Book Review: Descent into Chaos

An old review from Major Amin, it remains topical.

Descent into Chaos , Ahmed Rashid, Allen Lane,2008.ISBN No .978-1-846-14175-1

Book Review

Major A.H Amin (Retired)

11 October 2008

Ahmed Rashid acquired fame and became darling of the west when his book on Taliban was published in 2000 or so.Descent into Chaos is another bestseller as far as publishing statistics is concerned.It is a tragedy that the West,guardian of the present worlds intellectual property projects what suits its political and social interests and stifles what it finds “ politically unacceptable”.Seen in this background what Ahmed Rashid writes is acceptable to the west.Possibly because what he says fits hand in glove with western perceptions about how to shape the future.

As normal the book has some factual errors.Some insignificant some not so insignificant and some which not have escaped the sagacity of a known Afghanistan hand like Ahmed Rashid.

The Ghilzai revolt started not in 1701 as stated on page.7 but in 1709.The Durranis did not move the capital to Kabul in 1772 as stated on page.7 but in 1774 if we agree with Sayed Qasem Reshtia a great Afghan historian or 1775 if we believe Louis Dupree who is concerned the most reliable western historian.On page.8 Ahmed Rashid states that the British tried to conquer Afghanistan three times.This is not correct.It happened twice if we include the English East India Company and once if we include the Second Afghan War of 1878-80.In the Third Afghan War it were the Afghans who tried to attack India and miserably failed and the British launched some very local offensive actions at Spin Boldak and Khyber Agency to push back the Afghans.On page.9 Rashid promotes Major General Naseerullah Babar to lieutenant general rank.On page.11 he states that for first time in 300 years the Afghan capital Kabul fell in non Pashtun hands once Ahmad Shah Masud captured it.This is quite incorrect.The first time Afghanistan’s capital fell in Non Pashtun hands was once the Persian Qazalbash Nadir Shah captured Kandahar the then capital of Ghiljai Pashtuns on 24 March 1738 some 224 years before 1992 and Kabul on 29 June 1738 again some 223 years and some 10 months before April 1992.In any case we must remember that Kabul was a Hindu province for a long time in twelfth century and a Mughal Indian province for some 200 plus years long before 1992.On page 17 Rashid states that the Pakistani FC managed Pakistani artillery and communications.This is factually incorrect.The FC hardly has any artillery and the Afghans did not require any training in communications.In any case the Afghans had a much larger number of ex Afghan Army gunners with Mujahideen quite capable of handling all types of artillery guns of Soviet vintage available in Afghanistan.Rashid seems to be very friendly with US officials who throughout his narrative keep on telling him so many things,like on page.18 US officials tell him that Al Qaeda was responsible for USS Cole.On page.34 Rashid states that “ the British conquest of Northwest India was aimed solely at providing security from marauding Afghan Baloch and Pashtun tribes” .This assertion is factually incorrect.The British company English East India Company’s conquest of North West India comprising modern Pakistan was done in response to invasion of Sikhs of British territory in 1845.At that time the Sikhs were controlling all major Pashtun cities like Peshawar,Bannu ,Kohat,D.I Khan etc so the question of the Pashtun, Afghan or Baloch simply does not arise.Musharraf was not commissioned in the field artillery as stated on page.45 but in the “ Self Propelled Artillery”.On page.45 Rashid states that in 1971 Musharraf commanded an SSG Commando unit which went behind the enemy lines.In 2002 I interviewed Musharrafs Commanding Officer in 1971 Brigadier Iqbal Nazir Warraich who confirmed that Musharraf was a sub unit commander under him and Musharraf’s sub unit was not used behind enemy lines.On page.52 Rashid states that the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) was the ISI’s investigative arm.This is also factually incorrect.The NAB was an independent public body which was not independent and not connected to ISI in any organizational sense.On page.73 Rashid calls Burhanuddin Rabbani a Panjsheri Tajik which is not correct.Rabbani was from Badakhshan province.On page.79 Rashid states that the ISI chief (Mahmood) was forced to resign.This is incorrect.Mahmood was simply removed and never resigned and to date draws his pension from the army to which an officer who resigns his commission is not entitled.On page 186 Rashid reduces the distance from Kabul to Kandahar to 190 miles which is not correct.On page 193 Rashid states that the Mazar Kabul line was financed by World Bank.This is not correct since this electric transmission line was a gift of Government of India to Afghanistan.Karachi port had not serviced transit trade for Afghanistan since 1950s as stated on page 192 but for a long time before that dating back to the Kalhora,Talpur and British times.There was a famous incident of a ship carrying armaments for Afghanistan by the British so that King Amanullah was militarily weakened against Afghan rebels in late 20s.On page.259 Rashid states that the ISI was meeting Taliban leaders in Command and Staff College Quetta.This is quite funny and ridiculous.Why should the ISI meet insurgents in an academic institution with which it has no connection rather than in a safe house.Probably Rashid was trying to be humorous.On page.261 Rashid indicates that Afghan ministers gave up their foreign passports.My inquiries while permanently based in Kabul from June 2004 till todate indicate that this assertion is not correct.On page.274 Rashid places the Mahsud tribe in North Waziristan whereas Mahsuds main area is South Waziristan Agency.On page 275 Rashid states that a murdered man’s body was found in military handcuffs.This is a unique discovery .My inquiries reveal that there is no such object as military handcuffs.The military buys handcuffs from the open market.On page 331 Rashid states that the Afghan Tajikistan border is 750 miles whereas my inquiries reveal that it may be about a 100 mile less.

Factual errors done with we move on to the more serious assertions of Rashid.On page.4 Rashid dismisses Mullah Omar as a itinerant preacher who could not claim the pedigree of Karzais.On page.13 Rashid again ridicules Mullah Omar for being born without social status or pedigree. I find this distinctly snobbish coming from the pen of a leftist Ahmed Rashid.Probably in his old age he has become class conscious.On page 6 Rashid states that easy to pass through the country has been impossible to conquer.Now this is a relative statement.For more than 200 years most parts of Afghanistan were provinces of Mughal and Saffavid Empires.The Mughals actually had a Hindu Rajput Governor in Kabul.

On page 19 Rashid passes sweeping judgment on Talibans when he says that Osama Bin Laden had a clear strategy in mind to isolate them from the world.A more balanced and scholarly approach may have been used.Rashid cites no supporting sources.

Some of Rashids conclusions about Pakistan are quite accurate.Like Pakistan as a state being grappled with an acute sense of insecurity.The army’s monopolization of power in Pakistan in the name of national security.His analysis of the Pakistani military mindset is penetrating and brilliant.His exposure of of the military links of the likes of Maliha Lodhi and Shaukat Aziz is again a breath of fresh air.Rashids revelations about the Pakistani intelligence agency ISIs negative role in Pakistani politics is bold and accurate to the dot.One may not agree with how the USA downsized the Afghan intelligence.My inquiries reveal that some of the most brilliant officers of the indomitable Khad were removed just because the American advisors wanted to severely reduce Russian influence.Rashids analysis of US firm Louis Burger is incomplete and not wholly correct.Louis Burgers failures in delay in building of schools was because of unprofessional sub contracting procedures and because of the fallacious policy of hiring only Afghan NGOs to do the job instead of commercial firms.Most of these NGOs were owned by political appointees and haphazardly formed to siphon the fruits of US aid.I saw the whole process myself as the Vice President of an Afghan NGO which was building schools and clinics for Louis Burger in 2004 and 2005 in Helmand ,Ghazni and Kunduz.Rashid does not have his facts correct when he states that Louis Burger had just 9 schools and 2 clinics ready in end of 2005.The number was much larger than this.Even in this case some Afghan NGOs like CDU did extremely well.

Rashids conclusion that the ISI was no longer in control of the monster of extremism that it created are valid but incomplete.What about the CIA and the Saudi intelligence the real fathers of extremism ?

On page 223 Rashid states that Pakistani artillery gave covering fire to Taliban militants infiltrating Afghanistan.This is an illogical and implausible assertion.The Talibans do not need covering fire because a very large part of Afghanistan Pakistan border is unmanned.The most important stretch in Helmand and Nimroz has hardly any Afghan NATO or US presence at all.

Rashid is harsh on the Americans,the Pakistanis as well as the Afghans.However he presents no tangible recommendations to remedy the situation.

His analysis ignores some important ground realities.First that the USA came to Afghanistan to achieve certain strategic objectives.Its aim was not altruistic or missionary.Thus the low per capita aid figure to USA.The US objective at least till 2008 has been to maintain control of about 15 plus military/air bases .The US troop strength is far below the minimum necessary to even ensure security in Afghanistan.

The control of Afghanistan still lies with the pre 1992 bureaucracy trained by the Soviets.This includes the army,the civil services,the police which was a real bastion of the leftists and above all the foreign ministry and the intelligence .All despite various reductions and purges by the USA and NATO.The Northern Alliance cadres on whom the USA tried to rely dod not simply have enough trained and educated recruits.Thus the important division in all Afghan Government in between the Maslakis ( professionals) and the Wasta dars (those who came without sufficient qualifications).

Rashid also ignores the fact that Pakistan’s Islamic extremism is not the result of a sudden flight but a logical result of misuse of religion by all major Muslim leaders since 1858.

Rashids subject matter is vast and the complexities with which he is trying to deal are vast in magnitude and their dimensions.Rashid’s analysis is subtle and thought provoking but marred by his extreme bias against the Taliban.This leads him repeatedly to make pre conceived statements and sweeping judgements.

Nevertheless Rashids analsyis is thought provoking and can be immensely instrumental as a catalyst in inspiring more research on the subject.My fear is that Rashid’s present work is more a commercial venture with one eye on audience in the west.This is not the idealistic Rashid reporting from Kabul for the Far Eastern Economic Review.But as they say “ things do not change,we change”.

One may not agree with Rashids assertion about Central Asia being the new bastion of Al Qaeda.With Russia fast moving in and re-asserting it may be more difficult for the Al Qaeda to gain ascendancy in Central Asia.The provisional centre of gravity of the Al Qaeda lies in non state actors in Pakistan and the Arabian Gulf.It is going to be a long bloody war for the USA to alter this particular strategic situation

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Omar Ali

I am a physician interested in obesity and insulin resistance, and in particular in the genetics and epigenetics of obesity As a blogger, I am more interested in history, Islam, India, the ideology of Pakistan, and whatever catches my fancy. My opinions can change.

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Razib Khan
4 years ago

charlie rose fixture

4 years ago

NATO Countries are more or less so fed up with Afghanistan, they would trade in pre 9/11 Afghanistan (minus the al qaeda) for the current dispensation.

4 years ago

I am sure that Major Amin is factually correct, but it makes for a very tedious read. May be better to put together the book review in the first section, and then follow that up by a list of errors. Thanks.

4 years ago

Chaos is intresting word particularly for multilingual peoples.

4 years ago

“… fits hand in glove with …”
A peculiar usage. Tells you something about the writer.

A H Amin
A H Amin
4 years ago
Reply to  Arjun

Well said my dearest sir

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