Operation Infinite Imperialism

Two recent books examine America’s military and diplomatic forays into South and Central Asia.

Robert S. Eshelman

In October, an avalanche of events crashed down on the Bush administration’s unbelievable statements about stability in Afghanistan. 

Stories emerged, documenting the connections of Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s brother to the opium trade. Then, the U.S. military released a report stating that 30 civilians had been killed in an August airstrike – not the five to seven deaths it had previously claimed. The new figures were still well below 90 deaths the U.N. and Afghan government estimated. This was followed by a leaked version of a National Intelligence Estimate that stated Afghanistan was in a downward spiral,” and warned of increasing Taliban attacks from within Pakistan.

Even the administration’s most tepid critics wondered how seven years after the invasion of Afghanistan, the situation there has deteriorated so drastically. For several months, military casualties in Afghanistan have outnumbered those in Iraq, while the Taliban has begun to focus its attacks within the territory of America’s ally Pakistan.

Two recent books examine America’s military and diplomatic forays into South and Central Asia over the past several decades. Together, these books – Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid’s Descent Into Chaos (Viking, June) and British-Pakistani journalist Tariq Ali’s The Duel (Simon and Schuster, September) – survey the mangled wreckage of failed states, warlords and dictators, refugees, and nascent social justice movements crushed by brute force. 

With Obama elected on promises of increased military deployments to Afghanistan and action against the Taliban within Pakistan, these books appear at a critical time. 

Couched in the most generous terms, Rashid and Ali depict America as an incompetent and ill-informed actor, woefully ignorant of the region’s history and politics. Frequently, though, the authors show us a vicious nation that showers bombs upon Afghan villages or gives a nod and a wink to Pakistani repression of students, lawyers and the lower classes. And they describe the haunting world of America’s historic support for Islamic extremists – the very ones who are supposedly at the heart of the war on terror, but are reaping the rewards from it. 

Rashid’s decades of reporting experience in the region are on display in Descent. His gloss of the region is thick with intrigue and overflowing with detailed accounts of Afghanistan, Pakistan and the five independent states of Central Asia. No regional conflict is left untreated – be it Kashmir, Baluchistan or the Uighurs in China.

Rashid opens with a twined story of Karzai’s return to Afghanistan and a history of that nation, then moves through an encyclopedic account of the push and shove between Pakistan and its neighbors – India and Afghanistan – the rise of the Taliban, and the U.S. role in the region. He moves methodically through the region’s post-9/11 shocks and the many failed international attempts to prop up a nascent Afghan state and to snuff out the Taliban.

Rashid also traces the influence of Pakistan’s military intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, or ISI. What emerges is a fascinating story of this secretive agency’s tremendous power over Pakistan’s internal politics. A consistent subplot to American failure is the awesome ability of the ISI to play all sides, extracting much and giving away little, all the while spawning new extremist cadres.

Rashid writes, The U.S. failure to secure this region may well lead to global terrorism, nuclear proliferation and a drug epidemic on a scale that we have not yet experienced and I can only hope we never will.”

But Rashid’s sources – ranging from anonymous U.S. government officials to Karzai – also cloud his analysis, particularly of Afghanistan. Rashid views the failures there as technocratic ones. In other words, replace a few dim-witted bureaucrats and elevate Afghanistan’s priority within international diplomatic circles, and the nation could be pulled from the jaws of failure.

But is this really the case? It’s a mantra Rashid’s political elite sources repeat over and over. He seems never to consider the contradictory imperatives of a military dispatched to extend U.S. power abroad, on one hand, and the acute humanitarian needs of the Afghan people – or the democratic needs of those in Pakistan and other Central Asian states – on the other. 

What Rashid interprets as an incoherency of international planning is actually a naked view of American power at work. It mobilizes support in Europe, Central Asia and Pakistan in order to further its own interests, not those of Afghans or Pakistanis pining for democracy. 

Providing a needed corrective, in The Duel, Ali focuses on the conflicting interests of state power and democracy, which is what Rashid is most silent on. In Ali’s account, Pakistan stands in opposition to generations of Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Baluchis seeking democratic reforms and, sometimes, revolutionary change.

Ali’s account tempers the sensationalist American spin around Pakistani politics. He writes: The West prefers to view Pakistan through a single optic. [The media gives] the impression that the main, if not the only, problem confronting Pakistan is the power of the bearded fanatics … who … are on the verge of taking over the county.”

Paranoid about nuclear-armed mullahs, the U.S. government heaps cash and arms upon the military regime. It’s a narrative that successive Pakistani leaders play to the hilt. But instead of using U.S. aid to fight jihadis in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, the Pakistani government deploys it against those seeking a democratic change or a voice in Pakistani affairs. 

The Duel serves as an excellent corollary – albeit taking a much more critical view of political elites and international relations – to Rashid’s Descent. But stark differences between the two exist – particularly on the efficacy of military intervention in achieving humanitarian ends. Yet together the books illuminate the histories of Central and South Asia and the perilous path that America has undertaken by hitching itself to Pakistan’s military leadership. 

The question now is: How close will President Obama hew to this disastrous path? 

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Robert Eshelman’s articles have appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, In These Times and The Nation.
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