Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Book Review: In the Graveyard of Empires by Seth G. Jones


In the Graveyard of Empires, by Georgetown University professor Seth G. Jones, is both a short history of Afghanistan's tendency to destroy imperial invaders and a top-down analysis of American and NATO nation building, state building and counter insurgency techniques since 9/11. Graveyard is tight, well written volume packed with enough background information to be useful to a general audience but also enough in depth reporting - especially interviews with high ranking officials in the U.S., Afghan and Pakistani governments - to be of interest to serious researchers.

In the Graveyard of Cliches 

When I first saw the title of Jone's book I winced at the thought of another armchair Alexander the Great trying to squeeze the tiniest drop of relevant advice about contemporary COIN from Kubla Kahn. Graveyard, however, quickly impressed me with its fast moving and easy narrative history of America's efforts to rebuild Afghan society with only a mercifully short - although mostly useless - side trip into the adventures of Alexander the Great and the Khans. Outside its brief allusions to ancient history, Graveyard is most tightly focused on Afghanistan's history from the mid 20th century to the present day, paying careful attention to the impact of the Soviet invasion, Pakistani intervention, Taliban/al Qaeda administration and Karzai/ISAF administration.

Although packed with information about Afghan and central and south Asian history, Graveyard is not primarily a history book but is instead an in depth analysis of America's post-9/11 Systems Administration efforts in both Afghanistan and south Asia. And Jones, like Rashid, focuses heavily on the opportunities lost during the period from the initial standing up of Karzai's government in 2002 until the legitimacy of the Afghan government began to collapse sometime in mid 2005. Like Rashid, Jones believes that a greater U.S. focus on Afghanistan - including more money and more troops - during this crucial period might have avoided the resurgence of the Taliban. As an aside, I've called that theory into question here, and although Jones lays out a strong case - pointing out, for example, that Afghanistan may be the most under-resourced sys admin effort sense the end of WWII - I'm still not 100% convinced that even more American troops would have helped. After all, absent the lessons learned about COIN in Iraq and the doctoral changes that occurred during Petraeus's and Co. post-OIF, pre-surge sojourn at Fort Leavenworth, American troops were given to (as Jones points out) heavy use of support fire and a 'door kicking' mentality WRT civilians that may have further fueled the insurgency. 

 Jones also pinpoints an American over focus on dealing with the nation-state of Afghanistan and under focus of engaging he Afghans on a tribal or district level. Jones makes a compelling case that the Taliban's horizontal organizational structure allows Talib commanders to exploit situationally specific tribal level grievances against Kabul in their quest to cleave the population away from the central government. Because the Taliban is fighting this war on the tribal level, Jones, argues, it follows that the U.S. must also focus on turning local tribes against the Taliban. Jones is long on strategy but short of specifics on how to do this, although he does endorse the Provincial Reconstruction Teams that were experimented with across 2008 and 09. It should be pointed out that in the Fall 2009 issue of Military Review Johnson and Mason wrote an article that was critical of PRT, arguing that provinces were a fairly modern construct in Afghan society and that the district - nor the province - was the building block of Afghan society and therefore engagement and reconstruction efforts should be aimed at that lower level. I discussed the PRTs in Moral Warfare in Southwest Asia

Ultimately, Jones accurately diagnoses the regional issues at play in Afghanistan, especially WRT to Pakistan. And I fully agree with his read on the situation: there is no solution to Afghanistan that does not involve getting a buy-in from both India and Pakistan.

In conclusion, Graveyard of Empires is highly readable, informative and highly recommended to anyone who wants to know more about America's ongoing war in southwest Asia.  

 Read it Alone, or as Part of the Trilogy

Although its historical briefs provide more than enough background for a reader who is otherwise unfamiliar with either Afghan history or south Asian geo-politics, I think the reader would best be served by reading Graveyard as part of a 3 part series, with Steve Coll's Ghost Wars providing in depth background about Pakistan's anti-Soviet campaign and Lawrence Wright's The Looming Tower and the Road to 9/11  providing the best narrative history of al Qaeda's rise and the fairly rapid melding of Mullah Omar's Quetta Shura Taliban and Bin Laden's "base" for global jihad.

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