Reviewed by Mark E. Dillen
The Wars of Afghanistan: Messianic Terrorism, Tribal Conflicts, and the Failures of Great Powers by Peter Tomsen, Public Affairs, 2011. ISBN 13-978-1586487638, 912 pp., $39.99
Last year the war in Afghanistan became the longest military conflict in U.S. history. Now that long war has finally produced a suitably lengthy account of not only the U.S. military engagement in Afghanistan but the depressingly frequent and regular resort to warfare that has characterized Afghanistan’s entire recorded history. Peter Tomsen’s “The Wars of Afghanistan” weighs in at more than 900 pages (including footnotes and appendices), making it the War and Peace of the growing genre of American books on our Afghan experience. (Without the “Peace,” of course.) Ambitious in scope and impressively detailed, “The Wars of Afghanistan” is destined to become a key resource to understanding how we came to be so profoundly and inconsistently involved in a remote country far removed from our basic national interests.
Tomsen’s tour de force is part history, part memoir and part policy critique. Tomsen was George H.W. Bush’s envoy to the Afghan resistance from 1989-92, when American foreign policy was preoccupied with the Fall of Communism and the First Gulf War. Interest in Afghanistan came from a few bipartisan activists on the Hill (the colorful Rep. Charlie Wilson of Texas and Sen. Gordon Humphrey of New Hampshire), to whom Bush acceded by appointing Tomsen “Envoy to the Afghan Resistance” (which the State Department initially resisted). Ambassador Tomsen’s sixteen expeditions to the uninviting borderlands of Pakistan to meet with resistance leaders produced notable analysis of what the United States ought to do. But Tomsen’s analysis and proposals were received in an environment that was too distracted and conflicted to actually take those steps.
Midway through his narrative, Tomsen describes how he nearly brokered a deal in the fall of 1990 to unite a moderate-led Afghan opposition to move against the teetering Soviet-supported Kabul government. However, he was betrayed by the CIA, whose operatives in Pakistan supported instead an ISI effort to help their ally, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar:
I was stunned. I told [the station chief] that by endorsing Hekmatyar’s attack on Kabul, he was violating fundamental U.S. policy precepts agreed to in Washington by his own agency. American policy was to cut Hekmatyar off, not to build him up. [He] looked at me impassively…The U.S. government was conducting two diametrically opposed Afghan policies.
It was not the first time, nor would it be the last, that Washington would be at odds with itself over what to do about Afghanistan. But what is startling is that, twenty years later, this chapter in U.S. involvement in Southwest Asia is almost forgotten in Washington, where the players change with regularity and historical perspective is lost. Hekmatyar, meanwhile, remains on the scene in Pakistan, leading efforts, supported by the ISI, to oust the government in Kabul. It’s just that the government in Kabul is now the one that we support.
“The Wars in Afghanistan” marches on in its last three hundred pages to more recent memory. The USSR dissolves, the Bush-Baker team leaves Washington, Wilson and Humphrey leave office, and the United States in effect outsources its Afghan policy to Pakistan. Tomsen, denied the chance to re-open the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, goes from participant to observer. Afghanistan descends into chaos, Tora Bora is inhabited by al-Qaeda, and the context for our current decade of military engagement takes shape. Tomsen is rightly scathing in his criticism of the CIA. (“The agency’s unilateralism and preoccupation with short-term tactical operation over strategic, long-term outcomes ruined prospects for ending the wars of Afghanistan,” he declares.) But many readers, I suspect, will consider that the agency was left free to pursue its ends by a vacuum created by an uninterested and distracted foreign policy establishment.
Tomsen’s other bete noire is Pakistan, hardly surprising and no one’s favorite in recent months. Reading “Wars,” however, one concludes that Tomsen has been thinking of Islamabad as the “Ally From Hell” (The Atlantic Monthly’s moniker) for decades. His concluding chapter is an outline for reducing Pakistani influence in Afghanistan by essentially drawing in other international players to “pry” Afghanistan away from Pakistan. It may be cold comfort for the author that such prescriptions, however tenuous, have finally come to the center of attention in Washington since his book was published as relations have deteriorated over Abbottabad, border casualties and a CIA employee’s arrest.
“The Wars of Afghanistan” is an immensely valuable resource to understanding Afghanistan’s tribal nature and the successes and failures of U.S. security and foreign policy in Southwest Asia over the last 30 years. A few vignettes are compelling. The description of the KGB’s murderous intrigues to replace the unsteady Taraki with the malleable Najib conveys the antic uncertainty of Kabul power struggles. A first-hand account recreates in harrowing detail what it was like in 2002 to be in a motorcade following Hamid Karzai when Karzai was attacked by terrorists in Kandahar and narrowly missed assassination. He also retells the remarkable story of how rebel leader Abdul Haq enlisted him in May 2001 to try to organize a Loja Jirga under the authority of Zahir Shah, then living in exile in Rome. Although Tomsen had retired from the State Department several years earlier, he got Department permission and traveled to Dushanbe to meet Ahmed Shah Masood, leader of the Northern Alliance, to gain his support. Tragically, after authorizing his travel, the Department had little interest in his findings. He wrote the following to Assistant Secretary for South Asia Christina Rocca:
The United States no longer has the luxury to ignore Afghanistan. Indeed, in the Balkans-to-India arc of crisis, an Afghanistan settlement is perhaps the only area where the Bush administration can score a foreign policy triumph, including on bin Laden. To be frank, it is unfortunate that we still lack a comprehensive foreign policy on Afghanistan, with a clear set of policy goals and implementary tracks to achieve them. I hope that you and others in the Bush administration can launch and direct such a policy. Also, hopefully, the fresh policy will not, unrealistically, depend on Pakistan voluntarily changing its approach. That just will not happen and was one of the hang-ups that paralyzed the Afghan policy of the two Clinton administrations.
In July 2001, the Department of State did not reply to Tomsen or act on the cables he sent from the U.S. Embassy in Tashkent following his meeting with Masood. Two months later, Masood had been assassinated, Haq executed, and New York and Washington attacked by our new archenemy, bin Laden.
In the last decade, as Tomsen’s direct involvement in Afghanistan ebbed, the U.S. military and civilian involvement in Afghanistan reached its crescendo. Here Tomsen has few new details to provide. He writes approvingly of General David Petraeus’ counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy and decries the way USG development aid was often doled out without Afghan government participation, contrary to COIN principles. But with an Afghan government riddled by corruption and incapable of processing huge amounts of aid, did the Obama administration have any good choices? Despite the burgeoning literature of first-hand accounts from the Iraq and Afghan war zones, recent participants have yet to shed light on how how Obama’s policy choices have succeeded or failed in these countries. Our longest war has produced our longest book on Afghanistan, but the final chapter has not been written.
U.S. policy toward Afghanistan needs more careful calibration than the all-in/all-out policy schizophrenia of the last three decades. To be consistent and successful, our policy makers and practitioners in Afghanistan must be aware of the intense and often tragic history of our relations with that country. Ambassador Tomsen’s book provides an admirable service toward that end.
Mark Dillen is an international public affairs consultant. As a member of the Senior Foreign Service, he served as Political Minister Counselor at the US Embassy in Rome in 1999, when talks about a Loya Jirga were underway in Rome with Zahir Shah. Mark recently returned from Kabul, where for one year he was Communications Director for USAID and Executive Secretary for the USAID Mission.