'All they (the US) are interested in is Osama bin Laden'
Pakistani historian and political commentator Ahmed Rashid, who masterfully explained The Taliban: Islam, Oil and the New Great Game in Central Asia (2000), and followed it up with Jihad: The Rise of Islam in Central Asia (2002), has now provided an update with Descent into Chaos: How the War Against Islamic Extremism is Being Lost in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia (Allen Lane/Penguin, special Indian price, Rs 495). Rashid, who has been in and out of Central Asia and Afghanistan for over 25 years, knows the ground beneath his feet like no one else does. For most of his working life as a journalist he has not been able to stay away from Afghanistan and the central Asian republics. In a sense, he knows too much: of its divisive history; its impossible politics; its feuding clans; its talent for making enemies; its criminal economy based on opium and heroin, of which it is the world's main supplier. And all this personal experience has been backed by deep research and interviews with the leading "players": he is a personal friend of Hamid Karzai, and has intimate details of the role of the United States and the failure of nation-building in this region, which are fully authenticated with details of sources. But Rashid's greatest credit lies in his ability to see through the clutter of detail and tell the common reader what the new Great Game is all about and why terrorism and Islamic extremism are growing stronger.
In his Introduction, Rashid tells us that "the book is about American failure to secure the region after 9/11, to carry out nation building on a scale that could have reversed the appeal of terrorism and Islamic extremism and averted state collapse on a more calamitous scale than could ever have happened before 9/11." The answer to ‘What Went Wrong' lies in a close study of history, the nature of Afghan society and Islamic extremism, the ham-handedness of American responses, the role of the military in Pakistani politics, repressive central Asian despots who have used religion to underpin their governments.
A capsule history to begin with. In the 1980s, when the Russians invaded Afghanistan, America helped the Afghans to get rid of them (using Pakistan's military and the ISI as the cat's paw), and assumed, foolishly, that in gratitude Afghanistan would join the American camp. But the Afghans, at least the Taliban, is not grateful. They took the understandable view that they fought a proxy war for the United States against the Russians, and now that the Russians are no longer a threat, Afghanistan is discarded. Quite besides this, what the US didn't realise and still doesn't, is that Afghans are a fiercely independent people: they had never been colonised, either by a European country or by American culture. Besides, it was a tribal society where government authority did not extend beyond Kabul, Kandahar and Herat.
But this is a book not merely about Afghanistan; it is equally about central Asian republics, mainly Uzbekistan, and Pakistan. Rashid elaborates what he had said in Jihad that this region was governed by brutally autocratic regimes that repressed all dissent, including the traditional heterodox Islam of the region. Out of this brew came extremist Islam, which became affiliates of al-Qaeda with its nihilistic agenda and a hateful social programme. As Rashid puts it: "There was no economic manifesto, no plan for better governance and the building of political institutions, and no blueprint for creating democratic participation in the decision-making process of their future Islamic state." That's not all. Basically, the United States wasn't interested in rebuilding the infrastructure that requires long-term investment and long-term thinking is alien to the American mind. All they are interested in is Osama bin Laden.
Rashid is at his best on Pakistan, which he knows like the back of his hand. Trapped in a feudal set-up, between a few powerful families and an over-weaning military that has a finger in every pie, it is lost between two worlds — "one dead, the other powerless to born". Rashid has seen the future of this part of the world and it doesn't work. Here is an important book by an insider of our region.