Friday, June 20, 2008

One Step Forward, Two Back - Marching Through Afghanistan


In this weekend's Sunday Times, Max Hastings reviews Ahmed Rashid's new book, Descent into Chaos: How the War Against Islamic Extremism Is Being Lost in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia.

I usually wouldn't be inclined to review a review of a book but this is Max Hastings writing about the writing of Ahmed Rashid so warrants an exception.

"Rashid is no foaming leftist, still less an enthusiast for Islamic militance. He merely tells a story from the viewpoint of a highly informed Pakistani who knows intimately almost all the leading players, including Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai, many of the Afghan warlords, and, of course, key figures in his own country.

The severest criticism that can be made of his tale is that we know some of it already. A group of ignorant, immensely powerful and thus dangerous men in Washington, of whom Donald Rumsfeld, the defence secretary, was probably the worst, sought to exploit America’s shock after 9/11 to pursue their own global agenda, on which taking out Saddam Hussein was tops.

Rashid inks in much detail about the post-conflict failure in Afghanistan after Kabul fell to the Northern Alliance in December 2001. Rumsfeld’s rejection of nation- building, matched by America’s willingness to deliver much of the country to warlords paid by the CIA, destroyed any chance of achieving post-Taliban stability, or making a Karzai national government work.

Americans on the ground ladled out cash to the wrong people, ignored mass killings of prisoners and presided over systemic and illegal brutality to captives. “Suspects” as old as 88 and as young as 13 were shipped to Guantanamo Bay. The neocons cared about only one objective, hitting Al-Qaeda, and were indifferent both to collateral damage and to the importance of salvaging the Afghan society that they had overrun.
Coupled to failure on the Afghan side of the border was Washington’s decision to give Musharraf carte blanche to rule Pakistan as he chose, in exchange for his declared support in the “war on terror”. The Americans were extraordinarily na├»ve, says Rashid, in failing to realise how far Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI, continued to give active support to thousands of Taliban fighters escaping from Afghanistan. Washington even allowed Pakistani military aircraft to cross the border and evacuate ISI personnel, Arabs and key Taliban just before Kabul fell.

Pakistan’s intelligence service is still playing a deadly double game. It provides just enough assistance to its western counterparts, especially the British security authorities, to keep alive hopes of a working co-operation to crush Al-Qaeda. But the ISI stays deep in bed with the Taliban, and shelters all manner of dangerous people.

The difficulty in Afghanistan and Pakistan, as in Iraq, is how now to undo the consequences of years of policy blunders. Even generous cash aid, were it to be made available, is hard to use well when western Pakistan has succumbed to law-lessness, and anti-western sentiment is endemic. In Afghanistan, the drug industry is all- powerful and the Taliban widely resurgent.

A growing body of western critics such as Simon Jenkins argues that we must recognise failure in Afghanistan, and quit. It seems impossible to dispute their view that defeat is the most likely outcome. Yet, as Rashid so vividly shows, the consequences of abandoning the region to anarchy are so awful — above all, for its own peoples — that it seems to me we must keep trying. "

Wouldn't it be refreshing to hear our leader, the prime minister hisself, discuss these problems and come up with some answers, some leadership for Canada and for NATO? That's what leaders are supposed to do. Instead he won't even acknowledge these realities, glaring as they are. Nor will our top dogs at National Defence Headquarters who just keep grinding out horse crap about how we're winning in Afghanistan. Hucksters and fixers always play to their script.

So our game plan is to swat at flies (the Taliban) while we build an Afghan army or at least pretend to just that. It ignores the fundamental problem that an army without a viable government can't do much good except to seize power itself. Then again, that would probably be a rare sign of progress in Afghanistan.

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