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Descent into Chaos: The U.S. and the Disaster in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia
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After September 11th , Ahmed Rashid?s crucial book Taliban introduced American readers to that now notorious regime. In this new work, he returns to Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia to review the catastrophic aftermath of America?s failed war on terror. Called ?Pakistan?s best and bravest reporter? by Christopher Hitchens, Rashid has shown himself to be a voice of reason amid the chaos of present-day Central Asia. Descent Into Chaos is his blistering critique of American policy?a dire warning and an impassioned call to correct these disasterous strategies before these failing states threaten global stability and bring devastation to our world.

Customer Reviews:

  • I can't imagine a better source of first-hand knowledge.
    This is a masterpiece, in my humble opinion. Mr. Rashid personally knows many of the key players in the south and central Asia theater and is well placed in western capitols. His shocking and very well documented revelations about US foreign policy and military failures in this region are appalling. I was particularly struck by our abysmal strategy in dealing with the Taliban and Northern Alliance immediately after 9-11. Mr. Rashid clearly demonstrates the linkage of these failures and poor planning to our present difficulties, e.g., tracking down terrorists in Pakistan and the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan. There are myriad lessons to be learned by current and future political and military leaders....more info
  • Best place to start to understand modern Afghanistan and Pakistan
    This is a dense and fascinating look into one of the most dangerous regions of the world. In addition to being extremely balanced, it is an insider's book par excellence: over a 30-year career, Mr. Rashid got to know virtually all of the players, some as personal friends. That being said, the author never shrinks from clear-eyed criticism, for example of Pres. Karzai, who has been indecisive and weak as a leader and yet is his personal friend. Indeed, it is so honest that I believe Mr. Rashid is courageous to the extent that he has put his personal freedom and perhaps his life at risk.

    The story begins with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the resulting civil war. It was the Pakistani Intelligence Service that supported the Taliban, in a way as a means to control the country, which officials feared would become a ally of India (Pakistan's perceived mortal enemy). There were also many true believers in Islamic fundamentalism, of course. This cooperation continued long after the Americans invaded and occupied the country, in spite of billions in military aid to Pakistan to fight Al Qaeda. In other words, the Pakistani Intelligence Service - and the military government of Musharaff - played the Bush Administration for naive fools: promising to combat fundamentalism while actively aiding it and allowing it to survive.

    Taliban-dominated Afghanistan is also described. Totally without expertise or experience in government, they essentially allowed Al Qaeda to advise them and then dominate them. The mismanagement is utterly catastrophic, creating an opportunity for the Bush Administration to cultivate political support (totally squandered by inattention and incompetence).

    Once the Americans were in Afghanistan, the comedy of errors became so bad as to be unbelievable. Not only did they fail to win over the local population in many areas when the US had the opportunity to secure the country easily, but they allowed the drug trade to take the place of local government in many areas while the Taliban was allowed to regroup (aided by Pakistan). Sure, the US was diverted by the war in Iraq, but Iraq was a war of choice and will be viewed as a strategic diversion of historic proportion. Meanwhile, the inaction of the Pakistani government allowed their local Taliban (different from the Afghan movement) to gain a foothold in Pakistan's "autonomous regions" and spread into what is becoming a civil war, perhaps over nuclear weapon access.

    Though events have overtaken the end of the book, this is an excellent place to gain an understanding of what can only be described as a mysterious and complex region of vital strategic importance. The author explains innumerable curious issues in historical context, such as the autonomous regions, which are a survivial of the colonial period and now serve as a buffer zone with Afghanistan that is an anything allowed zone and outside of Pakistani mainstream.

    Warmly recommended. It is the best book on the region I have seen so far....more info
  • Split personality
    When future President Hamed Karzai arrived at Kabul airport on December 13, 2001, the Northern Alliance commander Mohammed Fahim was puzzled by the small size of his escort. "Where are your men?" Fahim asked. "You are my men - all of you are Afghans and are my men" Karzai replied.

    This was supposed to be the start of a fairytale - the founding of a unified, democratic Afghan state which would bring peace and reconstruction to a country devastated by two decades of war.

    Ahmed Rasid documents the ensuing debacle in excruciating detail. The United States went in with the minimal aim of denying Al Qaeda a sanctuary, using a low cost strategy of air power combined with Northern Alliance ground forces. Due to the lack of boots on the ground, warlord forces were hired as mercenaries even as the government in Kabul was struggling to form a national army, and the heavy use of air power reaped the inevitable harvest of civilian casualties and hostility. Aid per person was a tenth of that given to Bosnia and Kosovo. The Pakistani military gave the minimum of cooperation necessary to avoid outright US enmity and ensure continuing flows of weapons and money, while allowing the Taliban to cross the border at will and even giving them artillery cover. Karzai was indecisive in government, failing to form a political party (his "biggest mistake") and appointing officials "known to be crooks."

    The bizzare thing is that, after reporting all of this Machiavellian manouvering, Rashid's commentary sounds like it was written by an idealistic teenager. The US should have committed to nation building. Musharraf should have embraced democracy and peace with India. Karzai should have governed according to pure Weberian bureaucratic logic.

    It is impolite to cite an author against himself, but: the Pakistani military's entire reason for existence is to fight India, and Islamic militants are a useful, deniable tool to that end. They also have no wish to see a strong Afghanistan on their Pashtun borders. Karzai, by virtue of being a cleanskin, has a negligible power base and inadequate experience in backstabbing and government (excuse the redundancy). As for the US, one is reminded of Niall Ferguson's belated confession "I wouldn't have supported the invasion of Iraq if I had known that the Bush administration was completely incompetent and the American people don't like land wars in Asia."

    The implications for the future are even more depressing. If the new frontier of Islamic extremism is Pakistan and former Soviet Central Asia, if the current level of military occupation cannot provide security, and the Karzai government has lost credibility, it is easy to see the US and NATO simply cutting their losses. Yet the Taliban are fragmented and unpopular, and might struggle to obtain the same level of support from Pakistan and the Gulf the second time around. The odds on anarchy are shortening, with no obvious candidate to end it.

    At times like this, it is useful to remember that things are never so bad they can't get any worse. Maybe the Chinese will invade. They haven't tried it yet, and everyone else has.

    ...more info
  • Very Informative; 4.5 Stars
    The author is an experienced Pakistani journalist with an international reputation for his knowledge of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and central Asia. This well written book is a narrative and analysis of the American involvement in the region since 9/11. Rashid begins with a concise but very useful overview of the region in the aftermath of the Cold War. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, American interest in the region faded. What was left was an Afghanistan torn by civil war and endemic warlordism, a Pakistan dominated by a military intent on preserving its power and obsessed with rivalry with India, and a series of weak, authoritarian successor states in central Asia. Some of these features were partly the result of American Cold War policies, particularly the decision to funnel support to the Afghani resistance through the Pakistani military. The latter used these resources to both advance the cause of radical Islamic movements and to attempt control of Afghanistan. These policies converged subsequently in Pakistani military support for the Taliban. Rashid does a particulary good job of demonstrating how the Pakistani military uses the strategic rivalry with India and the issue of Kashmir to bolster its grasp on political power in Pakistan.

    Against this background, Rashid describes the nature and consequences of American actions in the region. We invaded Afghanistan and toppled the Taliban, largely using local proxies. This was followed by a complete failure to develop any kind of reconstruction program, leading to a return of endemic warlordism. As the same time, we ploughed enormous support into the Pakistani military while they played a double game of providing some assistance against Bin Laden but continuing to provide considerable support for homegrown and Afghani militants, all part of efforts to exercise influence in Afghanistan and use Islamic militants against India, particularly in Kashmir, and to maintain domestic power.

    Rashid has a number of biting descriptions of the failures of American policy and leadership in Afghanistan. The failure to develop reconstruction, the conflicting priorities of different arms of American policy, the blithe support of warlords, and a remarkable degree of diffuse arrogance and ignorance, lead to catastrophic failure. Rashid does not spare non-Americans either, for example, Hamid Karzai, the President of Afghanistan. His description and analysis of Pakistani politics is even better. This is a detailed narrative of the remarkably two-faced and in many respects successful efforts of the Pakistani military to manipulate the relationship with America to serve their own strategic and political ends, often contradicting the goals of American policy. Rashid again criticizes harshly but justly American shortsightedness and ignorance. The end results of all these policy misadventures has probably been to make Afghanistan and Pakistan more dangerous to American interests and security than they were prior to 9/11, a remarkable negative achievement.
    ...more info
  • Apocalypse Now: Central Asia
    For a brief moment after 9/11, something extraordinary seemed to happen - a conversion of the Left and of the Right. Shocked by the largest terrorist attack in history, a feeling that things could not go on as they were - that the world has been transformed - transcended conventional political alliances. Thus a strange coalition of conservatives and liberals agreed that promoting democracy - by force if necessary - was both moral and necessary (See Paul Berman's Power and the Idealists: Or, the Passion of Joschka Fischer and Its Aftermath on several different - and not so different - paths to the same goal)

    It was to be a short lived coalition. Disillusioned by the failure of the Bush Administration's policies, many in the both the Left and right have drifted back towards their previous positions. Some who refused disillusionment tried to sketch a middle course between a traditional position and a democracy promoting ideology (see for example Amitai Etzioni's Security First: For a Muscular, Moral Foreign Policy, or Francis Fukuyama's call for `Wilsonian Realism' in America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power, and the Neoconservative Legacy, which I haven't read).

    Those who continue to hold the faith have a tough task - to explain failure away. Fortunately for them, the gross incompetence of the Bush administration offers a plausible answer. They can make a good case that the end was worth achieving and within reach - and that the blunders of the United States had lost it.

    Ahmad Rashid's book is one such effort. He is in favor of the Afghani war, and thinks that its apparent failures - see the title - are consequences of inept US policies. His book is compelling and well written, if at times over long and unfocused - in some of the middle chapters, you can't spot the narrative beneath the wealth of examples, incidents, and personalities which Rashid force on us. But Rashid's book is not entirely convincing - as much as one would like to, not all the blame for the mess in Central Asia can be laid at Bush's door.

    After the Soviet forces withdrew from Afghanistan, American and World interest in that part of the world was greatly diminished. Afghanistan was left in a state of civil war, in which various warlords fought for control over the country, and over its Opium trade. Then out of the anarchy, a new group rose. Fundamentally Muslim, utterly reactionary, and militarily victorious, its members, mostly former anti-Soviet Mujahadeen, called themselves the Taliban - Afghani for students.

    An interesting question, and one that Rashid does not pay enough attention to, is why the Taliban became anti-American. Funded and Supported by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, both American client states, composed mainly of former Mujahadeen and thus anti-Russian, the mostly parochial group with little interest in global affairs could have become yet another distasteful US ally in the region. Instead, the Taliban fell under the spell of al Qaeda and its charismatic, anti-American leader - Osama bin Laden.

    Afghanistan's support of al Qaeda made things difficult for its Western neighbor, Pakistan. Pakistan was a US ally, but shared interests with the Taliban Sunni Islamism, with which it cooperated in its struggles in Kashmir. Trapped between its Superpower sponsor and its ideological ally, Pakistan tried to appease both, pressuring Afghanistan to relinquish bin Laden - to no avail.

    With the September 11 attacks, everything changes, and everything stayed the same. When the twin towers collapsed, Pakistan's military dictator, Pervez Musharraf realized that "America would react like a wounded bear". Overruling more extreme members of his regime, Musharraf aligned itself with the US in the so-called "War on Terror". Pakistan allowed the US to raid Afghanistan from its territory, shared intelligence, and generally proved a helpful partner in the war.

    But only to a point - while Pakistan was helping America to fight the Taliban, it also helped the Taliban, feeding it with information, supplying it with funds, and allowing its members to escape into Pakistan. Partially, this was done by ideologically sympathetic to the Taliban individuals and groups within the Pakistani establishment. But it was also probably an example of a policy frequently employed by America's unsavory allies: play both sides. By strengthening the anti-American Islamist opposition, Musharraf made himself a necessary evil, one the US would not be able to do without. This kind of strategy has been employed by America's allies since at least the Cold War. It is a difficult balance to strike, but some US allies, notably Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, have been doing it for years (see Inside Egypt: The Land of the Pharaohs on the Brink of a Revolution).

    Rashid is highly critical of the Bush administration's support for Musharraf. The US has showered economic and military aid on Pakistan, and made no comment and Musharraf schmoozing of the Taliban or his sham democratic "reforms". But it is not obvious that the US had any real alternative courses of actions. Indeed, as US Pakistan relations worsened (a consequence of the growing realization of the extent of Pakistani-Taliban cooperation, the democratic victory in the November 2006 Congressional elections, and I suspect, although Rashid doesn't say so, the improving relations between the US and India which came at Pakistan's expense), pressure on the Musharraf regime mounted, leading eventually to his fall from power. But the situation did not improve. In fact, as the Obama administration took office, things were worse than ever.

    Rashid's criticism is more credible when it comes to Afghanistan. There, the main problem was US penny pinching, as the Bush team wanted to win Afghanistan while also fighting a war in Iraq and cutting taxes. The administration's short sighted policies were inept in both direct and indirect ways. The US project in Afghanistan lacked proper funding and resources for doing what had to be done, whether in terms of security or reconstruction. Furthermore, in order to fight al Qaeda and achieve security at low cost, the US sponsored various Afghan warlords (euphemistically rechristened "regional leaders"), this undermined the central, more-or-less democratically accountable government, and gave power to thugs which were often happy to double cross the Americans and the Afghani people in quest of personal gain.

    But even in the case of Afghanistan, it is not obvious that America is ultimately to blame. Despite Rashid's assurance that "the tragedy of Afghanistan was how feasible reconstruction actually could be..." (p. 176), the truth was that the situation in Afghanistan was dire. Afghanistan had been ravaged by the Soviet Invasion, Civil War, the Taliban regime, and the anti Taliban war. Information about Afghanistan was hard to come by, and country was torn between various ethnic groups. Rashid's criticism goes all around - Afghanistan's president Hamid Karazi, the United Nations, the NATO nations, as well as the Bush and Blair administrations - none escape his wrath.

    Unfortunately, foreign aid is difficult under the best of circumstances (See William Easterly's The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists' Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics and The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good). The Bush administration, as incompetent as it surely has been, was hardly the first to fail in the attempt to rebuild a nation. Indeed, examples for failed Nation Building are far more numerous than instances of success. Rashid never seems to doubt that the situation could improve, if only decision makers try harder. But some battles are unwinnable, and the attempt to save Central Asian may very well be doomed from the start. ...more info
  • Devil's Brew
    In, "Descent into Chaos", as with it's predecessor, "Taliban", Ahmed Rashid demonstrates profound and intimate knowledge of and familiarity with the byzantine complexities of Central Asian cultures and politics. An understanding of this troubled region is required not only to place our current involvement in context, but also to more fully comprehend the situation in the Middle East.

    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.

    ...more info
  • Indepth information about the Afghan heroin trade.
    Ahmed Rashids book "Descent into Chaos" is an incredible book that gives indepth information about the current situation on the ground in Afghanistan and Pakistan. I can warmly reccomend it to you if you want learn more about Americas war in Afghanistan.

    The book has a good and well informed chapter on the heroin trade in Afghanistan. He gives a detailed account of its origins and dynamics. Here is a short summary: Afghanistan is one of the largest drug producing nations on earth. This is partly due to the fact that the Taliban need to fund their uprising against NATO and the United States. The return of the Taliban and the new AlQaeda training camps would not have existed without the new booming heroin trade. The attempts of the Afghan government to build up its society has been made very difficult because of the money generated from the drug trade. Its very difficult to find an alternative source of income to the opium growing farmers.

    In 2005 there were an estimated 2 million farmers growing opium in Afghanistan. The opium trade had originated in 1986 in Pakistan when Afghan commanders brought opium seeds into southern Afghanistan and planted it there. From there the raw opium was shipped back into Pakistan and sold by the resistance fighting against the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan. This was done to fund the war effort. All this was done according to Rashid while both the CIA and the Pakistani intelligence agency called the ISI (short for Inter-Services Intelligence) looked the other way. Several high post officials within the ISI where fired due to their complicity in the drug trade.

    Rashid means that the CIA played the same dubious role that they did in the Vietnam war. Outwardly they denounced the heroin trade while letting it continue in their effort to stop the global spread of communism. The CIA refused to deal with the connections between the heroin syndicates, high post Pakistani officials, and the resistance fighters. This caused major frustration with the DEA( the American drug enforcement agency). After the Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan America pumped in around 100 million dollars into Pakistan to make it drug free, and this worked, for a while.

    During the civil war in Afghanistan that started after the Russians left, the Taliban warlords used drug money to pay their soldiers and buy food from Pakistan. The Taliban also started taxing the opium growing peasents and they exported the heroin through Al Qaedas connections to criminal syndicates in the Persian gulf. The Taliban ceased their opium deals in 2000 when they had been promised legitimacy by world governments if the stopped the drug trade. After their regime was ousted by the US attack on Afghanistan in 2001 this would change.

    When the US invaded in Afghanistan after 9/11 in 2001 they worked with certain Afghani war lords who where known drug runners. The war on terror and the war on drugs did not go hand in hand. The British tried to stop the opium production since 98% of the heroin in Britain comes from Afghanistan. They payed over 80 million dollars to Afghan officials to pay to farmers to stop growing opium. This only resulted in more corruption. This resulted in corrupt police and judges which made it very difficult to arrest the smugglers.

    The corruption was so widespread that it reached up into the top layers of the Afghan government. The job as a police chief in a top opium producing province was auctioned out at a price of 100000 dollars for a six month work period (this job usually had a wage of 60 dollars!). The Afghan president Hamid Karzai was reluctant to deal forcefully with the situation. Often drug barons got high posts in the Afghan government.

    In 2005 the pentagon and the CIA went on the record to say that drug money funded terrorism. It helped the Taliban pay their soldiers, it also helped them buy newer and more advanced weapons, and it helped Al Qaeda build their training camps. Now there where 170000 heroin addicts in Afghanistan that consumed 90 tons of opium in 2005. The drug money effectively crippled every attempt to establish a legal economy because none of the other industries could compete with the winnings from the drug industry.

    Most of the countries surrounding Afghanistan have also been pulled into the drug trade. The central asian republics north of Afghanistan have all become transit routes for the heroin that is headed for Russia and Europe. The drug money has helped the ruling elites of these countries get very rich while hiv/aids has spread rapidly amongst the drug using populations. Overall the heroin use has increased by ten times in central asia since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Almost 3% of the population above the age of 15 are dependant on heroin in Iran. Almost half of those 170000 people in Iranian prisons are there on drug charges. In 1979 Pakistan was heroin free, and in the year 2000 there where an estimated 5 million addicts. Pakistan is where much of the raw opium from Afghanistan is processed and refined in laboratories before it is smuggled to other parts of the world. After 9/11 opium was once again grown in Pakistan....more info