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Monday, July 20, 2009

Book Review and Highlights of Descent into Chaos

Book’s Full Title: Descent Into Chaos: The United States and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia.
Author: Ahmed Rashidi
Publisher/ Location/ Date: Viking, New York, NY; 2008
Date of Review: July 18, 2009
Number of Pages: 404 pages.
Overall Letter Grade of Book: A+ This book is sui generis (constituting a class of its own)

1. P. XL “With a population of 175 million, Pakistan is the fifth largest country in the world…separatist movements in the provinces of Balochistan and Sindh…could divide the nation, just as ethnic nationalism did in 1971, when East Pakistan became Bangladesh.”

2. P LII “When General Musharraf carried out his coup in 1999, he did not bother to get in touch with the U.S. ambassador in Islamabad, but instead telephoned Gen. Anthony Zinni, the CENTCOM chief at the time.”

3. P. 125 “In the spring of 2002, some forty American U.S. Special Operations Forces and CIA agents were ensconced in a huge, white-domed marble palace perched on a hill overlooking the city of Heart, in Western Afghanistan. The palace had been lent to them by the warlord Ishmael Khan. At the bottom of the hill was the Iranian consulate and farther along were the offices of the paramilitary Sipah-e-Pasadran, or Army of God, extremists who were loyal to Iran’s fundamentalist supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, and who tended to ignore the moderate government of President Mohammad Khatami. The team on the hill was concerned about al Qaeda leaders escaping to Iran through Herat.”

4. P. 125 “Iran had gone from being a “good and helpful interlocutor during the Bonn talks” to being demonized and labeled as a member of the “Axis of Evil” along with North Korea and Iraq by President Bush in his infamous January 2002 State if the Union speech.”

5. P. 127 Re: U.S. cooperation with Afghani drug warlord Ismael Khan. “Khan’s source of income made him especially important. He earned between three and five million dollars every month in customs revenue from the crossing point at Islam Qila, on the Iran-Afghanistan border. Here every day hundreds of trucks arrived loaded with Japanese tires, Iranian fuel, secondhand European cars, cooking gas cylinders from Turkmenistan, and consumer goods from the Arabian Gulf. Khan refused to share any of his income, let alone hand it over to the central government. The most powerful and richest warlords commanded border posts with Pakistan, Iran, or Central Asia, where they could gather customs duties, but none earned as much as Ismael Khan.”

6. P.127 Re: the rise of the Taliban due to the excesses of the warlords who came into power during the civil war of the 1990’s and subsequently divided the country (Afghanistan) into fiefdoms. “Often rapacious, corrupt and ruthless, they (the warlords) hired large militias that terrorized the population but also kept a kind of peace…Afghans hated them most because , invariably, they were the cat’s paw for neighboring countries. In fact, the Taliban’s initial popularity with the Afghan people had come from the group’s hatred of the warlords.”

7. P. 128 Re: Who had let Bin Laden escape from Tora Bora? “In the east, Abdul Qadir, the governor of Nangarhar province, and the brother of slain commander Abdul Haq, had received lavish CIA funding during the war to mobilize thousands of Pashtun fighters against the Taliban. Yet he failed even to clear the strategic road between Jalalabad and Kabul of bandits…Qadir’s control of four eastern provinces—Nangarhar, Laghman, Nuristan and Kunar—was fiercely contested by Hazrat Ali, thirty-eight, a small-time tribal leader directly recruited by the CIA and now elevated to warlord. Hazrat Ali belonged to the Pashai ethnic minority, whom the Pashtuns considered an underclass, so inadvertently he became the symbol of Pashai assertion. Barley able to write his own name he was given so much money by the CIA that he quickly created an eighteen-thousand-strong militia. At Tora Bora his men had allowed bin Laden to escape.”

8. P. 131 Re: the daunting tasks faced by the new transitional government. “Afghanistan’s first Human Development Report, compiled in 2004, showed the extent of public suffering. The country ranked 172nd out of the 178 countries on the UN Development Programme’s Human Development Index, effectively tying for last place with several African countries. Easily preventable epidemics such as measles, flu, and even diarrhea were killing thousands of people every month, while fifteen thousand women died every year from pregnancy related illnesses. The country had the highest infant mortality in the world with 165 infants out of 1,000 dying at birth, while 250, or a quarter, died before they reached the age of five. Life expectancy for women was just forty-four years, one less than for men. As a result, Afghanistan had the youngest population in the world, with 57 percent under age eighteen. Multiple generations of adults had not had any education and had known only war.”

9. P. 130 “in March 2002, Robert Finn was appointed as the first U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan since 1992. Finn had spent the last ten years in war zones and spoke fifteen different languages, including all the Central Asian tongues. He belonged to the school of diplomacy were expertise, knowledge and intellectual interest in the countries were you worked were considered vital, as compared to the neoconservatives who considered the CIA and intelligence gathering the epitome of success in nation building.”

10. P 137 Re: Bush’s reversal on nation building. “Then on April 17, in a speech given at the Virginia Military Institute, where Gen. George Marshall once trained, Bush surprised everyone by calling for a “Marshall Plan” for Afghanistan…this sudden U-turn, a result of the State Department and Colin Powell trying to regain a grip on policy, caused immense excitement in Kabul.”

11. P. 317 Re: how the Taliban justified opium production. “In the summer of 1997, Abdul Rashid, the head of the Taliban’s so-called counter-narcotics force in Kandahar, patiently explained to me his unique job—banning farmers from growing hashish while allowing them to grow and produce opium, even though the Koran forbids Muslims to take any intoxicants. Rashid explained the dichotomy succinctly: ‘Opium is permissible because it is consumed by kafirs [unbelievers] in the West and not by Afghans, but hashish is consumed by Afghans and Muslims,’ he said with a self- satisfied smile…yet there was a more practical reason why opium was cultivated. ‘There would be an uprising against the Taliban if we forced farmers to stop poppy cultivation’.”

12. P. 318 Re: Heroin.“From cabbage-like plants with a bright red flower…which takes only four months to mature and requires little water and care… the raw opium would be slapped into a cake and kept wet in plastic bags until the local drug dealer arrived. It would then be sent to makeshift laboratories in the mountains where, with the help of a few readily available precursor chemicals, the dark brown paste would be turned into a fine white powder— heroin. Ten kilograms of opium paste produces one kilogram of heroin. For Khan it was the cheapest and fastest cash crop to grow, giving a good return, and could be stored for several years if the price dropped.

13. P. 321 Re: the difficulties in stopping farmers from growing such a lucrative cash crop as opium. Numbers and facts are from an interview the author conducted with Bernard Frahi at the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime UNODC, regional chief in Islamabad. For an article in the author’s paper-The Daily Telegraph entitled “Flood of Afghan Heroin Expected” September 26, 2001. “Britain became the lead nation in developing a counter-narcotics strategy. It had a vested interest because 98 percent of the Heroin on London streets came from Afghanistan. Its intelligence service MI6 suggested buying the entire 2002 opium harvest from farmers. The Foreign Office objected and the plan was dropped in favor of compensating farmers for destroying their crop—a plan that was disastrous when implemented. Farmers were paid cash for eradicating their crop at the rate of $1,250 to $1,500 per hectare. MI6 and British commandos handed over cash to governors and police chiefs in the provinces to pay the farmers. The program which cost more than $80 million, was mired in massive corruption as Afghan officials distributed the money to their tribes or clans, who took the cash but failed to eradicate the crop. Other farmers used the money to increase cultivation, while thousands of others who did eradicate their crop received nothing. A huge piece of the money ended up in the war chests of the warlords. The opium harvest for 2002 had leaped to $3,400 tons, from 185 tons the previous year. Farmers earned an estimated $13,000 from a hectare of land under poppy cultivation versus $400 from a hectare under wheat.”

14. P131 Helmand province, the center of the drug trade, roughly the size of Wales with a population of about one million. In the 1960s, USAID hired Morrison-Knudsen, the same engineering firm that built the Hoover Dam in the U.S. to dam the Helmand River and to construct over 300 miles of irrigation canals to provide the water essential for agriculture in the Helmand Valley. The project was hugely successful and created 250,000 acres of arable land out of the desert.

15. P. 331 “The five Central Asian republics provide a major gateway for Afghan opium to Russia and Europe. All five states are weak, undermined by dictatorship and underdevelopment, and heroin has become an important means for the small, corrupt ruling elites there to enrich themselves. Meanwhile, intravenous drug use in the region is fueling some of the fastest-growing HIV/AIDS rates in the world.”

16. P. 398 Re: the Taliban and al Qaeda’s stepped-up pressure to influence popular opinion. “The Taliban also seemed to be winning the propaganda war. Tens of thousands of tapes and DVDs produced by the media outlets Omat [Nation] Productions and Manbaul-Jihad (Source of Jihad) were sold for a few pennies in the bazaars of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Al Qaeda’s own production company, al-Sahab, issued eighty-nine messages in 2007, one every three days, or double the rate it had issued them in 2006.”

17. P. 399 Re: the problem of endemic corruption in Afghanistan. “Corruption alone was creating enormous misgivings among the people and making Karzai hugely unpopular. ‘If nothing is done about corruption, Afghanistan’s development prospects will be severely threatened and undermined,’ warned William Byrd of the World Bank. ‘Corruption is profoundly inimical to state building.’ Moreover, in 2008 the World Bank estimated that up to 30 percent of all aid was being wasted by the donors.” (See Anthony Cordesman, “The Missing Metrics of Progress in Afghanistan and Pakistan”, Center for Strategic and International Studies, CSIS).

18. P. 400 Re: Afghanistan’s natural resources. “The U.S. Geological Survey showed that Afghans were sitting on a gold mine of natural resources, with huge deposits of copper, iron, gold, coal, gemstones, gas, and oil. Undiscovered petroleum reserves in Northern Afghanistan range from 3.6 to 36.5 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, whole estimates of oil range from 0.4 to 3.6 billion barrels.” (According to an August 3, 2006, report entitled “Afghanistan’s Energy Future” written by analyst Stephen Blank at EurasiaNet.org).

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