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    South Asia
 
     Aug 9, 2008

BOOK REVIEW
Chronicle of errors
Descent Into Chaos by Ahmed Rashid

Reviewed by Sreeram Chaulia

As security in Afghanistan enters a freefall, the world's worst fears are coming true. With the Taliban and al-Qaeda on the ascendant, hopes of a terrorism-free region have gone. The horizon in Afghanistan's neighborhood is shrouded in violence and instability that threatens distant countries in an age of global jihad.

Reputed Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid's new book chronicles the colossal errors of omission and commission that brought about this tragedy. His thesis is that the United States ignored opportunities to consolidate South and Central Asia and embarked on a grand folly in Iraq from 2003.

The diversion convinced Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf
that Washington was not serious about his region and that it was safe for him to continue clandestinely succoring the Taliban. The George W Bush administration, by failing to neutralize Pakistan, before, during and after the invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, invited trouble.

The neo-conservatives in Washington wanted no responsibilities after overthrowing the Taliban and abandoned the region to warlords and drug barons. Obsessed with superficial regime change and instant gratification, the Bush White House gave up the chase of the Taliban and al-Qaeda in March 2002 and redirected to Iraq, allowing the two deadly terrorist movements to bounce back.

The opening chapter of Rashid's book profiles unknown facets of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, whose father had been murdered by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). In the mid-1990s, Karzai believed in the Taliban's vow of ending warlordism and aided them with funds and weapons. Once the Taliban were "taken over by the ISI and became a proxy" and gravitated into al-Qaeda's orbit, he began organizing against them.

Karzai and other nationalistic Afghans were openly critical of president Bill Clinton administration's policy of applying no pressure on the Taliban's main sponsors, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. US officials at that time had a simple-minded interest in capturing Osama bin Laden and were deaf to Karzai's plea to overthrow the Taliban. For being a thorn in the flesh of the Pakistani establishment's designs in Afghanistan, Karzai received death threats and expulsion orders from the ISI.

After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the ISI "created sufficient room to maneuver and circumvent US demands". (p 33) It did not rein in jihadis fighting against India, a fact that Rashid attributes to "the Pakistan army's deeply rooted Islamic orientation". (p 35) Musharraf himself strongly defended the Taliban worldview and had no compunction about using terrorists as extensions of Pakistan's foreign policy towards India and Afghanistan. On several occasions, he pretended to the Americans to produce "moderate Taliban who may be waiting to change sides", a feint for Pakistan to retain its influence in Afghan affairs.

Rashid characterizes ISI officers as "more Taliban than the Taliban". (p 79). Right from the commencement of hostilities in October 2001, the ISI's expertise and materiel helped the Taliban to prepare their defenses. In November 2001, hundreds of ISI officers, Pakistani soldiers and al-Qaeda leaders who were trapped in Kunduz province were airlifted to safety by Pakistan in a getaway that eventually serviced the Taliban's revival. Rashid quotes a senior US diplomat lamenting ex post that "Musharraf fooled us". (p 92)

Denying India any advantage in Kabul was the main motive prompting the ISI to harbor the escaping Taliban, whose close cousins waged jihad in Kashmir. Musharraf's claim that he had "saved the Kashmir issue" by siding with the US was a signal that nothing would change in the jihad against India. Throughout 2002, he peddled a pseudo distinction between "good jihadis", who fought in Kashmir, and "bad terrorists", who were largely Arabs. Washington played along due to its narrow focus on apprehending al-Qaeda suspects. Even as Islamist extremism ran rampant in Pakistan, Bush lauded Musharraf as a "visionary and courageous leader" and rewarded him with unrivalled military and economic aid.

The single-most important cause for the recrudescence of the Taliban was "systematic and pervasive ISI collusion". (p 222) Up to 2006, the ISI ensured that American attention on Pakistan's Balochistan province would be minimal so that the Taliban could develop a full-blooded offensive out of Quetta. Al-Qaeda and the Taliban flourished in Pakistan thanks to the army's incessant patronage of extremist Islamists who were proscribed on paper. Lack of international pressure on Pakistan permitted all-round Talibanization of Pakistan behind the charade of "reforms".

On rare occasions when Washington issued blunt ultimatums to Musharraf about his support of the Taliban, Pakistan would take action against terrorists, but only temporarily. Rashid describes Pakistan's strategy as "minimally satisfying American demands while not forsaking pro-Taliban policies". (p 269) He excoriates then American defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld for "forcing the US military to become captive to Islamabad's whims and fancies". (p 274) Washington bound itself into such dependence on Musharraf that it naively supported his peace deals with the Pakistani Taliban between 2004 and 2006 that aggravated Afghanistan's security.

On the subject of post-Taliban Afghanistan, Rashid blames the US government's pro-warlord policy for hindering institution building and financially crippling the Karzai government. With a number of warlords on its payroll, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)refused to cooperate with the United Nations' objective of disarming them. Even as the Taliban were staging a comeback from mid-2003, Iraq-blinded Washington was unwilling to consider sending more troops to Afghanistan. Germany was "pathetic, next to useless" in training a new Afghan police force, and Italy was apathetic to rebuilding the justice system.

One major reason for the dismal nation-building in Afghanistan was the international failure to curb cultivation of opium. Riding on Washington's theory that the "war on terror" "had nothing to do with counter-narcotics", the CIA befriended mafia dons. The drug epidemic fueled government criminality and inter-clan feuds that opened the door to the Taliban as adjudicators. This tectonic shift happened while Rumsfeld was smugly arguing that eradicating opium was "an unimportant social issue unconnected to fighting terrorism". (p 324)

Rumsfeld's other critical mistake was to pull out US troops from southern Afghanistan in 2005-2006, just as the largest Taliban assault was about to be unleashed. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization's (NATO's)slow deployments, riddled with caveats, boosted the Taliban's morale and vindicated the ISI's assessment that the West would not last long in Afghanistan.

With advice from the Pakistani military, the Taliban exploited the time gap and power vacuum generated by NATO's indecisiveness. When NATO's criticism of the ISI's hand in elevating the insurgency became too strident, Islamabad coolly retorted that it was being made the scapegoat for a war that the US was losing.

Rashid devotes a couple of chapters to the rising might of Islamist terrorists in Central Asia. His analysis highlights how the open house for jihad in Pakistan and American coddling of tyrannical regimes combined to turn the region into a hotbed of fanaticism and state repression. With Pakistan descending to become the world's "terrorism central", neither Afghanistan nor Central Asian countries could buffer themselves from the Islamist blowback. Rashid concludes with the thought that only a new military culture and reformed intelligence agencies can save Pakistan from its destructive spiral that is inflaming the entire region.

While Descent Into Chaos is a work of original facts and high-quality analysis, Rashid could have done better by resorting to the power of cross-regional comparisons. For instance, Pakistan's intrusion in Afghanistan is similar to the Syrian interference in Lebanon. A policy-oriented scholar should ask why something on the lines of a mass-based "Cedar Revolution" in Lebanon against Syrian dictation could not be replicated in Afghanistan to defeat Pakistan's unwarranted meddling.

Rashid's wish to recast Pakistan's notorious coercive institutions is well intentioned but unrealistic, as the recent flip-flops on bringing the ISI under civilian control demonstrate. He is correct that reshaping Pakistan holds the key to peace, but it is also imperative to forge popular nationalist consciousness in societies that have suffered greatly from the expansionist agenda of the Pakistan army and the ISI.

Descent Into Chaos. How the War Against Islamic Extremism is Being Lost in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia by Ahmed Rashid. Allen Lane, London, 2008. ISBN: 978-1-846-1175-1. Price: US$27.95, 484 pages.

(Copyright 2008 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)
 

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