Jean Tessier's Reviews > Descent into Chaos: The United States & the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan & Central Asia

Descent into Chaos by Ahmed Rashid
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's review
Oct 02, 2011

it was amazing
bookshelves: leisure
Read in May, 2009

I read Mr. Rashid's
when it came out, right after 2001-09-11. I was
very impressed by his extensive knowledge of that part of the world. As a
journalist, he has been covering Central Asia pretty much since the Soviets
invaded Afganistan in 1979. He has been part of most major events in
Afganistan and Pakistan. He has interviewed pretty much everyone involved in
the region's political scene during those years. He has really deep knowledge
that far surpasses anything I could expect from Western sources.

This book aims to cover the years from 2001 to 2008 and the aftermath of 9/11.

I remember being very depressed after reading Taliban. It seemed liked the
whole of Afghanistan was could not be salvaged. The situation seemed hopeless.
But reading Descent into Chaos gave me hope. The people of Afghanistan and
Pakistan are very resilient and they will do the right thing if given a chance.
That is, when they are not being abused by communists, warlords, dictators,
fundamentalists, corrupt officials, drug runners, all under the eye of Western
powers. But the glimmers of hope have been few and far between since 2001.
There are long periods of hardships for the population as various factions try
to control the region.

This book is absolutely stunning. Rashid takes you into the lives of citizens
of both Afghanistan and Pakistan for the past ten years and covers all of the
major events of this period. He is extremely well documented, having personally
interviewed or covered all the major players on all sides. He also cultivates
personal relationships with many key individuals in the region, including
Afghan president Hamid Karzai, giving the author unparallel access to what they
are thinking as events unfold.

There are many dimensions to the material in the book. Time is an obvious one.
There are also many concerns, from fighting to security to the economy to the
drug trade to international intervention. And there is also the personal
narative of the many individuals: Karzai in Afghanistan, Musharraf in Pakistan,
Rumsfeld at the Pentagon, the US State Department, Taliban leaders, warlords,
U.N. staff, and so on. Each of these threads cross each other again and again
in a very tight weave. The level of complexity is what makes reading about
real events such a rich experience. It is impossible to disentangle any one of
these threads in order to fit the linear format of a book, but Rashid tries his
best. The overarching concerns are the main organizational elements in the
book. There is a chapter on the security situation in Afghanistan between 2002
and 2005. There is a chapter on economic development between 2002 and 2005.
There is a chapter on the flowering of the drug trade from 2002 to 2007. There
is a chapter on the emergence of the Pakistan Taliban. As you go from one
chapter to the next, you go back and forth both through time and through the
cast of characters. It gets very confusing very quickly, but Rashid gives us
just enough reminders for us to keep it straight. Almost. The temporal
jumping around is definitely what gave me the most trouble, as I tried to
relate events in one chapter to those in the previous ones and which events
had not happened yet.

As I was reading this book, events continued to unfold in Afghanistan and in
Pakistan. There is a new administration in the US and in Pakistan. The
Taliban is in the news regading Swat Valley. A NY Times article was talking
about the rise of heroin addiction in Kabul. Former US ambassador Khalilzad
considered running against Karzai for President of Afghanistan and might take
a high-level position in his administration instead. Two US researchers were
on a show saying the Taliban insurgency in Pakistan was blown out of proportions
by the media (it looks pretty serious in the book).

The downside of reading about recent events is that the book leaves you in the
middle of the action. You have to keep reading the newspapers to find the
eventual resolution at some point in the future. The upside is that you can
keep reading about it for years to come.

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