Sunday, August 31, 2008

Review: Descent into Chaos by Ahmed Rashid

A few reviews of the latest book by Ahmed Rashid, Descent into Chaos (2008). Below I copy some insightful passages.

Khaled Ahmed, Daily Times, Aug 31, 2008

"Meanwhile, Musharraf had taken over in Pakistan with the help of his three corps commanders, Mehmood, Aziz and Usmani. After 9/11, Musharraf convinced the three Islamists that Pakistan had to align with America or go under to India. A reference to India is enough to make the Pakistani military mind dysfunctional. The plan was to ‘only partially accept the US demands’ to be able to oust India from the arena (p.29).

The ‘partial acceptance’ in the above reference was to protect the policy on the Taliban against resolutions by the UN. Corps commander Peshawar General Imtiaz Shaheen was removed by Musharraf when he demanded change in the Taliban policy. All proposals of change of policy were blocked by generals Mehmood and Aziz. The ISI had funded the JUI of Fazlur Rehman to hold its grand International Deobandi Conference near Peshawar in April 2001 during which a message from Osama bin Laden was also allowed to be read out. The ISI got Lashkar-e Tayba to hold another conference in Lahore, send the UN the message that Pakistan would not kowtow to its resolutions (p.53). UN envoy Brahimi was mentioned as working for the Indians in the planted stories in the Pakistani press.

After 9/11, US Defence Secretary Rumsfeld put in practice the neo-con plan to conquer Al Qaeda without putting troops on the ground and without ‘nation-building’ (reconstruction) (p.173). The plan was to buy off the warlords, isolate Al Qaeda and get Osama bin Laden through paid agents. Warlords Fahim, Rasul Sayyaf and Rashid Dostam got around $14 million and Fahim got $5 million directly from General Tommy Franks, the CENTCOM commander who later botched the Tora Bora operation and let Osama bin Laden escape with the help of Pakistani Pashtuns — who received $1200 per person for 800 Arabs — simply because the American troops were thin on the ground. When NATO wanted to send troops, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz said no thanks (p.65 and 98). Thus Bin Laden landed up in Parachinar, the Shia-majority headquarters of Kurram Agency, and laid the foundation of what is today known as the big sectarian slaughter (p.155).

Ahmed Rashid is fair when he says Musharraf didn’t let go of his policy of backing the Taliban and through them domination of Afghanistan because he thought Americans would cut and run soon enough, leaving Pakistan holding the bag. Rumsfeld was proving him right all the time (p.335). This was the situation when the US got Pakistan to send a delegation to Mullah Umar in Kandahar to warn him to surrender Osama bin Laden or be prepared to face invasion. The ISI delegation led by General Mehmood and containing Mufti Shamzai instead told Mullah Umar to hold fast and face off the invasion. The CIA got to know that General Mehmood was playing a double game. The ISI told Musharraf that US would not commit ground troops and that the Taliban would carry on from the mountains even if ousted from the cities. This convinced Musharraf to double-deal with the US (p.77).

When the invasion came, Musharraf did not abide by his promise to withdraw the elements of his army from Afghanistan. Dozens of FC men stayed on the side of Taliban helping them prepare defences and sending intelligence back to the ISI whose excuse for the double-cross was fear of India coming in riding the Northern Alliance."

Raymond Bonner, NY Times, Aug 10, 2008

"The current political situation is unstable. The Bush administration considered Musharraf, who took power in a bloodless coup in 1999, indispensable, and so did not push for democratic reforms, Rashid observes. But given the record of civilian governments in Pakistan, might this have been a reasonable conclusion? For most of the decade before Musharraf, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif were the prime ministers. Their governments were marked by enormous corruption (Bhutto’s more so than Sharif’s) and ineffectiveness. Today, the most powerful civilian leaders in the country are Bhutto’s husband, Asif Ali Zardari, and Sharif, whom Rashid describes as “right-wing, anti-American and close to the Islamic parties.”

Clearly, we need to have a debate about America’s strategic interests in the region. We want to keep Afghanistan and Pakistan from becoming havens for terrorist groups, and that may require limited military assistance. But as Rashid suggests, the next administration will have to make a major diplomatic effort as well."

Kim Sengupta, The Independent, July 11, 2008

"Pakistan's policy in Afghanistan is tied in with its great rivalry with India. The military sees Afghanistan as offering a hinterland, "strategic depth", and also training facilities for a future conflict. India also cannot escape blame. The world's second most populous country, desperate to be seen as a great power, still sees foreign policy through the prism of the feud with its neighbour. India's huge aid programme in Afghanistan, Rashid points out, adds to Pakistan's paranoia.

Not just Afghanistan, but Pakistan, has been damaged in the process. Rashid reminds us just how much the West, America in particular, was culpable in creating this incendiary scenario, with their unstinting support for generals who deposed elected governments, impirsoned politicians and nurtured fundamentalist Islamist parties. Billions of dollars were sent from Washington to the military as supporters in the Cold War, and significant funds to Muslim fundamentalists.

General Musharraf, Rashid points out, was just the latest military strongman successfully to manipulate Washington. He received huge funds and weaponry while being portrayed, by both himself and the US, as a staunch ally in the "war on terror". It was only belatedly that US officials began to complain that the Pakistanis were not only doing little to pursue al-Qa'ida and the Taliban, but senior officials were complicit in harbouring them.

Elections have now taken place while the assassination of Benazir Bhutto shows just how fragile the situation remains. Rashid believes that the emergence of civil society in Pakistan and a dissipation in the influence of the military may help to heal the violent fractures in the region. But events since this book was written do not support such optimism. As the New York Times pointed out last week, four months after the election Pakistan remains in leaderless drift while the military and ISI carry out their private deals with the Islamists."

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