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Jewcy Review: Descent into Chaos By Ahmed Rashid

More than a year before 9/11, veteran journalist and author Ahmed Rashid, wrote a book called Taliban. It described the rampant extremism in Afghanistan and asked the US to consider an immediate nation-building intervention. That warning went ignored — with … Read More

By / June 6, 2008


More than a year before 9/11, veteran journalist and author Ahmed Rashid, wrote a book called Taliban. It described the rampant extremism in Afghanistan and asked the US to consider an immediate nation-building intervention. That warning went ignored — with disastrous results.

His recent book, Descent Into Chaos: The United States and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia, is informed by nearly a decade observing and evaluating US policy in south and central Asia, and finding it baffling. Bin Laden is still free; the Taliban are expanding into Pakistan and Afghanistan; despite the increasing number of terrorists with verifiable links to the Federally Administrated Tribal Areas in Pakistan, nothing is being done to address the underlying issues there; and no one is paying any attention to Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Tukmenistan and Uzbekistan, despite the fact that these countries exhibit many of the same (and some unique) characteristics that led to problems in Pakistan and Afghanistan. None of these developments, in Rashid's reckoning, was inevitable. Mishandling and misjudgment by the Bush administration has abetted and enabled various ills that make the world unsafe. American failure to comprehensively defeat terrorism is America's own fault.

According to Rashid, the Bush administration's decision to project its power in Mesopotamia, at the cost of not attending to far more urgent issues in south and central Asia, is among the greatest strategic blunders any American president has made. Shifting the theater so quickly and suddenly after the invasion of Afghanistan — for example, US troops that liberated Qandahar from the Taliban were moved to Iraq within three months — led the US to outsource its job of eliminating terrorism to a disingenuous dictator in Pakistan and a still inchoate Afghan democracy. Both led to disastrous results. Pakistan's General Musharraf and ISI either turned a blind eye to terrorists or tried to co-opt them to advance their own agendas, while a better than token investment in nation-building in Afghanistan — which would have cost a pittance compared to the war in Iraq — could have stemmed many of the wounds that festered into security crises today. Instead, the US abandoned Afghanistan, thereby allowing the Taliban to mount a powerful insurgency that will cost huge quantities of money and human life to roll back.

Such errors of grand strategy were compounded by smaller-scale but non-trivial errors. As a Pakistani citizen who traveled widely throughout central Asia, Rashid can testify first-hand to the practical consequences of America's rubbishing and violations of the Geneva Convention, the imperial language of its officials; unnecessary maligning of the religion of Islam, and the usurpation of the State Department's customary prerogatives by Donald Rumsfeld's Pentagon — which played a direct causal role in the collapse of any serious commitment to nation-building well before any US soldiers touched down in Afghanistan.

Yet Rashid did not write this book to admonish. He is genuinely disturbed by the perpetuation of terrorist power, not to mention the continuing paucity of liberty, economic opportunity, and human rights that citizens of South and Central Asia face daily. His positive proposals for American policy are extensive in range, thoroughly grounded empirically, and ought to be required reading by members of the American foreign policy community.

I'll focus on just one of his positive suggestions. Rashid traveled through FATA — Pakistan's Federally Administrated Tribal Areas — with a Pashtun guide. He describes the region as "terrorism central," and not only the near certain secret redoubt of not only Osama Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, but also the base of operations of numerous terrorists and terror suspects spread throughout the world, whose identities Rashid lists. He argues that there are two possible ways of dealing with the threats based in FATA. The first is dispatching a military force to defeat the militants in an outright confrontation. This option has slim odds of success; the Pakistani military already tried it and failed, and external invaders are even less likely than Musharraf's army to have the requisite tactical and political support to succeed.

The second option — the viable one — highlights the indispensability of Rashid's book. FATA is one of those hinterlands of the globe that suffered through the transition from ethnic tribalism and economic feudalism to a nation-state paradigm. The literacy rate there is only 17% (3% for women!), there are no economic, opportunities, no legal system apart from an arbitrary mish-mash of tribal decision-making nominally supplemented by a statutory scheme inherited from the British Raj, and no educational system apart from whatever the mullahs could provide. There have never been political parties, much less a political culture, in the region. FATA exists outside of the sphere of international law and outside of the reach of the governments Kabul and Islamabad, its only political order the spiritual thrall of extremist religious leaders and the brute force of warlords. who use intimidation to impose themselves. In other words, it is the absolutely ideal sanctuary for al Qaeda and other stateless criminals gangs — even better, arguably, than al Qaeda's other sometime homes in Somalia, Sudan, Afghanistan, and since the American invasion, Iraq).

Clearly, therefore, an effective means of shutting down terrorism in south and central Asia is to integrate regions like FATA into the international economic community. And indeed, Rashid notes that there were proposals in recent years for a referendum in FATA which would have allowed it to either become an independent province associated with Pakistan or choose to become part of the NWFP province. Naturally, those entreaties were shunted aside by Musharraf, the man the Bush administration foolishly treated as their number one counter-terrorist.

The US could begin to address to the challenge of FATA today by reviving discussion about FATA's provincial status with the democratic parties now in power in Pakistan, who are completely befuddled by the problem of what to do with the region, and are passively allowing the tribal leaders there to extend Sharia law over secular legal opposition.

That proposal for FATA is only one of many constructive ideas in Descent Into Chaos. Rashid's long-standing relationships with the leading political figures of south and central Asia, his fluency with US policy, and his decades-long experience with the region, make the a necessary resource for anyone interested in the post 9/11 world. It should be slipped onto the essential reading lists of the foreign policy experts advising John McCain and Barack Obama.

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