Descent Into Chaos is a must read for anyone interested in ongoing events in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the central Asian “stans” that make up one of the most politically volatile areas on earth. Rashid is both a journalist and a participant, having been a member of various groups and committees attempting to address the ongoing conflicts. As such he brings his own personal list of good guys and bad guys, and should be taken with a grain of salt. But the level of detail presented here is impressive and illuminating.
The main foci in Descent are Pakistan and Afghanistan. Rashid characterizes Pakistan as being unlike other nations, “The epithet that ‘countries have armies, but in Pakistan the army has a country’ came true…” (p 38) He demonstrates over and over the hold the military has over the nation and shows how it has been nearly impossible for civilian rule to come to much when it must always remain subservient to those with all the guns. One of the major organizations within the military is the ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate). This is the entity that has been responsible for supporting the Taliban in both Afghanistan and now in Pakistan itself, that has seen to it that massive percentages of aid received from the USA and intended for use in anti-terrorist activities have been diverted to supporting the Taliban and to paying for bolstering Pakistan’s traditional defenses against India.
Despite USA propaganda about a desire for democracy in Afghanistan, American actions have gone in an entirely other direction, offering money to warlords at the expense of the central, Karzai-led government, looking the other way at the burgeoning poppy agriculture that is funding the Taliban and corrupt warlords. The USA did nothing about Pakistan providing a safe harbor, training, equipment, expertise and personnel for the Taliban, then sending them back in to Afghanistan to wreak havoc on US-supported forces. The USA left wide swaths of the country unpatrolled, thus allowing escaping Taliban an easy exit during the initial bombardments.
I was most taken with the recurring impact of Donald Rumsfeld on events in the area, his pig-headedness in caring not a whit about building back up the nation his army was helping destroy. He consistently made decisions that led to the worst possible outcomes, leading to the situation today, in which Afghanistan remains much less an actual country than a collection of warlords protecting their individual turf, with a national leadership that has compromised so much that there is almost no effective central power to speak of. The poppy crop is doing very nicely, but it could have been otherwise had there been actual investment in developing the available resources to allow and encourage production of non-opium crops.
I learned the most about Pakistan. Rashid makes it very clear, in painful detail, how the country has arrived at today’s precipice, with a resurgent Taliban threatening the existence of what government Pakistan still retains.
Rashid offers considerable discussion of the role of NATO, and the reluctance of most NATO members to contribute much of anything to an attempt to stabilize war-ravaged Afghanistan. If the USA can be counted on to do the right thing, after all other options have been exhausted, European members of NATO can usually be relied on to delay, and limit any contributions they are called on to make, adding impossible conditions and minimal financial support.
Rashid also looks at the situations in the neighboring “stans,” Uzbejkistan, Tajikstan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazahkstan. It is not a pretty picture. The entire area is a mess, with evil dictators virtually enslaving their own populations, while enriching themselves and gaining USA support by offering use of their territory as bases for US action in Afghanistan. He even offers an example of how the USA managed to lose all influence with one of these, as Russia and China swooped in to offer support to one psychotic dictator when the US began demanding that the psycho tone it down a bit. Rashid seemed to be saying that the USA had messed up here in losing access to the nation, but he offers no suggestions for what the US might have done to retain its access.
Sometimes Rashid’s judgments are a questionable. He was much impressed with a fellow named Abdul Haq. Rashid sees him as having been a potential leader of Afghanistan, a charismatic leader bent on opposing the Taliban. Yet, despite having no state support, and only personal funding from some American millionaires, Haq pushed ahead with his plans to foment an anti-Taliban insurrection, yet could manage less than three dozen actual fighters. He was soon captured and killed. Surely a truly effective and thoughtful leader would not have made such a rash decision. He must have had a lot less going on within him than Rashid gives him credit for. And if he was so wrong about Haq, one wonders where else Rashid's personal feelings about relevant individuals might have affected his ability to evaluate their intelligence, leadership capacity or motives.
The bottom line here is that the situation in the entire area is intensely depressing. Pakistan is on the edge of becoming a failed state. Afghanistan appears little closer to having a stable, democratic society. The Taliban is the only force in the area that seems to be thriving. Rashid offers only tonics for what one might do. It is clear that opportunities have been lost, and it is not clear that the Obama administration has any better ideas about how to proceed to stabilize the region than Bush did. Hopefully they have a plan.
One item I found very helpful in the book was a collection of maps in the front. I referred to them frequently. It would have been helpful had there been a glossary at the back. There are many acronyms here and I often had to search back several pages to re-discover what some of them meant. But this is a quibble. The book is illuminating and far reaching.