Ahmed Rashid, Descent into Chaos

I had high hopes for this (you can tell; it’s the first hardback I’ve bought in years). Maybe my hopes were unrealistic. Rashid is aiming squarely at the Western bestseller lists – which means he needs to cover a lot of background, and avoi frightening his readers with tightly-packed detail. I remember (misremember?) his previous books Taliban and Jihad as breaking new ground and pulling together otherwise-obscure facts. This is more a general history of what is already known – good for what it is, just not the tour de force I’d hoped for.

The focus is very much on high politics and personalities. As Rashid repeatedly points out, he is a personal friend of many key figures in Afghan politics, and his analysis of their foibles is interesting. But by concentrating on people, he downplays how much their actions have been constrained by institutions, economics, and culture. Doubtless this is better than the reverse – personalities do matter in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and many institutions exist only on paper. But in this book, events in Afghanistan seem determined almost entirely by powerful people doing stupid things – we don’t get to grips with why they do stupid things.

ETA: I was probably too harsh here. Some of Rashid’s themes – how deeply the ISI has continued to support the Taliban, how uncontrolled Helmand was before the British arrived – are, if not unknown, at least rarely given this much emphasis

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