Until final papers are finished, I won't have time to blog. But I figured I'd post this response I wrote for a class to Ahmed Rashid's book, Descent into Chaos: The United States and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia. It's timely, given what's happening in Pakistan and Obama's war-escalation plan for Afghanistan. As well, I couldn't find a single critical review of the book, which is troubling, especially as there is so little material out about the topic thereby giving Rashid's view more weight than it likely should have.
I had two main reactions to Rashid's book. One was frustration and the other was appreciation. My frustration extended largely from his liberal viewpoint that the war on Afghanistan was a just war and could've gone swimmingly "if only" the various players had made the correct decisions and taken the appropriate actions. His main argument appeared to be that occupation (though he argued that it wasn't) and nation-building can be done successfully "if only" everyone is up front, genuine and on the level. This strikes me as a painfully naïve way of interpreting world events and prescribing solutions. Just as he tried to contextualize Afghanistan with other countries in Central Asia, the U.S. invasion and occupation needs to be contextualized within a discussion of hegemony and capitalism. After the scores of countries the U.S. has invaded, I'm shocked people still think the U.S. actually cares about the Afghan, Iraqi, Guatemalan, Filipino etc., etc. people, and that the "if only" argument is still used.
My other frustration was that there was much that seemed to be missing from the book. There was not much of a discussion of the Taliban or Al-Qaeda, what they thought, how they formed, why they were bad. It was just assumed that they were bad and needed no discussion. I think labeling something as bad and worthy of being opposed without much discussion is dangerous, even if the label is appropriate. I was also troubled by his other labeling of things. He doesn't discuss what jihad means, but again it's taken to be bad. He claims "talib" means "religious student" and "madrassa" means "religious school" when both just mean student and school. He doesn't explain his definition of Islamic "extremism" or "fundamentalism". Finally, in the first three chapters (I stopped after that) I counted 16 claims that I felt warranted footnotes where none existed. It all seemed very attuned to inaccurate Western conceptions and instead of using his book as an opportunity to deconstruct them, he reinforces them, which is unfortunate.
However, I'm still glad that I read the book. I learned much about the area and it is certainly extremely topical. Now hearing about how the Taliban is operating in the Swat Valley makes a lot more sense. It also provoked some thinking about, well, what is the solution, what should be done? From my perspective, I oppose the US/European occupation, I think Karzai's an inept puppet, I certainly am not a fan of the Taliban or warlords. I know nothing about Afghanistan's civil society. Do I even know enough to have an opinion? It got me thinking and I appreciate that.