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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.