Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Taliban’s Chaos Theory

“You need three qualities today if you want to fight the terrorists. Number one, you must have the military with you… Number two, you shouldn’t be seen by the entire religious lobby to be alien. The third element: don’t be seen as an extension of the United States.” These words of Parvez Musharraf, uttered a few weeks after the death of Benazir Bhutto in January 2008, show the kind of politics he espoused during his tenure as Pakistan’s president. Musharraf was a man who knew the presence of jihadist outfits in his country could be used to enhance Pakistan’s “strategic importance in Western eyes”, writes Ahmed Rashid in “Descent into Chaos”. And the General did the same, like other allies of the US in the “region” (Pakistan, Afghanistan and the five Central Asian Republics). For Rashid, author of the best selling “Taliban”, the region is “vital for global stability”. But the misguided “war on terror” of the US and the inability of the Western powers to contribute to nation building in these countries, particularly in the post-9/11 Afghanistan has created nothing but chaos.

Who made things worse? Rashid says even the Clinton administration bears some responsibility for the present chaos. It was during the Clinton presidency, the Taliban mobilized resources, consolidated power in Afghanistan and grew in strength in the region. But the Clinton administration failed to foresee the lurking dangers and come up with a vision to fight Taliban. George Bush, who actually started a war against Taliban, eventually played it into the hands of the same Islamic fundamentalists, thanks to the strategies of Defence Secretary Ronald Rumsfeld. It was Rumsfeld who insisted the inclusion of tribal warlords in the Afghan cabinet, says Rashid. Moreover, Bush’s defence secretary was against the idea of expanding the western-backed security system beyond Kabul, a strategy which later proved to be a blunder.
President Bush, who opened another war front in Iraq before accomplishing his “mission” in Afghanistan, made things complicated. The mounting military challenge in Iraq diluted the US engagement in Afghanistan, which eventually helped the Taliban regroup with the help of ISI. Though Pakistan, which supported the Taliban when it was in power, had to change its position in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the country’s controversial spy agency, the Inter Service Intelligence, continued its dubious policies, writes Rashid. President Bush thought Musharraf was “indispensable” in his war on terror. This was a strategic limitation for the US. The Bush administration, finding itself in a catch-22 situation, completely gave up its efforts to push for political reforms in the military-ruled Pakistan and the Central Asian dictatorships and continued to pumping millions of dollars to support these regimes in the name of the alliance against terror.

What should have been down? “Afghanistan had to be rescued from itself. Autocratic regimes in Pakistan and Central Asia had to change their repressive ways sand listen to their alienated and poverty-stricken citizens…The West had to wake up to the realities and responsibilities of injustice, poverty, lack of education, which it ignored for too long,” writes Rashid. But nothing of these happened. The al-Qaueda and Taliban became more powerful, Afghanistan fell into deeper chaos, Pakistan, though the military rule came to an end, is now fighting itself and the Central Asian republics are as bloody as ever. Understanding the existing complexities and dangers, Rashid urges the international community to “face up to our collective future”.
“Descent into Chaos” is a well-written, detailed description of what happened to the War on Terror in the South-Central Asia. The analysis of Rashid, who has covered the region extensively as a reporter, looks stunningly authentic and his style of writing ensures an enjoyable reading. Still, it lacks the in-depth analysis of an academic. Rashid’s admiration for leaders like Hamid Karzai and Benazir Bhutto may not go down well with many readers. Blaming only Musharraf for Pakistan’s problems may not a proper diagnosis.

Ahmed Rashid (2008), “Descent into Chaos: How the war against Islamic extremism is being lost in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia”, Penguin: London. (Reviewed for Purple Beret)