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A deeply troubling book
on 11 July 2008
Ahmed Rashid has long been a leading expert on Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Muslim states of Central Asia that were once part of the Soviet Union. In 2000, the year before 9/11, he published 'Taliban', a book which politicians rushed to read after the attack on the Twin Towers; and if Central Asia catches fire, they will doubtlessly rush to his following book, 'Jihad', first published in 2002, which is an equally authoritative account of the dangers lurking in that area.
After a brilliant introduction of 21 pages, the first three chapters of the present book give the story of American involvement in Afghanistan before 9/11. The characteristic unreliability of American policy is brought out: help given to the Islamic forces and to Pakistan while the Soviets were in Afghanistan; then a total lack of interest in the period after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, when Afghanistan was first torn apart by competing war-lords and was then overrun by the Taliban.
No longer in need of Pakistan, the USA then imposed sanctions on that country because it, like India, had carried out tests of nuclear weapons.
The next 15 chapters are essentially a sequel to the author's Taliban, and chronicles in great and sometimes in dense detail, right up to early 2008, the story of Afghanistan and Pakistan after the expulsion of the Taliban at the end of 2001 and the installation of Hamid Karzai as interim President. The victory had been not only been swift (it took two months), but had also been cheap for the Americans. They had fought the campaign from the air, leaving the land fighting to the war-lords of the Northern Alliance. The Americans lost just one man killed. Karzai was installed as interim president. This easy victory led the Americans to believe that it could be copied in Iraq, an attack on which the neo-cons had planned even before the Afghan war. Once the Iraq war began, the Americans concentrated on that and paid much less attention to Afghanistan, on which they wanted to spend as little money as possible. Rumsfeld was explicitly not interested in `nation building': helping Afghanistan to develop a healthy infrastructure.
From this all sorts of mistakes arose:
1. It seemed easier to use the armies of the war-lords than to build and train an Afghan National Army.
2. Karzai, a Pashtun, had no control over the Tajik and Uzbek war-lords. They refused to disarm or to let their men be integrated into a national army. Occasionally they fought each other; they collected tolls which they refused to hand over to the government; and they alienated the Pashtun majority. For a long time Karzai dared not confront them. When eventually he managed to form a new government without them in 2004, he proved indecisive in implementing a programme of reform.
3. He was unwilling to stamp out the cultivation of opium and the drug-lords, one of whom was his own brother. Drug dealing corrupted the entire administration and the police. The Allies did not provide money for planting alternative crops and would not allow their armies to interdict the drug trade for fear of alienating the tens of thousands of farmers who depended on it.
4. The worst problem is Pakistan. Osama bin Laden and the Al-Queda forces, as well as the fleeing Taliban found sanctuary in the tribal areas of Pakistan. These were already home to what would become the Pakistani Taliban, who helped them to rebuild their forces and joined them in incursions back into Afghanistan.
For a long time the Americans were not interested in the Taliban and did not take it seriously; but they did want Al-Qaeda people handed over, and for this they needed Musharraf's help. Musharraf did this (if he could find them!), and in return sanctions on Pakistan were lifted. For a long time the Americans did not realize the close connections that had been built up between Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. But Musharraf, the Pakistani Army and the ISI (the intelligence service) protected the Taliban and gave it much covert help and even direction. This was largely because they saw Karzai as a potential ally of India. Karzai pleaded with the Americans and the British to pressurize Pakistan to give up supporting the Taliban; but these found the alliance with Pakistan too important, and pretended to believe Musharraf's denials, aided, as these were, by the ISI very occasionally giving them information about the whereabouts of Taliban leaders.
But while this was just enough to appease the Allies, it was also enough to enrage the more extreme sections of the Taliban, who in any case were egged on by their al-Qaeda allies to attack Musharraf and his police as American lackeys. Musharraf emerges from this book as being as devious as he is foolish.
5. When the Americans focussed on Iraq, NATO took over as the Western instrument in Afghanistan. But each of the 37 countries which provided troops drew up its own rules about what these troops could - or more importantly: could not - do. Some confined them to reconstruction and humanitarian work; some were specifically prohibited for fighting the Taliban; some were not to interfere with poppy growing; those stationed in the more peaceful north were prevented from helping the hard-pressed - and always insufficiently numerous - troops in the south. Of the 45,000 troops stationed in Afghanistan in 2006, only 15,000 were available for fighting. In the absence of a unified command, it is not surprising that the Taliban began to reestablish itself in large areas of the East and South from 2003 onwards and have been gaining in strength ever since.
There is much more in this troubling book - for example a comparatively brief account of the danger of al-Qaeda and other Islamic organizations establishing themselves in the Uzbekistan and the other secular Central Asian republics, where tyrannical and corrupt governments are propped up by the Americans simply because these, too, suppress Islamic (along with all other) groups.