Saturday, September 3, 2011

Descent into Chaos by Ahmed Rashid


Ahmed Rashid is a Pakistani journalist who has written exhaustively about Pakistan, Afghanistan, the Taliban and al-Qaida. He has been active in different intergovernmental bodies dealing with the problems of the area and definitely has authority on subjects around South and Central Asia (you can find more on the author's own webpage here).

Rashid's book Descent into Chaos: Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Threat to Global Security is not an easy read. It's packed with information about people, politics, terrorists and more. It tells the story of Hamid Karzai, President of Afghanistan and Pervez Musharraf the Pakistani leader as well as the United States' failure to secure Afghanistan after the invasion following the September 11th attacks in America. Rashid has a personal connection to many of the leaders described in the book, and is able to shed light into the decisions they make, probably better than anybody else. The book is packed with personal accounts of Afghan warlords, Heads of states, Taliban leaders as well as common people. This is where Rashid shines; he has profound knowledge and decades long experience in the area. He writes at length about developments in the US and Europe as well, but lacks the same depth of knowledge there. His scathing criticisms of the Bush government actions after 9/11 feel a little over the top.

The picture emerging of the power politics in the area is a scary one. Rashid exposes Pakistan's intelligence service's role in supporting the Taliban and al-Qaida, while trying to secure financial aid from the United States and supplying the US with intelligence about the groups. He describes how Taliban and al-Qaida regrouped after fleeing to Pakistan when US air strikes and US backed Northern Alliance offensives against them started. The main question that arises is: What would the situation in Afghanistan be today, had the US and the international community really committed to nation building after the US ousting of the Taliban from power?

I had trouble finishing this book. There is no denying the huge amount of research that went into Rashid's book, but it is heavy reading.The story has so many individuals, it's difficult to keep track of them, even if the author supplies a partial glossary of names. Abbreviations are also abundant, sometimes comically so; ISI, NWFP, NA, FATA, JUI, UN etc. litter the pages and one needs to frequently skip back to find the actual definition for these. I think Rashid could have kept it more concise by contentrating just on the Pakistan-Afghanistan issue alone, leaving American policies and actions in other parts of the world for another volume. Shortly: informative and at times exciting, but too rich in content for the casual reader. Great for someone who needs to get up-to-date with the previous decade's issues in the area. Not so great for the average Joe like me, who picks it up at the airport book stall for reading on the flight. 

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