Ahmed Rashid. Descent Into Chaos: The United States and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia
At roughly 500 densely packed and depressing pages, this not an easy book to read. But it added immeasurably to my appreciation of the current position of the US and its allies in Afghanistan and Central Asia and of how that position came to be so desperate. Ahmed Rashid is an famously well-connected veteran Pakistani journalist. His book takes us from the weeks before September 11, 2001 right up to 2008, pausing from time to time to provide some historical perspective to his main narrative. It’s a valuable book to have on hand as we watch policymakers struggle to discover a way out of their—and for a substantial subset of this site’s readers, our—current predicament in Afghanistan.
Rashid gets his book off to a poor start with a long and unremarkable introduction that reads like just another litany of Bush’s misdeeds. It’s all true, of course, but you can find this sort of thing in any number of places, if you still care to, which I don’t. As soon as the book proper is underway, however, Rashid starts to unpack his case in copious detail and to draw on an almost uniquely broad range of sources and experiences. (When I’m interested in a subject I have an insatiable appetite for detail about it, but it did occur to me that readers who take a less Aspergerish approach to a subject might wish that Rashid’s editor had succeeded in forcing more of these details into the footnotes.)
The main thing I took away from Rashid’s book is how reliably most actors in the region have made a bad situation worse whenever they’ve been given a choice about how to proceed. Afghanistan is a poor, landlocked, and long-troubled country, but it’s been made much, much worse than it ever needed to be by the cascading effects of a series of poor decisions by just about everyone involved.
In the late 70s, the CIA weighed stability in the country against the chance to goad the USSR into a debacle, and chose the latter. On December 24, 1978, Brezhnev took the bait, and the Soviet army blundered into the country, against the advice of his top generals.* Seeing the chance to trap the USSR into a painful “Vietnam” of its own making, the US then poured money into resistance fighters in the region. That decision reflected another ranking of priorities: the prospect of stability and the development of democracy in Pakistan was trumped decisively by the goal of encouraging resistance to the USSR in Afghanistan. Accordingly, the US channeled money and arms through Pakistan, entrenching and legitimizing the military’s intrusions into the country’s political life, and encouraging the slow-spreading poison of radicalism, militarism, criminality and drug-trading in the entire region.
After the withdrawal of the USSR, there followed several years of horrific fighting between rival warlords. The success of the Taliban movement owes something to popular disgust at the instability and corruption sown by these warlords. It also owes something to money and logistical support from the ISI, Pakistan’s highly secretive intelligence agency, which sought to cultivate ties in Afghanistan in order to train and encourage Kashmiri militants and provide Pakistan with strategic depth in the event of a full out conflict with India.
As it happens, after September 11, 2001, it was Pakistan which ended up providing strategic depth to the Taliban, after Taliban forces were routed by US air power and US proxies on the ground. It was there, in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan (which are, in fact, anything but Federally Administered), that the Taliban and Al Qaeda found refuge, in some cases with the support of the ISI, which continued to play a dangerous double game of privately supporting and publicly (sometimes) condemning militant groups, for both ideological and strategic reasons. The ISI’s continuing support for the Taliban and other militants was a sore point for US-Pakistan relations, but the Bush administration continued to believe, against all evidence, that Musharif was their man, and refused to push Pakistan too hard on the issue.
The US went into Afghanistan without a clear policy on the issue of “nation building.” Bush had trouble walking back from his earlier campaign pledge to avoid such activities, and Rumsfeld remained, to the end, deeply hostile to the notion and employed all his considerable bureaucratic savvy to thwart the efforts of others in the US administration who wanted a more substantial engagement with the country. After much dithering, there was briefly talk from Bush himself of a Marshall Plan for the country, but the idea quickly slipped away as if forgotten as other priorities loomed into view.
The main other priority looming into view was a new war on a different front. At precisely the moment that the US faced the daunting prospect of stabilizing Afghanistan, it turned its attention to Iraq. I have long seen it written that the war in Iraq provided a distraction from Afghanistan that seriously jeopardized that mission. But until Rashid’s book I had not grasped the details, or understood how much evidence there really is for the proposition. Efforts to establish Karzai’s new government in Kabul were undermined by a policy Rashid calls “warlordism,” that is, providing financial and political support to warlords who then worked to undermine the government in Kabul. With resources diverted to the coming war in Iraq, Washington had clearly determined that nation building in Afghanistan would have to be done on the cheap, and warlordism seemed to offer a shortcut to the difficult and resource-intensive process of establishing and extending Kabul’s legitimacy and reach.
Stand back for a moment and marvel at the various trade offs involved here: The US pursues the Iraq War at the expense of the larger mission in Afghanistan, and loses both. The Bush administration’s uncritical support of Musharif helps set the conditions for the ISI’s continuing support for the Taliban. This in turn vastly complicates the hope of achieving even minimal security in Afghanistan, and plays a role in allowing Al Qaeda figures to escape and plan more attacks (the more recent London and Madrid bombings were almost certainly plotted from within the FATA). Having sacrificed security in Afghanistan to the goal of maintaining solid relations with Pakistan, US policymakers were then forced to watch conditions in Afghanistan destabilize Pakistan, further diminishing their leverage with the country.
There’s much more like this in Rashid’s book, if you can stomach it, buttressed by a wealth of supporting facts and argument. Since the book’s publication conditions on the ground have further deteriorated. As the new administration tries to salvage the mess handed down to it from its predecessors, I hope Rashid’s book gets the attention it deserves.
* I’m simplifying to make a point, at the risk of giving the CIA far too much credit. The decision to invade might well have been made without any CIA involvement, as Brezhnev was intervening in a complicated conflict involving the USSR’s communist allies in Afghanistan and their enemies.