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The Great Game

Seth G. Jones, In the Graveyard of Empires: America’s War in Afghanistan (W.W. Norton, 2009)

 In the immediate aftermath of September 11, one thing seemed perfectly clear. Whether one was a Republican or a Democrat, a pacifist or a hawk, nearly everyone I knew agreed that some sort of military foray into Afghanistan was the best and most direct method of both eliminating the threat of further terrorism sponsored by al-Qaeda and also meting out some justice and retribution to the perpetrators of the September 11th attacks. Several of my acquaintances volunteered for the service during this period. Though an avowed pacifist, I myself, about to finish my long stint as an undergraduate, with no clear career prospects in front of me, considered joining up. Afghanistan had been justly designated as the target for the nation’s collective outrage and pain, and it seemed assured that the “war on terror” would be a short offensive campaign confined more or less to that region.

Several months later, this campaign had seemingly ended successfully—the Taliban having been driven out of Afghanistan and a new government having been installed in Kabul. The Bush administration and the media then sharply turned their focus to Iraq, a much more divisive situation both at home and abroad, and Afghanistan, seemingly well on the road to democracy and security, was quickly and largely forgotten. As Seth G. Jones notes in his new book, In the Graveyard of Empires: America’s War In Afghanistan, however, the eradication of the Taliban in 2001 was merely the prologue to a not-entirely-new batch of troubles for the already-beleaguered nation.

The early portions of Jones’ book tell the history of the region throughout the 20th century, touching on the Anglo-Afghan Wars and focusing more thoroughly on the Soviet conflict, the involvement of the Mujahideen, and the rise of the Taliban. Jones also takes the time here to introduce the major players in the region including Mullah Omar, Osama bin Laden, Zalmay Khalizad, and the like. The latter half of the book then turns towards a very detailed examination of the post-Taliban years as the failures of the Bush administration led to a budding insurgency.

The most glaring failures came from former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who presided over the Afghanistan invasion. Contrary to most of his experts’ advice, Rumsfeld continually refused to provide the necessary funding and manpower in order to truly stabilize and provide security for the country, instead using the vast majority of the military’s resources for the war in Iraq. Likewise, he and other members of the Bush administration refused to commit the necessary funds for infrastructure-building, perhaps the most valuable tool one has in fighting an insurgency. As Jones notes, polls indicated that contrary to popular opinion, the rural peoples of Afghanistan were not supporting the Taliban and other insurgent groups out of tribal affiliation or hatred for the U.S.-friendly government in Kabul; the problem was that they no longer had access to roads, food, electricity, and water. The Taliban, other insurgents, and warlords may not have been beloved by the Afghanis, but they could provide services that the weak federal government was unable to deliver much beyond the outskirts of Kabul. These matters were then further complicated by Afghanistan’s porous border—physically, financially, and ideologically—with Pakistan.

Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan is very loose. The “states” immediately adjacent to Afghanistan are known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (fata) and are only nominally controlled by Islamabad. After the “fall” of the Taliban, many Taliban leaders and fighters escaped to the fata. There, not only could they hide from U.S. forces, but they were also able to assume governance over many of the villages and tribes. Once these peoples became sympathetic to the concerns of the Taliban, they began providing material support and manpower for Taliban forces. Likewise, the Taliban found some sympathetic alliances in the Pakistani military and government. Jones provides multiple accounts where U.S. troops have found themselves under attack from Pakistani troops. The funds that the U.S. has been paying to Pakistan for border troops and patrols is now being used by the same Pakistani border troops to support Taliban raids on U.S. and NATO positions in the southern provinces of Afghanistan.

Jones suggests several options available to the U.S. that might make the nation’s position more tenable in the face of insurgency. Of these, the easiest to achieve is probably the most important in the grand scheme. Jones points out that the U.S. gives over $1 billion per year in military and economic aid to Pakistan and asks for no conditions with regard to the situation in the fata. A simple pegging of monies to conditions could help mitigate the support the Taliban receives. Jones’ advice as far as Afghanistan itself will probably be harder to accomplish. He believes that security forces in Afghanistan must start at the local level and be closely allied with the local tribal governments, something akin to a paramilitary police force. He argues that a more national force will likely be destined to fail amidst the land’s many tribal communities and states. This sort of solution, however, is antithetical to the typical U.S. bureaucratic mindset—a plan would need to be agreed upon by a myriad of groups not necessarily all working towards the same outcome. It seems more likely that the U.S. will be playing the great game in Afghanistan for years to come.


James Arnett


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2009

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