AFGHANISTAN: Conflict in Afghanistan: Studies in Asymmetric Warfare

By Sinno, Abdulkader | The Middle East Journal, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview
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AFGHANISTAN: Conflict in Afghanistan: Studies in Asymmetric Warfare


Sinno, Abdulkader, The Middle East Journal


Conflict in Afghanistan: Studies in Asymmetric Warfare, by Martin Ewans. New York: Routledge, 2005. 178 pages. Maps and figures. Notes to p. 189. SeI. bibl. to p. 192. Index to p. 198. $63.

Conflict in Afghanistan describes and discusses four attempts by great powers to occupy Afghanistan and to shape its polity in a way that increases their influence: The First and second Anglo-Afghan Wars (1838-42,1878-80), the Soviet-Afghan War (1979-89), and the American occupation (200!-present). The author also briefly discusses the events of the Third Anglo-Afghan War (1919) while acknowledging that, while it could also qualify as asymmetric warfare, it is different from the other four conflicts in which the weaker side was resisting occupation.

The book relies mostly on correspondence and archival material for the chapters dealing with the Anglo-Afghan wars and on published memoirs and secondary sources for the chapters dealing with the Soviet and American occupations. The choice of sources explains the tone and style of the book. The chapters on the British invasions are about British leaders with poor judgment underestimating the Afghan landscape. While Ewans explores the intentions, options, and limitations of the British decision makers, he leaves the reader uncertain about why different Afghan tribes, leaders, or chieftains do what they do. Afghans come across as no more than another daunting aspect of the forbidding landscape, not as the strategic actors who outdid the British. Readers of other studies of Afghan conflicts such as Gilles Dorronsoro's Revolution Unending and Barnett Rubin's Fragmentation of Afghanistan might wonder whether the complex Afghan social structure played a role in those events - a role that the author simply missed.1

The chapters on the Soviet and American occupations of Afghanistan also suffer from this shortcoming: The author focuses on the decision makers from Pakistan, the Soviet Union, and the United States. Those chapters provide a good condensed diplomatic history and a chronicle of key battles, but they understate the role of the Afghans themselves. The author's focus on the importance of "jihad" and reference to the Afghans' martial ethos (pp. 171-72) do not suffice to explain why Afghans sometimes resist foreign occupation but tolerate it at other times (year one of the first Anglo-Afghan War and the first two years of the American occupation).

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