Wednesday, January 6, 2010

In the Graveyard of Empires Clarifies the Gordian Knot of Afghanistan

Reviewed by Doris

A few weeks ago a group of online friends and I were discussing the situation in Afghanistan and what should be done there. I realized I knew almost nothing about the history of Afghanistan. I went looking for a book that would help me with the country’s history and information about what is arguably the longest war America has ever fought. On our new book shelf was In the Graveyard of Empires: America’s War in Afghanistan by Seth G. Jones (958.1047 JON Main). Though I am still quite conflicted as to what the best move is for the United States regarding Afghanistan, I understand so much more about the complexity of the country and our current situation there after reading this excellent book.

Afghanistan rightly deserves the title of “the graveyard of empires.” In 330 B. C. Alexander the Great had defeated the great Persian Empire and headed into Afghanistan on his way to India. Having encountered little resistance throughout Eurasia, Alexander was unprepared for the fierce Afghan tribesmen. His legions, which may have numbered more than 100,000 soldiers in Afghanistan, suffered their heaviest losses at the hands of the phantom attackers who slaughtered his troops from their mountain hideaways. Under continuous attack, Alexander ordered his generals out of the region with all possible speed.

Over the next two thousand years the region continued to be a problem for major empires from both the East and West including Genghis Khan, Tamberlane, Babur, the British, and of course the USSR. In 1842 in the First Anglo-Afghan War the departing British forces were reduced from 16,000 to one lone Army surgeon who survived. It is about this war that Rudyard Kipling wrote of the young soldiers lying wounded on the battlefield waiting for the Afghan women to come with their sharp knives. England would fight two more Afghan-Anglo wars with similar results. Most recently, the ten year war the USSR fought against the Muhadjin is partially credited for the downfall of the Soviet state with billions spent and causalities totaling more than eleven thousand elite Spetsnaz GRU Soviet Special Forces.

Jones has done a tremendous amount of research and combined it with his own perceptions. He carefully documents America’s invasion of the country after 9/11. From that point forward he fully explains the development of the insurgency that evolves as America misses opportunity after opportunity to shut down the Taliban, warlords, and the drug cartels that thrive in the unstable atmosphere. As each military decision seems to create more problems for a fragile Afghan government and our own forces, Jones shows how the insurgency is rapidly growing in strength, arms, and area. It is obvious we have lost the tiny window of opportunity we had as Afghanistan and Pakistan become more and more unreliable allies and unstable politically. Unsurprisingly this has been confirmed this week with the release of additional intelligence information about our initial move into Afghanistan after 9/11.

Jones’ research is thorough and well-documented. He weaves history and his own knowledge into the mix along with information from his sources within the Afghan military and government. The issues are highly complex, but I found his style of writing and the knowledge he was sharing relatively easy to follow. He does not take a political stand at all: he provides the facts and shows where we missed each opportunity and where failure after failure has led us to today. While I have always thought I followed the news closely and I understood what the issues are, I was wrong. The country of Afghanistan is still a Stone Age country in many, many ways. It has been at war almost its entire existence. There is no simple answer to any of its problems or to our involvement. In the Graveyard of Empires is an outstanding analysis of the place, the war, and America’s dilemma.

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