Descent into Chaos: The United States and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia by Ahmed Rashid. Viking, a division of Penguin Books, New York. 461 pages, 2008.
Ahmed Rashid has in the past written insightful books and articles about Southwest Asia, he is best known for introducing western readers to the Taliban, in an award winning book by the same name. His current book is longer than any of his previous published volumes, but provides a survey of current events in the trouble region of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia. It is a region in which al-Qaida matured to the point of being able to carry out the attacks of 9-11, and now the focus of effort has temporarily been redirected from Iraq back to Afghanistan, with senior American commanders requesting more resources to deal with al-Qaida and its resurgent Taliban hosts.
While his discussion of events in Southwest Asia is cogent and timely, his assessment of American decision-making has the neo-conservative conspiratorial bent; on page 50 of the introduction he referred to Donald Rumsfeld as Undersecretary of Defense instead of Secretary of Defense. He espouses that Bush Administration officials are purposefully keeping the American public in a constant state of fear, a notion that is neither practical nor pragmatic, as we attempt to address the challenges posed by violent Militant Islamist groups.
Rashid opens with Afghanistan, and the unlikely rise of Hamid Karzai, what distinguishes Rashid’s work is the nuances of allies who revert to enemies and then allies again in the fragile tribal political structure of Afghanistan. The book offers interesting insight into the role of Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI), a notorious organization that manages Afghan tribal affairs. In 1999, the Taliban murdered Hamid Karzai’s father, and according to the book with the knowledge of the ISI. The ISI wished to maintain an Afghanistan that would be a satellite of Pakistan to offer the nation strategic depth in case of a mass conventional war with India.
A theory that is dismissed by Pakistan’s civilian strategic thinkers but which Pakistan’s military continues to espouse. The net result of this policy is the tolerance of sectarian violence and extremism in Afghanistan, that many consider already infecting Pakistan. Among the items highlighted is President Musharraf’s discussion with nine corps commanders each controlling 60,000 troops after 9-11, in which it was agreed to accept all of America’s demands and negotiate them down over the details. The “Yes, But !” treatment is how the book describes it.
Some of this double-talk included Pakistan requesting it withdraw its forces and operatives during a temporary halt in hostilities in Operation Enduring Freedom, only to see with Pakistani nationals, Taliban and al-Qaida escaping. But then some tribal ties run deep. 'In addition, there were disagreements over the composition of the Afghan Northern Alliance government in which Pakistan voiced concerns attempting to ensure compliant Afghan leaders and not necessarily competent or popular ones.
The book continues highlighting challenges like the Talibinization of Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier and the jumble of Islamist parties who stray into violent Militant Islamist action by offering aid, support and safe haven for the Taliban and al-Qaida affiliates. The book is an excellent introduction to the nuances inherent in fighting violent Militant Islamists in the region.
Editor’s Note: CDR Aboul-Enein teaches part time at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces in Washington D.C. He is author of “Militant Islamist Ideology: Understanding the Global Threat,” published by Naval Institute Press.