Thursday, August 14, 2008

Review: Ahmed Rashid's Descent Into Chaos

Typically, American books on foreign policy, be they from the right or the left, see every foreign policy endeavor through the eyes of the American political system, tying action half a world away to the sturm and derang of the two-party system here. Very rarely are we treated to books about foreign nations by scholars actually acquainted with those nations and their inhabitants, and as a result we remain fatally detached from the realities of most foreign conflicts.

Ahmad Rashid, however, has lived in Pakistan for the whole of his life, and has journalistic and personal relationships with personalities on both sides of the various conflicts enveloping Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the whole of Central Asia. His ability to elicit frank statements from both Hamid Karzai and members of various Islamic terrorist organizations gives the reader a glimpse of that world rarely offered to the Western Hemisphere. His freedom from the American political system is a definite bonus, as he is under no obligation to artificially tailor all his arguments to suit its bi-polar nature, and is free to simply recount the facts and realities of the situation.

The overwhelming theme that I took away from the book is the continual doublespeak on the part of the ISI and the Pakistani military. Musharraf has welcomed American aid in all its forms -- debt forgiveness, cash, and arms -- while presiding over a nation that has continued its long-standing cozy relationship with Islamic terror.

The Taliban maintained power in Afghanistan in no small part because the ISI allowed it to. Even as the American bombing campaign wore on, the Pakistanis asked for a brief reprieve so that they might escort the ISI agents still aiding the Taliban out of Afghanistan. The Pakistanis have allowed the Taliban safe haven in Waziristan and refrained from turning its members over to NATO forces, choosing instead to collect Arabs and call them al Qaeda. The ISI also believes itself to be combating growing Indian influence in the region and still maintains a vast expanse of madrassas in which to train future Kashmiri militants or fight the Indian presence in Afghanistan.

For its part, the US has for the most part avoided calling Musharraf on any of it, afraid that doing so might result in the loss of the strongest ally in the region. But, as Rashid exhaustively details, Pakistan has remained an ally in name only. The Pakistanis have welcomed American aid and arms willfully, to be sure, but when it comes time to fulfill their end of the bargain they have failed catastrophically.

In Afghanistan Proper, the US chose to fund various warlords in lieu of sending its own troops, resulting in a weak central government and even weaker security. The side project in Iraq not only siphoned off troops, but space-bound intelligence apparatuses as well, leaving the return of the Taliban essentially unchecked for years.

Rashid's book is full of immense detail and exhibits a wealth of knowledge about the region one would be hard-pressed to find in any contemporary American writer. Anyone who looks to better understand the true components of the resurgence of the Taliban and the failure of the Pakistanis to thwart an al Qaeda safe haven owes themselves the purchase of Descent Into Chaos.

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