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Chronicle Book Review: The Wars of Afghanistan

Submitted by Phillip Smith on (Issue #692)
Drug War Issues

The Wars of Afghanistan: Messianic Terrorism, Tribal Conflicts, and the Failures of Great Powers, by Peter Tomsen (2011, Public Affairs Press, 849 pp., $39.99 HB)

With a publication date this week, The Wars of Afghanistan couldn't be more timely. On Monday, the Obama administration, angered by Pakistani double-dealing, announced it was cutting $800 million in military assistance, and the Pakistani military responded by announcing it would withdraw troops deployed near the Afghan border whose stated purpose was to assist the US effort in Afghanistan by blocking infiltration routes for Taliban and allied fighters. On Tuesday, a gunman assassinated a major Afghan government player, regional warlord, CIA asset, and reputed opium and heroin trafficker, Ahmed Wali Karzai, who just happens to be the brother of Afghan President Hamid Karzai. (The Taliban took credit for the deed, but who really knows?)

Meanwhile, US drone attacks killed a reported 58 suspected terrorists on the Pakistan side of the border, the latest in an escalating campaign aimed at Al Qaeda, Taliban, and affiliated fighters in what had formerly been a secure rear base for Afghan insurgents and Arab Islamist holy warriors alike. And, nearly a decade after the US invaded Afghanistan to eliminate Al Qaeda and the Taliban, US and NATO soldiers are killing and being killed on a daily basis. Five French NATO troops died Tuesday in a roadside bombing.

If its timing couldn't be better, it is also difficult to imagine a more impeccably informed author than Peter Tomsen, a career State Department diplomat who served as the ambassador-rank US special envoy to the Afghan mujahedeen from 1989 to 1992, met with everyone from Saudi and Russian diplomats to Afghan warlords of various stripes to the Taliban to the Pakistani military and intelligence officers who guided the jihad against the Russians, then played the Americans for fools for the past quarter-century. Tomsen, now retired from the State Department, has kept a close eye on the region ever since, and, with The Wars of Afghanistan, has produced a magnum opus.

The Wars of Afghanistan is not about opium farmers or drug trafficking. Tomsen mentions US concerns about the drug trade as part of longstanding American policy considerations in Afghanistan, and he makes occasional references to this or that warlord fighting over control of the drug trade, but that's about the extent of it for drug policy. And that's just fine, because while Drug War Chronicle is by its very nature drug policy-centric, larger reality is not necessarily so, and neither are the conflicts in Afghan and Pakistan. As drug policy wonks, it behooves us to view our concerns within the broader context, and in this particular case, while Tomsen perhaps underplays the role of drug prohibition and the poppy trade in the Afghanistan wars of the past 30 years, he does an outstanding job of making a hideously complex and complicated conflict comprehensible to the educated lay reader.

Tomsen guides readers through the intricacies of Afghanistan's still powerful ethnic and tribal politics, the delicate balance between center and periphery in the Afghan state, and -- very importantly -- how successive outside powers have failed to understand the nature of Afghan politics, fatally undermining their efforts to control Afghanistan for their own purposes. The US is just the latest, and, Tomsen argues, is making the same errors as the British, the Soviets, and the Pakistanis before them.

Equally importantly, Tomsen makes a highly persuasive case that since the withdrawal of the Soviets in 1988, the US and Pakistan -- ostensible allies -- have actually been deadly rivals in Afghanistan, with the Pakistani intelligence services (the ISI) and the Pakistani military high command working relentlessly to create an "unholy alliance" of Islamic fundamentalist radicals -- Wahhabite Arabs including bin Laden and Al Qaeda also supported by Saudi cash, disaffected Pashtuns from both sides of the border, Pakistani religious parties and their militias, Islamic militants from around the world, and now, the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban -- first to drive out the Soviets, then later and to the present day to impose an Islamic fundamentalist puppet state in Kabul. Tomsen names names and cites specific meetings, as well as relying on once classified diplomatic cables and other sources to make his case.

It's bad enough to think successive US governments dating back to Clinton have been suckered by Pakistani duplicity -- the US government has given the Pakistanis $13 billion in military assistance since 2001, some not insignificant portion of which has gone to support the Taliban and associated warlords (Gulbuddin Hekmatyr, the Haqqani network) killing US, NATO, and Afghan soldiers in Afghanistan -- but Tomsen offers an even more damning assessment of the role of the CIA and, to a lesser degree, the Pentagon.

Going back to the Afghan civil wars of the early 1990s, after the Soviet effort at hegemony in Afghanistan collapsed (and helped precipitate the collapse of the Soviet Union itself), Tomsen argues persuasively that the CIA effectively allowed itself to be led by the ISI, thus subverting official US policy in Afghanistan. In that era, US policy (running on autopilot after the Russians left) was to support movement toward a broad-based, moderate, democratic Afghan government, but the CIA instead supported the ISI in its efforts to impose a fundamentalist Islamic warlord government. The CIA thus helped turn Afghanistan into a bloody "shatter zone" for years and abetted the rise of the Taliban. This is ugly and disturbing stuff and cries out for deeper investigation.

While Tomsen has harsh words for every US administration since Bush the Elder when it comes to Afghanistan policy, he does give the Obama administration some props for its belated efforts to turn the screws on the Pakistanis and to actually make a working Afghan government. In fact, the US action cutting military assistance this week could have come right out of Tomsen's playbook for how to begin extricating ourselves from this graveyard of empires.

But we're a long way from there right now. There are currently about 100,000 US and 30,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan and, Tomsen reports, about 150,000 mercenaries and contractors. We are spending $2 billion a week to support our war efforts there, and through a decade of military assistance to our Pakistani "allies," contributing hundreds of millions or billions more to the people who are killing our troops. Bizarrely, in this Afghanistan war, we seem to be paying for both sides.

The drug trade in Afghanistan is probably worth a billion or two dollars a year, but that's what US taxpayers are spending there in a week. Yes, the profits of prohibition fill the coffers of the Taliban… and criminal gangs… and Afghan traffickers… and Pakistani traffickers… and Afghan government officials, not to mention tens of thousands of Afghan farm families, but, as Tomsen makes perfectly clear, it's not all about the drugs.

The Wars of Afghanistan is an important work and an urgent warning. Anyone with an interest US foreign policy in the region needs to read it, starting with our policymakers.

Permission to Reprint: This content is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license. Content of a purely educational nature in Drug War Chronicle appear courtesy of DRCNet Foundation, unless otherwise noted.


the virgin terry (not verified)

phil, i enjoy your writing. the most memorable piece i recall from many years now subscribing to drcnet was your piece a few years back talking about how the drug war impacted your brother's life. i wonder if u have a book in u?

as for this essay, i think u're a bit naive concerning official u.s. policy here. the last thing u can go by is what officials say publically. i'm referring specifically to your assertion that the cia's actions in supporting indirectly muslim militantism via pakistan goes against american policy. seems to me american policy is all about promoting wealth creation and concentration, period. this includes supporting large 'defense' expenditures that benefit a handful of big american corporations. as an american general named smedley (or something similar) observed about 80 years ago, war is a racket, just like everything else in this corrupt culture. if there's tons of money to be made by any 'special interest' in going to war or giving (military) 'aid' to our supposed allies, u can bet the u.s. government will support it.

Thu, 07/14/2011 - 11:18pm Permalink
bp storm (not verified)

Reading stuff like this could make you stupid.  The US involvement in Afghanistan started in 1973 when Kissinger and Nixon overthrew the King's Gov't there.  I know this because I was personal friends with the King's Deputy Prime Minister.  Then the Daoud Regime, which overthrew the King, was itself overthrown in a CIA Coup in 1978, when Jimmy Carter and Zibignew Brezinski made those moves 'to set a trap'(as Brezinski called it) for the Russians.  So, the US has been there for almost 40 years, not 10(or whatever the fiction is).

The Taliban are the Militia and Police of the Traditional Gov't of Afghanistan.  The are Islamic people, not Islamic Fundamentalists(whatever that is).  They don't make money off of the Heroin trade, which was controlled, obviously, by Walid Karzai(recently deceased).  Once again they are Muslims, and Muslims don't like poppy.  The CIA and it's allies control that trade.

Tell me how the al-Qaeda is Wha-ha-bi when they oppose the King of Saudi Arabia and seek to overthrow him?  I am sure they don't share the same philosophy, and I know for a fact that the King of Saudi Arabia is a Wha-ha-bi.  But, then, does al-Qaeda actually exist?  Or is it just a fiction to justify what is happening.

Fact is, the Taliban was never allied with al-Qaeda, unless you count the war against the Russians, but, that was when the US was funding and arming al-Qaeda.  Actually, the Taliban were in negotiations with the Saudis to hand over bin Ladin in 2001 before 9/11.  Had been for 6 months, before Bush attacked them.  Osama bin Ladin, is only wanted by the US for the Embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya, there is no evidence of his involvement in 9/11.  Just read the FBI website if you don't believe me. 

Pakistan has always been a possession of the US.  There is an old Muslim joke that goes like this:  Pakistan is run by the three A's.  Allah, the Army, and America.

Only, I don't think the Americans think it runs in that order.  But, they will find out, most likely, that that is the order it really does run in, despite the oppressor Americans and there goulish friends the British, French and the other NATO countries.

If you count the 6 and 1/2 million Afghans that have been killed or injured as a result of the US CIA sponsored coup in 1978, then there is no way the Taliban could even begin to catch up on killing and injuring the civilian population like the US has.  To point at them just misses the obvious, they are fighting against invaders on their own soil.

Fri, 07/15/2011 - 12:50am Permalink
Marcus (not verified)

In reply to by bp storm (not verified)

You are smoking crack if you  think the Taliban are not linked and working with Al Qaeda.  Think again and do some research.

Thu, 11/14/2013 - 12:02pm Permalink

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