Monday, October 19, 2015

Descent into Chaos by Ahmed Rashid (Book Review #83 of 2015)


Descent into Chaos: The U.S. and the Disaster in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia
The author is a Pakistani journalist who knows a lot of people on both sides of the border and can communicate with many players. He is invited to forums where he gives his opinion on things; he lives there so is not a "impartial" journalist we might idealize. Giving his opinions is seen by some negative reviewers as "arrogant." In some cases his personal memory of situations causes him to inject opinion as fact labeling things "relatively weak," "inadequate," etc. without references to back them up. Other reviewers have found some mistakes in his figures, or misrepresenting others' work. This is troubling. But who knows how his mistakes compare to others making similar errors in books? Thanks to the internet, every book gets amateur fact-checking. Does the exclusive stories he broke as a journalist make up for it? The narrative does jump around a lot to give context to specific developments, it would have been more boring if strictly chronological so I do not fault the author or editors there. But it's a 3.5 star book for some of these weaknesses.

My own criticism of the book is different. I don't doubt the disappointment and incompetency of the American-led effort in Afghanistan. But Rashid lists blunders and failures (some of which might be embellished, see the other comments doing the fact-checking) and shows few specific successes, if any. There are a host of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working to rebuild Afghanistan whose work goes unheralded by Rashid. He doesn't highlight any changes in life expectancy, building of schools, women's rights and education, etc.  If anything, he could have documented their frustration with government actors or contrasted their work with the military efforts that seemed to be working crosswise, but does not. This is odd given how much he obviously cares about the region and situation. He does highlight the unraveling of these institutions in Pakistan, much as Malala's book did, confirming much of what I read in that account of life in the Swot valley.

It also does not cover the Central Asian republics as much as I'd hoped. It was perhaps difficult to weave these into the narrative. The big takeaway as far as the former Soviet republics went was, while we secured their cooperation in the military effort in Afghanistan, we failed to establish long-term relationships with these developing countries that might have fostered more cultural exchange, aid, and democratic effort. Putin has since stepped up his game in the region, so any opportunity we had to make a long-term relationship in the region seems to be lost, outside of securing natural gas contracts for Western firms (which often benefits Russia and Central Asian dictators as well--read the book Clinton Cash).

Here's what I learned and my overall summary of the book:
Rashid was one of the few Pakistani journalist allowed to report in Soviet Afghanistan, giving him perspective and access that would be valuable in the years following. He gives a brief history of Afghanistan and explains the situation there pre-9/11. Most of the book chronicles Pakistan's dangerous ISI and the love-hate relationship that Pervez Musharraf and the US had in the years before and following 9/11. If you've seen the PBS Frontline documentaries on Pakistan's ISI and their efforts at working against the US, then you've already been frustrated and outraged at how the ISI repeatedly works against US interests. Rashid profiles many of the actors in this drama, and discovers stories that saw firsthand little press coverage.

The ISI and Pakistan funded and trained Taliban fighters and undermined international attempts to sanction the Taliban pre-9/11. When the UN passed sanctions against Afghanistan due to Taliban atrocities, Pakistan and the ISI sanctioned pro-Taliban meetings and rallies, openly snubbing the sanctions. We now understand the reality of the Taliban safehaven in the Swat Valley and elsewhere and it's hard to remember a time post-9/11 when it was against US policy to admit that was the case, and that Pakistan feigned outrage at the very idea.

On 9/11/2001, ISI leadership was actually in Washington, DC meeting with Pentagon officials on ways to get Afghanistan to give up Bin Laden, none of which were seen as credible (according to Rashid, at least). Only in the week prior to 9/11 had the Bush Administration agreed to provide arms for the Northern Alliance. (This information seems to run counter to what Richard Clarke and others have claimed-- that the Bush Administration ignored Afghanistan and Bin Laden threats prior to 9/11.) The CIA had no operations in Afghanistan and no one who could speak the languages, according to Rashid. This seems to run counter to other accounts I've read, that at the same time President Clinton launched cruise missile strikes on Al Qaeda camps he also increased CIA funding and focus on Afghanistan (surely they'd have at least trained assets who spoke the languages...). According to Rashid, the CIA was essentially flying blind on Afghanistan on 9/11 and heavily reliant on the ISI, which helps explain the air evacuation of Al Qaeda assets from Kunduz (see below). 

Since Kunduz has been in the news recently (October, 2015) having fallen to the Taliban, it's notable that in the earliest part of the post-9/11 war Musharraf convinced the US to airlift out a significant number of ISI assets from Kunduz. We now know that these included hard-core Taliban, including many Al Qaeda operatives. The military apparently held its nose and did it secretly, with pilots calling the operation "Evil Air." When US forces, unaware of the previous airlift, arrived at Kunduz expecting a fight, they found it mostly empty. Kunduz apparently became the site of a prison where US Special Forces apparently tortured prisoners in the early days of the war, something the press later brought to light but for which there were few repercussions outside the long memory of Afghans. Kunduz would appear remain a rallying point for a resurgent Taliban.

The CIA and Pentagon's linking up with warlords to fight the Taliban in early days is not given much attention by Rashid. This Huffington Post piece in 2013 criticizes Rashid for characterizing the Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum as evil, when he was a US ally fighting along with the Green Berets and CIA to oust the Taliban and later playing a role in post-Al Qaeda Afghanistan.


The Bush administration had already ruffled international feathers before 9/11 because of their overall attitude of disinterest in working through international bodies and upholding various treaties. Rashid had written the best-seller The Taliban published in 2000 that recommended something like $5-6 billion/year in foreign aid to Pakistan, along with UN peacekeepers which would have been a fraction of what we later spent attempting nation-building from scratch in Iraq. His opinions and invitations to forums to discuss various situations do not make him look like a disinterested party, so one can imagine he was seen as an annoyance to the Administration. (It's hard to remember when $5 billion sounded like a large sum of money, and hard to remember when Paul Wolfowitz and others in the Bush Administration were testifying that the Iraq war could be quickly won at a cost lower than that.)

Rashid shifts gears occasionally to look at the Central Asian republics that the U.S. would need to build airbases and supply lines within. This was the first time since Alexander the Great that Western troops would occupy sections of these countries. Rashid reports that these countries had favorable views of America, goodwill that America would squander and Russia would quickly usurp. Most of these republics are run by dictatorial dynasties, and it is hard to imagine that a greater effort could be made encouraging freedom and democracy there with so many resources intended for Afghanistan. Rashid's brief background on Central Asia, and how the US lost it, is informative though unsatisfying for me. 

The author has a personal relationship with Hamid Karzai and tells his story. After 9/11, Karzai re-enters Afghanistan with tacit US support and goes up to a tribal holdout in the mountains, where he is eventually pursued by a force of hundreds of Al Qaeda fighters. The multilingual and charming Karzai thus becomes the only Pashtun fighting the Taliban. He uses his phone to call the State Department for help, leading to a CIA airdrop of supplies and a rescue from the hills, and from there he is propelled on to the Presidency. Putin, meanwhile, undermines the UN by acknowledging a different Afghan president. Rashid does not mention overt Russian action in Afghanistan very often, but it seems some of his criticism of US policy could have gone toward Russia's undermining of UN and US actions in Afghanistan and Central Asia at large.

Karzai is a difficult character and likely a product of the realities of post-9/11 Afghanistan, where coalitions have to be formed by promises and bribery, and corruption is widespread. I have seen Karzai scolded in sections of Bob Gates and Leon Panetta's memoirs, as well as the Broadwell biography of Petraeus. Stan McChrystal's account of Karzai contained less criticism and more admiration. Rashid chronicles both the US hopes for Karzai and the criticisms of him, as well as Karzai's angry attempts to defend his brother from charges of corruption. Karzai was obviously frustrated both by the civilian deaths, night raids by the US military, and the constant undermining by Pakistan that the US continued to turn a blind eye toward. I'll just say I'll read Karzai's memoir before I read Pervez Musharraf's (which is not on my shelf).

You can't really understand Pakistan's political situation absent the rivalry with India. The US fanned those flames by helping India with its nuclear program. Musharraf asks for F-16's to counter India while the US would rather he focus on the growing Taliban presence in the country. Musharraf, who styles himself after Atatürk, makes repeated blunders and Pakistan descends further to chaos. Toward the end of the book, Rashid documents the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, and how it was received around the country. This also reads similarly to Malala's memories of the period, but Rashid gives more behind-the-scenes insight, making it sound ultimately inevitable.

At one point, President Bush gives a speech laying out a "Marshall Plan" for Afghanistan, which apparently raises the hopes of Karzai and others, only to see no follow-up in action or resources. As the US pivots to Iraq, Karzai increasingly believes Rumsfeld is out of touch with reality. Rumsfeld rejects any White House or State Department hopes to use US soldiers as nation-builders. Rashid repeatedly blames "neocons" throughout the book, labeling all in the Bush administration as such. The problem is that officials and generals came and went with different ideas, nuances, and designs; Rashid should know better than anyone that grouping everyone into a one-word label is problematic. 

One informative aspect of the book for me was Rashid's comments about USAID, responsible for development projects on the ground, having been totally cut out of the policymaking by the CIA. USAID was "understaffed" with "no expertise," particularly in local languages. It has/had become a "contracting agency," a middleman for contractors on the ground. As I wrote above, some of the projects must have turned out alright; others might not have, but Rashid does not focus on these. In general, USAID comes across as looking bad. In 2008, the U.S. had finally altered its strategy to send PRTs into the regions to do rebuilding projects as Petraeus and others started utilizing an Iraq-style strategy of COIN. But Rashid, writing in 2008, says taht these had no strategy or measurements. This jives somewhat with McChrystal's memoir where he talked of the problem of getting continuity in officers managing projects on the ground.

Nation-building is hard, after all. How do you form a tax system when people have never paid taxes? Rashid chronicles the nonsensical war on poppy plants/heroin. The Taliban tolerated poppy growth because they ruled it to be a drug sold only to Westerners (but they cracked down on hashish, reportedly) and were able to extract a five percent tax from farmers, perhaps the only successful system of taxation in Afghanistan.

Surely of all the international coalition that is operating in Afghanistan it's not all the U.S. fault. After all, Sec. Gates and others began clamoring for more NATO attention and funding after 2008. But Rashid writes that Rumsfeld "hated" ISAF and NATO, seeing them as unable or unwilling to do anything. The Germans trained police but most countries were too afraid to take casualties. One problem was that the US was too unwilling to ensure good governance. When an effort was made to train police better after noticeable failures, Jalali was appointed and began to root out corruption. In turn, he was ousted politically.

I've read Condi Rice's memoir and her own frustrations in dealing with Rumsfeld. Rashid writes that she tried to take the reigns on Central Asian policy for the State Department against the Pentagon's wishes and got rebuffed by Rumsfeld in the process. Uzbekistan became the CIA dark site "jailer" for Taliban combatants, and what went on is of course the source of international controversy. Rashid quotes US Justice Department lawyers looking at the legalities of US treatment of prisoners as a "descent into hell" for the legal system.

Meanwhile, the US watches ISI shuttling Taliban fighters in and out of Afghanistan while denying it. Before Sec. Gates took over from Rumsfeld, the US would not publicly admit or acknowledge that the Taliban were headquartered in northwestern Waziristan. The author himself witnesses Taliban training camps in Baluchistan as well as the Pakistani army's disastrous failure in Waziristan. The ISI actively worked to undermine elections in Afghanistan, the success of which brought encouragement to the country and the author. The Pakistani government tacitly approved literature coming out of Pakistan that included allegations that 9/11 was all a CIA plot because Bush hated Muslims and wanted to make war on Muslim countries (this idea is common throughout Central Asia, I can testify personally). Rashid writes that perhaps only 25 percent of the Pakistani population is literate, and this is not increasing, more evidence of government ineptness. Education is in the Saudi-funded madrasas that teach no science or math. It's in this context of growing militancy that Bhutto is assassinated and hope for democratic liberalization falters.

After reading the book, one will not be surprised that Osama Bin Laden was living fairly comfortably in Pakistan, that the Taliban have regrouped in their safe havens and were able to retake Kunduz and other parts of Afghanistan, social indicators have not improved much, and the situation looks even more bleak than in 2008. Rashid's main thesis is that the West did too little, too late; the West could have saved a lot of money by not pivoting to Iraq and instead securing both Afghanistan and Pakistan. That appears to be quite complicated given the complex Pakistani political situation and the US Congress' (and the public's) preference to fight wars on the cheap via proxies than commit hundreds of thousands of troops and nation-builders for decades. Once this became "Obama's war," things only changed temporarily, if at all.

I give this book 3.5 stars out of 5. I learned a bit from it. The author's opinions get in the way for his Western audience, if the opinions were left out it could have been a stellar history. But it also would have been more boring without the author's vested interest-- he lives there and has to live with the aftermath.

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