Descent into Chaos: The United States and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia
The relative calm in Iraq in recent months, combined with the drama of the US elections, has managed to distract attention from the catastrophe that is rapidly overwhelming Western interests in the part of the world that always should have been the focus of America’s response to September 11: the al-Qaeda and Taliban heartlands on either side of the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The situation here could hardly be more grim. The Taliban have reorganized, advanced out of their borderland safe havens, and are now massing at the gates of Kabul, threatening to surround and throttle the capital, much as the US-backed Mujahideen once did to the Soviet-installed regime in the late Eighties. Like the rerun of an old movie, all journeys out of the Afghan capital are once again confined to tanks, armored cars, and helicopters. Members of the Taliban already control over 70 percent of the country, up from just over 50 percent in November 2007, where they collect taxes, enforce Sharia law, and dispense their usual rough justice; but they do succeed, to some extent, in containing the wave of crime and corruption that has marked Hamid Karzai’s rule. This has become one of the principal reasons for their growing popularity, and every month their sphere of influence increases.
The blowback from the Afghan conflict in Pakistan is more serious still. In less than eight months, Asif Ali Zardari’s new government has effectively lost control of much of the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) to the Taliban’s Pakistani counterparts, a loose confederation of nationalists, Islamists, and angry Pashtun tribesmen under the nominal command of Baitullah Mehsud. Few had very high expectations of Zardari, the notoriously corrupt playboy widower of Benazir Bhutto. Nevertheless, the speed of the collapse that has taken place under his watch has amazed almost all observers.
Across much of the North-West Frontier Province—around a fifth of Pakistan—women have now been forced to wear the burqa, music has been silenced, barbershops are forbidden to shave beards, and over 140 girls’ schools have been blown up or burned down. In the provincial capital of Peshawar, a significant proportion of the city’s elite, along with its musicians, have now decamped to the relatively safe and tolerant confines of Lahore and Karachi. Meanwhile tens of thousands of ordinary people from the surrounding hills of the semiautonomous tribal belt—the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) that run along the Afghan border—have fled from the conflict zones blasted by missiles from unmanned American Predator drones and strafed by Pakistani helicopter gunships to the tent camps now ringing Peshawar. (See the map.)
The tribal areas have never been fully under the control of any Pakistani government, and have always been unruly, but they have now been radicalized as never before. The rain of armaments from US drones and Pakistani ground forces, which have caused extensive civilian casualties, daily add a steady stream of angry footsoldiers to the insurgency. Elsewhere in Pakistan, anti-Western religious and political extremism continues to flourish.
The most alarming manifestation of this was the ease with which a highly trained jihadi group, almost certainly supplied and provisioned in Pakistan, probably by the nominally banned Lashkar-e-Taiba—an organization that aims to restore Muslim rule in Kashmir—attacked neighboring India in November. They murdered 173 innocent people in Bombay, injured over six hundred, and brought the two nuclear-armed rivals once again to the brink of war. The attackers arrived by sea, initially using boats based in the same network of fishing villages across the Makran coast through which a number of al-Qaeda suspects are known to have been spirited away from Pakistan to the Arab Gulf following the American assault on Tora Bora in 2001.
In November, on a trip to Pakistan, I tried to visit Peshawar, which functions as both the capital of the North-West Frontier Province and the administrative center for FATA. But for the first time in twenty-five years, I was warned by Pakistani journalist friends not even to attempt going. In one week, an unprecedented series of events made up my mind for me.
On Monday, November 11, some sixty militants identified with the Pakistani Taliban looted thirteen trucks carrying military supplies and a fleet of Humvees going up the Khyber Pass to US troops in Afghanistan. Twenty-six people were kidnapped. The next day, a suicide bomber narrowly missed killing the governor and some of the ministers of the North-West Frontier Province, as they left a stadium. Three people were killed in the attack. On Wednesday of that week, unidentified gunmen shot dead Stephen Vance, a US aid worker, and kidnapped an Iranian diplomat, who joined the Chinese engineers, Pakistani truck drivers, and Afghan diplomats now being held in Taliban captivity. On Thursday, two journalists—one Japanese, the other Afghan—were shot at and wounded. Peshawar suddenly seemed to be becoming as violent as Baghdad at the height of the insurgency three years ago.
All this took place in the vacuum created by the temporary flight from the province of the chief minister and leader of the ruling Awami National Party of the NWFP, Asfandyar Wali Khan. This followed a suicide bombing on October 2 that killed three guests and a member of his staff while he was greeting visitors during Eid celebrations marking the end of Ramadan. Immediately after the bombing, a rattled Asfandyar fled from the province in a helicopter sent to him by Zardari, then flew straight on to Britain. He was persuaded to return only with some difficulty. In February 2008, Asfandyar’s party had been elected with a huge majority, breaking the power of the MMA Islamist alliance, a coalition of Islamic groups that has been a major force in Frontier politics, and that had ruled the province for the previous five years. The election seemed to mark a moment of hope for Pakistani secular democracy; but that hope was soon shattered by the apparently unstoppable advance of the Pakistani Taliban out of FATA.
Since then there have been several more suicide bombings and a number of daring attacks on US convoys and depots in and around Peshawar, including one that led to the burning of two hundred trucks and dozens of Humvees and armored personnel carriers, and another that led to the capture by the Taliban of fifty containers of supplies. Other civilian convoys have been allowed to continue, but only after paying a toll to the Taliban, who now, in effect, control the Khyber Pass, the key land route between Pakistan and Afghanistan. At the moment more than 70 percent of supplies for the US troops in Afghanistan travel through the NWFP to Peshawar and hence up the Khyber Pass. The US is now trying to work out alternative supply routes for its troops in Afghanistan via several Central Asian republics—Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan, which has the important Manas Air Base—all of which have themselves been markedly radicalized since 2001.
Far from the frontier, in Pakistan’s artistic capital of Lahore, at the heart of the prosperous Punjab, the usually resilient members of the liberal elite were more depressed than I have ever seen them, alarmed both by the news of the Taliban’s advances and by the economic difficulties that have recently led Pakistan to seek a $7.6 billion IMF loan. The night I arrived I went to see Najam Sethi and his wife Jugnu, editors of the English-language Daily Times and Friday Times newspapers, who now found themselves directly in the Taliban’s crosshairs. Three weeks earlier they had begun to receive faxes threatening them with violence if they didn’t stop attacking Islamist interests in their columns. One such fax had arrived that morning. The two have bravely survived years of harassment by various governments and agencies, but now felt powerless to respond to these anonymous threats.
Another old friend in Lahore, the remarkable human rights campaigner Asma Jahangir, had also received fax warnings—in her case to desist helping the victims of honor killings. Asma, who had bravely fought successive military governments, was at a loss about what to do: “Nobody is safe anymore,” she told me. “If you are threatened by the government you can take them on legally. But with nonstate actors, when even members of the government are themselves not safe, who do you appeal to? Where do you look for protection?”
These events dramatically illustrate Ahmed Rashid’s central contention in his brilliant and passionate book Descent into Chaos. Throughout the book Rashid emphasizes the degree to which, seven years after September 11, “the US-led war on terrorism has left in its wake a far more unstable world than existed on that momentous day in 2001”:
Rather than diminishing, the threat from al Qaeda and its affiliates has grown, engulfing new regions of Africa, Asia, and Europe and creating fear among peoples from Australia to Zanzibar. The US invasions of two Muslim countries…[have] so far failed to contain either the original organization or the threat that now comes from its copycats…in British or French cities who have been mobilized through the Internet. The al Qaeda leader…is still at large, despite the largest manhunt in history….
Afghanistan is once again staring down the abyss of state collapse, despite billions of dollars in aid, forty-five thousand Western troops, and the deaths of thousands of people. The Taliban have made a dramatic comeback…. The international community had an extended window of opportunity for several years to help the Afghan people—they failed to take advantage of it.
Pakistan…has undergone a slower but equally bloody meltdown…. In 2007 there were 56 suicide bombings in Pakistan that killed 640 people, compared to just 6 bombings in the previous year….
In 2008, American power lies shattered…. US credibility lies in ruins…. Ultimately the strategies of the Bush administration have created a far bigger crisis in South and Central Asia than existed before 9/11.
It is difficult to disagree with any of this. Eight years of neocon foreign policies have been a spectacular disaster for American interests in the Islamic world, leading to the rise of Iran as a major regional power, the advance of Hamas and Hezbollah, the wreckage of Iraq, with over two million external refugees and the ethnic cleansing of its Christian population, and now the implosion of Afghanistan and Pakistan, probably the most dangerous development of all.
Ahmed Rashid’s book convincingly shows how the Central and Southern Asian portion of this tragedy took shape in the years since 2001. Rashid has long been an authority on the politics of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia, and his welcoming house in Lahore has for many years been the first port of call for visiting journalists and writers. An urbane, witty, bookish, Cambridge-educated bon viveur, with a Spanish Galician wife, he is a writer whose high spirits can easily make one forget both the immense bravery of his consistently fearless reporting in such a dangerous environment over thirty years—Rashid was recently sentenced to death in absentia by the Pakistan Taliban—and the deep scholarship and research that give his work its depth. Rashid, a contributor to TheNew York Review, came to world attention after the Islamist attacks on America when his book Taliban1 was recognized to be virtually the only serious work on the regime that had given shelter to al-Qaeda. As a result it quickly sold nearly 1.5 million copies in twenty-six languages across the world.
Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil, and Fundamentalism in Central Asia (Yale University Press, 2000).↩
Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil, and Fundamentalism in Central Asia (Yale University Press, 2000).↩