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21 March 2011

Ascent or Descent Into Chaos?

On Wednesday, 16 March, The Chicago Council on Global Affairs presented journalist and author Ahmed Rashid.  The name of the "forum" was "Ascent from Chaos?  Afghanistan's Uncertain Future" while Rashid decided his speech was called "Pakistan in Crisis," fitting since that is his bailiwick -- being from and working in Pakistan.  He did do his best to tie his expertise on the Pakistani Taliban to the Afghan Taliban, emphasizing the differences about them and warning the audience not to lump them together, except to realize that there wouldn't be two factions if it weren't for the fact that there are two countries and one very large ethnic group -- the Pashtun -- straddling the border between them, with some in the Pakistani military or government believing they could use the Taliban or Pashtun to their own ends.  The irony of the Council's forum title versus that of Rashid's book first published in the United States in 2008 Descent Into Chaos: The United States and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia did not escape me and probably did not escape others.  I know I puzzled over whether an "ascent" in 2011 was meant to imply that Afghanistan had hit bottom -- into some miasma even lower than chaos and is now on its way back up into more optimistic circumstances.  Ah, I almost feel I could evoke Kali, the Hindu goddess of Chaos, except we'd really confuse the issues as well as the metaphors (especially since Rashid cites seeking resolution with India over Kashmir was one of Pakistan's missed opportunities in the immediate aftermath of "9-11" while all (or most of) the world was at one against "extremism").

Rashid, looking older and more portly than his publicity photograph, used the word "we" as he spoke of the nation of Pakistan, showing in addition to saying that all Pakistanis must take responsibility for the state of affairs in the state of Pakistan. Every 10 years, someone in the military gets impatient, takes over, starting the odometer on road to democracy back to 000, and makes similar if not the same mistakes.  These military leaders make the mistake of believing they could use the Pakistani Taliban to achieve the results they seek.  They make the mistake of believing the goals of the Pakistani Taliban dovetail their own.

When asked what he suggested we do about the Taliban in Afghanistan, he said, they are ready to talk, they are ready to share power if Karzai is.  Afghan Taliban, he points out, are Afghans first, nationalists.  They have more in common with other Afghans, regardless of tribe, than they do with Pakistani Taliban, which now reach beyond the Pashtun.  Unlike Pakistani Taliban, Afghan Taliban have never agitated for global jihad.  Afghans are a proud people from a harsh land which has never colonized.  This is a lesson from the past that must be learned -- regardless of what the policies of United States or Britain or Russia or Pakistan or India may truly be, actions speak louder than words and to the Afghans, foreigners are continuing to fight over sweet Afghan soil as they have for centuries, and Afghans will respond the same way: get them out.  Rashid believes the Afghan Taliban members who used to rule with an iron fist are older and wiser now, and know they cannot do so again, that the Afghan people will not tolerate a return, basically to the Dark Ages.  The younger recruits just want the foreigners to leave and leave good-paying jobs.  A startling statistic:  Despite all the resources poured into Afghanistan, we still have not recreated the government nor the economy of 1970.  So much for "nation-building."

Larry, who has read both these books and has recommended his book on Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia since it was first published in the United States in 2000, thought that much of what Rashid presented is in his books.  However, he still would have liked to hear more presentation and less answering of questions from those with their own agendas.  I agree that the Q&A process could have been improved, maybe having members of the audience write questions on cards to be sorted and maybe summarized by the moderator.  The newer edition of Rashid's Taliban actually has been on backorder at the warehouse.  I think there is a renewed interest, as the United States and other peacekeeping troops attempt to leave Afghanistan to stand on its own foundation of 250 years of existence, while we struggle with many other threatening factors in this increasingly smaller world, including the Pakistani Taliban.

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