Ahmed Rashid:

"Descent into Chaos" (2008)

(Copyright © 2011 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions - Termini d'uso )
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:

  • Covert aid from Pakistan's secret services (ISI) for what is de facto a weapon of mass destruction (Islamic extremists) to complement the country's nuclear arsenal and conventional forces
  • Heroin production and exports to the West
  • Funding from Saudi Arabia for Islamic fundamentalists
  • The withdrawal of the USA from the region after the collapse of the Soviet Union
The effect of the 2011 terrorist attacks on the USA:
  • Popular desire for revenge in the USA
  • A widespread campaign of disinformation by the US government
  • A complacent US parliament
  • A muzzled US press that does not dare to contest the president's theories
  • A rapid US rearmament after the brief lull of disarmament that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union
  • Emphasis on catching the terrorists rather than on nation building
  • Emphasis on preventing other attacks rather than on respecting international law
  • Exposing the inadequacy of Cold War-era military strategy and intelligence service (CIA)
The effects of the US invasion of Afghanistan:
  • Defeat of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan (that does not consistute a serious element of the Taliban anymore)
  • Multiple terrorist attacks across Europe, North Africa, Indonesia and the Middle East
  • Interrogations, jails and security subcontracted to private contractors subject to little oversight because the US military is not prepared for the task
  • Rebuilding subcontracted to corrupt and incompetent US companies
  • Prisoner abuses in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Arab countries tolerated or even encouraged
  • Erosion of the credibility of international law (United Nations, Convention of Geneva)
  • Justification and motivation for Islamic "terrorists"
  • Warlord federalism funded by the USA in Afghanistan
  • Low credibility of the central government in Afghanistan
  • Rebuilding lower priority than fighting Al Qaeda, i.e. Afghanistan remains in ruins
  • Alleviating poverty in Afghanistan and Pakistan is not a priority at all
  • Resurgence of the Taliban
  • Boom of heroin production and exports
  • Flee of thousands of Islamic fighters to Pakistan, and Talibanization of northwestern Pakistan and of Quetta
  • Economic slump in Pakistan while India is booming
  • Increase of Sunni suicide bombings against Shiites in Pakistan
  • Meltdown of Pakistani government, military and society
  • Anti-USA sentiment in Pakistan
  • The USA is willing to let the Pakistani help the Taliban regroup in exchange for Pakistan arresting Al Qaeda terrorists
  • Double game by the Pakistani secret services and army towards the USA
  • Nuclear proliferation (Iran)
  • Tolerance for the totalitarian and corrupt regimes of the five former Soviet republics of Central Asia as well as for Pakistan's dictator, which leads to worse human-rights situations in the region as political dissidents are arrested under the pretext of fighting terrorism and to higher corruption as lucrative contracts with the US military are snapped by the ruling families
  • The war on terrorism provides excuses to totalitarian regimes to wipe out the opposition by fabricating ties to Al Qaeda
  • Bitterness by mainland China that sees US troops deployed all over Central Asia and reacts by forging closer ties with Central Asian states
  • Increased tension between India and Pakistan, which in turn removes Pakistani troops from the Afghan border, which in turn helps more Islamic fighters flee to Pakistan and set up bases there
  • Boom of the opium trade in Afghanistan
Success stories in Afghanistan:
  • Five million children went to school in 2005, and many of them were girls
  • Hundreds of newspapers, magazines, radio stations and tv stations open
  • A new currency was introduced in october 2002
  • A new fast highway was built between Kabul and Kandahar
  • The Afghan economy grew 15% during 2002-04
Pakistan is a dysfunctional state:
  • Nuclear scientists independently sold nuclear secrets to other states (1987) and met with Islamic terrorists
  • The army independently attacked India (1999)
  • The secret services independently funded terrorist attacks against India (2000s)
  • The Pakistani police arrest hundreds of suspected Al Qaeda terrorists while the secret services and the military patronize Taliban, Kashmiri militants and Sunni extremists
  • The Kashmiri conflict has caused the secret services of Pakistan to become more powerful than the civilian government
  • The militarization of Pakistan has come to the expense of education and development
  • One of the lowest literacy rates in the world but one of the highest number of madrassas in the world
  • Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam wins rigged elections (2002) in the northwestern provinces and in Balochistan of Pakistan, and becomes a protector of the Taliban in Balochistan and of both the Haqqani fighters and Gulbuddin Hikmetyar's militias in the northwest, while the Balochis (largely secular) stage their fifth popular revolt
  • News media always claimed that the 2001 terrorist attacks were not carried out by Arabs but by the CIA and Israel
  • Pakistan's nuclear program caused the USA to sign a nuclear treaty with India
  • Earthquake (2005) and floods (2010)
  • The highest number of drug addicts in the world (5 million people in 2000)