Sunday, May 2, 2010

Invisible History: Afghanistan's Untold Story by Paul Fitzgerald and Elizabeth Gould

The authors provide a long and detailed history of Afghanistan, its rulers, its culture, and its interactions with its neighboring entities. The story begins when recorded history begins, but the bulk of the material focuses on the continual political machinations between the British and Russian empires in the 19th and 20th centuries and the conflicts between the Soviet Union and the US/British empires that marked the 20th century. The book details the evolution of the Afghan state after the Soviet retreat including the rise to power of the Taliban, the effect of 9/11 and the subsequent US invasion, the mismanagement by the Bush administration, and finally concludes with suggestions of what incoming President Obama might do to correct the situation. Most readers will approach this volume looking for a perspective upon which to form an opinion as to the correct policy for our government in Afghanistan. To the authors’ credit, they provide that perspective, however they do it at the expense of numbing the reader’s enthusiasm with excessive detail. There is also a shrillness to the descriptions of our country’s cynical political maneuverings that has the flavor more of a political tract than straight history. In spite of its faults, the book provides, to those who manage to stay the course, valuable insights into the situation we find ourselves in today and how we got there. It is not a tale likely to instill pride in us as citizens.

The following paragraphs summarize the relevant history.

For centuries Afghanistan has been a buffer between competing empires. The central Asian countries/cultures that formed the southern boundary of the Russian/Soviet empires are religiously and ethnically closer to Afghanistan in character than to Russia. The Russians have always feared that British/US operatives would encourage trouble for them by encouraging revolt against Russian rule. Britain always feared that Russia had designs on their Indian territories in order to attain a southern sea port.

Perhaps the defining historical moment for Afghanistan and the region was the British creation of Pakistan and the drawing of the Durand Line as a boundary between the two countries. This artificial border had the effect of placing a large fraction of a dominant Afghan ethnic group, the Pashtuns, in a Pakistan dominated by peoples with whom they had little, if any, cultural ties. The situation has been a point of contention between the countries for decades. It is precisely this border region where the Taliban and Al Qeada are operative today.

As a poor country wedged between two powerful and opposed entities, Afghanistan had to try to develop an independent and relatively progressive nation while at the same time needing assistance from these opposing parties. This, of necessity, required playing one side off against the other, or being played by one side against the other, depending on your point of view.

The critical information for US citizens to take away from this book and to use in forming opinions as to how our government should proceed in the future is the following. Beginning in the 70’s, before the soviets invaded Afghanistan, the US began supporting Moslem fundamentalists as a counter to Soviet support of leftists. At the time, Afghanistan was struggling to maintain a democratically-oriented government with moderate social values. We supported the religious fundamentalists knowing full well that their intention was to impose a religious regime that, in the words of the authors, would return Afghanistan to the Stone Age and subject the women of the country to a form of slavery. With financial support from radical Saudis and the drug trade, and military support from radical Pakistanis, their goal was to extend this Islamic rule to the neighboring countries in the Soviet Union and to Pakistan and Iran. The authors argue that we provided this support solely to induce Russia to invade Afghanistan so that they would suffer the loss of life and political upheaval that we experienced in Vietnam. This is a dreadfully cynical approach for our country to take, and, unfortunately, a very credible assessment by the authors. We, in effect, helped create the enemies we now face.

It is hard to argue with those who point out the low probability of success and the excessive costs in terms of lives and money. Clearly the last eight years have not been fruitful and the outlook is bleak. The authors do not address the arguments for an early disentanglement because they do not even consider the possibility. Their first argument in favor of continuing the struggle would be based on humanitarian or moral grounds. In other words, we are responsible for so much evil and suffering that we cannot walk away before we have at least tried to make things right. Without our support the most likely result would see the Taliban taking over the country again. Their rule has been, and would be again, a humanitarian disaster with women bearing most of the burden. The authors would further argue that an unstable or Taliban-led Afghanistan would cause political instability throughout much of Asia. A nuclear-armed Pakistan would be a much easier target for the Taliban without US pressure on the insurgents from the Afghan side of the border. Can one actually imagine the Taliban in possession of nuclear weapons? The radical Islamists are not interested only in controlling Afghanistan. Their goal is to spread unrest and revolution throughout the region. They intend to finance these revolutions via the drug trade. Much of the narcotic production feeds addiction in neighboring countries such as Iran and Russia. One can envision scenarios where armed conflict could spread to Iran, Russia and India in addition to Pakistan.

The authors certainly believe in a continuing role for the US in the region. However, their guidance for the then incoming Obama administration was rather weak in the sense that their suggestions were all rather vague and lofty rather than specific and immediate. Basically, they seemed to be saying that we do not have to do something radically different, rather we have to do things right for a change.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Lets Talk Books And Politics - Blogged