Joseph Gerson is Director of Programs of the AFSC in New
England and author of Empire and the Bomb: How the US Uses
Nuclear Weapons to Dominate the World. Here he reviews Descent
into Chaos: The United States and the Failure of Nation-building
in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia, by Ahmed Rashid;
Ahmed Rashid's Descent into Chaos is a spectacular, must-read book for anyone eager to stop the killing in Central Asia. Rashid has an intellectual's faith that knowledge and truth can be corrective and healing forces. He brings these instruments to bear on the framework of Afghan and Pakistani political history, illuminating such key elements as the great power competition for influence and privileged access to Central Asian resources, Pakistan's identity crisis, the sixty-year conflict between Pakistan and India, and the failure of the ironically named "Operation Enduring Freedom." In spite of its scholarly grounding and its near encyclopedic scope, Descent into Chaos is written accessibly, and invaluable information springs from every page.
First, a related story. This past spring I traveled to Germany and France to participate in a conference and a nonviolent demonstration to oppose the Afghanistan war and the NATO summit called to mark the military alliance's sixtieth anniversary. There, as I witnessed and suffered the police state measures imposed by French president Nicolas Sarkozy -- which included a ban on the public display of rainbow peace flags, disregard for the right of peaceful assembly, and the mobilization of tens of thousands of heavily armed police officers spraying pepper gas -- I was reminded that the violence and subversions of empire inevitably corrupt even the empire's more privileged bastions.
In the course of fleeing or evading Sarkozy's finest, I also had the honor to meet and work with Malalai Joya, a young Afghan politician who has been called "the bravest woman in Afghanistan." She first earned this reputation from two speeches she gave after "Operation Enduring Freedom's" conclusion. During the 2003 Loya Jirga, organized to ratify Afghanistan's new constitution, she rose to denounce the murderous, fundamentalist, corrupt, and woman-abusing warlords who had been seated there with honor. Three years later, as a member of the Afghan parliament, she rose again to denounce many of the same the warlords who still dominated the Karzai government. For this act of integrity she was ousted from the parliament and has since been the target of six assassination attempts.
While President Karzai campaigns for reelection with a warlord as his vice-presidential candidate, Malalai lives in hiding, from time to time secretly leaving Afghanistan to help democratically-oriented people understand that war is not the answer, and that neither foreign troops, warlords, nor the Taliban will bring peace, freedom or development to her tortured nation.
Ahmed Rashid's extraordinary book explains why. While I do not agree with all of Rashid's prescriptions, I nevertheless recommend his book as the best resource for understanding why the US is losing the Afghan war and what the historical forces are that have resulted in a "descent into chaos" for Central Asia and much of the world. While their prescriptions for Afghanistan's future differ, there is little difference between Joya's and Rashid's analyses.
Before and After 9/11
Rashid, a Pakistani, writes with considerable authority. He is widely recognized as the world's leading Central Asian journalist, having written for the Far Eastern Economic Review, the International Herald Tribune, The Nation, and the New York Review of Books, and having served as a commentator for the BBC, NPR and a host of other media outlets. As he recounts in his book, he has served as an unofficial advisor to Hamid Karzai, the US State Department, and the United Nations. Before the September 11, 2001 attack, he wrote Taliban, which became an invaluable resource after the attacks for anyone who wanted to go beyond the soundbites. In 2002 he brought out Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia to help readers understand Islamist violence in the Central Asian successor nations of the Soviet Union, and their alliances with the Taliban and al Qaeda. Now we have Rashid's master work which not only describes the failures of Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld "overt imperialism" which "alienated Europeans and Muslims alike," but which also illuminates the political landscape of what have become Barack Obama's wars.
Descent into Chaos can be read as a response to Rashid's disillusionment with what he initially hoped would be a successful war and the nation-building to follow. "Everywhere I went after 9/11, I urged governments and experts to devote resources for nation-building in Afghanistan so that the country could emerge as a bastion of development and democracy to counter the growing trends of extremism and state repression in the Islamic world .I urged that warlords should not be empowered, that disarming the militias was a priority task for US forces, that international peacekeepers should be deployed outside Kabul, that Pakistan must not give refuge to the retreating Taliban, and that developing Afghan agriculture to ward off a revival of poppy cultivation should be a priority ."
Rashid goes on to describe in detail how the Bush Administration did precisely the opposite. With too much information packed into his 400 pages to be easily summarized, thumbnail descriptions of his chapters provide an idea of what you can learn here:
Use This Book
This past spring, a period when congressional Democrats were loath to take any steps that could be interpreted as undermining their new Democratic president, the unexpected happened. Representative Jim McGovern introduced an amendment to the supplemental war funding budget requiring President Obama to provide an exit strategy for Afghanistan -- not withdrawal itself -- by December. Surprisingly, by the time the vote was held, 76 members of Congress had signed on. While the bill was defeated last month, its strong support may bode well for further congressional mobilization.
Rashid's book provides the intellectual foundations needed to do more than simply demand "troops out now." His work provides the foundation for us to demand an inside/outside approach to restore greater peace, stability, and even justice to Afghanistan and Pakistan. On the one hand, this means pressing our government to build on the Saudi-sponsored negotiations now under way between the Karzai government and the Taliban, by demanding that all major Afghan political forces be involved. On the other hand, we should be urging our government to engage the region's powers -- from India and Pakistan to Iran, China, the US, and Saudi Arabia -- to meet, negotiate, and work together to contribute to stability within Afghanistan and the region as a whole. It is in each nation's interest, including our own, to do so.
And here's one more thing you can do for peace. Instead
of buying one copy of Descent into Chaos, buy two: one
for yourself and one to send to your congressional representative.