Descent into Chaos: The United States and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia
By Ahmed Rashid
Hardcover, 544 pages
List Price: $27.95
Imperial Overreach and Nation Building
Everyone, everywhere, will always remember the moment when he saw or heard about the airliners striking the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001. It is a historical event that will be embedded in our emotional psyche for all time and will mark our era as much as the dropping of the nuclear bomb on Japan or the Vietnam War marked earlier times. Later, as terrorist bombs exploded around the world, we all momentarily thought of what it could mean to become a terrorist's target. We have had to get used to the idea of living with the possibility of sudden death and a new world of bloody violence, unprecedented if not in its scale then in its randomness. While suicide bombings in Afghanistan, Pakistan, or Iraq were entirely predictable, the suicide attacks in London, Madrid, Istanbul, and Bali were not.
Initially it seemed that 9 /11 would ensure that the world addressed the social stagnation and state failure in South and Central Asia — what in this book I call "the region." Afghanistan had to be rescued from itself. Autocratic regimes in Pakistan and Central Asia had to change their repressive ways and listen to their alienated and poverty-stricken citizens. Iran had to be made part of the international community. The West had to wake up to the realities and responsibilities of injustice, poverty, lack of education, and unresolved conflicts such as those in Kashmir and Afghanistan, which it had ignored for too long and which could no longer be allowed to fester. The West and democratic minded Muslims had to help each other counter this new and deadly form of Islamic extremism.
The attacks of 9 /11 created enormous trepidation in the region as America unsheathed its sword for a land invasion of Afghanistan, but they also created enormous expectations of change and hope for a more sustained Western commitment to the region that would lift it out of poverty and underdevelopment. Surely the three thousand American dead lying in the rubble on the Hudson, as well as in Pennsylvania and Washington, had not died in vain? Surely we would remember them not for the revenge that the United States was about to take on al Qaeda but for the hope that their deaths had brought to a neglected corner of the globe?
Instead, seven years on, the U.S.-led war on terrorism has left in its wake a far more unstable world than existed on that momentous day in 2001. Rather than diminishing, the threat from al Qaeda and its affiliates has grown, engulfing new regions of Africa, Asia, and Europe and creating fear among peoples and governments from Australia to Zanzibar. The U.S. invasions of two Muslim countries, billions of dollars, armies of security guards, and new technology have so far failed to contain either the original organization or the threat that now comes from its copycats — unemployed young Muslim men in urban slums in British or French cities who have been mobilized through the Internet. The al Qaeda leader — now a global inspirational figure — Osama bin Laden, is still at large, despite the largest manhunt in history.
In the region that spawned al Qaeda and which the United States had promised to transform after 9 /11, the crisis is even more dangerous. Afghanistan is once again staring down the abyss of state collapse, despite billions of dollars in aid, forty-five thousand Western troops, and the deaths of thousands of people. The Taliban have made a dramatic comeback, enlisting the help of al Qaeda and Islamic extremists in Pakistan, and getting a boost from the explosion in heroin production that has helped fund their movement. The UN representative Lakhdar Brahimi had promised what he termed "a light footprint" for the UN presence in Afghanistan, while some U.S. officials eventually promised that they would carry out "nation building lite." In fact, barely enough was done by any organization in the first few years when 90 percent of the Afghan population continued to welcome foreign troops and aid workers with open arms. The international community had an extended window of opportunity for several years to help the Afghan people — they failed to take advantage of it.
Pakistan's military regime, led by President Pervez Musharraf, has undergone a slower but equally bloody meltdown. The military has refused to allow a genuinely representative government to take root. In 2007 Musharraf, after massive public demonstrations, suspended the constitution, sacked the senior judiciary, imprisoned more than twelve thousand lawyers and members of civil society, and muzzled the media in an attempt to stay in power and ensure that any elections favored him rather than the opposition. The country is beset by a major political crisis and the spread of Islamic extremism that now sees its chance to topple the state. Musharraf's plunge from hero to villain was compounded by the assassination of the country's larger-than-life opposition leader, Benazir Bhutto, in December 2007, followed by a wave of suicide bombings and mayhem.
Across the five independent states of Central Asia — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan,
Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan — dictatorships have ruled continuously since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. The lack of basic political freedoms, grinding poverty, huge economic disparities, and an Islamic extremist political underground are set to plunge Central Asia, despite its oil reserves, into ever greater turmoil.
The consequences of state failure in any single country are unimaginable. At stake in Afghanistan is not just the future of President Hamid Karzai and the Afghan people yearning for stability, development, and education but also the entire global alliance that is trying to keep Afghanistan together. At stake are the futures of the United Nations, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the European Union, and of course America's own power and prestige. It is difficult to imagine how NATO could survive as the West's leading military alliance if the Taliban are not defeated in Afghanistan or if bin Laden remains at large indefinitely. Yet the international community's lukewarm commitment to Afghanistan after 9 /11 has been matched only by its incompetence, incoherence, and conflicting strategies — all led by the United States.
Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from Descent into Chaos by Ahmed Rashid. Copyright © 2008 by Ahmed Rashid.