Monday, 27 June 2011

“Descent into Chaos: Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Threat to Global Security”, by Ahmed Rashid – A Few Observations

I recently re-read Ahmed Rashid’s “Descent into Chaos” which was released sometime in the middle of 2008. A masterpiece by an expert who has very peers in his field, Descent into Chaos is relevant and useful for someone who wants to understand the Af-Pak conundrum, even three years after its publication. Rather that write a detailed review of this excellent book which has been reviewed so many times by so many clever writers, I propose to make a few observations:

1. After the caveat that Hamid Karzai is a good friend, Rashid has nothing but praise for Karzai who hasn’t exactly lived up to the expectations created when he took over power. The number of times Rashid criticizes Karzai can be counted on the fingers of one hand. I found the near total absence of criticism of Karzai to be the biggest drawback in this book.

2. Rashid devotes extensive space to explain how the US administration under George Bush flagrantly breached the Geneva Convention as it set up detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay and other places and carried out renditions of suspected Islamic fundamentalists. I wonder if Rashid would continue to feel so strongly about the use of torture in light of the fact that information gleaned from suspects through the use of intensive interrogation techniques helped locate Bin Laden. The fact of the matter is that torture does work at times and those who are against the use of torture should be willing to say that States should not resort to torture even if it may work.

3. Rashid describes Nawaz Sharif thus: ‘A businessman from Lahore whose family had prospered enormously under the Zia regime was a dour, unintelligent politician who had been promoted and patronized by the military.’ I find this description very interesting. I’ve never heard anyone else call Sharif unintelligent. Mind you, I have no reason to think Rashid has got it wrong.

4. Rashid has only praise for Benazir Bhutto, even more than he has for Karzai. There is a vague mention of the corruption charges against Bhutto, but Rashid tells us that ‘There is little doubt that Bhutto and Karzai working together would have formed a team committed to combat extremism.

5. Asif Zardari is depicted as a wise man who, unfortunately and for no fault of his own, happens to be corrupt.

I guess when one is Pakistani and is close to most of the big players in that region, one is bound to have a few sacred cows in one’s backpack. I realise that my observations above may give the impression that I did not like ‘Descent into Chaos’. Far from it, I really liked the book and Rashid’s pithy style of writing.

Rashid concludes by saying that (remember this is mid-2008): ‘The American people have elected a new President who is largely committed to change and improving the world we live in. Obama has generated enormous expectations in the Muslim world, especially in Pakistan and Afghanistan. In order to live upto those expectations, he has to help deliver a long-lasting peace and stabilization program in the region.

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