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Descent into Chaos: The U.S. and the Disaster in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia Paperback – Apr 7 2009
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Long overshadowed by the Iraq War, the ongoing turmoil in Afghanistan and Central Asia finally receives a searching retrospective as Rashid (Taliban) surveys the region to reveal a thicket of ominous threats and lost opportunities—in Pakistan, a rickety dictatorship colludes with militants, and Afghanistan's weak government is besieged by warlords, an exploding drug economy and a powerful Taliban insurgency. The author blames the unwillingness of American policymakers to shoulder the burden of nation building. According to Rashid, the U.S. invaded Afghanistan and subsequently refused to commit the forces and money needed to rebuild it; instead the U.S. government made corrupt alliances with warlords to impose a superficial calm, while continuing to ignore the Pakistani government's support of the Taliban and the other Islamic extremists who have virtually taken over Pakistan's western provinces. With his unparalleled access to sources—I constantly berated [Afghan President] Karzai for his failure to understand the usefulness of political parties—Rashid is an authoritative guide to the region's politics and his is an insightful, at times explosive, indictment of the U.S. government's hand in the region's degeneration. (June)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
"Not only provides thoughtful, detailed dissection of seminal events in Central Asian recent history, but an insightful snapshot into future scenarios of where the roadmaps to terror and peace may be headed."
-Greg Mortenson, author of The New York Times bestseller Three Cups of Tea
"Rashid, a Pakistani journalist, is that most valuable of political analysts: both insider and outsider to the problem he studies. His book should be read by anyone pondering how America might stop widening Osama bin Ladin's pool of bomb-clad volunteers."
- Chicago Tribune
"[A] brilliant and passionate book."
-The New York Review of Books
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After a brilliant introduction of 21 pages, the first three chapters of the present book give the story of American involvement in Afghanistan before 9/11. The characteristic unreliability of American policy is brought out: help given to the Islamic forces and to Pakistan while the Soviets were in Afghanistan; then a total lack of interest in the period after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, when Afghanistan was first torn apart by competing war-lords and was then overrun by the Taliban.
No longer in need of Pakistan, the USA then imposed sanctions on that country because it, like India, had carried out tests of nuclear weapons.
The next 15 chapters are essentially a sequel to the author's Taliban, and chronicles in great and sometimes in dense detail, right up to early 2008, the story of Afghanistan and Pakistan after the expulsion of the Taliban at the end of 2001 and the installation of Hamid Karzai as interim President. The victory had been not only been swift (it took two months), but had also been cheap for the Americans. They had fought the campaign from the air, leaving the land fighting to the war-lords of the Northern Alliance. The Americans lost just one man killed. Karzai was installed as interim president. This easy victory led the Americans to believe that it could be copied in Iraq, an attack on which the neo-cons had planned even before the Afghan war. Once the Iraq war began, the Americans concentrated on that and paid much less attention to Afghanistan, on which they wanted to spend as little money as possible. Rumsfeld was explicitly not interested in `nation building': helping Afghanistan to develop a healthy infrastructure..
From this all sorts of mistakes arose:
1. It seemed easier to use the armies of the war-lords than to build and train an Afghan National Army.
2. Karzai, a Pashtun, had no control over the Tajik and Uzbek war-lords. They refused to disarm or to let their men be integrated into a national army. Occasionally they fought each other; they collected tolls which they refused to hand over to the government; and they alienated the Pashtun majority. For a long time Karzai dared not confront them. When eventually he managed to form a new government without them in 2004, he proved indecisive in implementing a programme of reform.
3. He was unwilling to stamp out the cultivation of opium and the drug-lords, one of whom was his own brother. Drug dealing corrupted the entire administration and the police. The Allies did not provide money for planting alternative crops and would not allow their armies to interdict the drug trade for fear of alienating the tens of thousands of farmers who depended on it.
4. The worst problem is Pakistan. Osama bin Laden and the Al-Queda forces, as well as the fleeing Taliban found sanctuary in the tribal areas of Pakistan. These were already home to what would become the Pakistani Taliban, who helped them to rebuild their forces and joined them in incursions back into Afghanistan.
For a long time the Americans were not interested in the Taliban and did not take it seriously; but they did want Al-Qaeda people handed over, and for this they needed Musharraf's help. Musharraf did this (if he could find them!), and in return sanctions on Pakistan were lifted. For a long time the Americans did not realize the close connections that had been built up between Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. But Musharraf, the Pakistani Army and the ISI (the intelligence service) protected the Taliban and gave it much covert help and even direction. This was largely because they saw Karzai as a potential ally of India. Karzai pleaded with the Americans and the British to pressurize Pakistan to give up supporting the Taliban; but these found the alliance with Pakistan too important, and pretended to believe Musharraf's denials, aided, as these were, by the ISI very occasionally giving them information about the whereabouts of Taliban leaders.
But while this was just enough to appease the Allies, it was also enough to enrage the more extreme sections of the Taliban, who in any case were egged on by their al-Qaeda allies to attack Musharraf and his police as American lackeys. Musharraf emerges from this book as being as devious as he is foolish.
5. When the Americans focussed on Iraq, NATO took over as the Western instrument in Afghanistan. But each of the 37 countries which provided troops drew up its own rules about what these troops could - or more importantly: could not - do. Some confined them to reconstruction and humanitarian work; some were specifically prohibited for fighting the Taliban; some were not to interfere with poppy growing; those stationed in the more peaceful north were prevented from helping the hard-pressed - and always insufficiently numerous - troops in the south. Of the 45,000 troops stationed in Afghanistan in 2006, only 15,000 were available for fighting. In the absence of a unified command, it is not surprising that the Taliban began to reestablish itself in large areas of the East and South from 2003 onwards and have been gaining in strength ever since.
There is much more in this troubling book - for example a comparatively brief account of the danger of al-Qaeda and other Islamic organizations establishing themselves in Uzbekistan and the other secular Central Asian republics, where tyrannical and corrupt governments are propped up by the Americans simply because these, too, suppress Islamic (along with all other) groups.
Although I take issue with many points in this book, Rashid's central argument is a valid one. Namely, that the US never took Afghanistan seriously after the Soviet withdrawal and consistently underestimated the threat from both the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Rashid's biggest gripe is the Bush administration's federalist "warlord strategy" for initially stabilizing Afghanistan and the lack of meaningful nation building efforts since 2001, especially after the invasion of Iraq. He is an unabashed proponent of building a strong central government in Kabul and stripping the regional ethnic bosses of their power, both military and political. But most of all Rashid is disappointed - almost personally offended - that his voluminous writings and recommendations for how to fix Afghanistan and Pakistan have been consistently "ignored" by the Americans, his presumably erstwhile friend Hamid Karzai, the hated Musharaff and his cronies, and, to a lesser extent, the international community. After the first few hundred pages, his whining self-promotion really starts to grate.
More surprisingly, one gets the sense that Rashid is every bit as ignorant of realities on the ground and a prisoner of his own worldview as the Bush administration neoconservatives that he attacks with such scorn and relish. Consider his take on the early days of Afghanistan invasion: "Yet this was not an occupation, and the Afghan people were literally on their knees begging for a greater international presence so that their benighted country could be rebuilt." Rashid proceeds to paint a vision of a future Afghanistan that practically amounts to Tajiks and Pashtuns grilling franks together on their backyard BBQs. He roundly condemns the US for being naïve and arrogant, and then suggests that only the US can fix a country like Afghanistan. The US could not handle Hurricane Katrina, cannot stem the flow of drugs or illegal immigrants across its borders, and cannot keep up with the rest of the industrialized world in primary education, yet we are expected to build an economy from the ground up in Afghanistan, eradicate poppy production and the heroin trade, and educate a population whose literacy rate is roughly one-in-three?
Rashid is also personally disgusted by the lack of coordination and planning between and among international aid organizations, government development agencies, and the UN, all of which has contributed to the inept civil reconstruction effort. There is no doubt that many mistakes have been made and there is plenty of waste and inefficiency in nation building projects. However, as a business executive in a company of slightly less than ten thousand employees I know all too well how difficult it is to keep different teams on the same page and not working at cross purposes - and that's in a relatively confined, secure environment. That coordination across organizations of such size and diversity is nearly impossible is a perspective that Rashid does not consider; he does not even appear to be aware of it.
Finally, Rashid writes with a flair that often dips into obvious exaggeration, which calls his many other claims into doubt. Consider this gem: "Up to twenty pickups or Toyota Land Cruisers armed with missiles and rockets that could bring down helicopter gunships would travel at 150 miles per hour across the sands." It sounds more like the script for a Ridley Scott movie. Just for the record, the top speed of a 2008 V8 Toyota Land Cruiser on a closed test track is 130 miles an hour - I checked.
In closing, it should be noted that Rashid writes that "this book is an attempt to define history in the making rather than a scholarly reappraisal years after the event." In that sense, he should be given a certain license to promote his version of events, but he takes it a bit too far, at least for this reviewer.
As a last vignette we are taken to Uzbekistan where the author asks 'who lost this country?' In fact this last part is where 'central asia' comes into play but it should have been beefed up. Instead of one chapter detaling the problems in Uzbekistan the book should have included discussions of the rest of 'Central Asia' which appears in the subtitle. What of Kyrgizistan and Turkmenistan and Tajikistan and the threats that might emerge from them?
The other subtitle is the question of 'nation-building' and here we are asked to consider the 'failure' of American arms, diplomacy and money. In Pakistan it is not a question so much of failure but rather of the inability of the U.S to invade the parts of that country which have been taken over by Al Quaida. In fact Pakistan is failing not only in the NWFP tribal areas but also in Baluchistan. Afghanistan, once a success, is being overun and the opium crop is funding the thugs turned drug barons turned Islamists. A short chapter on the nuclear issue also details some of the threats from increased instability or the fall of Pakistan.
An important and well written work.
Seth J. Frantzman
Rashid is very well informed about the region and sheds great light on the complicated matter of its political and economic contradictions. Moreover, he does so in a readily accessible, journalistic style which will enable many readers to learn a lot in a short time about this war-torn part of the world. He gives a short history of Afghanistan as well as Pakistan, explains the interrelatedness of the two countries through the strategy of the Pakistani military class to support the islamists, points out the Pashtun prevalence in both countries, describes the connections with the rest of Central Asia (particularly Uzbekistan), and finally deals with the extensive American-led Western involvement in the area including the current occupation. In addition, he provides much critical commentary. Some of this is good, and some of it is not. The main lines of the book are very worth listening to. The main lesson is that it is not worthwhile to invade a country like Afghanistan, no matter how bad its current government, if you're not going to be willing to sacrifice a great deal of funds and time as well as ground troops in rebuilding it in one's own image. Another important lesson is that one cannot deal with Afghanistan without dealing with Pakistan, which means the military class there must give up its dictatorial rule under pretext of fighting India, and that the 'tribal' areas of Pakistan must be decolonized and brought under the domain of Pakistan's regular laws and political structures. Only a serious democratization in Pakistan can really combat islamism in the 'tribal' areas, and this in turn is the prerequisite for combating islamism in Afghanistan as well as Kashmir. Many people will not like Rashid's support for 'nation-building', but surely he is right in stating that if one is going to undertake regime change in countries with terrible tyrannical governments, it immediately becomes the responsibility of the regime changer(s) to assure that country's reconstruction. Otherwise, the benefits will be minimal and the destruction and chaos maximal. He also emphasizes the important lesson that although islamism is not at all popular in either Afghanistan or Pakistan, its latent support comes from its ability to create stability and legitimate rule in areas wracked by warlords and clan systems and where no central government operates, or where the central government is too corrupt and negative to be supportable. This means that Western support for tyrannical secular governments such as that of Islam Karimov in Uzbekistan, with the aim of combating islamism in this manner, is always counterproductive. The same goes for the current policy of using warlords as the main political leaders at regional level in Afghanistan, which will surely lead to trouble in the future.
There are however also serious flaws in his book. Precisely because Rashid knows many of the people involved, he has many personal preconceived notions about the leading figures involved, which distort the narrative. For example, Ahmad Shah Massoud and Hamid Karzai are both depicted as generally 'good' figures, which can surely be doubted (in fact Massoud is explicitly considered a heroic patriot, in exactly those terms). Rashid also constantly involves himself in the narrative and puffs up his own importance in these affairs, including through his friendship with the well-known American specialist in Afghan affairs, Barnett Rubin. In all these things he works precisely the opposite way from the excellent approach of Robert Fisk, who always relativizes his own importance and describes the individual figures through their actions and what they tell him, without needing to give his own commentary on how patriotic they are or not. Finally, the book is fairly repetitive and seems padded out, with a lot more detail involved than is strictly needed for a journalistic overview of the recent events. It is all the more dubious for this reason that his use of sources is arbitrary and ineffective - he only uses footnotes randomly, and many statements and even quotations are entirely unsourced, even if they are remarkable. In this way, Rashid's superficiality and partisanship get in the way of what is an informative and useful narrative.
There's a good rule of thumb that if an author's name is bigger than the title of the book, you can expect marginal writing. Well Ahmed Rashid's name is now bigger than his writing. He spends a lot of time talking about how he
Rashid has his biases and that is fine but the first few chapters including the introduction are little more than a diatribe about how the United States messed up everything and how its mostly our fault and if we had only listened to him and his select friends like Hamid Karzai, then everything would be great.
Rashid uses a lot of hindsight to criticize the United States and doesn't even attempt to see other points of view. For instance, he faults CENTCOM for not moving elements of the 10th Mountain into Afghanistan for the sole purpose of accepting the surrender of some elements of the Taliban who instead had to surrender to the Northern Alliance. Well, Rashid either doesn't see or even try to see the connection between events he discusses earlier, we were trying to get Central Asian Republics (and Russia) to allow us to use their bases and not just to station troops but to use them as a springboard for deployments to Afghanistan. Russia stalled and so did the dictators from Central Asia. We also needed to be sure that we weren't sending in brigades into a remote nation without a way to keep them in supply.
Rashid also is obviously a fan of Karzai and paints him to look like some glorious liberator who single-handedly defeated the Taliban when no one would listen to him. Karzai is an opportunist who fell out of favor with the Taliban in the 1990's and had to flee.
Rashid is rightfully critical of the ISI and Musharref but somehow its America's fault that the ISI did what it did.
Rashid seems to make a point to not even discuss the attacks on 9/11 except to be a backdrop for the politics in Pakistan. I found that interesting.
While the book has a lot of good information, its tough to figure out how much of it is fact and how much of it is Rashid's opinion. Many of his sources are not direct quotes. Many of his sources are unnamed "analysts" or "senior leaders." While I understand why journalists need to protect sources, how much weight can be given to these unnamed sources or the context of their statements?
A glaring unsourced event was when he claims the US Government put pressure on Rabbani to step aside and how we made a veiled threat to the man about taking him out. Then later that day, a Predator strike just barely missed his house on accident of course. No sourcing on this event what so ever.
Rashid seems to have expected the United States to put all its focus on this region from 1989 onward, ignoring everything else that was going on in the world. Its this sort of monday-morning quarterbacking that I have a hard time swallowing. Had we been attacked by FARC terrorists on 9/11 instead of al Qaeda, I can guarantee that a Colombian journalist would have penned a similar book about how the US Government should have seen the threat of the FARC.
Rashid is very knowledgable about that region but it is unrealistic to expect the United States Government to have a similar understanding. While Rashid can afford to focus on one region, the US cannot. Rashid does not care to understand this.
Rashid knows a lot and has a lot of connections in this part of the world but he could have done better on this book. Rather than looking to blame America for all the woes, he would have done a better service by giving both sides. General Franks was not just some aloof commander who didn't want to get involved in Afghanistan; he had his own considerations, as did everyone in the USG. This is not to say that we do not deserve some blame but it gets a little old reading this book.
Rashid started off as a good journalist...his first couple of books were well researched and he painted a good picture of both the Taliban and Central Asia. With this book, he has clearly gotten a big head from the rocketing sales of his books. This happens with a lot of authors and they stop doing journalism and start doing commentary.
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