Ahmed Rashid's "Descent into Chaos"

No Peace in Afghanistan without Pakistan

In has latest book, "Descent into Chaos" the Pakistani author and journalist Ahmed Rashid writes on how, seven years after the overthrow of the Taliban, the region is still far from stable. Thomas Bärthlein has read the book

​​The list of problems is endless – drugs, insurgency, corruption, and weak government. How did things get this way? Many in Afghanistan place the blame on the neighbouring country of Pakistan, while most Pakistanis, in turn, hold the US and the leader it props up, President Karzai, responsible.

There is hardly another expert capable of assessing all facets of this tangled situation better than Ahmed Rashid. The Pakistani author and journalist, renowned on account of his standard work on the Taliban, knows his way around Islamabad, Kabul, and Washington. But he is also quite familiar with Afghanistan's Central Asian neighbours, such as Uzbekistan.

Yet, above all, he once again proves himself in his new book to be a clear thinker and an absolutely unbiased analyst.

Severe criticism of the Bush administration

Rashid does not conceal the fact that he supported the invasion of Afghanistan to remove the Taliban from power. However, he stresses that almost everything that has happened since achieving this goal has gone wrong. He is particularly severe in his condemnation of the Bush administration, which in its boundless naivety completely neglected the development of institutions in post-war Afghanistan, otherwise known as "nation building."

photo: AP
Protest rally in Peshawar: A large portion of the Pakistani population criticised the politics of the authoritarian Musharraf government – even its cooperation with the USA in its "War on Terror"

​​Even Hamid Karzai, who Rashid presents as his personal friend, fares poorly in the final analysis. Rashid portrays him as a weak, constantly vacillating president, who simply has no authority whatsoever over the country's warlords.

The book is at its most captivating when it highlights the recently much discussed role that Pakistan has played. Rashid describes in exact detail the double dealing of former President Musharraf, who Washington, in a further fatal mistake, courted as a presumably indispensable ally in the "War on Terror."

Unholy alliances

He points out, for instance, that after the American invasion of Afghanistan, many in the Pakistani intelligence service and paramilitary provided assistance to their erstwhile ally, the Taliban. Such was the case as the Northern Alliance besieged Kunduz in late 2001.

"For Pakistan, the stalemate in Kunduz was turning into a disaster as hundreds of ISI officers and soldiers from the Frontier Corps aiding the Taliban were trapped there. They had been ordered to quit Afghanistan after 9/11 and had two months to escape, but instead they had stayed on to fight alongside the Taliban."

Taliban fighters on a tank in Northern Afghanistan (photo: AP)
Pakistan's intelligence service and paramilitary worked with their erstwhile ally, the Taliban (pictured here) as the Northern Alliance besieged Kunduz in late 2001

​​Rashid continues: "Musharraf telephoned Bush and asked for a huge favor - a U.S. bombing pause and the opening of an air corridor so that Pakistani aircraft could ferry his officers out of Kunduz. Bush and Vice President Cheney agreed, but the operation was top secret, with most cabinet members kept in the dark."

They set up an airlift, enabling a whole echelon of Taliban and al-Qaida leaders to flee to Pakistan, where Musharraf then gave them more or less free reign in the border region. On the basis of his contacts with former Pakistani intelligence officers, Rashid comes to the conclusion that Pakistan's support for the Afghan Taliban continued unbroken, although via a new structure operating underground:

"Former ISI trainers of the Taliban, retired Pashtun officers from the army and especially the Frontier Corps, were rehired on contract. They set up offices in private houses in Peshawar, Quetta, and other cities and maintained no links with the local ISI station chief or the army. Most of these agents held down regular jobs, working undercover as coordinators for Afghan refugees, bureaucrats, researchers at universities, teachers at colleges, and even aid workers. Others set up NGOs ostensibly to work with Afghan refugees."

Isolation of Pakistan should be avoided

Rashid provides an interesting counter example to the case of Pakistan's autonomous tribal region bordering Afghanistan, where the Pakistani Army freely relinquished control to the Taliban. At the same time, the army suppressed a nationalist insurrection in Beluchistan with extreme brutality and effectiveness. The difference being that the nationalists in Beluchistan are not Islamists and are viewed in Islamabad as pro-Indian, as is the Karzai government in Kabul.

No peace will come to Afghanistan without the involvement of Pakistan. Rashid's book makes this quite clear to the reader. Pressure and isolation are not the right means to win over Pakistan. Instead, its security interests must be taken seriously. Rashid concludes:

"The region of South and Central Asia will not see stability unless there is a new global compact among the leading players – the United States, the European Union, NATO, and the UN – to help this region resolve its problems, which range from settling the Kashmir dispute between India and Pakistan to funding a massive education and job-creation program in the borderlands between Afghanistan and Pakistan and along their borders with Central Asia."

"The international community has to approach this region holistically rather than in a piecemeal fashion," Rashid writes, "and it has to persuade its own populations to agree to a long-term commitment of troops and money."

Rashid places all his hopes in a democratic resolution to the conflict and is decisively opposed to any police-state methods similar to those employed at Guantánamo in the fight against terror and insurrection. In any case, this would only result in more support for the militants in Pakistan, Uzbekistan, and Afghanistan.

Thomas Bärthlein

© Qantara.de 2009

Ahmed Rashid, Descent into Chaos. How the war against Islamic extremism is being lost in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia. London: Allen Lane, 2008. 484 pages.

Thomas Bärthlein is the deputy head of the South East Asia Section of the Deutsche Welle.

Translated from the German by John Bergeron


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