Descent into Chaos: How the War against Islamic Extremism is Being Lost in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia
Raghav Sharma ·       

The timing and the title of the Ahmed Rashid's latest book could not have been more appropriate. It comes at a critical juncture as the US shifts into election mode marked by politically-charged debates over its policies on the so-called war on terror and as much of South and Central Asia appear to be sliding dangerously down the path of anarchy. Rashid's work makes for a gripping read, his meticulous attention to detail, familiarity with the political and ethnic complexities, credentials as a journalist par excellence having covered the region extensively for 25 years and his access to key political players across the spectrum lend weight to his work.

The author makes a stinging critique of the failure of the policies followed by the international community at large and the US in particular in addressing issues pertaining to social stagnation and state failure in the region that have been vital in fuelling the rise of extremism. While he rightly criticizes the Clinton administration's fire and ice policies in dealing with the rising extremist tide, it is the Bush administration he castigates most strongly for its ham-handed approach. This approach, he says was primarily responsible for plunging South and Central Asia into greater chaosthan had existed prior to nine-eleven. (Page LVII.)

Rashids main premise is that the war on terror would have acquired an altogether different trajectory had the US policy focused squarely on Afghanistan instead of diverting resources to Iraq engaged in nation-building activities and encouraged ushering in genuine democracy particularly in Central Asia where the US enjoyed the rare advantage of goodwill and a positive image. Instead, by propping up unpopular regimes such as those of Islam Karimov, the Uzbek President and indulging the Pakistani dictator Pervez Musharraf, it undermined its own policies by alienating not only liberals in the Muslim world but also continued to fuel political opposition that often acquired militant Islamist leanings. Thus the author hints at an interesting linkage between the authoritarian nature of a regime and the channelization of political opposition to it in the form of militant Islam. However, he devotes only one chapter to the Central Asia, here too it is Uzbekistan that receives overwhelming space. Thus, in this respect Rashid is unable to adequately draw out the complexities at play here fails to do justice to the sub-title of his work that claims to encompass Central Asia. In the process he misses an opportunity to adequately weave in the Central Asian story into the current discourse on radical Islam that is overwhelmingly focused on Pakistan and Afghanistan and has led to in some respects an academic fatigue of sorts.

Nonetheless, it is Pakistans and Afghanistans descent into chaos that constitute the forte of Rashids work. The book dwells at length about the lacuna in US policy and in doing so convincingly builds up a case for a need to seriously re-strategize policy goals and implementation mechanisms. The author lucidly corroborates his argument regarding critical policy blind spots by highlighting the sheer incompetence and lack of seriousness seen, for instance, in the absence of officials equipped with prior knowledge or linguistic skills or the failure to keep tabs on Taliban activity between 2002 and 2005 in south Afghanistan and Quetta that provided safe sanctuary for the Taliban. Rashids objectivity comes forth most strongly in his criticism of the political ping-pong Afghan President, Hamid Karzai whom he otherwise refers to as my friend indulges in, thereby further undermining the fight against extremism.

In particular, two arguments stand out. Firstly, he talks of a need to engage in nation-building activities which include amongst other things, the building and strengthening of institutional mechanisms which have been weak and seriously subverted by extremist elements. Secondly, he briefly draws the readers attention to the changing social profile of Islamic militancy that is now drawing recruits from the ranks of educated middle class professionals, as was the case with a group called jundullah or Army of God. Thus, he succeeds in breaking the overtly simplistic, but popular notion of a link between grinding poverty and Islamic extremism hinting that the roots of the problem are far more complex. However, Rashid fails to powerfully build up the second facet of his argument, leaving it to the reader to decipher its larger meaning.

Rashids work comes across as a courageous account on two fronts: it deals fairly objectively with contemporary events as they unfold and, his unrelenting criticism of Pakistans Afghan policy characterized by the forging of an unholy nexus between the state, religious establishment and non-state actors armed and motivated to kill and die in the name of Islam has been a source of extreme discomfort for the ruling elite in Islamabad.

It is this objectivity and courage that make for a fairly unadulterated read till almost the very end when Rashid literally springs a surprise by referring to Benazir Bhutto and her Pakistan Peoples Party as secular and being against extremism. It was Bhuttos party under the tutelage of her populist father that turned to Islam as an instrument that promised to reap rich political dividends. While Benazirs short-sightedness encouraged her government to set up a cell under her grand uncle Naseerullah Babar (a Pushtun) to aid the rise of the Taliban and whose ascent to power she termed a welcome development in 1996.

Overall the book is rich in terms of information and the political complexities involved and brings forth the irony of the war against terror. While, it provides an informed and engaging account it fails to provide a concrete theoretical framework to chart the rise of radical Islam that transcends geographical, political and cultural barriers. Nor does it throw light on debates within Islamic circles which may enlighten the reader on another facet of radical Islam, that is, of a struggle within Islam. The greatest strength of this work lies in its style narrative that manages to engage the reader and is pitched at a level that allows the author to communicate with a diverse and wide audience.