Like many conservatives at odds with the neocons, I had been harboring a hope that if we tiptoed quietly away from civil wars and stopped sponsoring psychopaths and threatening world leaders on 24-hour news, everyone would calm down and learn to play nice. That was before I read Descent Into Chaos, Ahmed Rashid’s brave, painstaking analysis of the war on terror. Though Rashid shows that al-Qaeda and the Taliban are at least partly monsters of our own creation, he also makes clear that they won’t creep away on their own.

Since Rashid sent his manuscript to press, President Obama has taken some of his advice about a new American image: Gitmo is slated to close and there’s talk of talk with Iran. Even so, Afghanistan and nuclear Pakistan descend further into chaos every day. This new paperback edition, complete with a revised chapter addressed to the new U.S. administration, is timely indeed.

A few weeks ago in Afghanistan, for instance, a compromised Hamid Karzai was finagled into passing the Shia Family Law, which says that a wife can’t leave home without her husband’s permission or forbid him sex without a doctor’s note. Many Afghan women have—despite the risk to their lives—been out protesting, claiming this amounts to legalizing rape, which of course it does. But the fact that the liberal Karzai felt forced to pass the law—to keep Shia clerics onside in the run-up to the election—shows how fractured Afghanistan has become and what a near impossible task it is for Karzai to hold together all the warring groups.

In Pakistan, the situation is graver still, and all the more so for being less publicized. Four years ago, Islamabad was considered one of the safest places in the country. Now the city’s streets are sealed off, and armed guards stroll the sidewalks. Islamabad’s 5-star hotels are all prepared for what they think is an inevitable Mumbai-style attack. The Taliban Commander Mullah Nazir Ahmed said recently, “the day is not far when Islamabad will be in the hands of the Mujahideen.” He may have a point.


After eight years and billions of dollars, after the best efforts of the most powerful nation on earth, Osama is still hiding out—perhaps in the Chitral district of Pakistan. Mullah Omar and the original Taliban Shura are still hanging loose in Balochistan province. Al-Qaeda has a safe haven in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan.

Where did it all go wrong? What can America and her freedom-loving friends do now? Rashid offers no clear answers, apart from perhaps to read this book and try desperately not to make too many of the same clunking mistakes again.

The first and most obvious lesson Descent Into Chaos has to offer the new administration is easy: however hard they beg, however convincing they sound, never, ever listen to anything Donald Rumsfeld or Dick Cheney has to say. The second (related) lesson is harder: try to avoid being both arrogant and lazy at the same time. “We’re an empire now, and when we act we create our own reality,” a Bush adviser told Ron Suskind, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist shortly after 9/11. That may be right, but why not give a thought to what sort of a reality that might be? 

If Rashid’s right—and I’m sure he is—the truth is that while Bush et al. were gung-ho for almost any war, the cleaning up after was too much of a chore. “When the first G8 meeting on security-sector reform in Afghanistan was held in 2002, the U.S. delegation was instructed by Washington to say that it would not get involved in nation-building or peace-keeping … and it wanted nothing to do with rebuilding Afghanistan’s police or justice system,” writes Rashid. “The European and Afghan leaders could not believe what they were hearing. Here was a superpower that had just conquered another country refusing to take responsibility for it.”

Little did the G8 know that Rumsfeld and Cheney were already dreaming of Iraq; that on the very day of the World Trade Center attack, Rummy had written to an aide asking him to search for evidence of Iraqi involvement: “Go massive—sweep it all up, things related and not.” Rashid opens his book with this quote.

How could the clever men and women leading the land of the free be so daft? It’s an endlessly puzzling question. If the Bush gang was going to play empires, why didn’t they look to the examples of the world’s best empire builders, the British, say, or Alexander the Great? Either would have told them that some knowledge of the nation you are invading is handy for an aspiring imperialist. They might also have told Bush that it’s helpful to think about what hidden agendas your so-called friends might have. Throughout their war in Afghanistan, Bush and Rumsfeld relied on the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence Agency (ISI) without ever bothering to imagine what their motives might have been. Alexander would surely have suspected that the ISI’s and al-Qaeda’s shared interest in training Islamist terrorists was a concern. One of Rashid’s central contentions is that if Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Central Asia —what he calls “the region”—are riddled with extremism now, it’s at least partly because of the Bush administration’s willful blindness to the ISI’s double game: aiding the Taliban and al-Qaeda as it promised America it was routing them.

It’s also, of course, because of Bush’s spectacular lack of intelligence. CIA director George Tenet insisted—and still insists—that America was well prepared for 9/11. But as Rashid points out, “apart from a handful of CIA officers, no U.S. officials had been inside Afghanistan for a decade.” How could they be well prepared when no CIA officers spoke Persian, Dari, or Pushtu? “I was flooded with email appeals from American companies hired by the U.S. government trying to find U.S. citizens who could speak Farsi, Pushtu, Dari, Turkmen, Urdu or Uzbek,” writes Rashid.

Though Bill Clinton failed to develop a coherent strategy for dealing with the Taliban pre-9/11, at least he took them seriously. When Bush visited the White House on Dec. 16, 2000, he was warned by the outgoing administration not to underestimate al-Qaeda’s influence in Pakistan. Team Bush responded to this helpful warning with indifference. “I don’t want to see Pakistan only through the lens or the prism of Osama bin Laden,” said Richard Armitage, the new deputy secretary of state.

Going through Rashid’s account, it’s almost impressive to see how often Bush or his advisers repeat the same errors. Though insufficient intelligence had proved a great weakness in 2001, Rashid reports that between 2002 and 2005, the United States didn’t even bother to monitor Taliban activity in four provinces in the south or across the border from Quetta. It’s as if the White House deliberately turned a blind eye to inconvenient facts. America creates its own reality—and its own unreality, too.

By contrast, the Taliban’s ability to adapt quicker than the U.S., or indeed NATO, would be almost admirable if it were not so alarming. Rashid describes the Taliban regime pre-9/11 as having “no concern for the public nor any sense of responsibility toward them.” This month, however, the New York Times reports dramatic leaps in Taliban political strategy: they now offer land reform and basic health and education to peasants in Pakistan’s Swat valley. They are making like Maoists, engineering class revolt. They’ve evolved: Taliban 2.0.

Rashid is right, then. There’s not much cheery news about the situation in Afghanistan or Pakistan, but for anyone in a philosophical mood, there’s some metaphysical solace to be found running through Descent Into Chaos. Hypocrisy really doesn’t pay. The blithe neocon disregard for human lives, often masked as concern for human rights, has backfired.

Throughout the book, whenever Rumsfeld and Bush make common cause with thugs and militants as they mouth pieties about democracy and freedom, they come a cropper. Washington sponsored cruel, repressive warlords like the notorious Ismael Khan because it was simpler and cheaper than channeling money through the new Afghan government. But that policy—of empowering the same gun-toting robbers who destabilized the country pre-Taliban—is exactly what sowed the seeds of the Talibans’ current resurgence.

It’s not just America whose mixed motives and self-serving policies have deepened the crisis in Afghanistan and Pakistan. One of the major problems with all international aid to Afghanistan seems to be the worrying fact that, faced with a choice between painstakingly training up some official in the education ministry or simply cutting him out and building your own school, an aid donor invariably plumps for the second, sexier option. And a lack of communication means that there’s an undignified scramble to sponsor the same high-profile projects. “USAID, DFID (Britain’s Department for International Development) the European Union, and the World Bank all hired separate contractors to modernize the collection of customs revenues on the Afghan border,” says Rashid. The excellent Ashraf Ghani, Afghanistan’s former finance minister and author (with Clare Lockhart) of Fixing Failed States, complains to Rashid, “my best people were stolen by international aid organizations who could offer them forty to a hundred times the salary I could.”

By the book’s last despairing chapters, a final irony of the whole bungled affair becomes clear. In some ways, America really has succeeded in spreading its values throughout the Stans and Central Asia. When, for instance, the CIA began to use the ISI to torture prisoners in Pakistan, it became impossible to object to President Musharraf butchering and maiming his opponents.

So perhaps the U.S. can still lead by example. Will the new administration use America’s lingering influence to undo the damage in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia? Perhaps it’s too late. As I write, though, they’re celebrating Easter in Jerusalem, Egypt, Iraq, and even in parts of “the region.” Here is a paschal lesson for America from Ahmed Rashid’s book: it pays to practice what you preach. 

Mary Wakefield is deputy editor of The Spectator

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