Invading Afghanistan, Then and Now
JONAH BLANK is the author of Mullahs on the Mainframe: Islam and Modernity Among the Daudi Bohras and Arrow of the Blue-Skinned God: Retracing the Ramayana Through India.See more by this author
"As the result of two successful campaigns, of the employment of an enormous force, and of the expenditures of large sums of money," the secretary of state observed, "all that has yet been accomplished has been the disintegration of the State . . . and a condition of anarchy throughout the remainder of the country." A highly decorated general, recently returned from service in Kandahar, concluded, "I feel sure that I am right when I say that the less the Afghans see of us the less they will dislike us." The politician was Spencer Cavendish, Marquis of Hartington, the British secretary of state for India. The general was Sir Frederick Roberts, who eventually became a field marshal and the subject of three ballads by Rudyard Kipling. The year was 1880. As U.S. President Barack Obama tries to wind down the longest war in U.S. history, while leaving behind some measure of stability, he would be wise to keep in mind this bitter truth: most of Afghanistan's would-be conquerors make the same mistakes, and most eventually meet the same disastrous fate.
All serving consuls and prospective invaders interested in avoiding such an end would do well to read Peter Tomsen's magisterial new book, The Wars of Afghanistan. A career U.S. diplomat, Tomsen served as Washington's special envoy to the Afghan resistance in 1989-92, an experience that gave him almost unrivaled personal insight into Afghanistan's slide from anti-Soviet jihad into civil war. His account of the country's political dynamics before, during, and after this period is exhaustively researched, levelheaded, and persuasive. Throughout the book, he highlights two lessons that most of Afghanistan's invaders learn too late: no political system or ideology imposed by an outside power is likely to survive there, and any attempt to coax political change from within must be grounded in a deep knowledge of local culture and customs.