SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 126 - March 2009

Chaos theory

Descent into Chaos: How the war against Islamic extremism is being lost

By Ahmed Rashid

Allen Lane, 2008, £25

Reviewed by Sean Figg

IN 2003 the World Bank described 17 states as ‘failing’. This figure rose to 26 in 2008. In Descent into Chaos, Ahmed Rashid looks at the events and processes that have taken Pakistan, Afghanistan and ex-Soviet Central Asia to the point of collapse. Across the region, the rise of right-wing political Islam has introduced an explosive new factor into society. Rashid’s book is a detailed study of a complicated area of the world, blending history, current affairs and political analysis in the region since 9/11.

Despite being published a few months before the November 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, Rashid gives valuable insight into the background of the atrocity. The attacks escalated tensions between Pakistan and India. Initially, many Indian authorities alleged Pakistani military involvement. Whether this was based on any evidence or was merely for domestic propaganda purposes is unclear at this stage, but the Pakistani military has a long history of collusion with right-wing Islamic groups. Rashid describes this ‘military-mullah alliance’ in detail. It makes for terrifying reading. The secretive Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI), described as ‘a state within a state’, has frequently used right-wing Islamist groups as proxies in pursuit of foreign policy objectives. Historically, this regional strategy has included the destabilisation of India in order to extend control over Kashmir.

The conflict between India and Pakistan traces its roots to the partition of the countries in 1947 by the retreating British empire. Which country Kashmir should be part of was left unresolved. Recent years have seen no abatement in this conflict. Pakistan’s former president, Pervez Musharraf, shortly before coming to power in 1999, led a military incursion into Indian-controlled Kashmir seeking to occupy strategic hilltops. Later in 1999, ISI-backed Kashmiri Islamists hijacked an Indian passenger airliner using the crew and passengers as hostages to barter for the release of imprisoned fighters in India. In 2001-02, over 800 people lost their lives during parliamentary elections in Kashmir in car bombings and shootings carried out by ISI-backed Islamic groups. Although Musharraf officially banned these Kashmiri groups in 2002, the ISI quietly reorganised them under different names. Rashid describes how "Musharraf… followed a continuous policy of brinkmanship by using extremists in the belief that they could force India to the negotiating table".

However, Rashid describes how India followed a similar policy, effectively "a non-stop proxy war, funding and arming dissidents in each other’s territory". In Pakistan, Rashid accuses the ISI of letting "the Islamic genie out of the bottle", now threatening the very existence of Pakistan. The ISI’s intention was to use Islamist groups as pawns in pursuit of Pakistani state interests. But, once in existence, these groups formed links between themselves and developed their own regional strategy. Details are given of how al Qaeda would train ISI-backed Kashmiri groups in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border areas before sending them back to Kashmir with a new outlook of ‘global jihad’, including the overthrow of the ‘apostate’ Musharraf.

In the 2002 election in Pakistan, the ISI and military, through intimidation and rigging, allowed a six-party alliance of Islamic fundamentalists to sweep to power in Balochistan and the North West Frontier Province, two provinces bordering Afghanistan. The leading party in this alliance, Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI), had helped launch the Afghan Taliban in 1994. Following the US invasion of Afghanistan, these parties allowed the Taliban and al Qaeda to regroup and use the provinces they administered as a base of operations. In Rashid’s words, the area became the world’s ‘terrorism central’.

Rashid says that "some of these [ISI] officers, deeply religious and vociferously anti-American, considered themselves more Taliban than the Taliban… an organisation that had trained and motivated hundreds of its officers to support extremist Islamic factions in Afghanistan and Kashmir for two decades could not be expected to change its views overnight".

Despite trying to play all sides, Musharraf was the victim of several assassination attempts by Islamic groups in 2007 and 2008. Rashid argues that these attempts had to have had military collusion at some level. The assassination of Benazir Bhutto was a further striking example of the growing confidence of Pakistani Islamists. "It was clear that the ISI no longer controlled the monster of extremism it had created, while the army’s rank and file was becoming susceptible to the extremist propaganda and recruitment, threatening the very institution that laid claim to be the guardian of the country".

A crucial turning point Rashid describes came with the Red Mosque crisis in 2008. (The ‘Red Mosque’ is actually an area covering dozens of city blocks.) Although backed by the ISI since 1984 as a training ground for fundamentalists, one group used the area to launch an uprising in Islamabad demanding the implementation of sharia law in Pakistan. This led to a siege that lasted days before being bloodily put down by the army. Rashid argues that "the government’s inept handling of the crisis was a turning point for al Qaeda, Pakistani Taliban, and other extremist groups, who now joined together and vowed to topple the government and create an Islamic state… al Qaeda’s forces also shifted from Afghanistan to Pakistan, where it saw a demoralised army, a terrified citizenry, and an opportunity to destabilise the state".

Socialists give no support to the reactionary aims of right-wing political Islam. Rashid quotes Akram Durrani of JUI: "we believe that God pre-arranged food and clothing for every man or woman he created. If we give up the ways of God and devise our own solutions to perceived problems we may land in trouble". The anti-working class, right-wing political agenda is clear even if it is garbed in religious phraseology.

Rashid does not hide his own politics. He is scathing of the US role in the region, particularly in Afghanistan. However, this is not from an anti-imperialist standpoint, quite the opposite. Rashid’s main complaint is that the US has not done enough to mould the region through an adequate policy of ‘nation building’. Pages of his book detail the double-dealing of US covert operations, support for military dictators and Islamic fundamentalists in pursuit of US interests, and at the expense of the masses of the region.

Despite knowing this, Rashid seems outraged that, since its ‘re-engagement’ with the region after 9/11, the US is not living up to its own rhetoric of spreading ‘freedom and democracy’. What did he expect? Rashid calls on US and NATO forces to do more. When lambasting the US strategy in Afghanistan, Rashid outlines alternative strategies he feels imperialism should have adopted. These would have included deploying tens of thousands more troops on the ground earlier and maintaining them there until ‘stability’ was achieved. Rashid does not consider that an occupation army could itself be a destabilising factor and part of the problem, not the solution.

A major criticism Rashid makes of the Afghan government under Hamid Karzai is that he refused to set up a political party to build up his own power base, leading to what Rashid sees as a weak government. Rashid’s remarks are very telling of his politics. He says: "I constantly berated Karzai for his failure to understand the usefulness of political parties and that a parliament without parties was not democracy".

What would the programme of this party be? It’s constituency? Rashid does not even raise these as issues for consideration. For Rashid, a political party is a top-down project about building personal patronage. One suspects these views have something to do with his class background. For Rashid, the only forces for change in the region could be the US and local elites. On many occasions he describes his friendships and acquaintances with figures such as Karzai and Bhutto. His, now lost, hope was that "Bhutto and Karzai, working together, would have formed a team committed to combat extremism".

The key to a stable future in the region lies with another force that is potentially more powerful than US imperialism and right-wing political Islam. That force is the working class, united across borders, with its own regional strategy. The working class of countries such as Iran, Pakistan and India are potentially enormously powerful. That is not to say that the development of strong workers’ parties in these countries would be easy. Repressive military governments, terrorism, intimidation, poverty and suffering all make working-class organisation a dangerous and difficult task. Even though Rashid is blind to these possibilities, the book is still immensely informative, detailed and well researched and will give anyone an excellent knowledge of the complicated processes at work in this region of the world.


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