Will Byrnes'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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it was amazing
bookshelves: military-and-intelligence-non-fic, nonfiction, terrorism, the-bush-administration, american-history, afghanistan, history
Recommended to Will by: Claire S

Descent Into Chaos is a must read for anyone interested in ongoing events in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the central Asian “stans” that make up one of the most politically volatile areas on earth. Rashid is both a journalist and a participant, having been a member of various groups and committees attempting to address the ongoing conflicts. As such he brings his own personal list of good guys and bad guys, and should be taken with a grain of salt. But the level of detail presented here is impressive and illuminating.

The main foci in Descent are Pakistan and Afghanistan. Rashid characterizes Pakistan as being unlike other nations, “The epithet that ‘countries have armies, but in Pakistan the army has a country’ came true…” (p 38) He demonstrates over and over the hold the military has over the nation and shows how it has been nearly impossible for civilian rule to come to much when it must always remain subservient to those with all the guns. One of the major organizations within the military is the ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate). This is the entity that has been responsible for supporting the Taliban in both Afghanistan and now in Pakistan itself, that has seen to it that massive percentages of aid received from the USA and intended for use in anti-terrorist activities have been diverted to supporting the Taliban and to paying for bolstering Pakistan’s traditional defenses against India.

Despite USA propaganda about a desire for democracy in Afghanistan, American actions have gone in an entirely other direction, offering money to warlords at the expense of the central, Karzai-led government, looking the other way at the burgeoning poppy agriculture that is funding the Taliban and corrupt warlords. The USA did nothing about Pakistan providing a safe harbor, training, equipment, expertise and personnel for the Taliban, then sending them back in to Afghanistan to wreak havoc on US-supported forces. The USA left wide swaths of the country unpatrolled, thus allowing escaping Taliban an easy exit during the initial bombardments.

I was most taken with the recurring impact of Donald Rumsfeld on events in the area, his pig-headedness in caring not a whit about building back up the nation his army was helping destroy. He consistently made decisions that led to the worst possible outcomes, leading to the situation today, in which Afghanistan remains much less an actual country than a collection of warlords protecting their individual turf, with a national leadership that has compromised so much that there is almost no effective central power to speak of. The poppy crop is doing very nicely, but it could have been otherwise had there been actual investment in developing the available resources to allow and encourage production of non-opium crops.

I learned the most about Pakistan. Rashid makes it very clear, in painful detail, how the country has arrived at today’s precipice, with a resurgent Taliban threatening the existence of what government Pakistan still retains.

Rashid offers considerable discussion of the role of NATO, and the reluctance of most NATO members to contribute much of anything to an attempt to stabilize war-ravaged Afghanistan. If the USA can be counted on to do the right thing, after all other options have been exhausted, European members of NATO can usually be relied on to delay, and limit any contributions they are called on to make, adding impossible conditions and minimal financial support.

Rashid also looks at the situations in the neighboring “stans,” Uzbejkistan, Tajikstan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazahkstan. It is not a pretty picture. The entire area is a mess, with evil dictators virtually enslaving their own populations, while enriching themselves and gaining USA support by offering use of their territory as bases for US action in Afghanistan. He even offers an example of how the USA managed to lose all influence with one of these, as Russia and China swooped in to offer support to one psychotic dictator when the US began demanding that the psycho tone it down a bit. Rashid seemed to be saying that the USA had messed up here in losing access to the nation, but he offers no suggestions for what the US might have done to retain its access.

Sometimes Rashid’s judgments are a questionable. He was much impressed with a fellow named Abdul Haq. Rashid sees him as having been a potential leader of Afghanistan, a charismatic leader bent on opposing the Taliban. Yet, despite having no state support, and only personal funding from some American millionaires, Haq pushed ahead with his plans to foment an anti-Taliban insurrection, yet could manage less than three dozen actual fighters. He was soon captured and killed. Surely a truly effective and thoughtful leader would not have made such a rash decision. He must have had a lot less going on within him than Rashid gives him credit for. And if he was so wrong about Haq, one wonders where else Rashid's personal feelings about relevant individuals might have affected his ability to evaluate their intelligence, leadership capacity or motives.

The bottom line here is that the situation in the entire area is intensely depressing. Pakistan is on the edge of becoming a failed state. Afghanistan appears little closer to having a stable, democratic society. The Taliban is the only force in the area that seems to be thriving. Rashid offers only tonics for what one might do. It is clear that opportunities have been lost, and it is not clear that the Obama administration has any better ideas about how to proceed to stabilize the region than Bush did. Hopefully they have a plan.

One item I found very helpful in the book was a collection of maps in the front. I referred to them frequently. It would have been helpful had there been a glossary at the back. There are many acronyms here and I often had to search back several pages to re-discover what some of them meant. But this is a quibble. The book is illuminating and far reaching.
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Reading Progress

May 2, 2009 – Shelved
May 27, 2009 – Shelved as: military-and-intelligence-non-fic
May 27, 2009 – Shelved as: nonfiction
May 27, 2009 – Shelved as: terrorism
May 27, 2009 – Shelved as: the-bush-administration
Started Reading
June 4, 2009 – Finished Reading
July 12, 2012 – Shelved as: american-history
January 9, 2013 – Shelved as: afghanistan
June 9, 2018 – Shelved as: history

Comments Showing 1-22 of 22 (22 new)

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Claire S Oh, good. I'm so glad you're reading this! Can't wait to hear if the organization of it kind of throws you for a loop as it did me. Perhaps you've read so much more of these sorts of books, it won't. I'm really hoping to get back to focusing on Pak soon..

Claire S Hey Will, great review! Yours are always so responsive to the text, mine flow more according to my reactions to it. Oh, well, practice will likely birth improvement (for me).
Anyway, your comments about Rashid regarding Haq were interesting, I hadn't caught that. The scope of it all was so vast, and I'd started trying to gather certain ideas and their page numbers, for my own index (like all comments about exactly what US did wrong).
Your point is interesting, in general I was always thinking along those same lines.. since every person is subjective, where does Rashid's subjectivity run to?
I hope the Obama admin does have great ideas - I believe that they have some strengths regardless: are not using Afghanistan to gain re-election, running off afterwards to go start another war; will not copy the Bush admin is utter discregard for the everyday people in the region; don't have negative misconceptions about all Muslims. So, there's some expectation for a better outcome just right there.

Did you see this:

I *need* for Obama to respond to that whole situation in some entirely different, intact way.

Will Byrnes Thanks so much for your kind words, Katie. It is indeed a wide ranging book, but some things just kept leaping to the fore, the horror that is Rummy being prime, the role of Pakistan in supporting the Taliban being another. I would like to see him do an entire book on the "stans."

It remains to be seen what Obama will do, what he can do. If the safe haven (for the Taliban) that is Pakistan can be made unsafe will that alleviate problems in Afghanistan or merely widen the conflict to new turf? Will the USA offer any serious redevelopment funding to Afghanistan or will it be all stick and no carrot? Will the USA begin to withdraw support from the warlords? Will the elevation of the State Department mean that diplomats or generals have the final say? I agree that at least Obama's intentions are honorable, unlike the guy he replaced.

Thanks for the Times of India link. Clearly you have a considerable interest in happenings in the area.
I am shocked, shocked to hear that the SOBs in Pakistan have been redirecting our cash to their personal military needs.

I mean to add a few minor additions to the review, about the presence of maps and absence of a glossary.

I actually have two other Rashid books at home, Taliban and Jihad, and will get to them in time.

Claire S Yes, so many of our people did terrible things there. 'Our' being a swear word practically, of course. Cheney, Bush himself..
The biggest thing for me was all the instances of Musharraf lying, bald-faced, and Bush totally eating it up.
When you said "I am shocked, shocked to hear that the SOBs in Pakistan have been redirecting our cash to their personal military needs." - was that sarcasm? Because I know it's been widely known in India that that was taking place.. And sounds like it's actually a substantive part of the discussion of this current round of funding, thank goodness.

It really seems to me that the Af-Pak situation as a whole calls into question the entire current model of global peacekeeping, it seems to have entirely failed. Hopefully that was all traceable back to Bush, and the next few years will be entirely different.

Yeah, I'd like to read those other books as well. He's often quoted in the news almost daily, too.

Will Byrnes Sarcasm, yes. Think Louie in Casablanca.

There is an interesting piece in todays NY Times re ANA


And thanks so much for turning me on to Descent. It is a treasure.

And speaking of substance, it is interesting the tack Obama is taking toward N. Korea. It may be risky, but I think I like it.

Claire S Interesting article, thanks for the link. So glad NYT stopped their password system!

Haven't seen casablanca, will possibly have to check it out one of these years. I thought you probably were, but I have this overly-literal habit that is hard to shake. I adore sarcasm myself, and often use it, often in cases where people aren't sure how I mean things, so it evens out!

Very glad you liked Descent!

Yes, it seems like Obama continues to prove the breadth of possible difference between past and present!

Will Byrnes You haven't seen Casablanca?!!! Bad Katie, bad, bad.

Claire S Yes, I know. The list is endless.
It's not my fault. I put in the request with *all* the forms In Triplicate for three simultaneous lives, and they haven't even granted me a hearing yet. One life at a time isn't even close to enough time for it all!

Will Byrnes So much great cinema, art, books, excellent things to do and see, so little time. I sympathize. On the movie list, this one should be near the top. One of my favorite things as a parent has been to show my girls some of the great films of all time. It used to be Friday Movie Night, but after a hiatus, and now down to one teenager I have begun again. Five hundred years from now I believe that art historians will see the 20th and 21st centuries as a golden age for cinema, one of America's greatest contribution to human artistry. When time allows, give Casablanca a look. You won't regret it.

Claire S Ok, you're very convincing!

I have engaged in too many missteps apparently with my daughter, any film I suggest now is greeted with deep suspicion and a huge believability gulf!Ok, I tend to the political and the quirky, what can I say? When she's older, she'll appreciate me SO much more.

message 11: by Steve (new)

Steve Outstanding review.

message 12: by Will (new) - rated it 5 stars

Will Byrnes Steve wrote: "Outstanding review."
Thank you. It is an outstanding book, a must read, really, more and more with each passing day.

message 13: by Steve (new)

Steve I've been following (I hope) the better books on these conflicts (and how we got into them), but they've been mostly on Iraq. I bumped into this one yesteday at Borders, and it looked good. It seems things are going south quickly in Afghanistan. If so, this book may be the place to go if looking for the Why?

message 14: by Will (new) - rated it 5 stars

Will Byrnes There is a wealth of detail here. Also worth your time is Sarah Cheyes' book. It complements Descent very nicely.

message 15: by Will (new) - rated it 5 stars

Will Byrnes Kaput wrote: "Good review. No one comes out of this book with any credit do they?"

Thanks. As the recent travesty of an election has made perfectly clear, Karzai is part of the problem, not the solution. I am reminded of Viet Nam, when we were trying to prop up a series of completely corrupt regimes. Afghanistan presents a tough situation, a nation whose leaders are more interested in preserving their incomes and fiefdoms than in advancing the interests of their people. While one might be tempted to throw up one's hands and say "a pox on them all," the result of such a decision would have grave implications for the women of the area. And we surely have an interest in seeing some sort of stability in Pakistan, which is where this war must ultimately go. One cannot leave a nation with nukes in the hands of the Taliban or their sponsors. I fear that should Pakistan come under the complete control of religious fanatics, the outcome is inevitable, massive glowing rubble where once stood many subcontinent cities. For India will be forced to defend itself. I do not pretend to have answers.

As for credit, at least I believe that our current foreign policy team is better prepared to cope with the real world, unlike their predecessors. It may all go to hell regardless of our effort.

Caroline A wonderful review. This book is already on my must read list, but it has enhanced my waiting to read your thoughts about it. I just wish that I too had read in in 2009.

message 17: by Lynne (new)

Lynne King Excellent review Will as ever.

message 18: by 4triplezed (new)

4triplezed Added to my "to read" list Will.

Usman I am still halfway through the book. Your review is interesting. However as a Pakistani living in Pakistan, for me Rashid's expertise seems to lie in Afghanistan. His sections on Pakistan are too general, and miss the nuance I was hoping for. Still, I'm forging ahead, hoping to learn more about the Afghan situation. btw, the best Pakistani commentator on Af-Pak is a journalist by the name of Raheem ullah Yusufzai, himself a Pakhtoon. You might want to read his articles online as they are really worth it.

message 20: by Will (new) - rated it 5 stars

Will Byrnes Always happy to get good new sources. Thanks

message 21: by Daoud Kashif (new)

Daoud Kashif im from pakistan

message 22: by Will (new) - rated it 5 stars

Will Byrnes Daoud Kashif wrote: "im from pakistan"
So what do you think of Yusufzai, Daoud? Do you agree with Usman that he is a reliable source?

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