72 of 76 people found the following review helpful
on July 14, 2011
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
The story of the United States' policy in Afghanistan, from the war against the Soviets to the vacuum of the 1990s to today's frustrating and costly yet needed commitment is presented with great clarity and insight by a veteran diplomat who was at the center of many of the events he writes about.
Even where Ambassador Tomsen was not directly involved, he knew enough that, looking in from the periphery on events, he brings unique insights beyond those of the journalists and Washington players whose writings represent the first draft of history. This is Afghanistan 2.0.
I am an American that has been working on Afghanistan since soon after the Soviet invasion in 1979. I have written four books on the subject (the most recent of which, AFGHANISTAN: GRAVEYARD OF EMPIRES, has just been published in a revised paperback edition). So I know the subject and I know Ambassador Tomsen and his work over the years. From my experience, this book is accurate and objective. The author has by no means averted his eyes from the many, many policy failures, including those by the State Department, that have taken place over the years. Nor does he hesitate to name the Great and Good in Washington who, with reputations untarnished, managed to inflict lasting harm on Afghanistn and the Afghans.
Anyone interested in Afghanistan beyond the headlines and todays' too-often-sterile policy debates needs to read this book.
21 of 24 people found the following review helpful
on August 24, 2011
Beyond learning more detail about the dysfunctional tribalism of a country whose current, colonial-imposed borders make even less sense than most of those in Africa (either western Pakistan and its Pashtuns should be added to Afghanistan or southern Afghanistan and its Pashtuns should be added to Pakistan, for starters) the single biggest takeaway I got from this book?
The HUGE degree of outright lying, and other general deception, practiced by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence, the infamous ISI, to its own country's (and its own institutional) goals, often shortsighted ones, since even before the old USSR officially announced it was pulling out of Afghanistan.
Pakistan's long-term President Zia, per the author, said that in negotiations it was perfectly OK to lie to the USSR since it had non-Muslim leadership. It's clear from this book that he and many other Pakistani leaders must feel the same about the United States. (That said, they at least indirectly lied to the Saudis at times, too.)
That said, speaking of Zia, Pakistani heads of government, including but not limited to Zia, and both civilian and military in background, have shown plenty of their own duplicity.
Second biggest takeaway? Long before 9/11, the CIA was clueless about A-stan, and what it called "intelligence" was usually stuff uncritically culled from the ISI. Too bad we didn't have leadership after 9/11 who saw this as the perfect reason, time, and excuse to get rid of the CIA.
Thomson was the first U.S. representative to Afghanistan after the Soviets announced their pullout, with ambassadorial rank. He repeatedly saw firsthand both ISI duplicity and CIA ineptitude (mixed with undercutting the State Department; that happened more than the ineptitude during his 1989-92 service).
Given that the ISI is still in true control of Pakistan, and given that it will go to any end for its own objectives (including, as events of this spring showed, some likely complicity in harboring bin Laden), why are we still in Afghanistan? Short of actual full-blown war with Pakistan (or siccing India into that), and not just pinprick drone attacks, nothing we do will change its course, period.
And, as Thomson details the degree of dysfunctional tribalism, if we stay, anyway ... what do we expect to accomplish?
That said, there are some errors, mainly minor, in the book. "Millennia" is a plural word, not a singular, for example.
But, this book is still chock-full of information on Afghanistan of the past 100 years, and well worth a read.
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on December 6, 2011
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
I am grateful for this book. As its author, Peter Tomsen, points out there is pervasive ignorance about Afghanistan's history, culture and tribal society. It is a complex mosaic that has never truly experienced a central government due to tribal, ethnic and religious differences.
Many have compared the U.S. and Coalition forces efforts in the country to previous disasters experienced by the British and the Soviets. Tomsen writes, "The 1838 British invasion of Afghanistan established a pattern repeated during future invasions of Afghanistan: hubristic justifications, initial success, gradually widening Afghan resistance, stalemate, and withdrawal."
Fast-forward 150 years and at their peak the Soviets controlled only 20% of the country and 15% of the population. The Politburo's discussions in the 1980's regarding withdrawal sounded eerily similar to what U.S. leaders would debate. Both faced high casualties, big expenditures, antiwar sentiment at home, and little progress on any front.
Afghani history is incredibly bloody and the complex society largely unstable with violence an accepted option. This is even more the case when outsiders enter their borders. Afghans also have a tradition of changing sides - they favor the probable winner so loyalties beyond families and clans are far from assured.
This history was incredibly helpful, however, it was when the author (and former Special Envoy on Afghanistan from 1989 to 1992) covered the last twenty years of Afghan history. It confirmed my own conclusion about Pakistani culpability in promoting radical Islam and orchestrating extremist proxy warfare.
As Tomsen says, "The epicenter of world terrorism is in Pakistan, not Afghanistan." He describes Pakistan as an army with a state rather than other way around. So why has the Pakistani military and their intelligence agency, the ISI, meddled so deeply in Afghan affairs? Tomsen explains that they aim for an Afghanistan ruled by pro-Pakistani Afghan religious extremists to help create "strategic depth" against India, stave off the "Pashtunistan" cause - the unification of Pashtuns on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistani frontier, while maintaining control in Pakistan's domestic policy.
Incredibly, the U.S. still supplies Pakistan with staggering amounts of cash and Tomsen claims that America "outsources" its Afghan policy to Pakistan. This when the evidence continues to stack up against Pakistan in their complicity in the actions of the Taliban, al Qaeda, and other extremist groups. Tora Bora and Osama bin Laden's last hideout are clear indictments. The irony is Tomsen documents Taliban complaints of Pakistani duplicity.
This nine hundred and seventy two page book moves with speed. The complex and dense content is well laid out. Tomsen is highly credible and maintains objectivity though he is firm in his conclusions and convictions. He offers a prescription at the end of the book which speaks to an optimism that may surprise given the mess that is Afghanistan.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on February 22, 2012
It takes time for headlines to settle into history. Peter Tomsen is not interested in waiting that long.
Tomsen once served as US ambassador to Afghan resistance groups from 1989 to 1992. The job required him to dive into the tangled thicket of Afghan tribal politics, little understood by the casual observer but crucial in crafting any political deal that could stick in Afghanistan. Tomsen coupled his practical experience with a good read of Afghan history to place today's conflict within the context of history, showing that the solution to Afghanistan's problems are really easy. It's just too damn hard to get there when outside powers are eager to fill the power vacuum in this hostile corner of central Asia.
Do not give Tomsen the benefit of your doubts. He did not write the single "go to" book explaining Afghanistan. And he does have an ax to grind. He stands in a small but growing minority of policy makers and analysts who see Pakistan as playing the U.S. to further its interests in Afghanistan at the expense of all. While this story has emerged in the past decade through news coverage, Tomsen's indictment goes back to the 1970s, as Pakistan used US aid to support favored resistance groups that could fight the invading Soviets. But the real goal was to install a friendly puppet government in Kabul once the Soviets quit the country, so Tomsen argues. Resistance groups led by in-country leaders in Afghanistan were overlooked by the CIA and State department higher ups. These leaders were more moderate and broad-based, truly expressing Afghan political will as opposed to the Pakistani-based groups that veiled the long-term interests of their hosts and paymasters.
Tomsen writes with a straight prose style that does bog down in names, dates and places, a common error made by journalists who recycle past stories into thick books. He hews to the straight and narrow path of narrative, using no more facts than needed to tell the story consistently from start to finish. His past meetings with the various participants in the Afghan wars color his story, providing insight and background that explains their interests and agendas. The Afghan penchant for infighting also runs rampant, forming many frustrating counter-points to every well-laid plan by friend or foe.
It would be too easy to walk away from the whole mess and let the players of the new Great Game continue their intrigues and proxy wars for control of Afghanistan. For Tomsen, this is not an option. He truly wants to see Afghanistan get its act together and go back to being a neutral buffer state keeping larger players from going at each other. Such an Afghan state once had a weak central government that provided some common good to the disparate tribes and ethnic groups that existed with fierce autonomy, respecting the honor and interests of each. That solution, proven workable by history, remains elusive to those who ignore it.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on February 20, 2012
This book provides an excellent, detailed overview of Afghan politics and loyalties since the Cold War. Tomsen clearly is a vault of information on this area, stemming from the amount of time he spent there. Well worth the (admittedly long) read for the take on contemporary Afghanistan (up through the death of Osama bin Laden) and the hammered-home message that no one can seek to control or invade Afghanistan, and effective policies must rely on a detailed knowledge of local tribal motives.
Minus a star for the woefully brief and inaccurate coverage of Afghanistan before the 19th century. Tomsen relies very heavily on Barfield's outdated theories to cover this period of Afghan history, leaving the impression that Afghans are perpetual victims of brutal invasions who need our pity and aid, rather than discussing how cultural interaction even in the midst of past conflict has helped shape the Afghan society of today. Tomsen's tome is invaluable in discussing contemporary Afghanistan, but I would look elsewhere if you seek to know more of its pre-Cold War history. For that I would suggest you turn to the work of Rubin and Centlivres.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on February 16, 2012
This book gives us a geo-political perspective and history of this troubled country. The author is from the U.S., but has spent considerable time in the region over the last thirty years. Mr. Tomsen has met many of the key players, for example Ahmed Shah Masood.
We come to view Pakistan as the major culprit of Afghanistan becoming a failed state. After the Soviet Union pulled out, Pakistan turned from the defensive to the offensive. Through the Taliban, whose main support base was in the FATA areas of Pakistan, Pakistan set up its' own proxy government in Afghanistan.
During the Soviet-Afghan war the U.S. was really a distant third-party providing funds that were channelled through Pakistan to Afghanistan. It was the ISI (Pakistan's secret service) who had the say of got these supplies. Mr. Tomsen points out that the U.S. never dealt directly the Mujahideen in either Pakistan or Afghanistan. The author in no way provides this as an excuse for later events - in fact he is strongly critical of U.S. intelligence for their failure to understand the nature of their involvement. The U.S. had little idea of exactly who they were really dealing with and made no attempt to ascertain the reality of these purported allies. The U.S. would have been wise to pay more attention, well to twist an axiom - "the enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend". By contrast Saudi Arabia - the government and private Saudi donors - knew exactly what they were doing. They not only provided enormous funds, but many fanatical fighters from across the Arab world were inspired to go to Afghanistan by Wahhabi madrassas run by Saudi Arabia. In some ways Mr. Tomsen is not severe enough on Saudi Arabia in his book (at times saying that Saudi Arabia is an ally of Western democracies - page 559 of my book). Saudi Arabia is a direct source of religious totalitarianism, and unlike Pakistan, Saudi Arabia is far more organized and wealthier as a government, albeit with a much smaller population.
It is interesting that the author points out that the U.S. only started providing stinger missiles to Pakistan (for delivery to Afghanistan) in 1986; by that time the Soviet Army was on the retreat in Afghanistan. The Soviets never had a chance there - being isolated in a few urban centers. American aid to Afghanistan (via Pakistan) has been over-emphasized in the demise of the Soviet Army in Afghanistan.
The author spends considerable time discussing the period between the Soviet withdrawal and Pakistan's subsequent invasion of Afghanistan in the early 1990's. This crucial time period would have been, as Mr. Tomsen suggests, the ideal time for nation building. The U.S. was instead obsessed with ending the Cold War and looked elsewhere; leaving Afghanistan to become a haven for Islamic extremists with continued massive funding from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.
There are a great deal of topics covered in this book and I came away with a much greater understanding of the vast complexities of this part of the world - such as the tribal nature of this country and the disconnect between what is going on in Kabul and the mountainous countryside where the majority of the population reside. Does Mr. Tomsen over-emphasize the positive role that Ahmed Shah Masood could have played if he had not been assassinated by al-Qaeda? After all Masood was allied at times with Dostum, who was basically a mercenary warlord. This book is more concerned with political dynamics of which there are plenty - the books of Ahmed Rashid provide a more social view. There is a wonderful parable (on page 251) of trying to balance Afghanistan's regional competitiveness as akin to putting frogs onto two balancing trays, but having them jumping constantly about - off the trays and onto the other tray!
The author recommends withdrawal of most of the armed forces from Afghanistan. As we can see from news reports they are no longer welcome in the country and have (like Britain, followed by the Soviet Union and now NATO) failed to navigate the web of diverse regional groups. These troops also have no knowledge of the different languages of Afghanistan.
The author acknowledges, however, that if Pakistan is allowed to continue its' Islamic infiltration of Afghanistan we will continue to have several years of conflict in front of us. Mr. Tomsen does not want an abnegation of interests in Afghanistan - which is what happened after the Soviet pullout in the early 1990's. The world, along with the U.N. must continue to provide conditional aid to Afghanistan. The U.S. must stop funding Pakistan as it continues its drive into Afghanistan. Perhaps, now that Pakistan is feeling the enmity of "the snake that has come back to bite it"; they may be forced to re-think their militant support of Islamic fundamentalists. As per Mr. Tomsen the next few years are critical. Afghanistan must not be allowed, once again, to descend into a shatter zone.
At over 700 pages this is a long book - and it is distressing to read the hardships, the disarray and the turmoil of Afghanistan that has existed for over thirty years now. Prior to 9/11 we knew little of this country - now it has become decisive to our future.
6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on October 2, 2011
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
Ambassador Tomsen's erudite tome presents a fascinating read for everyone. The historical section is instructive to both those versed in the regional history as well as to those largely unaware of it. The central part, representing his memoirs as Special Envoy, reads both like a thriller and illuminates the context which brought us to this day. Finally, his policy prescriptions are timely, extremely thoughtful, insightful and right on target.
Unfortunately, the size of the book may discourage some from reading the book. However, it is worth the time. This is not some obscure subject. Afghanistan is a critical and timely subject for us and this book will make us "get it". This should be a must read for all, especially the policy makers to understand that the source of past -and future- serious problems is the coddled and well-paid Pakistan. Ambassador Tomsen's analysis and insights show the way to devising appropriate policies that will have long term benefits for both Afghanistan and the United States. While one may be tempted to lament that this book was not published a decade earlier for the benefit of policy makers, however, they have had the author's analysis and recommendations all along and chose simply to ignore them and/or pursue their own separate agendas.
Thanks Ambassador Tomsen for a job very well done! This book is a worthy culmination to his more than three decades of dedicated and very productive service to the country.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on October 19, 2011
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
I could not put the book down. It explains in clear detail what the US is facing and has faced in the troubled country of Afghanistan, and the influence of Pakistan, Russia (formerly the USSR), Great Britain, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. The reader comes away understanding (to the extent that it can be understood) the continuing violence, assassinations and tribal, clan and family distrust, suspicions and power grabs. The author, Peter Tomsen, is extraordinarily experienced in this region of the world, having been special envoy to the Mujahidin with the rank of Ambassador. He writes in detail about each of the factions, influences and personalities.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on May 30, 2012
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
Peter Tomsen has a unique and long-term perspective on Afghanistan. Not only does he know the history and associated "material", he personally knows most of the key players. He takes this intimate knowledge and crafts it into a three-part book that takes the simplicity presented in the mainstream media news, complicates it with the multiple layers of culture, religion, and politics, then brings it back to a context that allowed me to understand what was going on.
The first third of the book examines the history and culture of Afghanistan. Going back to the time of Alexander the Great, Tomsen takes us to the 1970s step by step. At the same time he explains the culture and, especially, the tribal structure and customs that drive everything Afghanistan. He continues his narrative into the 1980s and the Soviet occupation. During this period the story becomes much more personal with Tomsen recounting his time as the US ambassador to the Mujahideen. At times this middle third becomes tedious and I was tempted to skip over the lengthy accounts of meetings, phone calls, and small bits of intrigue. Then, one of his characters shows up in the news and I realize how important the characters are in this story. The final third covers the time since 2001 and the US military action in Afghanistan.
I really only had one, minor criticism of the book. It seemed like Tomsen did not cover the Taliban time of the 1990s with the same thoroughness the rest of the book covered but this is easily forgiven as he presents the current day situation. Knowing Hamid Karzai over many years and literally being involved in his journey to power, Tomsen gives insight into the Afghan president's behavior that paints him a much better light than my, previous US-centric cultural context did.
If there is any overwhelming message in Tomsen's book it is the role, to this day, of Pakistan in sponsoring the radical elements that have brought continuous war since the Soviets left. The revelation is both troubling and deeply enlightening on what is going on there. The duality of Pakistan is consistently shown over a period of decades. The concept of "nation building" in this environment is probably impossible and the best we can hope for is a stalemate. On the other hand, a stalemate is probably better than an Afghanistan controlled by the Pakistan-established Taliban.
Tomsen gets additional credit, in my book, by giving some tangible steps to take Afghanistan to a better future. His constructs around moderate Islam, respect for local customs, and leadership that can bring together various tribes is consistent and probably on target. In the end, I felt like I understood the people and situation of Afghanistan much better.
One final note: My son is currently serving in the Army in Afghanistan. Tomsen's book helped me understand the reasons he is there and the landscape he is dealing with. I have conversed with him frequently since reading the book and he has further reenforced Tomsen's observations and conclusions. I would say this book is a "must read" for anyone who is concerned about someone serving over there. I hope they can all come home but now believe strongly that what they are doing keeps us safer each and every day.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on July 13, 2012
Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase
I just finished reading this book and was excited to give it a five star rating. But after reading the other excellent reviews, there is little more that I can add.
For me, the book read like a novel. Chapter Two was worth the price of the book for someone like me who hasn't read much about Afghanistan. The rest was all gravy.
Peter Tomsen writes from a position of experience and not theory. His many, many personal contacts throughout the diplomatic world, his in country contacts with a vast number of Afgans, both ordinary and heroic, and his dealings with political heads of state make this book not only eminently readable but truly thought provoking.
If you've ever scratched your head and wondered what the heck is going on over there, THE WARS OF AFGHANISTAN:... will introduce you to people, places and things that will most definitely help you connect the dots.
I give it a hearty high five !