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In the Graveyard of Empires: America’s War in Afghanistan

In the Graveyard of Empires: America’s War in Afghanistan by Seth G. Jones. W. W. Norton, 2009, 448 pp., $27.95.

Drawn from recently declassified documents and hundreds of interviews with the architects of US policy in Afghanistan, Seth G. Jones’s new work explains how the US military campaign, despite its early successes, ultimately stalled in Afghanistan. In the Graveyard of Empires is replete with insiders’ insights, including the perspectives of Colin Powell, Richard Armitage, Zalmay Khalilzad, Ronald Neumann, Lt Gen Karl W. Eikenberry, Lt Gen David W. Barno, Wendy Chamberlin, Robert Grenier, and Graham Fuller. The inclusion of viewpoints from the State Department, Defense Department, and Central Intelligence Agency also indicates the disconnected nature of their objectives in Afghanistan.

Jones describes recent American experiences through the lens of historical imperial misadventures: “Past empires that have dared to enter Afghanistan—from Alexander the Great to Great Britain and the Soviet Union—have found initial entry possible, even easy, only to find themselves mired in local resistance” (p. xxv). This historical view, however, is incomplete. It is true that many great armies and empires have conquered Afghanistan: Persians (Cyrus the Great), Greeks (Alexander the Great), Arabs, Mongols (Genghis Khan), Timurids (Timur), Mughals (Babur), Sikhs, British, and Soviets. These empires ruled Afghanistan by force and their conquest was fleeting, but occupation and resistance was only part of the history. The Afghan people absorbed art and culture, religion, language, architecture, and technology from each of these imperial incursions and forged lasting bonds with their would-be conquerors.

Jones’s first chapter, Afghanistan’s “Descent into Violence,” covers a lengthy period from 330 BCE through 1979. But it ignores US interests in Afghanistan before the Soviet invasion. More importantly, Jones overlooks the implications of the post–World War II decision by administration officials to focus on Iran and Pakistan as allies in Southwest Asia. Jones’s overemphasis on Cold War narratives, no doubt due to his sources, supports a 1990s historical revisionism that overstates US successes in the Soviet “soft underbelly”—Central Asia. His coverage of the mujahideen era, moreover, focuses on Russian and Pakistani efforts and denies Afghans agency in their own history.

US policy makers withdrew from the region after 1989 and quickly lost interest in Afghanistan’s future. There were opportunities to mediate during the civil war, but as Zalmay Khalilzad indicates, “America has not helped Afghans and our friends in the region make the right decisions” (p. 51). At the same time, Pakistan began to interfere more audaciously to confront an imagined “Tehran-Moscow-New Delhi axis supporting Kabul,” in the words of one State Department memo (p. 47). A decade-long hiatus of expertise ensued until the events of 11 September 2001 brought American focus back to Afghanistan. This unfortunate disconnect explains how policy makers misread the Soviet experience, choosing the ineffectual “Panama model” and a “light footprint” to stabilize Afghanistan instead of a larger invasion force. Jones could have studied the development of these strategies with much more detail.

The real strength of the book emerges when he discusses US awareness of the Taliban-Pakistan connection. From the beginning of the conflict, Richard Armitage explains, “Pakistan’s leaders had to choose between the United States or the terrorists; there was no middle ground” (p. 88). And ample evidence indicates that the Pakistani government supported US operations initially. Jones’s study, however, raises the question of whether Pakistani officials continued to aid the Taliban and the al-Qaeda network as militants flooded into Pakistan at the end of 2001. When Pakistan was unwilling to target its erstwhile client, the borderlands proved an “ideal sanctuary” for militants.

The decision to invade Iraq in 2003 further complicated matters. As Jones argues, “Despite the impressive gains in security, infrastructure, and democracy, the United States shifted resources and attention to Iraq and allowed the Taliban, al Qa’ida, and other insurgent groups to rebuild in Afghanistan and Pakistan” (p. xxv). Yet Jones does not view US challenges as one dimensional; instead, he identifies several pivotal developments in the surge of violence during the mid-2000s that shaped America’s war in Afghanistan. With resources diverted to Iraq and command transferred to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, rampant corruption and lack of security resulted in growing Afghan indifference to the weak government in Kabul. Funding for the Afghan government waned while contributions to insurgents increased after the US invasion of Iraq. The collaboration of religiously motivated Pakistani-based recruits and Afghans frustrated with local corruption and ineffectual governance led to the rise of three militant groups: the neo-Taliban, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-i-Islami, and the Jalaluddin Haqqani network.

Jones’s research on the murky history of Pakistani military support for Afghan insurgents is important. He reveals that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence and Frontier Corps provided vital, even combat, support to the Taliban throughout the war. This practice took on deeper significance when the US military appeared to draw down in 2005, further increasing Pakistani commitment to partners in Afghanistan. Jones, who served as an adviser for the commanding general of US special operations forces in Afghanistan, witnessed the escalating violence that followed.

In the end, the author observes some of the key missteps of the US engagement in Afghanistan. In particular, US policy makers lacked a joint Afghan-Pakistan strategy to address the complexities of the frontier. The shift in resources to Iraq at a key moment in the stabilization of Afghanistan also had a lasting impact. Jones offers sage advice for the future of Afghanistan: “Security in rural areas must come from local Afghan institutions, especially tribal ones, since foreign armies have never succeeded in establishing law and order in Afghanistan” (p. 321). Choosing to see Afghanistan as a “Graveyard of Empires” is provocative and ominous, but it fails to advance our understanding of the complex US engagement with Afghanistan and extends the long tradition of dismissing Afghanistan as unruly and bellicose. Despite these faults, Jones’s work is a welcome sequel to such pioneering works as Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars (2004) and Lawrence Wright’s Looming Tower (2006). Gen Norton A. Schwartz included In the Graveyard of Empires in his Chief of Staff of the Air Force Reading List for 2010.

Dr. Michael R. Rouland

Air Force Historical Studies Office

Washington, DC

"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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