This is probably the best book written about the war in Afghanistan following
the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. It is an impressive
collection of detailed information about what happened in Afghanistan, Pakistan
and Washington between 2001 and 2008.
The Pakistani reporter Ahmed Rashid makes some simple points about the Islamic wars of George W Bush. The fundamental issue is not the decision to launch those wars but the decision to divert most of the money towards Iraq instead of rebuilding Afghanistan. The quick victory against the Taliban signaled that the Afghan population was more than willing to be "liberated" from the Taliban, but the USA did not follow up by rewarding that population with a credible program of nation building.
However the best part of the book is the beginning, when Rashid puts things in perspective by briefly going over Afghan and Pakistani history. In particular, he draws a devastating picture of Pakistan's disfunctional state, with the ISI (secret services) playing double games (providing the USA with information to strike at Islamists while arming and protecting the same Islamists), with the the paramilitary Frontier Corps helping the Taliban prepare their defenses, with Pakistan's president Musharraf saying two different things to the USA and to his domestic audience. He details how Pakistani troops and agents fighting along the Taliban were surrounded in Afghanistan by the Northern Alliance and eventually airlifted by Pakistan's government. Among them were dozens of foreign terrorists that simply relocated to Pakistan's tribal regions.
Rashid also points out how the USA's triumph (12,000 Taliban killed versus only 1 US casualty) was ephimeral from the beginning: the USA won the war by aerial bombing (not actually conquering the territory) and by bribing tribal leaders and warlords. Its bombs also killed 4,000 Afghan civilians. All of this would come back to haunt the USA. It was not a real victory: it was just designed to look like a victory. And, of course, the thousands of civilian deaths (the "collateral damage") would eventually turn the Afghan people against the "liberators", while the Arab fighters that the USA had let escape to please Pakistan's secret services would help destabilize Pakistan and restart the war from across the border.
Pakistan tends to view any international event through the prism of its conflict with India over Kashmir. The fall of the Taliban was perceived by Pakistan as a loss. The appointment of Karzai as president of Afghanistan was perceived by Pakistan as a victory by India. India has a broader view of the world because it is a natural counterweight to China in Asia and it is a booming economy with economic interests that stretch two (if not three) continents. However, India too saw the whole affair as an opportunity to weaken its historical enemy: it immediately moved into Afghanistan (opening a giant embassy) and it immediately moved to tighten its blossoming alliance with the USA. The USA invasion of Afghanistan indirectly fueled the conflict between India and Pakistan. In fact, renewed hostilities almost led to war a few months after september 2001.
The reason that Afghanistan was never rebuilt is not only that the USA was distracted by Iraq but also that it preferred to invest in the regional warlords than in the central government. Karzai was de facto just the mayor of Kabul, whereas the regional governors were receiving massive military and financial aid from the USA plus they were left free to conduct their lucractive trades (notably, heroin). The behavior of these corrupt and sometimes brutal warlords also provided the Taliban with ideological ammunitions against the new order.
Rashid paints a chilling portrait of Dick Cheney's and Rumsfeld's indifference toward the Afghan people (enough to make you think Osama bin Laden was not so bad after all), and of Condi Rice's cynical shutdown of the only agency that was working to alleviate poverty. Meanwhile, billions of dollars were being lavished on US corporations favored by Dick Cheney that never built anything of any consequence.
Much has been written and said about the fact that the war in Iraq distracted the USA from Afghanistan. Rashid writes that too. But then one is left with the impression that the real distraction was Al Qaeda itself. Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld were obsessed with capturing Al Qaeda terrorists, and largely indifferent to Afghanistan per se. This had two consequences: 1. They never invested properly in rebuilding Afghanistan; 2. They allowed Pakistan to become a sanctuary for the Taliban which in turn allowed the Taliban to regroup and restart the civil war in Afghanistan. Obama, in a sense, continued in the same mistake: his goal was to capture and kill Osama bin Laden and the other leaders of Al Qaeda. Now that he has achieved his goal, he is ready to abandon Afghanistan to its destiny, and largely indifferent if the Taliban reconquer it.
Ten years later, here is a quick summary of what happened (now that a lot of dust has settled).
The Taliban were created and funded by: