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Peter Hadden

Descent into Chaos

The United States and the failure of nation building
in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia

(Winter 2008)

From Socialist View, No. 22, Winter 2008.
Transcribed by Ciaran Crossey.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Long overshadowed by the Iraq War, the on-going turmoil in Afghanistan and Central Asia, the role of US Imperialism, Pakistan and the Saudis involving corrupt alliances, support of the Taliban and the promotion of Islamic fundamentalism are the subject of Ahmed Rashid’s new book which is reviewed and analysed here by PETER HADDEN

Fifty three dead in Pakistan’s biggest ever suicide bombing – the truck bomb that destroyed the Marriott hotel in Islamabad. Across the border in Afghanistan, the Taliban offensive moves north from the southern provinces around Kandahar, towards Kabul. The commander of the British forces, Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith, admits publicly for the first time that the war cannot be won by military means alone.

Pakistani author and journalist, Ahmed Rashid’s latest book, Descent into Chaos is an account of how we have arrived at this situation. The tide is a pretty accurate summary of the events it describes. In it he takes up where his previous book on the Taliban left off.

Whereas Taliban tells the story of how intervention by Pakistan and by outside powers, especially the US, helped the Taliban come to power, this book concentrates on more recent developments. It describes how the US led invasion of 2001, and the policies then pursued by the conquering powers and by Pakistan, have not only led to the resurgence of the Taliban, but have destabilised the entire region. The Central Asian Republics which achieved independence following the breakup of the Soviet Union are described as a “powder keg”.

As for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Rash id argues that the failure to secure Afghanistan and Pakistan “may well lead to global terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and a drug epidemic on a scale that we have not yet experienced”. The recent origins of this mess are to be found in the policies pursued by imperialism and by Pakistan, especially by its military rulers, over the last thirty years. It is now well established that, following the 1979 Russian invasion, the US, alongside the Saudis, financed and armed the Afghan Mujaheddin. Under the Zia military regime, the Pakistani Inter Service Intelligence agency (ISI) also provided equipment, training and military support.

Between 1982–92, 35,000 radical Muslims from 43 countries were encouraged to go to Afghanistan to fight the Russians. Rashid, in his earlier book on the Taliban, quotes Bin Laden:

“I set up my first camp where these volunteers were trained by Pakistani and American officers. The weapons were supplied by the Americans, the money by the Saudis.”

Funding the fundamentalists

THE ISI developed links with radical Islamic groups, such as the Jamaar-e-Islam, inside Pakistan and used them as a conduit for aid to the Mujaheddin. Zia also heavily funded the special religious schools or madrassas which, as state schools were simultaneously run down, became the only source of education for many boys from poor families and for the growing Afghan refugee population. The number of madrassas increased from 900 in 1971 to 8,000 official (plus 25,000 unofficial) in 1988.

After the Russian withdrawal in 1989 there was no force capable of maintaining a unified Afghanistan. Instead, the country fell under the control of rival warlord armies, each based on one or other of the patchwork of nationalities and tribal groups that made up the country.

For the first time in its 300 year history, the largest single national grouping, the Pashtuns, were not in charge of Kabul. Instead, the capital fell to the forces of Tazik and Uzbek warlords. The long running civil war that followed further devastated a country already in ruins after nine years of Russian occupation and war. To all intents and purposes Afghanistan was reduced to a series of hostile fiefdoms run by autocratic, corrupt and reactionary warlords. The Taliban emerged out of this turmoil. Supported by the Pakistani ISI, they first developed a base among the millions of Pashtun refugees in Pakistan. In 1996 they entered Kabul; the northern based militias who had controlled the city fleeing before them.

Rashid explains that the Taliban, as the product of nearly two decades of war and economic and social devastation, lacked any real roots in Afghan society. He describes them as belonging “to neither Afghanistan nor Pakistan, but are a lumpen population, the product of refugee camps, militarised madrassas, and the lack of opportunities in the borderland of Pakistan and Afghanistan”.

The Pakistan military, and the ISI, looking to install a client government in Kabul that would back them against India, provided powerful backing to the Taliban. The state was openly sponsoring Islamic militant groups, looking to them to provide thousands of Pakistanis to fight in Afghanistan and in Kashmir. When the US put pressure on them to stop training the Kashmiri insurgents, the ISI were able to lean on the Taliban and, even before the Taliban reached Kabul, moved the training camps to Taliban controlled areas of Afghanistan.

Pakistan was not alone in backing the Taliban at this time. The US Clinton administration, with its eyes on the gas and oil reserves of the newly emerged Central Asian states, looked to the Taliban to provide a stable territory for a gas pipeline through the country.

But the Taliban in power failed to provide either stability or security. Fierce fighting continued, especially in the north where there were sectarian massacres and an exodus of about half of the Pashtun population. This, and the on-going sanctuary given to Bin Laden, brought a change of policy in Washington; although, right up to 9/11, Afghanistan stayed low down on the list of US priorities. In 2001, when the destruction of the twin towers placed war on the immediate agenda, no US official had been in Afghanistan for a decade.

Following the 1999 military coup that put General Musharraf in power in Pakistan, the policy of supporting the Taliban and promoting Islamic groups who would provide cannon fodder for the battle against India in Kashmir was stepped up. However, after 9/11 the Bush administration also stepped up its pressure on the Pakistani government to co-operate militarily in the “war on terror”.

Alongside their threats to invade Pakistan if necessary, the Bush administration offered inducements in the form of aid, military technology and debt write off to whet the appetite of the Pakistani generals.

Musharraf’s balancing act

MUSHARRAF RESOLVED the dilemma of how, at one and the same time to appease the US and to promote the Islamic groups, by deciding to face in both directions at once. He gave the US all the assurances they needed while the ISI and the generals continued much as before.

The US accepted Musharraf’s word and the aid flowed in. From 2001–07 the US gave more than $10 billion to the Musharraf regime; 90 percent of if going to the military. There were no political strings – Rashid reports that, “Musharraf asked Bush not to pressure him about democratisation, or criticise what he would do politically. He received carte blanche from the Americans.”

So, during the Afghan war, Pakistan effectively fought on both sides. 1,100 US troops, including Special Ops groups and CIA paramilitary teams, were secretly based in Pakistan throughout the conflict. Nearly 60,000 sorties were flown from Pakistan air bases. Meanwhile some ISI and Pakistan forces stationed themselves alongside the Taliban.

An example of the problems this could cause was what happened at Kunduz. Taliban forces encircled here by Northern Alliance troops included hundreds of ISI officers and troops from Pakistan’s Frontier Corps. Musharraf had to appeal personally to Bush and Cheney, who secretly agreed to airlift the Pakistani forces out. The ISI expanded the airlift and Taliban officers and al Qaeda personnel were also flown out to safety in Pakistan.

The bulk of Rashid’s book deals with how events since the military victory of 2001 have led to the current region wide “descent into chaos”. His conclusions are not drawn from any radical or an anti-establishment perspective. In fact, he supported the 2001 invasion, regarding it as “a just war and not an imperialist intervention”. The success of his earlier book on the Taliban gave him the ear of many establishment figures. He was invited to meet Blair in Islamabad – but was unimpressed by his “showmanship”, his asking one question after another without waiting for an answer, “as though he wanted to perform rather than learn”.

He also advised NATO commanders after the war and pleaded for more troops to be sent to prop up the Karzai government in Kabul. His criticisms of Bush’s policy in Afghanistan echo those of most recent commentators on the Iraq war; that the neo-cons’ policy of putting in as few forces as possible, followed by their refusal to invest in any meaningful reconstruction – or as Bush put it in 2001, “we are not into nation building, we are focused on justice” – has resulted in a disaster.

All this is true – and Rashid’s book is a devastating account of the failure of Bush’s “nation building lite”, and of the policies pursued by Islamabad. However, this does not mean that the alternative of an invasion that swamped Afghanistan with US and other NATO troops would have brought either peace or stability to this volatile region.

Powerful Warlords

AFTER ITS victory the US installed Hamid Karzai as President. Real power though was returned to the warlords, who, after the flight of the Taliban, felt more secure than ever. The US, directed by Rumsfeld, conducted a “warlord strategy”. Karzai’s government was left suspended in mid-air, starved of resources and effective power. His first budget of $460 million had to be funded by donors. Meanwhile, the warlords were enriching themselves with billions.

Customs revenue for trade with Iran and Central Asia went to the warlords who controlled all the border crossings. Take the example of pro-Iranian Shia warlord, Ismael Khan, leader of Sipah-e-Pasadran or Party of God. He earned between $3 and $5 million a month from one crossing point on the Iranian border.

One by one the warlords were brought onto the CIA’s payroll, supposedly to help with security and assist the search for Bin Laden. They were also handed lucrative contracts to supply the US military, contracts that they handled with corruption on an Iraqi scale.

Rashid gives the example of Gul Agha Sherzai who earned “$1.5 million a month for providing building materials, fuel and other items. Gravel needed to repair the Kandahar runway costing eight dollars a truckload was sold to the base for one hundred dollars – and some three hundred truckloads a day were being delivered.”

Most of the natural resources of the country – 60% of the agriculture and 80% of the former industry, mineral and gas wealth – were in the north and they too fell under warlord control. Meanwhile, by 2005 people in Kabul still had no electricity. At that time the whole country generated enough electricity to power a US town of 100,000.

The opium boom

THE WARLORDS, and then the Taliban as they re-entered the country and began to re-capture territory, also benefited hugely from the opium trade. It is true that the Taliban, in their last year in power, banned opium production and then ruthlessly enforced this ban. However, Rashid puts this down to an attempt to restore the price which had fallen because of overproduction and oversupply rather than to any opposition to exporting heroin to “unbelievers”.

By 2003, an estimated 2.3 million Afghans – 14% of the rural population – were involved in growing and distributing drugs. The value of the opium trade was equivalent to 60% of the legal economy.

Attempts by the state and the occupying troops to eliminate opium with methods such as aerial spraying only alienated farmers, who had no other means of livelihood, and increased support for the Taliban across the Pashtun belt south and east of the capital.

Every country surrounding Afghanistan now has a drug problem on the back of what is happening there. Pakistan has an estimated five million addicts. Addiction rates in the Central Asian republics, now a major gateway for heroin to reach Russia and Europe, have risen ten times since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In May 2003, as George Bush was making his (in)famous appearance on a US warship under a “mission accomplished” banner, Donald Rumsfeld was making a similar claim for Afghanistan. “We have clearly moved”, he said, “from major combat activity to a period of stability and stabilizarion and reconstruction activities. The bulk of the country today is permissive, it’s secure.”

Resurgent Taliban

IT WAS with this false confidence that the US military turned virtually its entire attention and resources to Iraq. But the Taliban offensives every year from 2003 – especially their stand-and-fight tactics – have shattered the Rumsfeld view. In 2006 they attempted a mini-Tet offensive by preparing to capture Kandahar. While resisting the counter-offensive launched to drive them back, the Taliban fired 400,000 rounds of ammunition, 2,000 rocket propelled grenades and 1,000 mortar shells.

The British and US response to this, relying heavily on aerial bombardments to try to clear areas, has caused huge civilian casualties and has spread the insurgency by driving local tribes behind the Taliban. Rashid quotes one British officer in Helmand: “We’ve said we’ll be different to the Americans who were bombing and strafing villages, then behaved exactly like them.” It was, he said, “a textbook case of how to screw up an insurgency”.

Repression, corruption, opium and warlords together with the ongoing impoverishment of the Afghan population go a long way to explain the Taliban resurgence. But, until the role of the military regime in Pakistan is also facto red in, the picture remains incomplete.

Post 9/11 and the fall of the Taliban, the Musharraf regime continued to pocket the money handed over by the US, while, at the same time, giving every possible assistance to radical Islamic groups at home. Or, as Rashid puts it, “even as the ISI helped the CIA run down al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan’s cities, Pakistani Islamist militants, with quiet ISI approval, were attacking Indian troops in Kashmir or helping the Taliban regroup in Pakistan.”

In 2002 the military called an election and did their best to rig the result. Political rallies were banned. The only group allowed to hold rallies was the MMA, a recently formed alliance of Islamic groups, who could campaign because they were deemed to be religious, not political.

Despite this de facto backing from the military regime, the election showed the lack of any real base across Pakistani society for the Islamic groups. They got 11.5% overall. Nonetheless, in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) they won half the seats and were able to form a local administration. In Baluchistan they did well enough to form part of the local government.

In effect, through these elections, the Pakistan military gave the Taliban safe havens from which to operate. Baluchistan lies across a largely unguarded border from Afghan Taliban strong-holds like Zabul, Kandahar and Helmand. The people of Baluchistan, traditionally more secular in outlook, have fought a series of secessionist struggles against the Pakistani state. The arrival of large numbers of Afghan Pashtuns, and the Talibanisation of parts of that state, have added a new ingredient into Pakistan’s already unstable national and tribal mix.

Taliban in Pakistan

BETWEEN BALUCHISTAN and the NWFP lie the Federal Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), the poorest and most remote part of Pakistan, home to some three million people who have a per capita income of just $500 per annum. Large parts of the FATA have also been turned into safe havens for the Taliban.

The Pakistan military’s response has been occasional brutal forays into these areas, with tactics that have alienated local tribes, followed by deals that have effectively ceded whole districts to the armed militant groups.

The Pakistani Taliban have used the same brutal methods in the areas under their control as they used to cow the people of Afghanistan when they were in power. Tribal chiefs who stand in their way have been killed and beheaded. Rashid gives one example of the “ritualised violence” used to terrorise people in the FATA district of Waziristan:

“To a tribal elder marked to be killed they sent a needle with a long thread and one thousand rupees. The money was for him to buy his shroud and the needle to sew it with.”

Pakistan is now caught in a tightening noose threaded by the contradictory policies of the Musharraf regime of publicly kowtowing to the Bush administration, while at the same time assisting the various militant Islamic groups to organise and arm themselves.

The regime’s backing for the US has, in turn, been one of the issues used by the Islamic groups to build their support. They have emerged as a movement in violent opposition to the Pakistan government as well as to the government in Kabul. The FATA areas have become a base for the suicide bombs and other attacks carried out in Pakistan, as well as a base for operations across the border in Afghanistan.

If the new Pakistan government continues to adopt a stand-off approach, these areas will remain a secure base for anti-Islamabad activity, as well as for the Afghan Taliban. On the other hand, to bow to US demands and launch a military offensive against these areas would be seen as US inspired and would risk a massive reaction within Pakistan.

Central Asian States

DESCENT INTO Chaos also recounts how the US has attempted to build its influence in the Central Asian States bordering Afghanistan to the north. These are among the poorest and also the most repressive societies in the world. Eighty percent of the population of Tajikistan, to take one example, is estimated to live below the poverty line; 60% of its workforce is unemployed.

Rashid deals at length with probably the most volatile of these states, the Karimov dictatorship in Uzbekistan, explaining that:

“The roots of radicalization in Central Asia among young people lay in the appalling policies of leaders such as Karirnov, who waged war against all political dissent and anything remotely Islamic. In Uzbekistan there was a total ban of all political parries, trade and student unions, and political gatherings.”

Yet, when seeking agreement to use these states as launching pads for its 2001 invasion, the US administration shrugged its shoulders at the complete denial of even basic rights. Rashid concludes that:

“Far from pursuing democracy and encouraging reform the US presence was to make already corrupt ruling elites even more powerful and corrupt, much to the anger of the people.”

Hence the conclusion that Central Asia, and indeed the whole of this region, has been turned into a powder keg and primed to explode. Where Rashid’s book is weak is when he comes to look for a way out of this unfolding regional disaster. That he spends only a few lines on what might be done perhaps indicates that he himself does not see any viable solution. His points are made in hope, not in expectation. They fly in the face of everything else he has written.

He advocates a “new global compact” between the major world powers that would include a “long term commitment of troops and money.” The Afghan elite, meanwhile, should “appreciate the opportunity to be born again as a nation.” When he comes to Central Asia, he can’t find even a crumb of comfort, rather “a generation of leaders will have to die or step down before real change can be expected.”

Descent into Chaos cannot provide any answers because Rashid is searching for a solution where none is to be found along the road of capitalism. The events he describes are an absolute confirmation that capitalism offers no way our. What he describes as “failed states” are actually the inevitable political debris created by imperialist intervention on the one hand and the impossibility of resolving the problems of poverty, underdevelopment or tribal and national division by grafting a weak and subservient capitalism onto feudal and semi feudal social relations on the other.

Role of the Working Class

MISSING FROM this account, and the real reason for Rashid’s thinly disguised pessimism, is the only force that has the potential to reverse the “descent into chaos”. The independent role that can be played by the working class, especially the Pakistani working class, which is the key to the region, is not even considered. The one thing that unites the masses in all these countries is poverty. Radical Islam has emerged because there is no other force tapping into the anger, especially of young people, at the hardships inflicted on them. The fact that the Islamic groups did badly in this year’s Pakistan election shows that their base of genuine support is not solid and that they could be driven back if a real alternative was provided.

Rashid’s book shows the need for a common struggle by the working class and the poor of the region against capitalism, landlordism and warlordism and for a socialist federation that would make possible a democratic redrawing of borders where necessary.

Rashid is not a socialist and doesn’t argue for this yet his book provides more than enough ammunition for others to do so.

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Last updated: 17 February 2020