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Vortex of Conflict: US Policy toward Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq

Vortex of Conflict: US Policy toward Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq by Dan Caldwell. Stanford University Press, 2011, 408 pp.

Dan Caldwell’s Vortex of Conflict: US Policy toward Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq, published on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, explores the inception of US involvement in that region and how US regional security interests have played out in the ensuing years.

Caldwell attempts the rather daunting task of bringing together in a single volume a vast array of subjects tracing US engagement in each of the three countries. The author quite ably draws links between the wars and explains how diversion of resources to Iraq at a crucial juncture exacerbated the problem in Afghanistan.

To provide a contextual understanding of this long-standing conflict, Caldwell delves briefly into the historical underpinnings to the present situation. He refers to George W. Bush’s speech in 2002 which informed the doctrine later embodying principles of preventive war, unilateralism, secrecy, and reliance on military power. Having won a difficult presidential contest, the author notes, Bush reversed many policies of the Clinton administration (p. 108). He faced a mammoth challenge in the aftermath of 9/11, the first attack on US territory since 1812. It was during the Bush administration that Iraq again fell on the US radar, leading to diversion of vital resources from the warfront in Afghanistan.

The book is organized into three parts addressing overall US policy toward the Islamic states of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan; specific issues such as intelligence, strategy, and postwar reconstruction; and key lessons for future US strategy. The author discusses the overall evolution of US interests and engagement in the region, focusing on the Cold War dynamics where the political desire to contain communism and curtail Soviet influence brought the United States closer to Pakistan, nurturing the Mujahedeen to repel the Soviet Union from Afghanistan, and the role of the Iranian revolution. He also notes it is widely believed that Iran benefitted the most from the US imbroglio in AfPak and Iraq.

US policy miscalculations in Iraq led to escalation of the problem and drove the country further away from permanent peace and stability. Recurring incidents of violence persist after US troops finally exited Iraq in 2011. In terms of the United States leaving Afghanistan in or around 2014, future scenarios there could be similarly uncertain and equally violent.

Caldwell’s work appears thoroughly researched and includes an exhaustive bibliography. In the concluding section the author delineates 26 lessons for the United States to deal with future challenges in the region. He prescribes that Pakistan should receive greater attention, unlike in the past when it remained on the sidelines as an ally to US-led forces (p. 264). At a time when the strategic focus has shifted to Pakistan as the sanctuary to militants operating in the adjoining region (underscored with the killing of Osama Bin Laden in Abottabad), his assertions come across as timely and appropriate. The author also factors in possession of nuclear weapons by Pakistan where the civilian regime is fragile and these weapons could fall into the wrong hands.

The author provides a simple overview of the basic points of Islam and its teachings (pp. 10–18). Area experts may not find significant insights, however, it could be a ready reference for beginners and aspiring scholars. The key question the author deals with is why and how the United States landed in the AfPak and Iraq. Hence, his target audience is the younger generation of scholars who have not closely followed developments post–9/11 and the evolution of an intense American involvement in the region.

In terms of adding value to the existing literature, Vortex of Conflict stands out for covering multiple issues in a single volume. Facts presented lucidly and in a sound chronological order make this a handy reference source for those who have an interest in the AfPak and Iraq situation in view of recent developments. For those who have followed these affairs for long, most of the text may come across as redundant. However, this does not take away the book’s value to scholars/researchers and its somewhat limited relevance for policymakers.

Priyanka Singh

New Delhi

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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