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In the Graveyard of Empires: America's War in Afghanistan [Paperback]

by Seth G. Jones
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (32 customer reviews)

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Book Description

April 12, 2010 0393338517 978-0393338515 Reprint

A definitive account of the American experience in Afghanistan from the rise of the Taliban to the depths of the insurgency.

After the swift defeat of the Taliban in 2001, American optimism has steadily evaporated in the face of mounting violence; a new “war of a thousand cuts” has now brought the country to its knees. In the Graveyard of Empires is a political history of Afghanistan in the “Age of Terror” from 2001 to 2009, exploring the fundamental tragedy of America’s longest war since Vietnam.

After a brief survey of the great empires in Afghanistan—the campaigns of Alexander the Great, the British in the era of Kipling, and the late Soviet Union—Seth G. Jones examines the central question of our own war: how did an insurgency develop? Following the September 11 attacks, the United States successfully overthrew the Taliban regime. It established security throughout the country—killing, capturing, or scattering most of al Qa’ida’s senior operatives—and Afghanistan finally began to emerge from more than two decades of struggle and conflict. But Jones argues that as early as 2001 planning for the Iraq War siphoned off resources and talented personnel, undermining the gains that had been made. After eight years, he says, the United States has managed to push al Qa’ida’s headquarters about one hundred miles across the border into Pakistan, the distance from New York to Philadelphia.

While observing the tense and often adversarial relationship between NATO allies in the Coalition, Jones—who has distinguished himself at RAND and was recently named by Esquire as one of the “Best and Brightest” young policy experts—introduces us to key figures on both sides of the war. Harnessing important new research and integrating thousands of declassified government documents, Jones then analyzes the insurgency from a historical and structural point of view, showing how a rising drug trade, poor security forces, and pervasive corruption undermined the Karzai government, while Americans abandoned a successful strategy, failed to provide the necessary support, and allowed a growing sanctuary for insurgents in Pakistan to catalyze the Taliban resurgence.

Examining what has worked thus far—and what has not—this serious and important book underscores the challenges we face in stabilizing the country and explains where we went wrong and what we must do if the United States is to avoid the disastrous fate that has befallen many of the great world powers to enter the region. 12 maps and charts

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Since 2001, RAND Corporation political scientist Jones (The Rise of European Security Cooperation) has been observing the reinvigorated insurgency in Afghanistan and weighing the potency of its threat to the country's future and American interests in the region. Jones finds the roots of the re-emergence in the expected areas: the deterioration of security after the ousting of the Taliban regime in 2002, the U.S.'s focus on Iraq as its foreign policy priority and Pakistan's role as a haven for insurgents. He revisits Afghan history, specifically the invasions by the British in the mid- and late-19th century and the Russians in the late-20th to rue how little the U.S. has learned from these two previous wars. He sheds light on why Pakistan—a consistent supporter of the Taliban—continues to be a key player in the region's future. Jones makes important arguments for the inclusion of local leaders, particularly in rural regions, but his diligent panorama of the situation fails to consider whether the war in Afghanistan is already lost. (July)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.


“A useful and generally lively account of what can go wrong when outsiders venture onto the Afghan landscape.” (Steven Simon - Foreign Affairs)

“This is a serious work that should be factored in as a new policy in Afghanistan evolves.” (Jay Freeman - Booklist)

“Offers a valuable window onto how officials have understood the military campaign.” (Robert D. Crews - San Francisco Chronicle)

“[An] excellent book.” (James Blitz - Financial Times)

“How we got to where we are in Afghanistan.” (Matthew Kaminski - Wall Street Journal)

“[Zeroes] in on what went awry after America’s successful routing of the Taliban in late 2001.” (Michiko Kakutani - The New York Times)

“A blueprint for winning in a region that has historically brought mighty armies to their knees.” (Doug Childers - Richmond Times-Dispatch)

“Seth Jones . . . has an anthropologist’s feel for a foreign society, a historian’s intuition for long-term trends, and a novelist’s eye for the telling details that illuminate a much larger story. If you read just one book about the Taliban, terrorism, and the United States, this is the place to start.” (Jeremi Suri, author of Henry Kissinger and the American Century)

“A timely and important work, without peer in terms of both its scholarship and the author’s intimate knowledge of the country, the insurgency threatening it, and the challenges in defeating it.” (Bruce Hoffman, Georgetown University, author of Inside Terrorism)

“A deeply researched and well-analyzed account of the failures of American policies in Afghanistan, In the Graveyard of Empires will be mandatory reading for policymakers from Washington to Kabul.” (Peter Bergen, author of Holy War, Inc. and The Osama bin Laden I Know)

“Seth Jones has combined forceful narrative with careful analysis, illustrating the causes of this deteriorating situation, and recommending sensible, feasible steps to reverse the escalating violence.” (James Dobbins, author of After the Taliban: Nation Building in Afghanistan)

“Seth G. Jones’s book provides a vivid sense of just how paltry and misguided the American effort has been.… In the Graveyard of Empires will help to show what might still be done to build something enduring in Afghanistan and finally allow the U.S. to go home.” (Dexter Filkins - The New Republic)

Product Details

  • Paperback: 464 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; Reprint edition (April 12, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393338517
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393338515
  • Product Dimensions: 8.2 x 5.4 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (32 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #86,546 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Seth G. Jones serves as an advisor and plans officer for the Commanding General, U.S. Special Operations Forces, in Afghanistan. He lives outside of Washington, DC, and contributes regularly to the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post. Jones was named one of 2008's 'Best and Brightest' young policy experts by Esquire.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
68 of 72 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good general review of OEF 2001-2008 June 23, 2009
As a military professional with more than a general understanding of Afghanistan and the current operating environment, this was a "must purchase" for me. While the book did not provide me with any NEW insights into the operating environment, it did not disappoint as a very clearly written and detailed overview of US operations from 2001-2008. This will become a must read for members of my staff trying to develop an understanding of the problem-set in Afghanistan.
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17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Mullah's Garden of Good and Evil November 26, 2009
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Seth Jones' analysis "In the Graveyard of Empires" has made a timely appearance, as it fortuitously coincides with the Obama Administration's review of the current US/NATO approach to the twin issues of "nation-building" and security in Afghanistan. While about half the book recapitulates history aptly summarized elsewhere (Rashid's, "Descent into Chaos" and "Taliban", Coll's, "Ghost Wars" are three recent and outstanding examples), the synopsis is necessary background to the analysis that follows. The second half of the book relies heavily on Jones' original "on-site" research and extensive interviews conducted with a variety of sources (mostly Western). This section of the book objectively summarizes the facts, places them in context and clearly identifies opinion. In short, "Graveyard" is an excellent introduction to the topic and supplies the reader with sufficient information to permit the development a genuinely informed opinion on a very complex issue.

First, why exactly is Afghanistan called the "Graveyard of Empires"? Jones begins his history with Alexander, extends it through the Persians, the British, the Russians and focuses finally on the U.S. His argument, in brief, is that Afghanistan is a tribal society with a "warrior" tradition. It has numerous ethnic groups with enduring and ancient rivalries. There are numerous languages. The borders were artifically drawn (by Britain; the so-called, "Durand Line") and specifically created to divide various tribal groups to facilitate colonial control but create internecine friction. It lacks a history of a strong central government. It has a history of sustaining fractious warlords. It is Islamic. It is mountainous and surrounded by neighbors with a "interest" in the area and a penchant for meddling in Afghan affairs.
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Rumsfeld's Orphan April 22, 2010
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
"In the Graveyard of Empires" is a workmanlike study of America's failed enterprise in Afghanistan. The basic story is well known: After the Taliban were toppled in 2001, the Bush Administration and the Pentagon were eager to move on and invade Iraq. Afghanistan became a low priority. Too few troops were deployed to stabilize the country, and too little development aid was committed to rebuild the economy. As a result, the central government never establshed its writ outside the major cities. The Taliban had time and space to regroup, and they eventually moved into the power vacuum. Now 100,000 U.S. troops are fighting a serious insurgency in a land notorious for casting out foreign invaders. Every American should read the book, especially Republicans who think Bush and Cheney "kept us safe" after 9/11.

I knocked off one star because the book is based overwhelmingly on U.S. government sources. A few paragraphs even read like USG power point presentations! The sad truth is that U.S. diplomats, spies, and soldiers are at sea in a country like Afghanistan: they arrive with little area expertise, rarely stay for more than a year, and recycle second- and third-hand information from a narrow range of local contacts. (Ambassador Khalizad was an exception -- but he was pulled out of Kabul to serve in Baghdad!) These limitations are a fact of life in the foreign policy bureaucracy, but a book should be better than that. Any serious study of the Afghan war must include information culled from local and, particularly, Taliban sources. Yet Afghans rarely appear in "In the Graveyard of Empires."

It's too bad. It keeps this good book from being a great one.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars OK, but there are better books out there November 5, 2010
This is an ok read, and if you have read nothing before on Afghanistan, this will provide you with a great deal of information. It gets it main - and very important - message through also: The folly of the Bush administrations focus on Iraq already from 2001 onwards, ruined a unique opportunity in Afghanistan.
However, what makes this a three-star book was two things; first I think Ahmed Rashid's books are better, and second, this book is repetitive where several chapters lack a clear focus. With a deeper focus on analyses of the events and their consequences - this could have been a four star book.
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22 of 30 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars good book, but doesn't live up to title November 4, 2009
This is a well researched book with a lot of comparative statistics and other analysis. Unfortunatly for the author as regards the title of the book, this is not the 19th century or the time of Alexander the Great. The temporal situation, which this book addresses adequately, is not my major concern. The main problem with this book is that the author doesn't address the question "why are we in Afghanistan if this is indeed the graveyard of empires?" Or is "the graveyard of empires" just some romantisized quotation by Rudyard Kipling from a bygone era. With President Obama ready to surge troops into Afghanistan, this is a highly relevant question Mr Jones. The author also fails to stress what a unique situation Afghanistan is economically, demographically, geographically, topographically, militarily and a what a highly questionable strategy a surge is (we surged hundreds of thousands of troops into Vietnam with no effect). I've read a lot of books on Afghanistan, and to be fair to the author, no book I've read provided any clear-cut answers. However, the title of this book seems to offer an answer which Mr Jones is not willing to claim. In fact, Mr.Jones (like most authors on the War in Afghanistan) doesn't see Afghanistan as a graveyard at all, but a stategic blunder by the US, which focused too much on Iraq. This book is a good introduction to Afghanistan and provides some interesting (if slightly misleading and unoriginal) analysis. To be blunt, this book is a waste of the reader's time. If you're looking for a review of Afghanistan, read an encyclopedia entry on Afghanistan.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Great book, slow at times but very informative
This book is recommended to anyone deploying to Afghanistan or who is interested in the political climate regarding the US involvement in Afghanistan. Read more
Published 4 months ago by Matthew Lavoie
5.0 out of 5 stars Very informative book!
This book packs some great information! Any student of International Studies/Relation, or just anyone that wants to how we got to the point we are at in the Afghan War.... Read more
Published 11 months ago by M.S. Heiser
4.0 out of 5 stars A Solid Review of Policy Success and Failure
Seth G. Jones gives a comprehensive review of our policy in Afghanistan, from the early successes in 2001-02 to dealing with a resurgent Taliban and associated insurgent groups in... Read more
Published 14 months ago by A.F. Ryan
4.0 out of 5 stars Good Reference Book
Lot of good information for my upcoming Deployment learned a lot of the history of Afghanistan and all that country has been thru
Published 16 months ago by Luis
5.0 out of 5 stars Awesome Book
This book about Afghanistan, is very informative and easy to read and follow, it goes into great detail about the characters involved in the War. Read more
Published on March 18, 2012 by Jamie Michael Norris
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent Book
Excellent book detailing from a well researched vantage, the recent history of Afghanistan but more specifically the US involvement since 2001. Read more
Published on October 21, 2011 by JP
2.0 out of 5 stars Tactics but neither strategy nor morality
This book starts from the false premise: that Al Quaida brought us 9/11 which led the to the invasion of Afghanistan. Read more
Published on September 17, 2011 by Jerome Beck
5.0 out of 5 stars insightful
this book provides an insightful look into the failures and successes of America and NATOs war in Afghanistan. Read more
Published on April 21, 2011 by AF51
While much has surely been written about the war in Afghanistan Seth G. Hughes who serves as an advisor and plans officer for the commanding general of U.S. Read more
Published on January 27, 2011 by Gail Cooke
5.0 out of 5 stars Valuable History
Simply put; this book is essential in truly understanding the history of the region. Without political bias or agenda, it is a well-annotated account of what has occured in... Read more
Published on January 24, 2011 by Chris
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