Two books, one fairly recent and one published at the beginning of the Western involvement in Afghanistan, give an overview of the problems faced by participating countries like Canada and the United States - ones that were never overcome in the course of the campaign and that make Afghanistan's future extremely problematic.
Sara Chayes' The Punishment of Virtue was written shortly after the fall of the Taliban. Chayes came to Kandahar as a correspondent for National Public Radio in the U.S. but resigned to become a founder of an aid organization, Afghans for Civil Society. She soon immersed herself in the lives of ordinary Afghans, living with them as well as working with them while building up knowledge of the political and strategic background of the struggle against a resurgent Taliban.
Chayes sees two major problems with the Western approach: One was an enormous reliance on local warlords, who offered protection against the Taliban but at the same time were corrupt and uninterested in building an Afghan nation that transcended tribes and clans. She begins by admiring and supporting Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, but soon sees him as incapable of standing up to the warlords. The second problem is Pakistan, and particularly the security organization ISI. ISI in a sense created the Taliban in the revolt against the Soviet occupation (greatly assisted by the CIA). Post 9/11, they claimed to be a Western ally against the Taliban and Al-Qaida while secretly supporting both militarily and financially, to the extent of offering staging grounds inside Pakistan itself.
From the perspective of Ahmed Rashid's Descent into Chaos, Chayes' concerns seem prescient. Rashid, a Pakistan-based journalist whose contacts with and personal knowledge of the key Afghan and Pakistani players are unmatched, spells out in more detail Hamid Karzai's inability to come to grips with the destabilizing and corrupt warlords and the stealthy Pakistani support for the Taliban, motivated by an obsessive (and mainly unrealistic) concern with Indian influence in Afghanistan.
Rashid deals extensively with Pakistan's internal politics, especially involving former general Pervez Musharraf, who came to power in a coup. But his most scathing criticism is directed against those Western governments that, in the interests of "stability," allied with corrupt and dictatorial regimes such as Pakistan and Egypt, especially the United States. In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, these alliances look not just immoral but counterproductive.
Rashid holds out little hope for the future of Afghanistan as anything but a failed state. It would require years more military support and hundreds of millions more dollars of aid, while exhausted Western countries like Canada and the United States are beginning to withdraw.
A more hopeful note for the Middle East generally is struck by Robin Wright's Rock the Casbah published just after the Arab Spring. Wright sees a general growth in the Middle East of "anti-jihadism," an upsurge of popular revulsion against violent ideology and a growing unwillingness by Muslims to be defined by violence-prone extremists
Most of Wright's work is about adaptations of more general cultural trends that are making their way into Middle Eastern societies. It is a cliché that the Arab Spring was partly Facebook and Twitter driven but how about an Islamic rap group? Or Islamic comedians? Or organizers of film festivals? All these cultural forms are showing up, mainly, of course, among the young.
Wright's main point is that the new forms are not signs of Westernization. They are being developed by people who define themselves as Muslims and who support Muslim values. They are not looking to develop a liberal society - only to enrich an Islamic society. The point is, their version of Islamic society does not include support for or worship of jihadism.
A Good Read is a column by Tri-City librarians that is published every Wednesday. Martin Boughner works at Port Moody Public Library.