Ahmed Rashid is a journalist, and a good one at that. He is courageous, and the reader cannot help but marvel that he has not met an "untimely end" due to his criticism of various leaders. From his base in Lahore, Pakistan he has had a vital "South-central Asian" perspective on many of the events that have become of essential importance to the United States, and to a large extent, the Western world, in the "post 9/11 era." His "beat" is Afghanistan, the five central Asian "'stans," India, and his native country. His book Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia, Second Edition , written in 2000, became essential reading for American policy makers a year later.
Rashid's book is an essential compliment to Junger's book
. Junger covers the combat conducted over a year's period, by one unit of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, in a remote valley near the Pakistani border. To quote Junger: "The men know Pakistan is the root of the entire war, and that is just about the only topic they get political about." Rashid covers in detail the internal political situation in Pakistan, most tellingly, the "double game" that has been played, and continues to be played by the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI), which is Pakistan's intelligence agency. Numerous members of the agency openly support the Taliban, while paying lip service to the Americans that they are fighting them. One of the most astonishing vignettes told by Rashid is dubbed "the Great Escape." It occurred on November 15, 2001, when there was an imposed lull in the fighting at Kunduz, so that Pakistani planes could fly in and evacuate members of the ISI, and untold number of Taliban, to Pakistan, thwarting the efforts of the United States, and the Northern Alliance, in the very early days of the ground combat in Afghanistan post 9-11. Rashid documents again and again how the American leadership turns a blind eye to the ISI's double-dealing, and continues to support General Musharraf's dictatorial rule of Pakistan, and his double-dealing with the reactionary forces of Islamic fundamentalism.
But there is much else besides. Rashid knew Hamid Karzai before he become Afghanistan's current leader. He gave a concise account of his background, and the logic behind his selection by the Americans. Karzai is a Pashtun counterweight to the Northern Alliance. His coverage of "the Stans" is incisive. Each ruled by a dictator, who milk the Americans for rights to bases. Graft and corruption are the norm; the ruling elite become fabulously rich, which only helps fuel an Islamic fundamentalist backlash in each of these countries. Telling, Rashid echoes a variation of a once famous question in the American `50's: Who lost Uzbekistan? Rashid also provides vital explanations of what he terms "Al Qaeda bolt-hole," which are their sanctuaries in the Northwest frontier provinces. Is Osama Bin Laden still there? Rashid draws no definitive conclusions, but the continued lack of real interest in bringing him to justice, almost 10 years after 9/11 remains disturbing.
Rashid frequent travels to the West provide an opportunity to report on the Western leaders as well. He renders scathing indictments of the American "neo-con" leadership, Cheney, Rumsfeld et al., and how they blew a truly wonderful opportunity in Afghanistan by refusing to engage in even modest "nation building," a term anathema to them, and their almost total focus of Iraq, which created the conditions for the Taliban to become resurgent.
Is imitation the sincerest form of flattery? A telling anecdote is on the author's website, easily reached via Google. George Bush, in his book
lifted Rashid's account (without attribution) of the meeting between Karzai and a Tajik warlord on Dec. 22, 2001
But I did have some problems with the book, and found it a bit of a slog to finish. Journalists, to generalize somewhat, seemed inclined to produce "cut and paste" books from their work. The book could use much tighter editing; for example, three times in three pages the reader is told that East Pakistan became Bangladesh in 1971. The history of Pakistan, as related in Chapter Two, has a "stream of consciousness" style about it. And there are numerous misspellings, the type that even a reasonable publisher would have caught via "spell-check." Rashid clearly has his opinions on various individuals, for example, "brutal," "corrupt", and renders them, but sometimes without providing the reader with his basis. Another reviewer, Timothy Graczewski, calls the author out on his statements about Toyota Landcrusiers travelling 150 mi/hr in the open desert. Did he mean kilometers? Doesn't matter. Anyone who has travelled in the open desert knows, that, save for perhaps the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, you cannot travel that fast due to the wadis, and innumerable dry water courses that would destroy the suspension on any vehicle.
Overall though, a vital, essential book. It was published just before President Obama took office. With the President's increased focus on this area, including augmented troop levels, Rashid's account is more important than ever, and will almost certainly be the most comprehensive view of the area that will be available in the West. 4-stars.