Hello there. As I've noted, my life has been consumed by all things Afghanistan. I recently read a book by Ahmed Rashid called Descent into Chaos, a must read for all soldiers headed to Afghanistan, or spouses and others interested in the subject matter. Obsessed. Seriously, it's phenomenal.
If you love reading biographies, history, political novels, or all things Central Asia, check it out. Compelling, to say the least.
Here is my critique, which started as 10 pages, whittled down to six:
After reading Ahmed Rashid’s book, Descent into Chaos: The U.S. and the Disaster in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia, I saw that my views pertaining to the subject matter had evolved. In his personalized yet fact-filled tome, Rashid covers everything about the region and the United States’ involvement. Because of his personal ties to the area, Descent into Chaos was not only an interesting read, but also one with fact, in addition to opinion. Being a Pakistani journalist familiar with the territory explored through the chapters, Rashid reports and writes objectively.
In this critique, I list which points I found most helpful in understanding the current conflict taking place in Afghanistan, and the role my country has played, through Rashid’s analysis. The three points I highlight, as noted in the subsequent paragraph, spoke to me more so than others, allowing a personal decision on the matter. Though I struggle to remain impartial, it must be known that I support most of what Ahmed Rashid contends. In my personal opinion, I find his analysis uninhibited and genuine. A vehement supporter of rapid withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan and all foreign nations, I was left stunned at money wasted, with so much work to be done. More confused than ever, I question our presence in, as well as a speedy exit from, Afghanistan. And so, let us begin my critique of Descent into Chaos by Ahmed Rashid.
As previously stated, though Descent into Chaos is teeming with relevant anecdotes and information, there are three topics that appealed to me, all of which overlap one another at some point. First, we’ll review the encompassing subject of the US in Afghanistan. I focus on American mistakes (Tora Bora and the like). Second, I move on to a topic that is ever infuriating to me – the role of Pakistan in this conflict. Most Americans have no knowledge of Pakistan, and it is an absolutely irreplaceable piece of this puzzle. I’ll brief how the ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence) have pretended to be helpful while playing “double-agent. All Westerners should know about Pakistan’s part in this play, and I shall try to do my best to explain why in a limited forum.
Last – corruption. If there is one word that epitomizes all the issues we have seen in the region, it is corruption. By the Afghan government, Pakistani government, Afghan warlords, and the most vexatious to me – the United States. We like to think a country like Afghanistan is full of corruption, and while many Americans joke about the venality that takes place in the Capitol, no one expects the pure depravity (in my opinion) that the United States has involved itself in, with regards to Afghanistan.
Let us begin with the United States’ involvement in Afghanistan, fast-forwarding to the months following 9/11. Most informed Westerners are aware of the travesty we call Tora Bora – the exodus of many terrorizing leaders and soldiers, including Osama bin Laden, from Afghanistan to Pakistan. “Between six hundred and eight hundred Arabs were escorted out of Tora Bora by Pashtun guides from the Pakistani side of the border, at an average cost of $1,200 each” (Rashid, p.98). A few weeks prior to this, however, was another major mistake. Taliban forces offered to surrender, but American State Department/Pentagon/Intelligence entities refused to accept. Had we put troops in Uzbekistan awaiting their surrender, there would have been a major shift in the direction of our mission. However, “The absence of U.S. troops [Rashid believes], led to the deaths of thousands of Taliban prisoners…[and] the leaders of the Taliban and al Qaeda escaping” (p.91). There was even an airlift to aid escapes, approved by the Bush Administration. “Hundreds of ISI officers, Taliban commanders, and foot soldiers belonging to the IMU and al Qaeda personnel boarded the planes” (p.92).
The biggest mistake of all? In my opinion: the Iraq War’s effect on distracting from the mission in Afghanistan. Rashid put it best in Chapter Four: “The distraction of Iraq, which materialized just hours after the 9/11 attacks and continued indefinitely, was first to undermine and then defeat both U.S. policy in Afghanistan and the struggle to capture al Qaeda leaders” (p.64). Donald Rumsfeld, the ultimate stooge behind this entire operation, even said, “Sweep it all up – things related and not” (p.64). The Bush Administration was on the warpath.
In the fall of 2003, the international community found itself at a turning point. Would the War in Afghanistan be deemed a failure or success? “In those critical … a few thousand more U.S. troops on the ground, more money for reconstruction, and a speedier rebuilding of the Afghan army and policy could easily have turned the tide against the Taliban and enhanced the support of the population for the government” (p.248). Why didn’t we have more troops on the ground and more allocated resources? Oh, that’s right. We were fighting the “terrorists” in Iraq.
Slighting allies, pursuing a mission though it is not backed by anyone but conspirators. Sigh, cowboy politics at its best. Pair the interferences of the Iraq War with all too common American unilateralism, and you have, well, the fruits of the Bush Administration.
Even our allies became cross and unsupportive. The United Nations called for a Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) in Afghanistan. This program would clean up the country, and offer alternatives to violence. The United States, however, “Put up major obstacles, refusing to fund or support DDR or allow U.S. troops to help the UN carry out disarmament” (p.209). In fact, this very issue tore our alliance with Europe even further apart. Unilateralism at its finest.
A change of pace leads us to Pakistan and its repulsive role in the region. I find it humorous that Pakistan told us over and over again, “Yeah, he’s not here. And how dare you think we’re harboring terrorists?!”, only to concede in May of last year, “Oh, yeah. You found him in Pakistan?”
From the beginning, Rashid portrays Pakistan playing a double agent. The CIA went through ISI repeatedly for contacts and intelligence, exchanging data and tips. Besides helping guide them out of the country to the FATA region in Pakistan, “ISI officers were warning Taliban families not to return home”, because if they did, they were under obligation by the Americans to hand them over (p.242). Though they weren’t physically helping them out at this point, the ISI was giving terrorists a heads up.
I have a scribbled, barely legible tidbit written in my notes from our class discussion on Pakistan that reads, “Evidence ISI funded Taliban”, along with an expletive not suitable for an academic evaluation. So, I went to my favorite media outlet, BBC News, in an attempt to fuse pieces of the puzzle. An article titled “Pakistani agents ‘funding and training Afghan Taliban’”, notes that “Support for the Afghan Taliban was official ISI policy” (“BBC”). Why is this so important, besides the fact that they are supposed to be helping us rid the region of Taliban and al Qaeda? Because we have given them billions of dollars in aid, essentially funding the very extremists that seek to destroy the West. Though Pakistan is formally known as our major ally in the region, I question it, to say the least. Notwithstanding their blatant concealment of the Taliban and al Qaeda, particularly Osama bin Laden. Without FATA’s safe haven, the Taliban wouldn’t have been able to regroup and prepare more attacks.
Finally, we’ve made it to corruption. It has been tied in with the previous two points, but lets explore it in more depth. Whether the CIA, ISI, Afghan warlords, or the Taliban initiated it, venality has been prevalent in this conflict. Most people are aware of the poppy/opium problem in Afghanistan. Poppy cultivation is often found as the root of the warlord and corruption problem in Afghanistan. In the chapter titled “Afghanistan II”, Rashid ascertains, “The Ministry of the Interior, which ran the police after 9/11, became a center for drug trafficking, with police posts in opium-growing regions being auctioned to the highest bidder” (p.204). President Karzai’s own brother has been suspected of involvement in the trade. Poppy cultivation, as we discussed in class, involves intimidation of civilians, and whoever is involved in its development or profits from such, allow warlords and effectively terrorists to become wealthy. It’s a vicious cycle of dependence and exploitation.
The United States is just as involved, donating billions upon millions of dollars to Afghanistan, its warlords, and Pakistan. This money often never makes it into civilians’ hands. Just a few days after the atrocities that took place in September 2001, “Bush signed an order giving enormous powers to the CIA, allowing it to conduct the war in Afghanistan and make foreign policy decisions…Up to $900 million and perhaps more than $1 billion was allocated to the CIA for covert operations” (p.62). On the adjacent page, Rashid continues, writing that CIA agent Gary Schroen flew to Tashkent with “$3 million, which was immediately dished out to NA [Northern Alliance] leaders…another $10 million was quickly flown in so that the CIA could pay off other warlords” (p.63).
Again, our European allies were livid. Euro officials told the U.S. to halt all support of warlords. Rashid pensively states, “U.S. protection of the warlords had become a major constraint to Afghanistan’s ability to move forward and a growing bone of contention between Europe and the United States” (p.143). Were American taxpayers aware that they were funding dissonance in Afghanistan, perhaps even incubating a movement that wanted nothing more than to destroy us? I feel it’s safe to say no.
Even Mr. BFD himself, now Vice President Biden, warned in 2002, “America has replaced the Taliban with the warlords. Warlords are still on the US payroll but that hasn’t bought a cessation of violence. Not only is the US failing to rein in the warlords, we are actually making them the centerpiece of our strategy” (p.134). Our friend Rummy, however, felt that the highly compensated warlords should share power with the Afghan government. Was he drunk for years on end? Rashid continues, “Rumsfeld’s determination to legalize warlord authority against the wishes of the Afghan government and the people was the most fatal mistake he was to make. It gave the Taliban just the propaganda excuse they needed to reorganize themselves” (p.135).
I could go on for days about the corruption taken place throughout the modern conflict in Afghanistan (not to mention RPGs and money handed out during the Soviet conflict, later used against our own soldiers), but I believe I’ve made my point. The three most compelling arguments, to me, made by Ahmed Rashid in Descent into Chaos, are those surrounding the U.S. in Afghanistan, the role of Pakistan, particularly the ISI and FATA region, and corruption committed by all parties involved. Let this serve as a lesson, something we should always take from history, so that we may progress as a country and a planet.