Customer Review

30 of 30 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Useful information, but flawed analysis, 13 Mar 2010
This review is from: Descent into Chaos: The world's most unstable region and the threat to global security (Paperback)
Ahmed Rashid is a Pakistani journalist who has written many books and articles about developments in Central Asia, including Afghanistan and Pakistan itself. His book on the Taliban (Taliban: Islam, Oil and the New Great Game in Central Asia) was much read after the terrorist attacks of '9/11', and as a result, his newest publication titled "Descent Into Chaos" has been a bestseller.

Rashid is very well informed about the region and sheds great light on the complicated matter of its political and economic contradictions. Moreover, he does so in a readily accessible, journalistic style which will enable many readers to learn a lot in a short time about this war-torn part of the world. He gives a short history of Afghanistan as well as Pakistan, explains the interrelatedness of the two countries through the strategy of the Pakistani military class to support the islamists, points out the Pashtun prevalence in both countries, describes the connections with the rest of Central Asia (particularly Uzbekistan), and finally deals with the extensive American-led Western involvement in the area including the current occupation. In addition, he provides much critical commentary. Some of this is good, and some of it is not. The main lines of the book are very worth listening to. The main lesson is that it is not worthwhile to invade a country like Afghanistan, no matter how bad its current government, if you're not going to be willing to sacrifice a great deal of funds and time as well as ground troops in rebuilding it in one's own image. Another important lesson is that one cannot deal with Afghanistan without dealing with Pakistan, which means the military class there must give up its dictatorial rule under pretext of fighting India, and that the 'tribal' areas of Pakistan must be decolonized and brought under the domain of Pakistan's regular laws and political structures. Only a serious democratization in Pakistan can really combat islamism in the 'tribal' areas, and this in turn is the prerequisite for combating islamism in Afghanistan as well as Kashmir. Many people will not like Rashid's support for 'nation-building', but surely he is right in stating that if one is going to undertake regime change in countries with terrible tyrannical governments, it immediately becomes the responsibility of the regime changer(s) to assure that country's reconstruction. Otherwise, the benefits will be minimal and the destruction and chaos maximal. He also emphasizes the important lesson that although islamism is not at all popular in either Afghanistan or Pakistan, its latent support comes from its ability to create stability and legitimate rule in areas wracked by warlords and clan systems and where no central government operates, or where the central government is too corrupt and negative to be supportable. This means that Western support for tyrannical secular governments such as that of Islam Karimov in Uzbekistan, with the aim of combating islamism in this manner, is always counterproductive. The same goes for the current policy of using warlords as the main political leaders at regional level in Afghanistan, which will surely lead to trouble in the future.

There are however also serious flaws in his book. Precisely because Rashid knows many of the people involved, he has many personal preconceived notions about the leading figures involved, which distort the narrative. For example, Ahmad Shah Massoud and Hamid Karzai are both depicted as generally 'good' figures, which can surely be doubted (in fact Massoud is explicitly considered a heroic patriot, in exactly those terms). Rashid also constantly involves himself in the narrative and puffs up his own importance in these affairs, including through his friendship with the well-known American specialist in Afghan affairs, Barnett Rubin. In all these things he works precisely the opposite way from the excellent approach of Robert Fisk, who always relativizes his own importance and describes the individual figures through their actions and what they tell him, without needing to give his own commentary on how patriotic they are or not. Finally, the book is fairly repetitive and seems padded out, with a lot more detail involved than is strictly needed for a journalistic overview of the recent events. It is all the more dubious for this reason that his use of sources is arbitrary and ineffective - he only uses footnotes randomly, and many statements and even quotations are entirely unsourced, even if they are remarkable. In this way, Rashid's superficiality and partisanship get in the way of what is an informative and useful narrative.
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