In the Graveyard of Empires: America’s War in Afghanistan
Let’s get one thing out of the way first: if you already follow Afghanistan, you won’t learn anything new. That itself is not necessarily a bad thing—Seth Jones does us a tremendous favor by creating the first, to my knowledge, chronology of America’s presence in Afghanistan post-9/11. But he doesn’t shed any new light on the conflict, either.
Jones is a political scientist, not an area specialist, and given his extensive writings for RAND on nation-building, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, and post-conflict reconstruction, I was kind of hoping for a nice pay off in terms of either a theory, or some sort of framework to help me better understand the conflict. It could have provided a means by which we can compare this war with others the U.S. has fought, and place within the context of history and precedent how this counterinsurgency fares with others.
Instead, what we get is a rough chronology of how the war went from success to failure, as successive generals and ambassadors failed to receive the attention, clout, or resources they needed to achieve lasting good, with the insight that corruption is bad and more troops would have helped. Well, yes—that’s all very true, but it’s also not news, either. If you’ve been following the news at all the last year or so since Afghanistan became a hot item again, we’ve heard that before. Jones, for example, tells us we need to arrest and prosecute corrupt officials. But what happens when they get pissed off and form their own anti-government militia?
Jones touches on comparative study with a brief discussion of troop levels, and there are hints of how resistance movements begin. But there’s no payoff. The what of Afghanistan is very common-sensical: reduce corruption, build local capacity, and deny terrorists safe haven in Pakistan. Sounds like a standard issue Ignatius column. The how is where it gets inhumanly difficult, and Jones doesn’t really talk about that.
The real value Jones brings to this work is its official-ness. Much like Steve Coll, he relies almost entirely on popular histories of the country (it takes him 86 pages to get to the “America’s war” bit) and interviews with the officials who spent the last eight years screwing it up. This is both a strength and weakness: we get some insight into how bureaucracy and egos stymied good-faith efforts, but the views are also top-down. Even when he left Kabul, Jones relied on high-ranking military officers for his transportation and powerpoint briefings; while that can enable some insight (even beyond his observation that he could use his Blackberry “in the Hindu Kush”) it’s also a critical weakness.
For example, the observation about his Blackberry was written about a trip to Khost and Paktika provinces—neither of which are actually in the Hindu Kush mountain range (he also, annoyingly, repeatedly placed Gardez in Khost, when it is the capital of Paktya). Jones sometimes names Pashtun tribes when identifying people (as being either Ghilzai or Durrani), but sometimes not, and can’t seem to make up his mind if that matters. His history skips all the successful conquerors of the country to justify his title (which is just clichéd, as many others have noted). He barely touches opium.
His reliance on interview subjects, like Zalmay Khalilzad, introduces a severe bias. In Jones’ telling, Khalilzad is Afghanistan’s near-savior, the man who got it right in 2004, whose advice could have easily saved the country had we just listened to him and not sent him off to Baghdad. The reality is much more sobering. Khalilzad is probably the single man most responsible for Benazir Bhutto’s death aside from her actual assassins; his recent quest to insert himself against President Obama’s wishes as “Afghanistan’s CEO” only reinforced the popular notion in Afghanistan that the government is a puppet of shallow American interests; and his history of meddling in the government since he showed up in 2003 did as much to undermine the Karzai administration as Karzai himself did.
By way of example, let us examine an incident in Herat in 2004. In a chapter titled “Early Successes,” Jones discusses how Khalilzad flew out to Herat with the agreement of Presidents Bush and Karzai to convince its governor, the famous mujahidin commander Ismail Khan, to give up his governorship and move to Kabul (“vintage Khalilzad,” Jones describes it). When Washington Post reporter Rajiv Chandrasekaran described the same incident three months ago, however, he said Khalilzad made the trip to Herat on his own authority, and cajoled Karzai into acquiescing to it. In fact, Chandrasekaran reported, Khalilzad inserted himself into almost every decision President Karzai made and made a big show of dining with the Afghan president six nights a week.
Ahh, but Khalilzad, Jones argues, was an Afghan, and therefore has a “visceral feel for the country’s social, cultural, and political intricacies.” What’s more, Khalilzad understands “the people of Afghanistan and their warrior spirit.” Hrm. Well, as the Pashtuns say, “Laghmani shaytan baazi dad.” The Laghmani—Khalilzad’s family is from Laghman province—fooled the devil. Selection bias is a serious issue in these types of books, and Jones doesn’t really analyze how that bias might have affected either his history or his analysis.
All that being said, the book is actually a pretty good introduction. It’s just basic, and that’s probably the point. For the people who haven’t followed Afghanistan all these years, it’s a helpful place to get caught up on all our missteps. While it seems like a let down at the end to get the same common sense recommendations (“eliminate corruption!”) without any real ideas about implementation, most people probably haven’t gotten that far yet, and Jones does them a tremendous service by showing them where we need to go from here. As such, while it would probably be boring or frustrating to the already informed, it is a great way of introducing the complexity of the challenges we face.