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Book Reviews

The Dramaturgy of a Failure

Ahmed Rashid, Caos Asia. Il fallimento occidentale nella polveriera del mondo (Feltrinelli, Milan, 2008). Original edition: Descent into Chaos. The United States and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia (Viking, New York, 2008).

Amongst those who write on international policy the use of a theatrical lexicon is frequent: actors, protagonists, stage, audience and so forth. Perhaps it is no accident that the Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid, the author of the bestseller Taliban, placed at the end of this last work of his a Dramatis Personae, a rather rare fact for a book of essays in which usually one finds anything but an index of names. But here we find ourselves more in front of pièce, somewhat along the lines of Samuel Beckett, whose ending has been suspended.

 

 

One could say that the plot is rather well known. Descent into Chaos does not have any new revelations and does not use secret documents. It performs an infinitely more useful task by going beyond the errors of the American and Western governing classes. But without keeping quiet about them. The image of President Hamid Karzai, for example, is that of a not very capable politician, and this despite the ties that he has with the author. The volume is partly an essay and partly a reportage and where necessary also a book of history. Many problems which hitherto have not been solved find space in its pages. From Iraq to the failed attempt at the reconstruction of Afghanistan, to the Talibans, and on to the non-State of Pakistan. But the author has the merit of including amongst the ‘protagonists’ also the former Soviet republics, making it be understood that the crucible that the volume deals with is much greater than the acronym coined by American diplomacy: AF/PK (Afghanistan-Pakistan).

 

 

In his roles as a scriptwriter Rashid seems to wear the clothes of a troubled playwright and one at the same time who is resigned to witnessing a performance put on by a vaguely comic theatre company whose director is not fully known (the UN, NATO?). Indeed, an actor who plays a role that is not suitable to him becomes comic. But whereas the actors-politicians are amateurs, Rashid is an excellent playwright-journalist who is very attentive to details, to silences and also to excessive words. Resorting to a technique of a certain kind of contemporary theatre, Rashid takes the audience/readers behind the scenes where the actors, without acting, make us understand that they do not know what to do.

 

 

In a number of ‘acts’, perhaps the best part of the book, Rashid puts on stage the eternal dilemma of the Weberian politician: the conjoining of the ethics of principles with the ethics of responsibility. Some actors seem to be successful in this synthesis but in the majority of cases one is dealing only with appearances, while the protagonists seem to be concerned to make the audience laugh (or cry, according to the sense of irony of the observer).

 

 

It is not surprising, therefore, that Descent into Chaos is run through with a strong sense of consternation which finds expression in the infinite phrase ‘if only…’. These are the ‘ifs’ of a journalist who, in the role of Cassandra, denounces the failure of American foreign policy and of Western foreign policy in Central Asia but who still believes in the possibility of a solution. It must, however, be a ‘Yes, we still can’ that can be translated into an action not dictated by simple electoral or economic self-interest and which does not deceive itself into calling a country democratic solely because elections are held. The great drama of the region lies, perhaps, in a grammatical question. It would probably be sufficient to change a verb from the past tense into the present to write a new book which, however, in all probability, would denounce the same errors, perhaps with the addition of some countries or some problems. This journalist is certainly not Cicero and not many Julius Caesars are around. And yet Rashid seems to say: “For how long, Catalina, will you misuse our patience?”

 

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