Book Festival: Ahmed Rashid

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Ahmed Rashid, Ruth Wishart (Chair)
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The Peppers Theatre tent in Charlotte Square Garden isn’t the largest venue at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, so it was no surprise to find it stowed for Ahmed Rashid.

The author of Taliban, now re-issued in an updated edition, and Descent into Chaos, a lucid and devastating critique of the conflict in Afghanistan, rehearsed the arguments of particularly the latter title for an audience which included some notably late-arriving F O types.

Rashid’s criticisms of, in particular, the West’s interventions in this part of our troubled world are devastating. He argues that the present impasse is significantly different from previous involvements, such as that of the former Soviet Union, and is in part at least a result of inabilities to deploy sufficient resources.

Rashid is careful to make clear that the resources he wants to see in Afghanistan are economic rather than military ones, and by implication at least, that the so-called "Revolution in Military Affairs" to which that country has been subjected, has resulted in abject failure to resolve underlying economic and social problems.

Equally, the reluctance of the Obama administration in the U.S. to be seen to be talking to the Taliban is effectively lengthening the conflict and putting the Karzai administration in Kabul in increasing jeopardy. Kabul, London and the majority of other states involved in the conflict at present recognise that negotiation with those Taliban elements seeking peace is an essential part of any strategy of ultimate military withdrawal from Afghanistan, but the US administration’s fear of public reaction coupled with the US military doctrine of destroying rather than defeating its opponents are both counter-productive to purposeful negotiation.

In the subsequent discussion, ably chaired by the redoubtable Ruth Wishart, attempts were made to draw parallels between U.S. intervention in Vietnam and Afghanistan. These are only partially effective, however, and the need to draw the Taliban into economic recovery measures appears to have more in common with peace initiatives in Northern Ireland than elsewhere.

Equally, economic measures will have more impact on poppy cultivation (raw opium, with a potential shelf life of 20 years, remains as obtainable as it did under Taliban rule) than any efforts to eradicate it. A final question from an audience member, suggesting that allowing the return of a resurgent Taliban would result in an end of opium exports, was its own demonstration of how many of us need to read and reflect on Rashid’s work.