Volume 56, Number 2 · February 12, 2009
Descent into Chaos: The United States and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia
by Ahmed Rashid
Viking, 484 pp., $27.95
The relative calm in Iraq in recent months, combined with the drama of the US elections, has managed to distract attention from the catastrophe that is rapidly overwhelming Western interests in the part of the world that always should have been the focus of America’s response to September 11: the al-Qaeda and Taliban heartlands on either side of the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The situation here could hardly be more grim. The Taliban have reorganized, advanced out of their borderland safe havens, and are now massing at the gates of Kabul, threatening to surround and throttle the capital, much as the US-backed Mujahideen once did to the Soviet-installed regime in the late Eighties. Like the rerun of an old movie, all journeys out of the Afghan capital are once again confined to tanks, armored cars, and helicopters. Members of the Taliban already control over 70 percent of the country, up from just over 50 percent in November 2007, where they collect taxes, enforce Sharia law, and dispense their usual rough justice; but they do succeed, to some extent, in containing the wave of crime and corruption that has marked Hamid Karzai’s rule. This has become one of the principal reasons for their growing popularity, and every month their sphere of influence increases.
The blowback from the Afghan conflict in Pakistan is more serious still. In less than eight months, Asif Ali Zardari’s new government has effectively lost control of much of the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) to the Taliban’s Pakistani counterparts, a loose confederation of nationalists, Islamists, and angry Pashtun tribesmen under the nominal command of Baitullah Mehsud. Few had very high expectations of Zardari, the notoriously corrupt playboy widower of Benazir Bhutto. Nevertheless, the speed of the collapse that has taken place under his watch has amazed almost all observers.
Across much of the North-West Frontier Province—around a fifth of Pakistan—women have now been forced to wear the burqa, music has been silenced, barbershops are forbidden to shave beards, and over 140 girls’ schools have been blown up or burned down. In the provincial capital of Peshawar, a significant proportion of the city’s elite, along with its musicians, have now decamped to the relatively safe and tolerant confines of Lahore and Karachi. Meanwhile tens of thousands of ordinary people from the surrounding hills of the semiautonomous tribal belt—the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) that run along the Afghan border—have fled from the conflict zones blasted by missiles from unmanned American Predator drones and strafed by Pakistani helicopter gunships to the tent camps now ringing Peshawar. (See the map.)
The tribal areas have never been fully under the control of any Pakistani government, and have always been unruly, but they have now been radicalized as never before. The rain of armaments from US drones and Pakistani ground forces, which have caused extensive civilian casualties, daily add a steady stream of angry footsoldiers to the insurgency. Elsewhere in Pakistan, anti-Western religious and political extremism continues to flourish.
The most alarming manifestation of this was the ease with which a highly trained jihadi group, almost certainly supplied and provisioned in Pakistan, probably by the nominally banned Lashkar-e-Taiba—an organization that aims to restore Muslim rule in Kashmir—attacked neighboring India in November. They murdered 173 innocent people in Bombay, injured over six hundred, and brought the two nuclear-armed rivals once again to the brink of war. The attackers arrived by sea, initially using boats based in the same network of fishing villages across the Makran coast through which a number of al-Qaeda suspects are known to have been spirited away from Pakistan to the Arab Gulf following the American assault on Tora Bora in 2001.
In November, on a trip to Pakistan, I tried to visit Peshawar, which functions as both the capital of the North-West Frontier Province and the administrative center for FATA. But for the first time in twenty-five years, I was warned by Pakistani journalist friends not even to attempt going. In one week, an unprecedented series of events made up my mind for me.
On Monday, November 11, some sixty militants identified with the Pakistani Taliban looted thirteen trucks carrying military supplies and a fleet of Humvees going up the Khyber Pass to US troops in Afghanistan. Twenty-six people were kidnapped. The next day, a suicide bomber narrowly missed killing the governor and some of the ministers of the North-West Frontier Province, as they left a stadium. Three people were killed in the attack. On Wednesday of that week, unidentified gunmen shot dead Stephen Vance, a US aid worker, and kidnapped an Iranian diplomat, who joined the Chinese engineers, Pakistani truck drivers, and Afghan diplomats now being held in Taliban captivity. On Thursday, two journalists—one Japanese, the other Afghan—were shot at and wounded. Peshawar suddenly seemed to be becoming as violent as Baghdad at the height of the insurgency three years ago.
All this took place in the vacuum created by the temporary flight from the province of the chief minister and leader of the ruling Awami National Party of the NWFP, Asfandyar Wali Khan. This followed a suicide bombing on October 2 that killed three guests and a member of his staff while he was greeting visitors during Eid celebrations marking the end of Ramadan. Immediately after the bombing, a rattled Asfandyar fled from the province in a helicopter sent to him by Zardari, then flew straight on to Britain. He was persuaded to return only with some difficulty. In February 2008, Asfandyar’s party had been elected with a huge majority, breaking the power of the MMA Islamist alliance, a coalition of Islamic groups that has been a major force in Frontier politics, and that had ruled the province for the previous five years. The election seemed to mark a moment of hope for Pakistani secular democracy; but that hope was soon shattered by the apparently unstoppable advance of the Pakistani Taliban out of FATA.
Since then there have been several more suicide bombings and a number of daring attacks on US convoys and depots in and around Peshawar, including one that led to the burning of two hundred trucks and dozens of Humvees and armored personnel carriers, and another that led to the capture by the Taliban of fifty containers of supplies. Other civilian convoys have been allowed to continue, but only after paying a toll to the Taliban, who now, in effect, control the Khyber Pass, the key land route between Pakistan and Afghanistan. At the moment more than 70 percent of supplies for the US troops in Afghanistan travel through the NWFP to Peshawar and hence up the Khyber Pass. The US is now trying to work out alternative supply routes for its troops in Afghanistan via several Central Asian republics—Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan, which has the important Manas Air Base—all of which have themselves been markedly radicalized since 2001.
Far from the frontier, in Pakistan’s artistic capital of Lahore, at the heart of the prosperous Punjab, the usually resilient members of the liberal elite were more depressed than I have ever seen them, alarmed both by the news of the Taliban’s advances and by the economic difficulties that have recently led Pakistan to seek a $7.6 billion IMF loan. The night I arrived I went to see Najam Sethi and his wife Jugnu, editors of the English-language Daily Times and Friday Times newspapers, who now found themselves directly in the Taliban’s crosshairs. Three weeks earlier they had begun to receive faxes threatening them with violence if they didn’t stop attacking Islamist interests in their columns. One such fax had arrived that morning. The two have bravely survived years of harassment by various governments and agencies, but now felt powerless to respond to these anonymous threats.
Another old friend in Lahore, the remarkable human rights campaigner Asma Jahangir, had also received fax warnings—in her case to desist helping the victims of honor killings. Asma, who had bravely fought successive military governments, was at a loss about what to do: “Nobody is safe anymore,” she told me. “If you are threatened by the government you can take them on legally. But with nonstate actors, when even members of the government are themselves not safe, who do you appeal to? Where do you look for protection?”
These events dramatically illustrate Ahmed Rashid’s central contention in his brilliant and passionate book Descent into Chaos. Throughout the book Rashid emphasizes the degree to which, seven years after September 11, “the US-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 from Australia to Zanzibar. The US invasions of two Muslim countries…[have] so far failed to contain either the original organization or the threat that now comes from its copycats…in British or French cities who have been mobilized through the Internet. The al Qaeda leader…is still at large, despite the largest manhunt in history….
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…. The international community had an extended window of opportunity for several years to help the Afghan people—they failed to take advantage of it.
Pakistan…has undergone a slower but equally bloody meltdown…. In 2007 there were 56 suicide bombings in Pakistan that killed 640 people, compared to just 6 bombings in the previous year….
In 2008, American power lies shattered…. US credibility lies in ruins…. Ultimately the strategies of the Bush administration have created a far bigger crisis in South and Central Asia than existed before 9/11.
It is difficult to disagree with any of this. Eight years of neocon foreign policies have been a spectacular disaster for American interests in the Islamic world, leading to the rise of Iran as a major regional power, the advance of Hamas and Hezbollah, the wreckage of Iraq, with over two million external refugees and the ethnic cleansing of its Christian population, and now the implosion of Afghanistan and Pakistan, probably the most dangerous development of all.
Ahmed Rashid’s book convincingly shows how the Central and Southern Asian portion of this tragedy took shape in the years since 2001. Rashid has long been an authority on the politics of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia, and his welcoming house in Lahore has for many years been the first port of call for visiting journalists and writers. An urbane, witty, bookish, Cambridge-educated bon viveur, with a Spanish Galician wife, he is a writer whose high spirits can easily make one forget both the immense bravery of his consistently fearless reporting in such a dangerous environment over thirty years—Rashid was recently sentenced to death in absentia by the Pakistan Taliban—and the deep scholarship and research that give his work its depth. Rashid, a contributor to TheNew York Review, came to world attention after the Islamist attacks on America when his book Taliban1 was recognized to be virtually the only serious work on the regime that had given shelter to al-Qaeda. As a result it quickly sold nearly 1.5 million copies in twenty-six languages across the world.
In his new book, Rashid is particularly perceptive in his examination of the causes of terrorism in the region, and the way that the Bush administration sought to silence real scrutiny of what was actually causing so many people in South and Central Asia violently to resist American influence. Serious analysis was swept under the carpet, making impossible
any discussion or understanding of the “root causes” of terrorism—the growing poverty, repression, and sense of injustice that many Muslims felt at the hands of their US-backed governments, which in turn boosted anti-Americanism and Islamic extremism…. Bush did more to keep Americans blind to world affairs than any American leader in recent history.
Instead, terrorism was presented by the administration as a result of a “sudden worldwide anti-Americanism rather than a result of past American policy failures.” Bush’s speech to Congress, claiming that the world hated America because “they hate our freedoms—our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote,” ignored the political elephant standing in the middle of the living room—US foreign policy, especially in the Middle East, with its long history of unpopular interventions in the Islamic world and its uncritical support for Israel’s steady colonization of the West Bank and violent repression of the Palestinians. As the Department of Defense Science Board rightly pointed out in response to Bush’s speech: “Muslims do not ‘hate our freedom,’ but rather they hate our policies.”
It was partly the intense hostility to Islam emanating from both the press and the government of the United States that made it so difficult for moderates in the Islamic world to counter the propaganda of the extremists. How could the moderates dispute the notion that America was engaged in a civilizational war against Islam when this was clearly something many in the administration, and their supporters in the press, did indeed believe? It also had a strongly negative effect on policy decisions. By building up public hysteria and presenting a vision of an Islamic world eaten up with irrational hatred of America, an unspoken feeling was generated among Americans that, as Rashid puts it,
if they hated us, then Americans should hate Muslims back and retaliate not just against the terrorists but against Islam in general. By generating such fears it was virtually impossible to gain American public attention and support for long-term nation building.
It also made possible the comprehensive pattern of human rights abuses that the administration presided over—the torture and “rendition” program—that Rashid describes here with shocking and uncompromising clarity. As well as the damage this did to the image of the US abroad, it also encouraged repression among its regional allies: “By following America’s lead in promoting or condoning disappearances, torture, and secret jails, these countries found their path to democracy and their struggle against Islamic extremism set back by decades,” Rashid writes.
But while laying part of the blame for the current disaster on the “arrogance and ignorance” of the American administration, Rashid is also well aware of the large share of responsibility that must be put at the door of Pakistan’s army and its Inter-Services Intelligence Agency, or ISI. For more than twenty years, the ISI has, for its own purposes, deliberately and consistently funded and incubated a variety of Islamist groups, including in particular Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Taiba. Since the days of the anti-Soviet Mujahideen, the Pakistani army saw the jihadis as an ingenious and cost-effective means of both dominating Afghanistan—something they finally achieved with the retreat of the Soviets in 1987—and bogging down the Indian army in Kashmir—something they succeeded in achieving from 1990 onward.
As Hamid Gul, the director of the ISI who was largely responsible for developing this strategy, once explained to me, if the ISI “encourages the Kashmiris it’s understandable.” He said, “The Kashmiri people have risen up in accordance with the UN charter, and it is the national purpose of Pakistan to help liberate them. If the jihadis go out and contain India, tying down their army on their own soil, for a legitimate cause, why should we not support them?” Next to him in his Islamabad living room lay a large piece of the Berlin Wall presented to him by the people of Berlin for “delivering the first blow” to the Soviet Empire through his use of jihadis in the 1980s.
For Gul the usefulness of the jihadis was self-evident, and in this view he had plenty of company. As Steve Coll put it in Ghost Wars :
Every Pakistani general, liberal or religious, believed in the jihadists by 1999, not from personal Islamic conviction, in most cases, but because the jihadists had proved themselves over many years as the one force able to frighten, flummox, and bog down the Hindu-dominated Indian army. About a dozen Indian divisions had been tied up in Kashmir during the late 1990s to suppress a few thousand well-trained, paradise-seeking guerrillas. What more could Pakistan ask?
It is for this reason that many in the army still believe that the jihadis make up a more practical defense against Indian dominance than even nuclear weapons. For them, supporting a range of jihadi groups in Afghanistan and Kashmir is not an ideological or religious whim so much as a practical and patriotic imperative—a vital survival strategy for a Pakistani state that they perceive to be threatened by India’s ever-growing power and its alliance with the hostile Karzai regime in Kabul.
The army’s senior military brass were convinced until recently that they could control the militants whom they had fostered. In a taped conversation between then General Pervez Musharraf and Muhammad Aziz Khan, his chief of general staff, which India released in 1999, Aziz said that the army had the jihadis by their ” tooti ” (their privates). Yet while some in the ISI may still believe that they can use jihadis for their own ends, the Islamists have increasingly followed their own agendas, sending suicide bombers to attack not just members of Pakistan’s religious minorities and political leaders, but even the ISI headquarters at Camp Hamza itself, in apparent revenge for the army’s declared support for America’s war on terror and attacks made by the Pakistani military on Taliban strongholds in FATA. Ironically, as Rashid makes clear, it was exactly groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, which were originally created by the ISI, that have now turned their guns on their creators, as well as brazenly launching well-equipped and well-trained teams of jihadis into Indian territory. In doing so they are severely damaging Pakistani interests abroad, and bringing Pakistan to the brink of a war it cannot possibly win.
It was the military dictator General Zia ul-Haq, between 1978 and 1988, who was responsible for initiating the fatal alliance between the conservative Pakistani military and the equally reactionary mullahs that led to the use of Pakistan’s Islamic radicals in the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan. Their recruitment was always controlled by the ISI, but was originally jointly funded by the CIA and Saudi intelligence. Militant mosques such as the Lal Masjid near the ISI headquarters in the center of Islamabad were turned into recruiting centers for potential Mujahideen, and places where the intelligence services could be in touch with young radicals.
This vital period under Zia, when the jihadis were first harnessed to the use of the Pakistani state, is brilliantly described in a history of the Pakistani army by Shuja Nawaz, the Washington-based brother of a former Pakistani army chief of general staff. One of the most telling passages in the book describes the “strange non-military atmosphere” in the ISI in the early 1990s at the end of the reign of one of the most overtly Islamist directors of the agency, the Zia-appointed Lieutenant General Javed Nasir. When his successor turned up to take over, he found that “the corridors were filled with bearded civilians in shalwar kameez,” the pajama-like traditional dress, “many of them with their shalwar hitched up above the ankle, a signature practice of the [ultra-orthodox] Tablighi Jamaat to which Nasir belonged.”
He was shown a strong room that once had “currency stacked to the ceiling” but was now empty as adventurist ISI officers had taken “suitcases filled with cash” to the field, including to the newly independent Central Asian republics, ostensibly to set up safe houses and operations there in support of Islamic causes. There were no accounts or any receipts to these money transfers….Most officers were absent from their offices for extended periods, often away for “prayers.”
Rashid’s book takes up the story where Shuja Nawaz leaves off. Descent into Chaos breaks entirely new ground in making explicit, in strikingly well-researched detail, the degree to which the army and ISI continued this duplicitous and risky policy of supporting radical Islamic groups after September 11, 2001, despite President Musharraf’s many public promises to the contrary. The speed with which the US lost interest in Afghanistan after its successful invasion and embarked on plans to invade Iraq, which clearly had no link with al-Qaeda, convinced Pakistan’s military leaders that the US was not serious about a long-term commitment to Karzai’s regime. This in turn led to them keeping the Taliban in reserve to be used to reinstall a pro-Pakistani regime in Afghanistan once the Americans’ attention had been turned elsewhere and the Karzai regime had been left to crumble.
So it was, only months after Septem-ber 11, that the ISI was giving refuge to the entire Taliban leadership after it fled from Afghanistan. Mullah Omar was kept in an ISI safehouse in the town of Quetta, just south of the tribal areas in Baluchistan, near the Afghan border, while his militia was lodged in Pashtunabad, a sprawling Quetta suburb. Gulbuddin Hikmetyar, the leader of the radical Mujahideen militia Hizb-e- Islami, was lured back from exile in Iran and allowed to operate freely outside Peshawar, while Jalaluddin Haqqani, one of the most violent Taliban commanders, was given sanctuary by the ISI in north Waziristan, a part of FATA.
In order to keep contact with such groups beyond the radar of Western intelligence, the ISI created a new clandestine organization, staffed by former ISI trainers and retired Pashtun officers from the army, who armed, trained, and supported the Taliban in camps around Quetta. In view of the high level of military training of the Lashkar jihadis who attacked Bombay, it may well be that some similar arrangement involving former ISI officers was used to prepare the Bombay terrorists for their mission too.
By 2004, the US had filmed Pakistani army trucks delivering Taliban fighters to the Afghan border and taking them back a few days later, while wireless monitoring at the US base at Bagram picked up Taliban commanders arranging with Pakistani army officers at the border for safe passage as they came in and out of Afghanistan. By 2005 the Taliban, with covert Pakistani support, was launching a full-scale assault on NATO troops in Afghanistan. As Rashid notes in his conclusion:
Today, seven years after 9/11, Mullah Omar and the original Afghan Taliban Shura still live in Baluchistan province. Afghan and Pakistani Taliban leaders live on further 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 foot-dragging response of Zardari to the attacks on Bombay last November shows the degree to which the two-faced dual-track policy of courting both the US and the various jihadi groups remains effectively in place with the Pakistani military. For the last decade Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, the founder of Lashkar-e-Taiba, has been allowed to operate from Muridke, near Lahore. Although, in reaction to US pressure after September 11, Lashkar has officially been banned, in reality it continues to function under the name of Jamaat-ud Daawa, while Saeed continues openly to incite attacks on India and Western targets. The speeches quoted by Rashid show how easily such attacks could have been anticipated, and how they should have been stopped: “The powerful Western world is terrorizing Muslims,” Saeed told an Islamabad conference in 2003. “We are being invaded, humiliated, manipulated and looted…. We must fight against the evil trio, America, Israel and India. Suicide missions are in accordance with Islam. In fact a suicide attack is the best form of jihad.”
Even now, after the mass murder in Bombay, although Saeed is himself now under house arrest for masterminding the attacks (an accusation that he denies), his organization’s madrasas and facilities remain open and appear to benefit from patronage offered by Pakistan’s authorities. Only this year the Zardari government cleared the purchase of a bulletproof Land Cruiser for him. Zardari does indeed seem to be in what the Indian foreign minister, Pranab Mukherjee, calls “a state of denial” about the involvement of Pakistani jihadi groups in the Bombay massacres.
Yet viewed in the light of Pakistani power politics, Zardari’s position has a certain dangerous logic. Army insiders say that General Ashfaq Kiyani, the current chief of staff, who is already involved in a full-scale conflict with the Pakistani Taliban in the frontier tribal areas, does not feel sufficiently strong to open a second front with the jihadis in the Punjab; while Zardari, even though he may wish to be rid of Lashkar and the Punjabi jihadis, cannot afford to be seen to cave in to Indian pressure. It is a classic South Asian catch-22, which allows Lashkar to continue functioning with only cosmetic restrictions, whose main function is to impress the US. Yet the fact remains that until firm action is taken against all such groups, and training camps are closed down, the slow collapse of the Pakistani state will continue, and with it the safety of Western interests in the region.
Several factors will determine the future. Rashid makes it clear that only a radically changed policy by the United States under Barack Obama can hope to begin turning things around. He writes:
South and Central Asia will not see stability unless there is a new global compact among the leading players…to help this region solve 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.
As Obama has hinted, such an approach could be coupled with negotiations with some elements of the Afghan Taliban.
The second factor, of course, has to be reform of the ISI and the Pakistani military. The top Pakistani army officers must end their obsession with bleeding India by using an Islamist strategic doctrine entailing support of jihadists, and realize that such a policy is deeply damaging to Pakistan itself, threatening to turn Pakistan into a clone of Taliban-dominated Afghanistan rather than a potential partner of a future Indian superpower.
A third factor, which Rashid does not discuss in this book, is somehow finding a way to stop the madrasa- inspired and Saudi-financed advance of Wahhabi Islam, which is directly linked to the spread of anti-Western radicalization. On my last visit to Pakistan, it was very clear that while the Wahhabi-dominated North-West was on the verge of falling under the sway of the Taliban, the same was not true of the Sufi-dominated province of Sindh, which currently is quieter and safer than it has been for some time. Here in southern Pakistan, on the Indian border, Sufi Islam continues to act as a powerful defense against the puritanical fundamentalist Islam of the Wahhabi mullahs, which supports intolerance of all other faiths.
Visiting the popular Sufi shrine of Sehwan in Sindh last month, I was astonished by the strength of feeling expressed against the mullahs by the Sindhis who look to their great saints such a Lal Shabaz Qalander for guidance, and hate the Wahhabis who criticize the popular Islam of the Sufi saints as a form of shirk, or heresy: “All these mullahs should be damned,” said one old Sufi I talked to in the shrine. “They read their books but they never understand the true message of love that the prophet preached. Men so blind as them cannot even see the shining sun.” A friend who visited shortly before me met a young man from Swat, in the North-West Frontier Province, who said he had considered joining the militants, but their anti-Sufi attitude had put him off: “No one can deny us our respected saints of God,” he said.
The Saudis have invested intensively in Wahhabi madrasas in the North-West Frontier Province and Punjab, with dramatic effect, radically changing the religious culture of an entire region. The tolerant Sufi culture of Sindh has been able to defy this imported Wahhabi radicalism. The politically moderating effect of Sufism was recently described in a RAND Corporation report recommending support for Sufism as an “open, intellectual interpretation of Islam.” Here is an entirely indigenous and homegrown Islamic resistance movement to fundamentalism, with deep roots in South Asian culture. Its importance cannot be overestimated. Could it have a political effect in a country still dominated by military forces that continue to fund and train jihadi groups? It is one of the few sources of hope left in the increasingly bleak political landscape of this strategically crucial country.
—January 15, 2009
Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil, and Fundamentalism in Central Asia (Yale University Press, 2000).
Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA , Afghanistan, and bin Laden from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 (Penguin, 2004), p. 495. See also the review in these pages by Ahmed Rashid, May 27, 2004.
Crossed Swords: Pakistan, Its Army, and the War Within (Oxford University Press, 2008), pp. 46–48. This is by far the fullest and most authoritative analysis yet published of Pakistan and its army and intelligence services.