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The Mullah's Garden of Good and Evil
on November 26, 2009
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. It is (to cite another favorite trope), the land of "The Great Game". Due to this long and disputatious history, its hardly suprising that the U.S. did not receive bouquets of flowers and lots of "warm fuzzies" after the Taliban was booted from power.
Second and maybe most importantly, what does this background portend for the U.S.? The answer to this question comprises the second part of the book. If only one pithy phrase was to be selected on this topic, it would be "mission myopia". Originally, the Bush Administration's goal in Afghanistan was the elimination of Osama bin Ladin's terror network. This group, as is now universally known, was headquartered in Afghanistan and strongly supported by the Taliban government. The Taliban was (and is) a viciously fundamentalist organization which shared (and still does) a consanguinity of interests with the equally vicious, revanchist, Islamist Osama group. For opaque reasons, the U.S. mission initially focused exclusively on elimination of Osama and company and, once Osama trotted across the porous border with Pakistan, the U.S. essentially lost interest in the Taliban. Unfortunately, the contemporaneous situation in Iraq further distracted U.S. interest and absorbed many resources necessary for stabilizing, clearing and holding Afghanistan. By committing insufficent resources (financial, personnel), by failing to maintain historical perspective (see above) and by dint of a recalcitrant ideology (see Donald Rumsfeld's obtuse remarks on "nation building" and NATO scattered throughout the book), the U.S. and its benighted allies set the stage for the ensuing debacle. Naturally, the corrupt and inefficient Afghan government aggrevated the situation and, into the power vacuum stepped the toxic mixture of warlords, drug barons, Pakistani ISI operatives, Iranian Revolutionary Guards, resurgent Taliban and, of course, Osama's minions, too.
Finally, what to do about it all. Here is where the real problem lies. Until a communality of interests and goals by the NATO allies can be established; until adequate resources for clearing, holding and building (David Galula's and Roger Trinquier's classic formulations) are committed; until the Afghani government can rid itself of corruption and develop a "service" perspective and approach and, most crucially, until Pakistan can be convinced to "leave Afghanistan to the Afghans", nothing the U.S. favors will happen. Jones makes all of this crystalline clear, so failure cannot be based on the pretext of ignorance.
What are the shortcomings of this book? Frankly, very few. Some of Jones' characterization of combat commanders are a bit too adulatory (all U.S. commanders are "brillainte", "tall", "committed", etc, etc). There is a small element of Tom Clancy-like reverence for high-tech war implements. That's about it.
In conclusion, this book includes all the necessary background required for understanding the current dilemma in this remote but critically important corner of Southeast Asia. It is entirely self-contained (i.e., no background knowledge is required to understand it). In other words, its well worth reading.