Messianic Terrorism, Tribal Conflicts,
and the Failure of Great Powers
by Peter Tomsen
PublicAffairs, 2011, 814 pp., $40
Uneven but useful, Peter Tomsen’s The Wars of Afghanistan provides an Afghan retrospective from Roman times to the present. Ambassador Tomsen has been associated with Afghanistan for two decades, most intensively as U.S. special envoy to that country from 1989 to 1992. He believes strongly, as do I, that the failure of U.S. and Western efforts in Afghanistan will lead to “another inning of the long, bloody Afghan wars”, the likely expansion of the Taliban and of al-Qaeda’s presence in the country, and to new strikes against the American homeland. His basic thesis is that American policy has neither understood nor factored into its policies the lessons of Afghan history and culture. Having drawn extensively on declassified documents and English and Russian (but not Persian) language sources, Tomsen lays out his own proposals for a policy that he believes can and must succeed.
It’s not just Afghanistan’s history and culture that we have not understood, argues Tomsen, but also Pakistan’s interests and motives in its neighbor’s affairs. One of the book’s recurring themes, hammered home to the point of fatigue, is that Pakistan has been and remains wedded to expanding radical Islamic theology, a policy that endangers America, Afghanistan, Central and South Asia, and, above all, Pakistan itself. The CIA, he insists, was not only blind to Pakistan’s real policy course but, having been captured intellectually by Pakistan’s Directorate for Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI), ran operations that repeatedly undercut the policies of successive U.S. administrations.
Aspects of these theories are debatable. The Wars of Afghanistan lacks an examination of alternative explanations for observed outcomes; those with differing views were apparently not interviewed nor their writings taken seriously. This weakens the book’s status as history and gives it the feel of an extended polemic, rather like the now classic mid-19th-century British travel literature of the Great Game. Worthy of a more balanced discussion are the twin assumptions that wrongheaded official U.S. views of Pakistani policy are all the result of Pakistani deception and U.S. ignorance, and that the wellsprings of Pakistani policy are as Tomsen describes them and have not varied for more than three decades. That said, finding Osama bin Laden living close to a Pakistani military academy just a few hours drive from the capital has mightily reinforced suspicions about Pakistan held by many besides Ambassador Tomsen.
Tomsen’s historical discussion is well written but uneven. Sometimes it is very detailed and sometimes very sketchy. These lapses are not terribly important to the book’s overarching themes, but they reduce its quality and dependability as a history. In making the (largely accurate) case for America’s long ignorance of and disinterest in Afghanistan, for example, he omits mention of President Eisenhower’s 1959 visit to Afghanistan, the first and only presidential visit before the 21st century. Tomsen describes as insulting Secretary Dulles’s advice to Afghan Prime Minister Mohammed Daoud to settle the Pushtun problem politically instead of militarily. But he documents the failure of Daoud’s Pushtun policy and its role in bringing down his first administration, so perhaps Dulles’s advice was better than it sounded.
In discussing the failures of the Afghanistan Communist Party regime before the December 25, 1979 Soviet invasion, Tomsen treats the problem of village resistance to land reform as stemming solely from social and tribal resistance. While the resentment of large tribal landlords was significant, he omits any discussion of the structural flaws of the program: its failure to work out equitable water distribution methods, for example, and the Afghan government’s inability to supply rural credit for seeds and fertilizer, previously supplied by landlords. Thus, even farmers who might have valued land ownership were unable to take advantage of it.1
There is a useful discussion of the repeatedly negative reaction of Afghans to efforts at social and political change, regardless of whether those changes were introduced by King Amanullah, Prime Minister Daoud, the Afghan Communists or their Soviet overlords. It would have been useful had Tomsen considered how the conservatism of Afghan society applies to current Western exertions on behalf of democracy, the rule of law, anti-corruption campaigns and other aspects of international ambitions in Afghanistan. But, beyond a general admonition to stop meddling in internal Afghan affairs and keep our eye trained instead on those external security concerns we can realistically do something about, he does not pursue the theme into the present day.
Tomsen’s discussion of the early Communist coup, the so-called Saur Revolution of 1978, although generally not new, is detailed yet readable, and draws usefully on declassified Soviet sources. However, his discussion of the period between the withdrawal of Soviet forces and the final mujaheddin conquest of Kabul is more superficial. President Najibullah’s ability to continue in power is treated almost entirely as a function of Soviet funding and mujaheddin disunity. Tomsen doesn’t discuss how Najibullah assembled an alliance of commanders beyond the reach of his Communist Party predecessors. As we now try to build an Afghan army that can fight on its own, a more thorough consideration of the latter subject might have been instructive.
The most interesting and useful part of the book is Tomsen’s detailed discussion of his period as Special Envoy and the repeated efforts of the Bush 41 Administration to build support for a political solution in Afghanistan. Tomsen’s sketches of the Afghan leaders he knew rings very true in the cases of many of the same individuals I knew in my own time as U.S. Ambassador; many of them remain politically active today. His discussion of the fractious infighting of mujaheddin commanders should be instructive to those who now put their hopes in negotiations as a way out of Afghanistan’s current dilemma. Led by former intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh, the current opposition to President Karzai’s efforts to negotiate with the Taliban has become increasingly strident. Tomsen’s sobering insights here underscore how important this issue remains.
In Tomsen’s view, the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad has often been unhelpful and too ready to accept the Pakistani government’s assurances of cooperation when, all the while, the ISI has been working directly contrary to these commitments. While he provides extensive documentation from declassified reporting, he extends no effort to let those with different views, like Ambassador Robert Oakley or then-Deputy Chief of Mission Elizabeth Jones, recount their own views. This is standard practice for a memoir, but not for a book of scholarship or for a history that wants to become a definitive account of the period.
Similarly, several of Tomsen’s major contentions lack evidence. Accounts of the rise of the Taliban, including the authoritative one by Pakistani writer Ahmed Rashid, treat it as an unexpected phenomenon that began when Mullah Omar led a small group to hang a vicious local leader outside Kandahar.2 Pakistani support swung behind the Taliban as they rapidly spread their influence. Tomsen contends instead that Pakistan’s ISI “had been remolding the [assembly of resistance leaders] into the Taliban for over a year before the apocryphal scene on the road to Kandahar took place.” He provides no evidence for this significant assertion, and Rashid tells me that he is unaware of any new evidence that would support Tomsen’s view. There is a similar lack of evidence for Tomsen’s contention that Pakistan provided Stinger missiles to China for study and presumably reverse engineering, a deed that would have been a major betrayal of commitments made to the United States. Tomsen does not raise to the level of certainty the assumption that Pakistan knew in advance of the 9/11 attack, but he allows it to stand without interrogation.
Tomsen could be correct in all these claims, and if he is, they add up to a very serious further indictment of Pakistan. But based on the evidence presented here, we simply do not have a basis to conclude one way or the other.
It has long been established that the United States paid little attention to ISI’s selection of who got U.S. weapons to fight the Red Army. (It has never been clear that, in any practical sense, we had much of a choice.) The result, in any case, was that the most radical Islamic fighters were able to build their strength at the expense of more politically moderate commanders, particularly the Tajik leader Ahmed Shah Massoud. This policy continued after the withdrawal of the Soviets, first aided by continued U.S. arms deliveries and then by Pakistan alone after the United States and the Soviet Union mutually agreed in 1991 to end arms shipments to their respective clients as of January 1, 1992. The combination of Pakistan’s pursuit of a Taliban military victory and Najibullah’s refusal to withdraw from power repeatedly undermined efforts to broker a political settlement in the wake of the Soviet withdrawal.
But Tomsen goes well beyond this standard account by maintaining that the CIA essentially operated contrary to Washington’s settled policy of support for a political settlement. In his account, the CIA in effect supported ISI’s drive to install the radical Hizbi-Islami commander Gulbuddin Hekmatyar in power by force, thus repeatedly derailing UN and U.S. efforts at building a political settlement that required multiple leaders to share power. Two aspects of his account are especially puzzling.
One is Tomsen’s failure to clarify how much of this contention was his view at the time and how much is an interpretation after the fact. Afghan policy during the first Bush Administration was overseen by then-Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Robert Kimmitt, to whom Tomsen reported. Tomsen gives us nothing to show that Kimmitt shared his view that the CIA was acting contrary to Administration policy. If Tomsen held this view at the time, why did he not press Kimmitt for a major review within the interagency process? Kimmitt was an extremely powerful interagency player with strong support from then Secretary of State James Baker. If Tomsen’s views are entirely hindsight, on the other hand, why was he not more perceptive at the time about what he now contends was obvious?
The second aspect concerns Tomsen’s view of Pakistan as fundamentally inimical to U.S. interests. This view may well be substantiated in due course, yet an account that relies on a single driver to explain the policy outcome—namely, support for Islamist ideology in service to Pakistan’s geostrategic policies—seems much too simple.
Obviously, the Pakistani state is now threatened by some of the same religiously inspired groups that its intelligence service aided and abetted. Pakistan now has its own Taliban to contend with, as illustrated by the bloody Swat Valley campaign the Pakistani army was obliged to wage in 2009. This might not prove Tomsen’s thesis incorrect. It may only prove that Army and ISI leaders over the years have not been particularly sagacious; after all, political elites do make mistakes, sometimes fatal ones. But there are other ways to read the evidence than to see a Pakistani policy driven solely by religious ideology. The same policy can be explained by recourse to a hyper-realist interpretation of Pakistani national interests based on Pakistan’s obsession with India. It is also possible that Pakistan’s doubts about U.S. consistency and staying power led it to place bets on both sides, supporting the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan in some areas while maintaining ties to the Taliban and the Haqqanis, father and son, to hedge against fears of Indian influence should the United States withdraw. Is Pakistan’s policy, even if it is a double game, driven by ideology, interests or fear of threats to its geostrategic position?
The question is not merely theoretical. The difficulties Pakistan poses for U.S. policy would remain in any case, but an assessment of how to deal with them would differ substantially depending on one’s analysis of the underlying motivation. Ideology leaves little room for compromise; geostrategic interests may be satisfied in many ways. The point is that an examination of alternate possibilities can produce a properly nuanced account, and that is not what we have here.
The Wars of Afghanistan, despite weighing in at 714 pages of text, becomes superficial as it races through developments since 2001. It notes U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad’s strong, some would say overbearing, role in directing Afghan politics during his tenure. However, it ignores the change in policy during my own tenure, when there was much more of an effort to let President Karzai and the Afghan parliament govern on their own. One may argue that the policy shift was inadequate, poorly managed or simply not credible to Afghans. But it should not be ignored.
Since a major point of the book hangs on the assertion that U.S. policy continues to ignore the lessons of Afghan history and culture, it is important to examine the policies that Tomsen recommends instead of the ones currently being followed. To do so fairly, one has to account for the time-lag between the writing of a book and its publication. As it happens, several of Tomsen’s recommendations are now policies actually being pursued. Many of the recommendations strike me as sensible. Tomsen calls for America to stop trying to pick Afghan leaders, to instead strengthen Afghan institutions, implement a conditions-based reduction of U.S. forces, support the Afghan government’s political leadership in negotiations with the Taliban, and better control disruptive stovepipe competition among different U.S. government agencies. Broadly speaking, this describes what the Obama Administration has set out as U.S. policy.
Of course, the devil is in the details, and the more details, the more devils there seem to be. There is a new generation of Afghans growing up. The military academy is now selecting candidates on merit-based tests and maintaining a balance between geographical and ethnic balances. Young Afghans are coming out of universities, and many of them, including many women, are inspiring in their dedication to a better future for their country. However, it will be many years before these new Afghans, even if they retain their nationalism and devotion to a more open and meritocratic politics, can hope to dominate the political landscape. One of the great challenges for America and its coalition allies will be to help maintain political space for these new forces to grow without so involving ourselves in Afghan affairs as to breed the very resentment Tomsen counsels against.
Conducting such a policy implies substantial changes in Afghanistan’s political culture. I would argue that at least some progress in the above areas is necessary for the long-term stability our interests require. Thus there are by definition plenty of details in a policy that seeks to rebuild significant elements of Afghan society itself. One such detail, as Tomsen recognizes, is getting Afghans to cooperate with each other on a sustained basis. Even he describes Afghanistan as a land “where ideologies cannot survive and loyalties are forever transient.”
A closely related recurring theme is the disunity of Afghan political leaders. Tomsen writes extensively about how Pakistan has played on this fractious group, but he never really explains how they would have held together even in a less hostile environment. He has great sympathy for the late King Zahir Shah, but admits that the King was a weak leader who passed up several opportunities to influence the course of events. In any event, the King is now dead, as is his once powerful son-in-law, and the remaining royal family members show neither the inclination nor the ability to regain a leadership role.
More germane to the future is whether President Karzai could accept a largely symbolic position as part of a new Afghan constitutional arrangement. Some Afghans discuss such a possibility. How is an ex-Afghan President to survive and remain in Afghanistan (something to which I believe Karzai is deeply devoted) even if he is willing to step down? American policy will have to grapple with this issue well before 2014, when Karzai’s constitutionally limited term ends. Afghan discussion has already begun about whether the amendment of the constitution will be a politically rigged process or a matter of true consensus. These discussions will only intensify as 2014 draws nearer. The United States needs to decide on its policy well before there is a political crisis. Unfortunately, Tomsen has rather little to say about this issue.
The building of the Afghan army and police, and the condition-based drawdown of U.S. forces—both key Tomsen recommendations—are at the heart of Obama’s war policy. The immediate issue is not the policy but whether it is working on the ground, whether U.S. domestic politics will force an unrealistically rapid withdrawal, and whether Afghan patronage politics can allow the growth of a police force more dedicated to law enforcement than to the support of local power brokers. The evident intensification of fighting this summer as the Taliban seeks to regain lost momentum from the U.S. “surge” will make judgments difficult before late 2011 at the earliest.
Tomsen does recognize that a very careful balancing act will be required to walk between policies of support for Afghanistan’s effective governance and non-interference in Afghan domestic matters. It is unfair to expect any book to treat effectively the day-by-day decisions that will make the difference between success and failure. Yet it is crucial for Washington to recognize how much the balance of success in Afghanistan has shifted from policymaking to policy execution.
The recognition that Pakistan has a key role in Afghanistan’s future is now commonplace, as is the general U.S. puzzlement about how to produce desired results. The question is now more vibrant than ever, after the discovery of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. Tomsen recommends a hard line: Expose Pakistani double-dealing, build regional pressure against its meddling in Afghan politics, and place, or threaten to place, Pakistan on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism. He does not predict how Pakistan would respond to these pressures, nor does he estimate their respective chances of working, even though these considerations have been at the center of U.S. policy debates for years. Evaluating the chances of success of recommended actions is much harder than coming up with a list of steps, but it is a professional obligation nonetheless for those making such recommendations. As illustration of how far above the policy ground-floor Tomsen is, consider that he does not even address how U.S. actions in Afghanistan affect Pakistan’s decision-making process.
A situation in which the United States looks set to leave Afghanistan before its government can defend itself has to appear in Pakistani eyes very different from one in which the United States shows a determination to remain in support of a strengthened Afghan army. In the former case, a Pakistani bid to dominate Afghanistan even at the expense of its relationship with the United States might seem worth the short-term pain—worth enduring even the pressures Tomsen recommends. However, if the United States appears determined to maintain support until Afghanistan reaches a rough political stability, then Pakistan’s calculus may be very different. Understanding the connections between U.S. policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan has never been a strong point of U.S. policymaking, and merely renaming the policy issue “AfPak”, as the Obama Administration did early in its tenure, is not enough to make a major difference. That connectivity now becomes a central consideration.
American determination to stick with its Afghan policies is now under considerable domestic U.S. pressure. The uncertainty about our long-term intentions affects Afghan domestic political considerations as much as it does Pakistani deliberations. Afghan politicians of every stripe position themselves relative to what they think America intends to do. As of my March 2011 visit to Afghanistan, most clearly do not understand U.S. goals or how America intends to reach them.
More Afghans than ever are talking about the possibility of a civil war in the event of a return of Taliban influence to Kabul. Such a war is not yet close, but its consideration, along with growing worries about the steadfastness and prospects of success for American policy, are leading ever more Afghans to adopt hedging strategies. The main proximate impact of this is to feed disunity in the face of the insurgency. There is an extraordinary need, therefore, for the U.S. government to clarify its long-term policy intentions. If it does not do so, the gaping void in the center of any discussion of strategy will remain.
Another of Tomsen’s policy recommendations deserving of attention is support for a UN-led negotiating effort to end the war. The book is instructive in recounting previous UN efforts in Afghanistan and explaining the reasons for the failure of an approach that at one point seemed very promising. Conditions have changed in ways that need to be considered; they are not considered in the book. The UN Assistance Mission to Afghanistan (UNAMA) is now a significant player in support of the Afghan government. Can the UN credibly perform as an impartial broker of negotiations and fulfill its current role at the same time? Would UN entry into negotiations deepen the suspicions that President Karzai formed about the UN during the last Afghan presidential elections? Could the same person lead both UNAMA and a mediator’s effort, and what effect would this have on both Taliban and Afghan government views of the impartiality of the mediator? If separate UN individuals lead different efforts, will they clash and engender confusion? None of these potential obstacles existed in any previous UN negotiating role, so history provides little dependable guidance. Therefore, the policymaker will have to guess (as he so often must). These questions could have used more than a two-paragraph treatment from Tomsen.
For all of its inadequacies and puzzlements, The Wars of Afghanistan is useful in several respects. It weaves in Soviet and East European documents and views to broaden our understanding of how the Soviets operated and how limited was their own understanding of Afghanistan. It recounts in detail how difficult it has been for any foreign patron to actually control its Afghan clients, a history that should encourage Western analysts (although it probably won’t) to resist the temptation to spin schemes for the reorganization of Afghanistan’s political arrangements. Its cautions about the difficulties of getting Afghans to work together to negotiate peace are both important and timely. And it puts front and center Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan, which is exactly where it needs to be, even if one does not accept all of the author’s views on that subject.
Finally, The Wars of Afghanistan may turn out to be one of those books that ages well as a contribution to a definitive history that has yet to be written. No reader can be left in doubt about its basic theses, and none can accuse its author of excessive caution and hedging in his articulation of them. There is something to be said for that kind of clarity: It allows retrospective judgment in a way that too careful accounts do not. It will be interesting to see if future revelations bear out Tomsen’s views, for the American epoch of Afghanistan’s Great Game is far from over.
1For more detail see Thomas Barfield, Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History (Princeton University Press, 2010), p. 231.
2Rashid, Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia (Yale University Press, 2000).