Best-seller publicist and independent historiographer A. Rashid has engaged with this book in an overall assessment of the erring ways of Western policy in the AFPAK and Central Asian region since the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan. He notably endeavours to demonstrate how in the early 2000s the USA has ignored consolidating South and Central Asia ― the homeland par excellence of global terrorism ― in favour of invading Iraq. A. Rashid notably suggests that “the U.S. attack on Iraq was critical to convincing [Pakistani President Pervez] Musharraf that the United States was not serious about stabilising the region, and that it was safer for Pakistan to preserve its own national interest by clandestinely giving the Taliban refuge (p. xli).” As to the conduct of the war and occupation in Afghanistan, A. Rashid denounces at length the undercutting of the foreign aid distributed by the State Department by the Pentagon, and the downgrading by the Bush Administration of the U.S. Army civil affairs units in charge of rebuilding bombed villages, bridges, power lines and water supplies. It is true that, since its very conception in September 2001, the Enduring Freedom Operation did not include commitment to reconstruct Afghanistan (p. 74).
A political biography of Hamid Karzai (mentioning notably the decisive character of his alliance with Ahmad Shah Mas‘ud after the fall of the latter’s stronghold of Taluqan in 2000, and the State Department’s no less decisive antipathy for Mas‘ud because of his close association with Iran and Russia) is followed by an overview of Pakistan’s quest for a political line (with mention of the role played by Gen. Mehmood Ahmad, described as a born-again Islamic fundamentalist, at the head of the country’s clandestine military intelligence service, the isi, and as one of the main supporters of the Taliban and of the Kashmiri militants). In this chapter, A. Rashid notably shows how by initially complying with U.S. demands during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the ISI was planning to create sufficient room to manoeuvre in order to circumvent those very demands. Reminding that Zia bargained hard for maximum U.S. support, the author notably mentions that between 1982 and 1990 the cia, working with the ISI and Saudi Arabia’s intelligence service, funded the training, arrival, and arming of some thirty-five thousand Islamic militants from forty-three Muslim countries in Pakistani madrasas to fight the Soviet Army (38-9).
Chapter three on Pakistan, the United Nations, and the USA before 9/11, casts light on the gap between the Musharraf Administration and the madrasas in the 2000s, the latter considering the former too secular in spite of its support to Islamic militants fighting the army’s foreign wars in Kashmir and in Afghanistan, and of the resignation of the liberal civilians who had accepted to join the cabinet, after Musharraf reneged on his promise to reform the blasphemy law. It also sheds a crude light on the lack of a coherence AFPAK policy in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 (widely demonstrated by the massive support to Mas‘ud, while the issue of how to deal with Pakistan was left unresolved). It also highlights the manipulation of the U.S. administration by the Pakistani authorities in the early 2000s. Chapter four provides a series of illustrations of the growing influence of the CIA and of returning exile warlords like Rashid Dostum, Ismail Khan, and Hazara leader Karim Khalili in the management of the conflict. Among other observations, A. Rashid remarks that the CIA had very few contacts with the Pashtun tribes in the south of Afghanistan, and had to go through the ISI every time they needed Pashtuns to monitor Bin Laden. As to the British MI6, it reverted to the former colonial custom of passing large sums of money to Pashtun exiles living in Pakistan ― much of this initial funding ending up in the purchase of fancy cars and new houses in Peshawar (62-3). And when the CIA money ran out, the same warlords naturally turned back to the drug trade.
According to A. Rashid, the first U.S. failure in September 2001 was to snub potential allies, beginning with the NATO, and to unequivocally promote a unilateralist policy. Equally harmful was the ISI’s double game, on the double assessment that Taliban resistance would continue, and that the United States’ reluctance to commit ground troops would deny itself a quick victory. Chapter five exposes some of the major U.S. strategic mistakes of the first weeks of the war. A. Rashid notably shows how the absence of U.S. troops ― despite their disposal in Uzbekistan ― led to the deaths of thousands of Taliban prisoners in the Kunduz region at the hands of the Northern Alliance, and to the escape of top Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders. (The air bridge set up in secrecy for the exfiltration of hundreds of ISI agents turned out to the ‘Great Escape’ of numbers of foreign terrorists, eventually allowed to stay in South and North Waziristan.) Beside the initial concessions of the Karzai administration to the warlords, in the south as well as in the north of the country, A. Rashid insists on the fatal absence of the Pashtuns from the south at the Bonn conference except for Karzai himself, the event turning out into a victory for the Northern Alliance.
Part two of the book begins with a special chapter on the rivalry between India and Pakistan. The shift of Pakistani support from Gulbuddin Hekmatyar to Deobandi-inspired Taliban in the mid-1990s is notably explained by the latter’s more extreme hatred for India. The author reminds that India had become in the 1990s Washington’s major geostrategic ally in combating the rising power of China, and was considered a responsible nuclear power, while Pakistan was still considered a pariah ― a position enforced by the more recent revelation, by the MI6, of the contacts between Pakistani nuclear scientists and al-Qaeda. Chapter seven is an assessment of the power of warlords in occupied Afghanistan. A. Rashid notably shows how as Washington was distracted by the preparation of the war in Iraq, the warlords were seen as a cheap and beneficial way to retain U.S. allies in the field. He reminds that some U.S. legislators realised the great danger posed by the replacement of “the Taliban with the warlords” (Joseph Biden), a major constraint to Afghanistan’s ability to move forward and a growing bone of contention between Europe and the United States. The last paragraphs are devoted to a reconstruction of the electoral progression of Islamist parties in the two Pakistani regions of the Northwest Frontier Province and of Baluchistan since the early 2000s.
Part three, “The Failure of Nation Building,” is opened with a reminder of the fatal distribution of power in Washington, where the CIA and the Pentagon seemed determined to ignore if not undermine USAID if such programmes contradicted their strategy to help capture Bin Laden and strengthen the warlords. Chapter ten on Afghanistan politics since 2001 expose the Pashtuns tribal leaders’ unification under Karzai to insist upon the edification of a presidential system to oppose the initial dominance of the Northern Alliance. In parallel, to maintain its influence among the Taliban and Afghan Pashtuns the ISI was developing a two-track policy of protecting the Taliban while handing over al-Qaeda Arabs and other non-Afghans to the United States, allowing Mullah Omar and his commander to operate freely in Baluchistan where a pure Afghan Taliban movement was left undisturbed. Chapter eleven on al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Pakistan devotes special paragraphs to the growth of the anti-Shiite terrorist groups Sipah-i Sahhaba, Lashkar-i Jhangvi, Jaish-i Muhammad, and the yet mysterious Karachi-based Iranian Baluch Jund-Allah in the early 2000s (on the latter, see notably 237). As to the overall context of these developments, A. Rashid insists very much on the “chronic education morass” in Pakistan, most particularly in a region like Baluchistan, and on the role of school textbooks developed by each regime in the fuelling of hatred for non-Muslims in order to justify tension with India and military rule (234). The author also briefly mentions the attempts of the Musharraf administration to control and reform mushrooming madrasas as for 2001. Chapter twelve (“The Taliban Return Home”) notably insists on the significance of Pakistani Baluchistan, and on the multiple connections between Mullah Omar, the Jam‘iyyat al-‘Ulama-yi Islam party, and the madrasas of Quetta (the Shaldara Madrasa, in particular) in the further expansion of Taliban resistance to the occupation of Afghanistan, most notably in the Zabul, the main entry port for Taliban groups based in Pakistani Baluchistan.
Part four, “Descent into Chaos,” begins with a political history of Pakistan’s Tribal Area, made for the most part of coercion from the British Raj and Pakistani ‘marshallates’, and with the evocation of Musharraf’s fatal replacement of regional political agents by army officers who did not know the tribes nor their culture. It continues with the depiction of the consequences of us missile strikes against al-Qaeda targets, and the final legitimisation by the Pakistani army of Taliban control of North Waziristan. Mentioning the growing hostility of Baluch tribal chiefs led by the Khan of Kalat against the Pakistani army, A. Rashid points out the funnelling of Indian money to the Baluch from Dubai, casting light again and again on the wide macro-regional dimensions taken for long by the AFPAK conflicts ― to say nothing of the dramatic disclosure of Pakistan’s extensive proliferation of nuclear technology to Iran, North Korea, and Libya. Chapter fourteen notably casts light on the consequences of catastrophic decline of intelligence and language training within the CIA and the U.S. Army since the end of the Cold War ― one of the worst aspects of the military lack of preparedness of the USA for the war in Afghanistan being the extent to which it had to rely on private contractors for simple tasks. Exposing the role of drug production and traffic in the Taliban insurgency, chapter fifteen notably exposes how the drug epidemic led to high volumes of crime and inter-clan feuds in the south of Afghanistan, further giving the Taliban the decisive opportunity to adjudicate between tribes. The author also shortly evokes the impact of drug traffic in ex-Soviet Central Asia, notably through the spectacular expansion of heroin addiction in several countries of the region. A short sixteenth chapter evokes the expansion of Islamist terrorism in Uzbekistan in the 2000s. The Taliban offensive of 2006-7 for the control of Afghanistan is depicted in a chapter that conceals nothing of the multiple absurdities of Western armies in the field, beginning with the extraordinary proportions reached by self-protection. A. Rashid reminds how NATO’s unwillingness to take casualties forced it to depend more heavily on air power than the Americans had ever done, losing any hope of winning over the population.
Today, concludes the author, seven years after 9/11, Mullah Omar and the original Afghan Taliban Shura still live in Baluchistan region. As to the international community, it is failing to coordinate its military and security strategy. A. Rashid concludes that the region of South and Central Asia will not see stability unless there is new global compact among leading players. The Pakistan army has to put to rest its notion of a centralised state based solely on defence against India and an expansionist, Islamic strategic military doctrine carried out at the expense of democracy. Members of the Afghan élite need to appreciate the opportunity to be born again as a nation, and Central Asia needs a genuine political transformation before it can move forward. In all, if historiography must be considered a way of submitting advices to rulers, it can be said that the present book perfectly fulfils this function. From the strategic viewpoint, the author’s constant enlargement of his perspective to the international arena considerably enriches and deepens his narrative, providing the readership with a complicated web of issues. The role of Pakistan as the central key to the developments in the whole Middle East and Central Asia region is very completely assessed ― as astutely pointed out in the quotation of Condoleezza Rice admitting, three years after the election of George W. Bush: “Our Afghanistan policy wasn’t working because our Pakistan policy wasn’t working (58).” Indeed the author’s generous standpoint of defence and illustration of genuinely universal democratic values sometimes bring him to encompass in a whole set the most diverse, sometimes mutually hostile political forces and currents. Such is notably the case of the Deoband neo-traditionalist Islamic school of thought (polemically and erroneously described in the book as a “sect” ― e.g., p. 111), which often appears under A. Rashid’s pen as a homogenous, united current among whose main adherents are the Taliban and the most varied Pakistani jihadists like the Lashkar-i Tayyaba. If Deobandi madrasas have been playing a growing public role in regions untouched by modern secular higher education, these institutions are oftentimes opposed by mutual concurrences, and their leaders have not always adopted favourable positions towards the Taliban movement. In the time to come, making the cartography and assessing the hierarchy of the different networks of the madrasa world could help providing keys for global understanding and negotiation. Also highly questionable are assertions like that according which, for instance, “the Baluch are markedly secular, and mullahs have no standing in Baluch society (283).” If the Baluchistan Liberation Army continues to be dominated by large fighting tribes among which the Bugtis, Marris, and Mengals, all primary protagonists of the region’s political life, recent transformations in Iranian Baluchistan have revealed the weight acquired by the Sunni religious personnel of Islam ― often linked with tribal aristocracy through intermarriage ― in the region’s public life. In all, these reserves notwithstanding and despite a number of misprints in the transcription of numbers of proper names, the reading of this exceptionally well-informed work must be recommended to all interested in the understanding of the innumerable issues at stake in the developments of the past thirty years in what has become one of the most sensitive regions of the world.