A Critique on Ahmed Rashid’s ‘Descent into Chaos’
Weekly Pulse
July 4-10, 2008
Ahmed Rashid, Pakistan’s internationally-acclaimed author on Afghanistan and Central Asia surely has another Western best-seller, titled Descent into Chaos: How the War against Islamic extremism is being lost in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia, published by Viking Adult in June 2008. Divided into four parts and 18 chapters, this voluminous 484-page book builds upon the historical-descriptive narrative included in the author’s previous works on the spread of Muslim extremism in Afghanistan and Central Asia, including his 2001 international best-seller, Taliban: Islam, Oil and the New Great Game in Central Asia. In Descent into Chaos, however, he has dealt with Pakistan’s case more comprehensively, especially the threat from Taliban and al-Qaeda in the tribal areas.

For quarter of a century, Ahmad Rashid has reported the eventful situation in Afghanistan and Central Asia in the Far Eastern Economic Review, The Daily Telegraph and The Nation. Three of his works, including the 2002 book Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia, had dealt exclusively with post-Soviet dictatorships and the consequential rise of Muslim extremism in Central Asia, particularly Uzbekistan. In Taliban: Islam, Oil and the New Great Game in Central Asia, he had fore-warned the international community about the simmering global terrorist threat posed by the Taliban regime, as it provided refuge to al-Qaeda leaders. In that book, as well as an article published in Foreign Affairs, titled Taliban: Exporting Extremism,” he had criticized the US policy towards Afghanistan under Taliban for being driven by a single issue of Osama bin Laden.

Zone of Conflict

Rightly so, therefore, in Descent into Chaos, the author is bitter about the fact that the advices he offered in his previous writings were consistently ignored by the United States, and so has been the case with his pleas for a solid approach of nation-building in what he calls as “the region,” including Pakistan, Afghanistan and five Central Asian republics. The real global conflict zone, according to him, is not Iraq or the Middle East, which has received undue US/Western focus and preference, rather this region. How the international community, particularly the United States, deals with the sources of conflict here will, in his opinion, determine the future of international peace and security.

However, like his previous books, Ahmed Rashid seems to have written this book essentially for US/Western readers and policy makers. Many of his arguments in this book are, therefore, marred by the problem of seeing the ground realities of the region through the prism of US-Western establishments. In fact, the US edition of the book is more appropriately subtitled as The United States and the Failure of Nation-Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia.

As to what is his target audience, Ahmed Rashid himself writes: “The American people have understood the tragedy associated with Bush's imperial overreach, and as the 2008 U.S. elections will doubtless show, they are no longer as naïve, ignorant, or scared as they were after 9/11. However, it has taken the American people time to learn such lessons, and in the meantime American power has been squandered, and hatred for Americans has become a global phenomenon. Bush's historical legacy will be one of failure. This book is an attempt to explain how that came about in Washington and on the ground in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Central Asia.”

Another problem of the work is the “I-told-you-so” mentality which authors writing on issues of extremism and terrorism have become quite accustomed to since the terrorist events of September 11, 2001 in the United States. Personal anecdotes in the introductory section seem to imply that if the Clinton and Bush administrations had headed his advice, 9/11 could have been prevented; and also that if now the Americans failed to follow up his pleas, then much more horrific than 9/11 could hurt the global interests. Throughout the book, especially in introduction, the author frequently crosses the limits of independent analysis, thereby reducing the academic value of the book. His frequent assertion about the personal role he played in the eventful regional scenario is quite often distasteful, reflective of a self-inflated ego on his part.

Consequences of War

According to him, seven years after 9/11, “the U.S.-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 and governments from Australia to Zanzibar….In the region that spawned al Qaeda and which the United States had promised to transform after 911, the crisis is even more dangerous. 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, enlisting the help of al Qaeda and Islamic extremists in Pakistan, and getting a boost from the explosion in heroin production that has helped fund their movement.”

In the introductory section, Ahmed Rashid continues to highlight the danger of Islamic extremism in the region: “The American failure to rebuild Afghanistan and Iraq or to move Pakistan and Central Asia toward reform and democracy made it almost impossible for Muslim moderates to support the West's struggle against Islamic extremism or to bring about change in their own countries….As the Bush era nears its end in 2008, American power lies shattered. The U.S. Army is overstretched and broken, the American people are disillusioned and rudderless, US credibility lies in ruins, and the world is a far more dangerous place…Ultimately, the strategies of the Bush administration have created a far bigger crisis in South and Central Asia than existed before 9/11. There are now full-blown Taliban insurgencies in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the next locus could be Uzbekistan. The safety of Pakistan's nuclear weapons is uppermost in the minds of Western governments. There are more failing states in the Muslim world, while al Qaeda has expanded around the world.”

Repetitive Account

The rest of the four sections and 18 chapters, including conclusion, are extremely repetitive, basically a rehash of descriptive details that are already available in the existing literature. For instance, one finds nothing new about Pakistan’s decision to take a U-turn on Taliban, which is already discussed in detail by a number of authors such as Hassan Abbas, Hussain Haqqani, Abdul Sattar and Pervez Musharraf himself. Everything in Descent into Chaos is written in past tense, except a few paragraphs in introduction and the main body, or a couple of pages in the concluding section.

Needless to say, insofar as the problems or challenges facing the region of Central Asia, Afghanistan and Pakistan are concerned, they are already clear. What we need are the effective and detailed strategies to overcome these challenges and solve these problems. The most obvious expression of the bloated ego on the author’s part is visible in the first chapter with a sub-heading “Man with a Mission.” It starts quite dramatically with the mention of a guest at his house days before 9/11—namely, Hamid Karzi—seeking his advice whether to choose Europe or Afghanistan as his destination in view of the pressure from Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Directorate to leave Pakistan.

The author’s “hero” finally chooses Afghanistan to trigger an anti-Taliban revolt from his tribal hideout near Kandahar. The general public perception about Karzai is slightly different: For many people in the region, including the Afghans, Karzai is not as charismatic as he is perceived so by Ahmed Rashid or in Western public opinion. There is something fake about his entire demeanor. Many perceive him to be an American lackey.

Real Reportage

The author’s claim that he has been part of the eventful situation in the region in his multiple roles as a journalist, advisor and the like may be true in the case of this book. His personal friendship with Karzai may have allowed him to stay in regular touch with the affairs of Afghanistan in the post-Taliban era. But I remember Ahmed Rashid had made similar claims when he had written the book on Taliban.

Since at the time of the rise of Taliban in Afghanistan, I was a working journalist and had reported on the subject quite extensively then, including from Afghanistan, I remember Ahmed Rashid contributing only news analyses or “situationers” to my paper, The Nation, while sitting comfortably in Lahore. It was Rahimullah Yousafzai and a few other acclaimed Pakistani journalists like Imtiaz Gul who actually covered the Taliban phenomenon from inside Afghanistan. Mr Yousafzai remains the most credible authority on Afghanistan, reporting events as they occur, not in the manner anyone would like them to occur.

All of the above, however, is somehow not meant to discredit Ahmed Rashid’s current work, which he has frankly mentioned in the acknowledgement section at the end of the book, would not have been possible without the “invaluable assistance, support, and friendship” of on Abu Bakr Siddique, who acted as his “researcher, travel companion, interpreter and interviewer and guide” on both sides of the Afghan border.

Since it is difficult to sum up all the details mentioned in the 18 chapters, which should be a good reference point for anyone interested in the affairs of this volatile region or who does not want to read other recent works on it, only a glance through them will be suffice here.

Substantive Part

Part I titled “9/11 and War” has five chapters dealing with the Afghan conflict and Pakistan’s precarious situation, especially after the 1999 coup by General Musharraf, preceding the events of 9/11. The discussion also covers the US invasion of Afghanistan and Pakistan’s decision to join the “war on terror.” Part I concludes with a narration of post-Taliban differences between Pakistan and Afghanistan and their impact on the war effort in Afghanistan. However, all of this is already discussed by other writers,

Part II titled “The Politics of the Post-9/11 World” has three chapters, where the unstable ties between India and Pakistan are covered, including a narrative of the A Q Khan-led nuclear proliferation network. Then the discussion in the next chapters revolves around how the United States cultivated corrupt ties with the warlords to create a façade of stability in post-Taliban Afghanistan. The section concludes with a description of how the United States helped create the genie of Musharraf with a devastating impact on Pakistani politics. As stated before, many other recent writers such as Hassan Abbas, Zahid Hussain and Owen Bennet Jones have already covered this theme quite sufficiently.

Part III of the book is titled “The Failure of Nation-Building.” It has four chapters, the first two dealing with the failure of security and economic reconstruction in Afghanistan and the latter two discuss the resurgence of Taliban and al-Qaeda and the so-called nexus between them and the ISI. The latter theme runs across the entire book, too often repetitive and boring. The author seems to imply that the US administration has not taken enough notice of this development. However, the fact is that at least in the last two years, the Bush administration has forcefully pursued a policy critical of Pakistan’s counter-terrorism for “not doing enough”.

The last section, which carries the main title of the book, has six chapters, including the conclusion. Two of them, “Al-Qaeda’s Bolt-Hole” and “The Taliban Offensive” are again a repetition of the Taliban/al-Qaeda threat and its across-the-Durand-Line-linkage with Pakistan’s tribal areas. The other four chapters focus on the problem of drug trafficking in Afghanistan, the continuing dictatorship in Uzbekistan, and other sources of potential extremism and terrorism emanating from “the region.”

Simplistic Assertion

The concluding section sub-titled “The Death of an Icon and a Fragile Future” starts with a narration of perhaps the worst tragedy of our times: the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. However, quite disappointingly, Ahmed Rashid makes a simplistic assertion about the forces behind her murder, by pinpointing, as he often does, only “extremists”—since it suits his over all pro-US-Western thesis of the rise of Muslim extremism in the region. It is not that the said threat does not exist. It is there, but, quite often, authors like Ahmed Rashid whose target audience is in America or the West exaggerate the danger. For in an age of terror, the more you scare, the more you sell.

As mentioned at the start, much of the book is written in past tense. Therefore, it fails to lay down a clear-cut chart for what is to be done in a concrete manner to overcome the challenges facing Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia. Only abstract solutions are mentioned. It is easier to point out the problem, how to solve it is the key issue. For instance, on the crucial issue of how to democratize Pakistan, Ahmed Rashid mentions a paragraph, with an endnote, which is an article Hussain Haqqani, another one of his competitor for gaining personal clout in the US establishment, wrote for Yale Global.

Still it is important to mention here some of Ahmed Rashid’s remarks in present tense about the prevailing agonizing situation in the region and future courses of action. Here are a few of his final assessments and “advices:”

Concluding Words

“Today, seven years after 9/11, Mullah Omar and the original Afghan Taliban Shura still live in Balochistan province. Afghan and Pakistani Taliban leaders live on farther north, in FATA, as do the militias of Jalaluddin Haqqani and Gulbuddin Hikmetyar. Al Qaeda has a safe haven in FATA, and along with them reside a plethora of Asian and Arab terrorist groups who are now expanding their reach into Europe and the United States. The United States and NATO have failed to understand that the Taliban belong to neither Afghanistan nor Pakistan, but are a lumpen population, the product of refugee camps, militarized madrassas, and the lack of opportunities in the borderland of Pakistan and Afghanistan. They have neither been true citizens of either country nor experienced traditional Pashtun tribal society. The longer the war goes on, the more deeply rooted and widespread the Taliban and their transnational milieu will become.

“The Bush doctrine has been overburdened with lies, omissions, and spin-all of which has done little to increase global confidence in the United States. It is going to take a generation before the world begins to see America in a different light, and the next U.S. president is going to have a very hard time cultivating a new image of America-quite apart from the immediate problem of what to do about Iraq and Afghanistan. The enormous cost of these wars has crippled the United States and Bush promised a great transformation in 2001, and he has certainly transformed the world, but not in the way that any of us could ever have imagine. We now all have to live with the consequences, pick up the pieces, and help improve the world we are left with by tilting the earth's axis back to where it should be.

“The region of South and Central Asia will not see stability unless there is a new global compact among the leading players—the United States, the European Union, NATO, and the UN—to help this region resolve its problems, which range from settling the Kashmir dispute between India and Pakistan to funding a massive education and job-creation program in the borderlands between Afghanistan and Pakistan and along their borders with Central Asia. The international community has to approach this region holistically rather than in a piecemeal fashion, and it has to persuade its own populations to agree to a long term commitment of troops and money. Much will depend on how the new US President sees this region and what importance he or she gives it.

“Solutions do not come easily in such a world or in a region that was traumatized well before 9/II. But the peoples and regimes of this region have to understand that unless they themselves move their nations toward greater democracy, the chaos that presently surrounds them will, in time, overwhelm them. Pakistan has shown a new beginning in 2008, and Afghanistan still has the potential to do so. If we can better understand what has happened before, what has gone wrong, and what needs to go right, as this book attempts to do, then we can better face up to our collective future.”

Summing Up

Descent into Chaos is no doubt a comprehensive work. It underscores many important current realities in the strife-torn region, especially vis-à-vis Pakistan’s tribal belt. However, simultaneously, the book downplays many important historical facts in the same region. The strife of today there is a legacy of the past, which includes ten years of internationally-sponsored jihad against the Soviets, and an equal, if not less, period of intra-Afghan warfare, and currently years-long insurgency in Afghanistan—each eventful phase has had a particular impact on what is going on today in Pakistan’s tribal Pashtun belt bordering Afghanistan.

An academic work has to be objective, and, for this, the author has to be fair in assessing the ground realities and placing them in proper historical and cultural context. Not only this, Descent into Chaos also has some problem with citations. Either the author cites his previous works on numerous occasions, or he grounds his claims on intelligence sources, whose veracity can be easily questioned. Despite such flaws of the work, it is a fact that insofar as religious extremism and its terrorist manifestation in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia are concerned, the ground reality is certainly becoming more serious and dangerous with every passing day. In the process, Pakistanis have lost hundreds of fellow citizens, and Afghans continue to pay a heavy price daily.

To sum up, Ahmed Rashid has beyond any doubt brought to fore the most important task that needs to be done, and done urgently, by the international community: that of building the nations of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia through a comprehensive political, economic and security strategy.

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