In the Graveyard of Empires: America's War in Afghanistan

By Rouland, Michael R. | Air & Space Power Journal, May/June 2012 | Go to article overview
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In the Graveyard of Empires: America's War in Afghanistan

Rouland, Michael R., Air & Space Power Journal

In the Graveyard of Empires: America's War in Afghanistan by Seth G. Jones. W. W. Norton (, 500 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York 10110, 2009, 448 pages, $27.95 (hardcover), ISBN 978-0-393-06898-6; 2010, 464 pages, $15.95 (softcover), ISBN 978-0-393-33851-5.

Drawn from recently declassified documents and hundreds of interviews with the architects of US policy in Afghanistan, Seth G. Jones's new work explains how the US military campaign, despite its early successes, ultimately stalled in Afghanistan. In the Graveyard of Empires is replete with insiders' insights, including the perspectives of Colin Powell, Richard Armitage, Zalmay Khalilzad, Ronald Neumann, Lt Gen Karl W. Eikenberry, Lt Gen David W. Barno, Wendy Chamberlin, Robert Grenier, and Graham Fuller. The inclusion of viewpoints from the State Department, Defense Department, and Central Intelligence Agency also indicates the disconnected nature of their objectives in Afghanistan.

Jones describes recent American experiences through the lens of historical imperial misadventures: "Past empires that have dared to enter Afghanistan- from Alexander the Great to Great Britain and the Soviet Union- have found initial entry possible, even easy, only to find themselves mired in local resistance" (p. xxv). This historical view, however, is incomplete. It is true that many great armies and empires have conquered Afghanistan: Persians (Cyrus the Great), Greeks (Alexander the Great), Arabs, Mongols (Genghis Khan), Timurids (Timur), Mughals (Babur), Sikhs, British, and Soviets. These empires ruled Afghanistan by force and their conquest was fleeting, but occupation and resistance was only part of the history. The Afghan people absorbed art and culture, religion, language, architecture, and technology from each of these imperial incursions and forged lasting bonds with their would-be conquerors.

Jones's first chapter, Afghanistan's "Descent into Violence," covers a lengthy period from 330 BCE through 1979. But it ignores US interests in Afghanistan before the Soviet invasion. More importantly, Jones overlooks the implications of the post- World War II decision by administration officials to focus on Iran and Pakistan as allies in Southwest Asia. Jones's overemphasis on Cold War narratives, no doubt due to his sources, supports a 1990s historical revisionism that overstates US successes in the Soviet "soft underbelly"- Central Asia. His coverage of the mujahideen era, moreover, focuses on Russian and Pakistani efforts and denies Afghans agency in their own history.

US policy makers withdrew from the region after 1989 and quickly lost interest in Afghanistan's future. There were opportunities to mediate during the civil war, but as Zalmay Khalilzad indicates, "America has not helped Afghans and our friends in the region make the right decisions" (p. 51). At the same time, Pakistan began to interfere more audaciously to confront an imagined "Tehran-Moscow-New Delhi axis supporting Kabul," in the words of one State Department memo (p. 47). A decade-long hiatus of expertise ensued until the events of 11 September 2001 brought American focus back to Afghanistan. This unfortunate disconnect explains how policy makers misread the Soviet experience, choosing the ineffectual "Panama model" and a "light footprint" to stabilize Afghanistan instead of a larger invasion force. Jones could have studied the development of these strategies with much more detail.

The real strength of the book emerges when he discusses US awareness of the Taliban-Pakistan connection.

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