Published — Wednesday 21 November 2012
Last update 21 November 2012 4:09 am
Praises have showered upon the Wars of Afghanistan. Hailed as “magisterial,” “invaluable” and a “masterpiece,” Chuck Hagel, distinguished professor at Georgetown University, acknowledges that Peter Tomsen “brings remarkable clarity to a very complex story.” The fact that it took the author, eight years and 849 pages, to research and then write the book, highlights the difficulty of the task.
Tomsen served as special envoy to the Afghan resistance from 1989 to 1992. His mission was to rally the main protagonists, into a shadow government, ready to take power once the pro-soviet regime collapsed.
For many of us, who are still struggling to understand, what is happening in this complicated part of the world, Tomsen has written the most current and complete book on Afghanistan. Right on the very first page, he admits that:
“A pervasive ignorance about this unique country and its history, culture, and tribal society persists in the West. Our misreading of the Afghan environment and Pakistan’s intentions in Afghanistan are the main reasons why America and the international coalition are today bogged down in the Afghan quagmire…”
Tomsen believes it is possible to achieve an outcome if America and its allies craft policies that respect Afghan history and culture and heed the lessons of past foreign interventions.
Afghanistan’s complex history is marked by a constant flow of invasions, particularly, nomadic. This triggered the creation of tribal communities in isolated mountains and valleys.
European colonialism that took place between the 16th and the 19th centuries, turned the Afghan highland into a battleground. However, its powerful neighbors, the Indians Mughals and Persian Safavids failed equally to revive the ancestral international trade routes and to justify their presence with useful investments.
Afghanistan is proud to have never been colonized. However, despite the establishment of an independent state, in the 18th century, no Afghan government has ever ruled all the regions. The country has remained divided into thousands of tribes and the tribes have traditionally always resisted to submit to the government authority. Afghanistan played a useful role as a buffer, between Great Powers that came to an end in 1979, the year the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan. This event has plunged the country, to this day, into an abyss of violence, destruction and instability.
The Afghan quagmire is rooted both in the country’s deeply entrenched tribalism and its numerous nationalities (Pashtun, Nuristani, Tajik, Baluch, Hazara, Turkmen, Uzbek, Aimak, Kyrgyz); furthermore, foreign governments have failed to understand this basic reality. Tribesmen are fiercely independent-minded and reject violently any attempts to curtail their freedom. On the other hand, tribalism is the cause of incessant and never-ending feuds and conflicts between members of the same tribe, or other tribes and the government.
One cannot emphasize enough the eminent role played by the Pashtun tribes. As the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, the Pashtuns have dominated the Afghan state since its creation during the 18th century. A Pashtun is a devout Muslim, but in his personal life he follows the ancient Pashtun tribal code, known as “pashtunwali” (the way of the Pashtun).
Even before the Afghan mujahideen fought a communist regime radically opposed to Islam, Abdur Rahman Khan, the first Afghan monarch to overcome tribal opposition and strengthen government control, warned his successor, Habibullah never to trust the Russians.
The Soviets’ plans for Afghanistan were doomed to fail due to their gross ignorance of the country’s history and its people.
“It would take three decades, many billions of rubles, and tens of thousands of Soviet lives for Soviet leaders to come to this realization,” writes Tomsen.
The Soviet Union dreamed of turning Afghanistan into a second Mongolia forgetting that the Afghan communist party played an insignificant role on the Afghan political scene.
Pakistan’s quasi symbiotic relationship with Afghanistan is symbolized by the speech, Mohammad Daoud, gave during his visit to Pakistan, at a grand reception, organized by the Pakistani president, Zia ul-Haq:
“Your strength is our strength, your welfare is our welfare, and your stability is our stability. Let’s walk hand in hand in the warm glow of brotherhood and sincerity to cover the distance lying ahead of us…I hope the friendship between Pakistan and Afghanistan will be permanent and everlasting.”
Pakistan’s strategic policy to conduct its proxy wars in Afghanistan has been counterproductive for both countries. Pakistan‘s continuous support for the Taleban remains the most acute threat to a stable and peaceful Afghanistan.
The American-led victory that removed the Taleban regime and its Al-Qaeda supporters has not enabled Afghanistan to rebuild itself. While the United States chose to focus on Iraq, the Pakistani forces rearmed the Taleban inside Pakistan.
The solution to Afghanistan’s instability lies in Pakistan. The author believes that the United States should not pursue its previous strategies in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
“The new US approach would focus on three overarching goals: Genuine Afghanization and de-Americanization; a fundamental change in Pakistan’s policy; and geostrategic diplomatic reinforcement of global and regional forces to achieve these two outcomes.”
The history of Afghanistan is strewn with examples of misguided interventions including the massacre of British imperial forces at Maiwand in 1880, the Soviet invasion and retreat a hundred years later; then a US-led invasion to wipe out the Al-Qaeda network responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks and overthrow the Taleban regime that protected Osama bin Laden’s terrorist group.
Peter Tomsen not only excels in highlighting the origins of the West’s misguided interventions in Afghanistan but also offers a deeper historical context. This compelling and substantial narrative brings understanding and knowledge about an incredibly complicated part of the world.