Descent Into Chaos

The United States and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia. By Ahmed Rashid. Viking, 2008, 484 pages.

By John Bacher (reviewer) | 2009-07-01 12:00:00

Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid must rank as one of the most courageous and best- informed writers in the world about the challenges to building a secure and democratic peace in Central Asia. He cares passionately about human rights in this corner of the world blighted by tyranny, having endured on one occasion a personal two-and-a-half-hour dressing-down by Pakistan's former dictator, Pervez Musharraf.

Rashid's book Taliban, which was an important source for my own book Petrotyranny, which showed the connections between oil, war and dictatorship, was a tragically singular warning call about the dangers of the Taliban control of most of Afghanistan before the tragic events of September 11th. One of the many interesting revelations in Descent into Chaos is Rashid's description of the difficulties he encountered in publishing his prophetic warning of the Taliban threat.

The thrust of Descent into Chaos is a condemnation of what George W. Bush's administration revealingly called "Nation Building Lite," a term actually taken from the description of certain brands of beer. This drinking metaphor well sums up the way Bush mismanaged events in Afghanistan after September 11th, allowing the cheap rule of warlords, instead of the more expensive methods of transitional control by United Nations peacekeeping forces. Shortly after becoming president, Bush actually closed down the American training school for United Nations peacekeepers.

Not wanting peacekeepers, even after September 11th, when they were offered by his European NATO allies, Bush preferred to maintain control of the liberated Afghanistan through warlords such as the notorious Rashid Dostrum. Although some of his power has been trimmed back and his former tanks taken away, Dostrum continues to rule like a dictator over the Uzbek area of northern Afghanistan. This warlord's human rights records makes Bush's own problematic secret prisons and Guantánamo Bay pale in significance. Dostrum conducted his own ethnic cleansing, causing around half a million Pashtuns to flee his zone of control. Dostrum also slaughtered thousands of Taliban prisoners through suffocation in over-crowded container lorry trips to his home town; only a few prisoners per lorry survived.

The great strength of Descent into Chaos is Rashid's detailed way of documenting how the former military dictator of Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf, continued to nurture the Taliban government's strength after its fall. The seeds for this were planted in the last days of Taliban rule in Afghanistan in what an intelligent but frustrated American commander called "Operation Evil Airlift." This operation may have lifted Osama bin Laden to safety in Pakistan. Two planes were involved, each making sorties over several nights during the siege by Northern Alliance troops of the city of Kunduz. Those who took part in what a retired Pakistan army officer called the "Great Escape" included Arab terrorists, who were able to rebuild their terrorist training camps in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas. (FATA). What is astonishing about this debacle is that it was personally directed by former US Vice-President Dick Cheney, who emerges throughout Descent into Chaos as a blundering but powerful idiot, typified by his bad shooting while duck hunting.

Rashid explains correctly that the FATA is one of the saddest legacies of British colonialism -- indeed the darkest side of British rule in India. The FATA on the border of Afghanistan is home to three million ethnic Pashtuns, a linguistic group who also live in southern Afghanistan and Pakistan's North West Frontier Province. Unlike every other area of British India, the FATA were governed with little respect for the rule of law. Nor did elections ever take place here, unlike the situation in the North West Frontier Province. There, Pashtuns achieved elections through the remarkable nonviolent campaign of the "Frontier Gandhi," the great Muslim apostle of nonviolence, Badshah Khan.

FATA was always a problem for Pakistan, and was worsened by the manipulation of past military dictators, who enlarged these zones of arbitrary rule. Musharraf in turn compounded the problems of the FATA by removing the former local rulers who, as Rashid explains,

"were usually from the region and had spent years building up trust and respect among the tribesmen. The shift destroyed the entire management structure of the FATA while forcing upon tribesmen new bosses whom they did not trust. In one fell swoop, Musharraf had cut off the only vehicle for dialogue with the tribes....In both South and North Waziristan, [part of the FATA] the Pakistani Taliban tightened their grip on the population through intimidation and assassination. They imposed their own laws, banning television, music and the Internet and making prayers and beards mandatory for all males. They attempted to re-create the Taliban regime that existed before 9/11. Sixty tribal and religious leaders were killed in 2005, accused of being American spies. Their beheaded bodies were hung on lamp posts and widely shown on Taliban-made DVDs."

Following the bombings of the London transit system, the former Canadian chief of defence staff, Major General Rick Hiller, announced that our armed forces were going to go into southern Afghanistan to capture the terrorists who planned these terrorist acts. Rashid shows that Hiller went after the terrorists in the wrong place. The London bombing and virtually every other big terrorist action since the fall of the Taliban dictatorship were orchestrated from Pakistan's FATA area.

This later caused difficulty for Canadian, Dutch, and British troops in southern Afghanistan, since British Prime Minister Tony Blair so deeply appreciated the details he learned from Pakistan about the identity of the London bombers, that he did not want to press that government about the use of the FATA as a haven for fighters against NATO troops in Afghanistan. Rashid describes how NATO forces in southern Afghanistan discovered the FATA problem after wrongly assuming they could simply win over the hearts and minds of the Pashtun residents of the area with aid projects and good governance. The Americans had assured them that they would take care of the problem of infiltration from Pakistan.

Rashid's most compelling evidence that Musharraf allowed the Taliban to control the FATA is the contrast he draws to Baluchistan, Pakistan's most westerly province. There Musharraf's government dealt harshly with the problem of a secular nationalist revolt. The previous elected government of Nawaz Sharif had been on the verge of a compromise with this unrest, by permitting greater regional autonomy and financial assistance. As soon as Musharraf's military coup succeeded, these talks ended and the military crushed these secular nationalist dissidents. In contrast, Musharref treated the extremist Muslim parties tied to the Taliban as virtual coalition partners to his military rule.

Rashid's Descent into Chaos is an alternative to the sloganeering of both the mainstream media and much alternative discourse. While Rashid is full of fury against abuses by the United States and its allies, refreshingly he does not fall into the simplistic trap of blaming them for all the problems of Central Asia; He points out for instance that Uzbekistan's dictatorship has been emboldened by aid from Russia and China, in response to American criticism of its human rights violations. This peaked in a horrible massacre of 1,500 people who opposed turning a historic mosque into an art gallery.

Descent Into Chaos provides a vivid backdrop to the civil war situation confronting Pakistan as its democratic government addresses the legacy of extremism poisioned by prolonged military rule. One cautionary note to its tale is that Rashid, although a superb analyst of the threats to peace and democracy of the region, is not a great strategist of nonviolent responses to extremism, apart from the need to observe such obvious decencies and obligations as the Geneva Convention in the treatment of enemy combatants.

There is only one mention in his three books about the National Awami League, the contemporary political party which adheres, at least in principle, to Badshah Khan's nonviolent strategies for peace and human rights. Such strategies are urgently needed to prevent an overly harsh response by Pakistan's democratic government to the problem of violent extremism. And they are possible: During the height of the last war in Afghanistan both sides respectfully laid down their arms to allow Badshah Khan's funeral procession to go from Pakistan to Afghanistan.

Reviewed by John Bacher, a writer in St. Catharine's.

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2009

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2009, page 29. Some rights reserved.

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