Review: Descent into Chaos–The United States and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia

5 Star, Cultural Intelligence, Insurgency & Revolution, Peace Intelligence
Amazon Page
Amazon Page

Ahmed Rashid

5 out of 5 stars Broad but Nuanced, Exudes Intelligence,Absorbing Speaking of Truth, June 17, 2009

Among the observations from the author”

1. U.S. has destabilized the world after 9-11, not made it safer.

2. Pakistan is the key to peace in the region, but the US has been totally taken in by Musharraf and his army and ISI colleagues, all of whom have played the US (easily) for the total fool.

3. “No coherence to US tactics and strategy” combined with a collapsed Cabinet system and “ruinous laws” making torture the norm.

4. Pashtuns lacked leadership on the ground for decades, a major reason why they did not counter the Taliban

5. If Pakistan is the key to peace in the region, Uzbekistan is the key to future war, mixing as it does the worst of dictatorial tyranny (I know, tautologically redundant, enjoy) with deep Islamic fundamentalism.

6. The recurring theme throughout the book is the duplicity of Musharraf and the blatant public manner in which Musharraf, the Army, and the ISI (the Pakistani intelligence service) all demonstrated their commitment to the Taliban, while the Americans looked on with foolish incomprehension.

7. There is a useful history of Pakistan and its founding as a secular nation, with the subsequent perversion into a combination of military dictatorship and fundamentalist Islamic state.

8. I am enthralled with his description of Karzai’s escape from Pakistan and a death sentence from both the Taliban and the ISI, and the manner in which Karzai finally gets taken seriously by the Americans and receives a resupply drop in the middle of the mountain crossing.

9. He nails George Tenet for misrepresenting CIA’s access and capabilities, but gives CIA due credit for being able to adapt and with lots of money, able to jump start dead relations with the Northern Alliance.

10. He is devastatingly critical of CIA for screwing up the entire inter-agency campaign with too much money for warlords, and constant interference with nation-building endeavors that were not directly related to al Qaeda. The book is a masterful indictment of the debility of State and AID for lack of leadership, Presidential support, and money, compared to the crimes against humanity that CIA money can buy–for example, CIA ignoring the Northern Alliance atrocities against the Pashtuns.

11. The author provides details on the mass murder of several thousand prisoners that were stuffed into container trucks, 250 men to a truck, six or so surviving the ride out of each 250. At the same time, the author addresses how General Franks refused to accept mass Taliban surrender.

12. He provides an alternative account of the Pakistani all-night airlift out of Tora Bora, saying that Dick Cheney authorized it (I thought it was Donald Rumsfeld) and pointing out that the CIA failed to demand the right to screen all those being brought back to Pakistan.

13. The U.S. drowned Afghanistan by institutionalizing the warlords and channeling the money from CIA to them, instead of creating an inter-agency team and channeling the money through Karzai and the government.

14. I am fascinated by the author’s insights on how both the Indian and Pakistani governments misjudged the situation at various points, and his view on how little the US knew about Kashmir and its play in all this.

15. Quotes:

p. 131. “The CIA’s operations in Afghanistan were vast, complicated, and expensive. They were also inefficient, ineffective, and self-defeating.”

p. 175. “The CIA wanted every US aid program to be used to help capture bin Laden and strengthen the warlords rather than to rebuild the country. In the same paragraph he says he was told that the Pentagon would not let US AID officers out without a military escort, which was generally not available.

p. 185. “Peter Tomsen, a former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, told Congress in October 2003 that CIA operations were the main hindrance to reconstruction and that the CIA has too much money and power.”

16. The author spends time documenting how the US blocked UN disarmament and other key initiatives, and in another shocking finding, documents how NATO entered four southern provinces only to find that the USA had ignored them from 2002-2005: there was ZERO intelligence on the four.

17. Other chapters address the drugs and drug money but do not mention Musharref’s profits from the factories in Pakistan that convert Afghan opium into #4 heroin; on the US loss of moral standing around the world; on the resurgence of the Taliban with continuing support from Pakistan; and in an especially interesting section, a review of the Frontier Area, the blatant lies and ignorance put forth in current US, UK, and a PK government document, and the absolute need for giving the indigenous people in that area choices other than fight or die.

18. On Uzbekistan, “U.S. policy toward Uzbekistan and Central Asia was one-directional, ham-fisted, and without an ounce of nuance.” It still is.

19. In reviewing 2006-2007, this quote on page 357: “British officials admitted that Blair’s office was increasingly cut off from reality.”

The “last straw” for India was proven ISI engagement in the attack on the Indian Embassy in Kabul; this led to demarches that the author says finally persuaded Musharref to realize that Pakistan was no match for India and needed to settle Kashmir.

20. Three more quotes that grabbed me:

p. 397. “Nobody seemed to know what the other was doing; even through several bodies had been set up ostensibly to coordinate strategy between all the players.”

P 415. “Eight years after 9/11, Mullah Omar and the original Afghan Taliban Shura still live in Baluchistan province. Afghan and Pakistani Taliban leaders continue to thrive in FATA where Al Qaeda also has a safe haven, along with a plethora of Central Asia, European, and Arab extremist groups.”

p. 418. “[President Karzai] compromised too much with warlords, thieves, and drug smugglers rather than working with the majority of Afghans who want to rebuild their nation.”

Bottom line: Iran, India, Pakistan,and Russia surround the stans, NOT the USA. Get real.

Here are some books NOT listed by the author:
Vice: Dick Cheney and the Hijacking of the American Presidency
Breach of Trust: How Washington Turns Outsiders Into Insiders
Breaking the Real Axis of Evil: How to Oust the World’s Last Dictators by 2025
Charlie Wilson’s War: The Extraordinary Story of How the Wildest Man in Congress and a Rogue CIA Agent Changed the History of Our Times
Jawbreaker: The Attack on bin Laden and al-Qaeda: A Personal Account by the CIA’s Key Field Commander
Who the Hell Are We Fighting?: The Story of Sam Adams and the Vietnam Intelligence Wars
Policing the New World Disorder: Peace Operations and Public Security
War is a Racket: The Antiwar Classic by America’s Most Decorated Soldier
Election 2008: Lipstick on the Pig (Substance of Governance; Legitimate Grievances; Candidates on the Issues; Balanced Budget 101; Call to Arms: Fund We Not Them; Annotated Bibliography)