Doomed to Repeat It: a review of Descent into Chaos


News outlets have been trickling out the story of a possible agreement reached between the United States government and representatives of the Taliban in Afghanistan finally to broker a peace deal in the longest war in United States history. This trickle has reached watershed proportions recently with reports that Zalmay Khalilzad, the Special Envoy to Afghanistan, has reached in principle an arrangement that would see the reassignment of some 14,000 United States troops from Afghanistan, bringing them home from this long war. The President himself has said an agreement is likely. Unfortunately, with this administration, which often plays loose with facts and has a history of portraying only what they want to see in the media, it is hard to be certain of anything. We have been down this hopeful road before.

Therefore, it is rather appropriate that I have recently finished reading Ahmed Rashid’s Descent into Chaos: How the war against Islamic extremism is being lost in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia. In trying to look back at what went right and wrong in the United States’ “War on Terror,” it helps to reach back to a review of the early portion of the conflict. Ahmed Rashid published this book in 2008, some 11 years ago and 7 years into the conflict. This gives us an interesting chance to reflect on three historical points, the beginning of the conflict, roughly halfway through the conflict, and, if the news is correct, the end of the conflict. Looking at these points, we can construct an assessment of the United States and Western powers’ efforts against radical Islamic extremism, and in the conclusions and the structure presented in Descent into Chaos.

The author states he did not mean his book be a reappraisal of events years after they occurred but an attempt to define history as it occurs without delving into the whys and wherefores of the causes of the conflict. He bases his autobiographical assessment on the fact he was personally present at many of the events occurring in the book and conducted first hand interviews with the participants at many of the other events. As such, we can assume that we have a relatively accurate first hand source, akin to letters and archival footage from other eras. However, we need to be as careful to make sure we take into account the personal bias of the author, both in favor of and against certain aspects of the story he is telling us. This is also something we need to remember regarding other primary source materials. The soldiers at Appomattox and the war correspondent filming either the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, the flag raising on Iwo Jima, or the liberation of Baghdad all had a story they were trying to tell and a point they were attempting to get across to their readers.

Ahmed Rashid makes it plain he considers the United States has wasted its opportunity to make a truly significant impact on the fortunes of those in central Asia. The Bush administration was not alone in squandering this opportunity and equal blame can be laid at the feet of the then President of Pakistan, Perez Musharraf, and the eventual first President of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai. There is plenty of blame left over for the rest of the coalition and NATO forces involved in the initial war and subsequent operations. Equally, some responsibility for the present situation rests with the other countries in the “Stans” – as they are collectively known – and the greater international community as they failed to grasp the unique moment of history they occupied, according to Rashid.

We need to review some basic questions and assumptions. Those assumptions include how this conflict and the occupation of Afghanistan rate in length and expense to other conflicts with which the United States has been involved. Has the blood and treasure expended by the United States and its coalition allies in this conflict truly been wasted? Is it possible that the United States and NATO forces’ use of different tactics or strategic goals would have changed the situation on the ground in Afghanistan in 2019?

It is undoubtedly true that the United States and its coalition and NATO allies were not prepared for the extended combat in which they found themselves in Afghanistan. Despite the amazing success and accomplishments in the primary ground war, which led to the collapse of the Taliban regime, the United States was not in a position to conduct long-term counterinsurgency operations. It did not even have a manual to train its officers and men on how to conduct counterinsurgency operations until 2006. The distraction in focus, goal, personnel, and material to Iraq soon after the invasion was completed was a further hindrance to coherent operations in Central Asia as the United States shifted focus to the Middle East. However, the situations in both Iraq and Afghanistan were relatively new and unique, unlike any other insurgency encountered by a major power before. Even the United Kingdom, with a long history in India, Malaysia, and Northern Ireland, was ill prepared to counter this type of combat. Although keeping focus on Afghanistan would most likely have shifted the fortunes of combat, it is still debatable if the tactics themselves were effective or if the coalition applied them as effectively as possible.

The primary goal of the invasion of Afghanistan was to dismantle al-Qaeda and capture or kill Osama Bin Laden. Despite the propensity of scorn for how the United States has conducted itself over the last nearly 20 years, few people at the time could find fault with going after al-Qaeda. Few people looking back to critique the situation now most likely find fault in going after an organization which caused one of the greatest losses of life in a single incident since the culminating acts of World War 2. We should always remember that al-Qaeda killed 2,996 people on that fateful day, with some 2,606 in the World Trade Center alone. This is the single worst act of terrorism ever carried out and likely only surpassed by the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in deaths by a single act. Any loss of life is tragic; however, never think about committing yourself to eliminate this threat at the cost of your own life as wasting your life. It should also be noted that the loss of life at 2,313 for the United States and 3,459 for all coalition forces. This is significantly below the 58,209 in the Vietnam War, 364,511 in the American Civil War (I am only counting United States Army numbers not those of the Confederate States), or the 405,399 in World War 2. Equally, the cost of the conflict thus far at $975 billion does not equal the $4 trillion spent in WW2 and $1 trillion in Vietnam.

Penultimately, we should discuss if this is the longest war in United States history. Afghanistan has definitely outlasted almost all the wars the United States has fought. It has lasted longer than World War 2 and the American Revolution. Much longer than the War of 1812 and the length of time the United States was involved in World War 1. However, the United States had troops on the ground and was involved in Vietnam from 1955 until 1975 making it just slightly longer at this time. You can see, however, the conflict in a greater context. If you look at it from the perspective of nation building – and, sorry, if you say the United States doesn’t do nation building then you are forgetting the Spanish American War, World Wars 1 and 2, as well as the Korean War – it is not that long at all. The United States still has bases and personnel in Europe. I personally know people born on those bases and are now serving on them with their own children. The fact that we are now coming up on the second-generation serving in Afghanistan, when viewed in that context, is normal.

The main and final thing we need to review is the primary argument of the book. Primarily, the United States has wasted an opportunity to radically alter the fate of Central Asia and bring it into the modern company of nations. America had the chance to break the cycle of corruption and violence plaguing the region. This assumes, of course, that it was the United States place to make the change at all. As the sole superpower at the time, the United States may have been able to utilize its hard and soft power to better effect and change how its allies, both in Afghanistan and in the greater international community, behaved and reacted to the situation in Afghanistan. However, this meant it was the United States’ responsibility to make those changes. Afghanistan has been a mess politically, economically and culturally since the time of Alexander the Great. This was where arguably the greatest general of all time was stopped and unable to enforce his will. Why should we assume the United States would fare any better or even make the attempt? While Rashid does lay some of the blame for the debacle on the people of Afghanistan, he lays a majority on the international community and the actions of the United States. If the local population is unwilling to make the required sacrifice to insure their own future, is the West not being arrogant and continuing the colonial activity it is so often accused of if it tries to force an arrangement on the populace? Perhaps a deeper look at the region’s self-imposed issues in addition to the advantage and misuse applied to it by outside forces needs to take place.

Ahmed Rashid did an admiral job chronicling the first half of the conflict in Afghanistan. His prose is succinct and readable. He spends enough time explaining the back-story and his personal affiliation with the story to allow us a reasonable certainty of his views and bias’. The main area he fails in is the overwhelming assistance Afghanistan needs from the outside world, especially his native Pakistan and the United States, in order to correct the problems in the region. As we potentially move towards a kind of peace at some point – hopefully in the near future – perhaps the people of the region will take the opportunity presented as the United States and other great powers focus elsewhere, to secure their own future as opposed to having someone else secure it for them.

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