashid argues that many more NATO/ISAF troops should have been deployed in the early years of the war to quell the Taliban, engage in proper reconstruction and nation-building efforts, and allow the Afghan people to actually experience peace. Instead, NATO allies bickered over caveats for their troops (Mr Rashid is particularly scathing about the French and Germans who he claims did all they could to make sure that their deployed troops avoided any action or meaningful contribution to ensuring peace); relied on air strikes that inevitably killed civilians, thereby losing crucial popular support that he claims was strong amongst Afghans at first; and were, in the case of the Americans and British especially, distracted entirely by the catastrophic foray into Iraq (which, he points out, was entirely counter-productive in terms of stopping terrorism, and moreover, another opportunity for Mr Rumsfeld to rerun his failed policies).

Donald Rumsfeld and General Tommy Franks.

Donald Rumsfeld and General Tommy Franks.

The Bush administration’s failure to engage in establishing proper state institutions and the rule of law was not only demonstrated by the warlord policy. In a particularly depressing chapter entitled “Drugs and Thugs”, Mr Rashid argues that failing to see the link between drug production and the insurgency was one of the Bush administration’s most egregious errors. Mr Rumsfeld’s insistence that dealing with the massive production of opium, particularly in the south of Afghanistan, was neither the US military’s responsibility nor concern, allowed for a flourishing ‘black’ economy to develop that in turn funded al Qaeda and the Taliban. Though Ashraf Ghani, the Afghan finance minister until 2004, warned that in order to prevent the country from becoming a “narco-state”, alternative jobs and industries would have to be developed, Mr Rumsfeld did not even accede to Secretary of State Colin Powell’s request that US troops stop convoys of drug traffickers. This, the neocons believed, would constitute “mission creep”. Opium production was far more lucrative than alternative forms of commerce, and in 2006 drugs accounted for an incredible 46% of Afghanistan’s GDP. As such a 2004 World Bank report that Mr Rashid cites argued that:

The linkages between drugs, warlords, and insecurity add up to a vicious circle of mutually reinforcing problems… Afghanistan’s opium economy presents a grave danger to the country’s entire state-building and reconstruction agenda.

This naturally played into the Taliban’s hands. The result was their resurgence, and a renewed offensive in the spring of 2006.

Marines greet children in a field of poppies

Marines greet children in a field of poppies

Mr Rashid argues that this was all made possible by Pakistani complicity in allowing the Taliban to use bases in the country. He sees this as a policy designed to counter-balance Indian influence. By distinguishing ‘good’ and ‘bad’ extremists, the Pakistani army and the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI), could maintain proxies in the struggle over Kashmir and the greater geopolitical region, which included Afghanistan. The Taliban had been sponsored by Pakistan’s ISI, so after their fall there was a fear that India would exploit the power vacuum. Mr Rashid hints at this by pointing to the large amount of aid that poured in from India in the subsequent years, fuelling Pakistani paranoia of ‘encirclement’. As a result, Arab members of al Qaeda who crossed the border after the Taliban fell were rounded up and handed over to Pakistan’s American ‘allies’ (and were often then sent to Guantanamo Bay or other grim destinations through the notorious programme known as “extraordinary rendition”). Afghans and Pakistanis, however, were not subjected to the same treatment. The policy was to come back to haunt them in 2007, when militants based in the Swat valley began to launch attacks against the Pakistani state itself, culminating in civil war.

Descent Into Chaos is a dense book, rich in detail and containing a long list of unsavoury characters. Islam Karimov, the Uzbek dictator, is one who is particularly condemned by Mr Rashid for his horrific treatment of his people, most notably in the Andijan massacre, where between 850 and 1,500 unarmed demonstrators are estimated to have been gunned down for calling for political freedom and protesting against price rises. Uzbekistan remains virtually absent from the western media’s radar, however. The Bush administration, needing its airbase in the country, had lavished Mr Karimov with aid for his military and intelligence services, asking only for empty promises of political reform. After Andijan though, even the neocons had to condemn this action (albeit two days after the event), which pushed Mr Karimov into the arms of the Chinese and Russians who feared American influence in central Asia.

General Pervez Musharraf. Not a man who commands Mr Rashid's admiration.

General Pervez Musharraf. Not a man who commands Mr Rashid’s admiration.

Much scorn, however, is reserved for the Pakistani President at the time, General Pervez Musharraf. He is portrayed as dishonest, back-stabbing, power-hungry, corrupt and downright foolish. Mr Rashid describes how he made the Bush administration believe him to be a staunch ally (which they were happy to do, given the crude propaganda boost of portraying a Muslim country to be firmly onside in the ‘war on terror’) while supporting the Taliban at the same time. As a result, the Pakistani military, which he had headed when ousting Nawaz Sharif in a coup in 1999, received a huge amount of aid from the Americans. The result was not security for the Pakistani people, but a continuation of a state of affairs that had begun almost since the country’s inception in 1947: Pakistan was to remain a “national security state”, where

the development of political institutions, a constitution, democracy and a prospering economy – the true indicators of national security – have been considered secondary.

Like Afghanistan, and the region in general, Pakistan is described as being in a bad way in Descent Into Chaos. That was in 2008, before US drones really started striking the mountainous border areas with Afghanistan, and before Osama bin Laden was killed by American commandos in a raid in Abbotabad, which led to an immediate souring of US-Pakistan relations. Anatol Lieven, whose book Pakistan: A Hard Country came out in 2011, paints a more optimistic picture of the state of the (hard) country than Mr Rashid does. But Professor Lieven also treats Mr Musharraf far more favourably than Mr Rashid (who was once summoned to the general’s office for a frank exchange of views) does, even if he is perhaps more forthright about the levels of corruption and patronage that exist throughout the political system. It is interesting to gauge such different perspectives on the country, even if Mr Rashid’s pessimistic opinion sadly seems more convincing (though his comments on world politics more generally are occasionally far too sweeping). Indeed, much criticism of Professor Lieven’s book focused on his seemingly generous portrayal of the military.

The author, Ahmed Rashid, argues that the chaos was not inevitable but a result of some very poor policies.

The author, Ahmed Rashid, argues that the chaos was not inevitable but a result of some very poor policies.

Nevertheless, while the neoconservatives and Osama bin Laden have departed the scene, and publics in Europe and the US are focused more on economic difficulties than global security, Mr Rashid does not seem to believe the problems portrayed in Descent Into Chaos have passed (indeed, his 2012 book is ominously titled: Pakistan on the Brink). In a recent article in the Financial Times, Mr Rashid claims that

[Pakistan] faces widespread violence and mounting casualties every day – an Islamic terrorist movement to overthrow the state in the northwest by the Pakistani Taliban, a separatist insurgency in Baluchistan province and mounting ethnic and mafia violence in the commercial capital Karachi. Some fear that as the violence escalates and the state loses control of large areas, the elections [scheduled for 2014] may not be held or held piecemeal.

Descent Into Chaos is a depressing but important book. Anyone wishing to better understand the Bush administration’s miserable foreign policy failures, or the region’s main actors, messy politics and sad history would do well to read it. As ISAF troops begin to withdraw from Afghanistan in 2014, the bitter thought that Mr Rashid leaves the reader with is how very different it could, and should, have all been.

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2 comments
  1. senex72 said:

    Yes so true an an analysis!, and there seems little we can do about it. I suggest we should disentangle ourselves from NATO because of its commitment to out-of-theatre operations and regime change, and cut free from an America that has not won a war since 1945, and shows precious little chance of doling so,in spite of several attempts that seem to be leading it to a policy of war without end.. It is only destroying its own people’;s liberty and prosperity. Time to realise there are enemies in the West as well as the East! Else, as :Libya/Mali show, we sow the wind and reap the whirlwind.

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