The Afghanistan File by Prince Turki al-Faisal al-Saud. Arabian Publishing, 2021, 272 pp.
Reviewing a book about the history of Afghanistan in early 2022 is an effort steeped in memory, tragedy, and regret. Winter grips the country, leaving millions at risk of starvation. The Taliban continue to reimpose its brutal, misogynistic ideology and conflict between the Taliban and radical organizations like the Islamic State-Khorason Province. The few remaining moderate anti-Taliban groups threaten to plunge Afghanistan back into a cycle of warlordism and internal bloodletting.
Six months after the United States’ withdrawal, the haunting feeling is not one of conclusion but of history repeating itself. Just 33 years ago, another failed war in Afghanistan ended and left a shattered country, impoverished and depopulated, along with the ticking bomb of transnational Islamist extremism that grimly exploded on September 11, 2001, and triggered 20 years of failed American military adventurism.
This war, the Afghan-Soviet War of 1979–89, is the subject of Prince Turki al-Faisal al-Saud’s The Afghanistan File. Prince Turki, a senior member of the Saudi royal family, was the head of the General Intelligence Department (GID), Saudi Arabia’s foreign intelligence service, throughout the Afghan-Soviet War and its immediate aftermath and played a significant role in his country’s first covert and then, later, more open support of the Afghan mujahideen fighting to expel the Soviets. The Afghanistan File details these efforts and Saudi Arabia’s attempt to shape events in a post-war Afghanistan still rife with internecine conflict between its “victorious” mujahideen factions. Ultimately, however, in the words of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud (1924–2015), who encouraged Prince Turki to write the book, The Afghanistan File is a defense of the Kingdom’s actions during and after the Afghan-Soviet War. The book is an opportunity for “Saudi Arabia [to] give its version of events” after other works and histories from the war’s participants “had blamed Saudi Arabia for much of what went wrong” (15).
The Afghanistan File’s 15 chapters can be divided into four primary sections. The first introductory section, comprised of chapters 1–2 (“Invasion—and Response” and “A Troubled Independence”), details the history of Afghanistan as a nation before the Soviet invasion It also introduces Prince Turki, describes the Soviet invasion of 1979, and the immediate activities taken by Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, the United States, and others in response to the invasion.
The second section, which comprises the bulk of the book, is about the Afghan-Soviet War itself: (1) the “birth” of the various Afghan mujahideen groups (chapter 3); (2) the development of the funding and arms “pipeline” to anti-Soviet Afghan forces by Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and the United States (chapter 4); (3) the role of charitable contributions and Arab volunteers in the conflict (chapter 6); (4) the influence of Abdullah Azzam, the Palestinian Islamic scholar who would found a key guest-house for Arab volunteers coming to Afghanistan (and who was a mentor of Osama bin Laden) (chapter 7); and (5) the basic historical progression of the war.
The latter led ultimately—due in no small part to the international support provided by the Saudis, Americans, and others—to the Soviet withdrawal (chapters 5 and 8). The book’s third section, made up of chapters 9–12 (“The Loya Jirga at Rawalpindi,” “Interlude—The Kuwait Crisis,” “The Fall of Dr. Najibullah,” and “Bringing Home the Volunteers”), details the immediate aftermath of the war. This includes Saudi Arabia and Pakistan’s attempts to broker a power-sharing agreement between the “victorious” mujahideen factions, the failure of these attempts, the descent of Afghanistan into civil war, and the Saudi government’s efforts to repatriate Saudi citizens who went to Afghanistan to fight against the Soviets or participate in the civil war.
The fourth and final section includes chapters 13, 14, and 15 (“The Rise of the Taliban,” “The Taliban and Bin Laden,” and “Aftermath”). This section draws Prince Turki’s time as head of the GID and his narrative to a close with an account of the Taliban’s abrupt rise from a small group of Islamist students to the ruling power over the majority of Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia’s failed attempts to persuade the Taliban to extradite Osama bin Laden, and Prince Turki’s thoughts on the post-9/11 efforts to battle terrorism and extremism.
Throughout these sections, the tale told by Prince Turki is largely a familiar one, at least to those with even a moderate knowledge of the history of modern Afghanistan. The reader will encounter the full cast of players in this tragic period of Afghan history: “heroes” (to the extent the history of the Afghan-Soviet War and its aftermath allows the use of such a moniker) like militant commander Ahmad Shah Massoud (the “Lion of Panjshir”), Burhanuddin Rabbani, Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, key American supporters of the Afghan mujahideen like Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson, and (the reader cannot help but infer) Prince Turki himself as the Saudis’ primary agent in bankrolling the mujahideen.
The villains are no less familiar: the Soviet political leadership that authorized the invasion of Afghanistan; increasingly ruthless Soviet occupation forces, who brutalized the country’s population and contributed to both the breakdown of its traditional institutions and the Hobbesian rise of its soon-to-be “ruling class” of militant commanders; the perfidious Gulbuddin Hekmetyar (leader of the Hezb-i Islami militant group, and a chief rival of Massoud and Rabbani); Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Agency (ISI); the Taliban; and, of course, Osama bin Laden, the renegade son of one of Saudi Arabia’s wealthiest construction magnates who would, ultimately, upend the post-Cold War international order with his acts of Islamist terrorism. The overarching storyline of the book—the Soviet invasion, mujahideen response, and Soviet withdrawal, followed by the descent of Afghanistan into civil war and brigandage and the rise of the Taliban and al-Qaeda—is also well known.
Still, with King Abdullah’s stated goal in mind, Prince Turki weaves his narrative from the Saudi perspective, attempting to put the best spin, so to speak, on certain unpleasant undercurrents of the war. He describes the “religious zealots” from the Arab world seeking to get involved in the conflict as “a nuisance” (74) and claims that “official’” Saudi financing largely excluded the most radical of the militant groups. Private individuals in Saudi Arabia, Prince Turki postulates, may have provided personal contributions to more radical extremists. Saudis, it seems, are “less institutionally minded than people in the Western world” and “like to get involved in . . . all sorts of areas of life on a direct person-to-person basis” (67).
Similarly, no doubt with the post-Afghan-Soviet War rise in militant Islamism in mind, Prince Turki seeks to absolve Saudi Arabia from the blame for the radicalization trend of certain areas of the Islamic world. “[T]he Saudi State in the last hundred years,” he insists, “has not tried as a matter of formal policy to spread Unitarian beliefs [Prince Turki’s description of Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi form of Islam] to other Muslim countries,” and “[m]ost Saudi support for building mosques around the world has been in response to requests from Muslim governments or Muslim communities in non-Muslim countries” (71). Prince Turki euphemistically notes that “unitarian beliefs are spread in these communities” as a result of Saudi aid—an brief aside that is left without examination of its larger implications (71).
For its partisan undertones and reexaminations of familiar ground, however, The Afghanistan File is not without moments of fascination. These primarily come when Prince Turki describes his personal experiences interacting with other players in the Afghan drama or is actively involved in attempting to shape events. This reviewer found Prince Turki’s descriptions of his two meetings with the mysterious, mercurial Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar the highlight of his narrative, but his work with Pakistani intelligence (chapters 4, 5, and 9), his efforts at peacemaking at the postwar Loya Jirga (chapter 9), and his personal interactions with Osama bin Laden (chapters 7 and 10) were also extremely interesting.
There is little doubt that Prince Turki’s narrative aims to explain Saudi Arabia’s perspective on the Afghan-related events from the late 1970s through the early 2000s. His narrative also attemps to some degree, to absolve the Kingdom from the blame for some of the more tragic aspects of these events (the arming and funding of more radical Afghan mujahideen groups, the post-Soviet Afghan civil war, the rise of the Taliban, and, ultimately, the September 11 terrorist attacks and rise of transnational Islamic terrorism).
That said, the book remains a valuable addition to the historical literature of the Afghan-Soviet War and its aftermath. King Abdullah’s words to Prince Turki are no less true because they are partisan. As a key player in the drama that unfolded in Afghanistan during and after the 1980s, Saudi Arabia deserves to tell its version of those events. With his first-hand experience as director of the GID, Prince Turki is just the person to do so on behalf of his country.
Major Jeremy J. Grunert, USAF