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BOOK REVIEW: The inside track on Afghan wars by Khaled Ahmed

Descent into Chaos:
How the War against Islamic Extremism is being Lost in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia;
By Ahmed Rashid;
Allen Lane London 2008;
Pp484; Price £12.99

Today, the Taliban and Mullah Umar continue to live in Balochistan, the Pakistani Taliban and Al Qaeda are in the Tribal Areas where they wrested possession of a large territory from the army that favoured them. The US and the EU are under threat. George Bush and Musharraf and Karzai are the most unpopular men in the region. It is clear who has won the war

The greatest compliment one can pay to a writer is to say that his latest book is his best. It indicates a rising graph of excellence rather than descent from the peak. Ahmed Rashid’s best book without a doubt is his latest, Descent into Chaos, a critique of the policies of the United States and Pakistan, the two countries who worked together and separately to convert their war against terror into chaos. President Bush is about to lurch out of the scene next year never to be remembered as a saviour by the West. Pakistan’s ‘schizophrenic chief executive’ President Musharraf is out of his office, universally condemned in Pakistan for having ruined the country in all sorts of ways. Four chapters in part three of the book contain the most comprehensive indictment of the US policy in Afghanistan the reviewer has ever read.

Ahmed Rashid’s friend Hamid Karzai is the president of Afghanistan today. He lived in Quetta starting 1983 and fell foul of the Taliban in 1999 when Mullah Umar had his father assassinated in Quetta, with the help of the ISI, according to Hamid. Ahmed had something in common with him. Both had criticised the Taliban, and in the case of Ahmed, it was his bestseller book Taliban (2000) that had ‘led to threats from the ISI and their extremist supporters’ (p.4). Hamid was in the Mujaddidi government after the Soviets left, but the US had left the Afghan policy in the hands of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, the latter looking at Afghanistan as its fifth province.

Hamid was kicked out of the Mujaddidi government by the Tajiks, but later he fell foul of Mullah Umar too by not going along with his extremist sharia. In 1999 he took his dead father’s body to Kandahar to reclaim headship of the Popalzai branch of the Durranis. In 2000, Al Qaeda backed the Taliban against the Northern Alliance with its Brigade 555 culled from North African Arab fighters, IMU from Uzbekistan, Filipino Moros and groups from Chechnya and Xinjiang. Ahmad Shah Masud was the target and his force was besieged in Taluqan. There were 3,000 Pakistanis with the Taliban too, including ‘one hundred Pakistanis from the Frontier Corps to manage artillery and communications’ provided by the ISI (p.17).

Hamid tried to align with Massoud and Hekmatyar (then in Meshed in Iran), because they asserted that they were opposed to the Taliban, but finally decided to be on his own in the south. He told the US about Al Qaeda’s dominance; he warned the British too. No one was keen to pre-empt what was coming. 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. Ahmed writes: ‘With one hand Musharraf played at helping the war against terrorism, while with the other continued to deal with the Taliban’ (p.78). When he tried to wean the army from supporting Islamism and its extremists after 9/11 he couldn’t convince everyone and a large number of officers remained opposed to it. When the attack came it delivered 50 cruise missiles on 31 military targets. Pakistani cities and Quetta in particular erupted in protest.

For those of us who wonder where the rich people and MPAs of Quetta get their cheap cars, the book says warlord Ismail Khan of Herat receives $5 millions dollars per day for letting hundreds of trucks come into Afghanistan from Iran through the Islam Qila border post. Quetta was host to the Taliban who had ultimately to flee Afghanistan and this continued till 2006 when there was a policy change in the US and Washington began to link Quetta to cross-border raids into Afghanistan. Pakistan gave training facilities to these Taliban in Balochistan, in Dalbandin, Chaghai, Qila Saifullah, Kuchlak, Loralai and Quetta itself (p.251). Mullah Dadullah, the cruellest of the Taliban commanders, had his extended family of 70 living in Kuchlak.

Meanwhile, Al Qaeda escaped into South Waziristan and was helped by local warriors trained in its camps in Afghanistan. By 2006, the US was convinced that thousands of Al Qaeda’s foreigners were ensconced in the Tribal Area. Musharraf was caught in the pincers of his own India policy in Afghanistan. Warlords funded by Al Qaeda were targeting him with the help of Punjabi elements demobbed from the jihadi militias the state had put together to fight India in Kashmir. In January 2006, the US hit Damadola in Bajaur with a missile and killed five senior Al Qaeda members. The idea was to get Ayman Al Zawahiri who had his local Pashtun wife living there but he escaped (p.276).

Musharraf was most put off when the Indians began funding the Baloch insurgents. This was the unkindest cut. He had appealed to his generals to join the US after 9/11 on the plea that India would join the war on terror instead and upstage Pakistan in Afghanistan. Not only had India ‘conquered’ Pakistan by investing the largest amount among the allies on nation-building but it also began probing Balochistan with money sent in, not ‘through its 13 consulates in Afghanistan’, but from Dubai, in line with its old policy of supporting all Baloch insurgencies (p.286). Another Pakistani myth the book explodes is the one about the Taliban terminating cultivation of heroin. The Taliban earned their entire money from heroin but after three bumper crops the commodity became cheap. So in 2001 the Taliban simply prohibited the cultivation to bring the price back up (p.320).

Ahmed Rashid says he is Hamid Karzai’s friend but he does tell us where he found Karzai lacking in leadership and perhaps in honesty too. He found him subject to strange bouts of inaction and indecision, he found his relative and minister Nurzai involved in heroin trafficking and did nothing. His brother Ahmad Wali Karzai was also said to be involved drug trade but Karzai defended him and did nothing (p.327). But the book blames Musharraf for not backing Karzai and finally not backing Benazir Bhutto because ‘she was very unpopular with the army’ and let her be killed in Rawalpindi (p.379). Today, the Taliban and Mullah Umar continue to live in Balochistan, the Pakistani Taliban and Al Qaeda are in the Tribal Areas where they wrested possession of a large territory from the army that favoured them. The US and the EU are under threat. George Bush and Musharraf and Karzai are the most unpopular men in the region. It is clear who has won the war. *

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