by Ali Ahmad Jalali
Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2017. Pp. xvi, 622.
Maps, notes, biblio., index. $34.95. ISBN: 0700624074
Afghanistan at War
Afghanistan is many things. It may – or may not – be a graveyard of empires, depending on which end of the shovel you happen to be on. It is definitely one of the lands that produces more military history than can be consumed locally. Afghanistan is, for its size, one of the most diverse and complex countries on earth. The foreigners that end up waging war there usually do not understand Afghanistan. This applies to neighbors like the late East India Company, the late Soviet Union, or nearby Pakistan, seeing Afghanistan though the prism of their own politics and security concerns. More recently, despite the skill and professionalism of those, military and civilian, deployed there, countries like the US and UK have struggled to turn the experience of individuals on six-month or one year tours of duty into cohesive learning at the institutional level. At the national level, learning, like understanding, often remained elusive.
Conflicts in Afghanistan are, in the end, not about foreigners, but about Afghans and how they and their society have been influenced by outside events and forces, especially those carrying weapons. When, some 35 years ago, I started visiting the Afghans, the first words I heard in Dari were: “You should have been here before the war”, one of the truest, yet saddest phrases in any language. For Afghans, the war that has been ongoing since the 1970s has been a life-defining tumultuous event in unexpected and devastating ways.
As a survey of nineteenth and twentieth century Afghan military history by an experienced Afghan historian drawing on sources in several languages – those of Afghanistan, English and Russian – this book is especially valuable. It is not often that an author has an opportunity to cover the same subject matter, twice, in different languages, after it had changed through events in which he was both active participant and interested and perceptive observer. But that is what Ali Ahmad Jalali’s book represents. The first time he wrote a military history of Afghanistan, it was in Dari and the author was considered the most promising young staff officer in the Royal Afghan Army, the first to graduate from the British Army staff college at Camberley. The first book was written back during the final decade of the Afghan monarchy (1960’s-1973), what is sometimes called Afghanistan’s Golden Age (whether the term is used with or without irony is an indicator of an Afghan’s political orientation). Then, there was less Afghan military history to write about and the idea of the British Army once again returning to fight in Afghanistan would have seemed fantastic.
Since then, the British Army has come and gone from Afghanistan’s battlefields and Jalali has written a number of works, including two in-depth tactical studies of the war against the Soviets and many articles and studies. He has had personal contact or interviewed with many of the people, Afghan and foreign, that have shaped events. The author himself, after the Soviet invasion, fought against them, then worked with the Voice of America providing news and broadcasting to Afghanistan. In the 1990s, he was involved with trying to help end Afghanistan’s civil war. After the fall of the Taliban regime and the creation of the current Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, he served as Afghanistan’s Minister of the Interior (which includes responsibility for internal security).
The book’s subtitle accurately defines the scope. The British and Russian Empires start their involvement in Afghanistan on page 79, which means the many centuries of empires and conflicts in what became today’s Afghanistan have to be summarized before that. Similarly, the US military involvement in 2001 starts on p. 456, in a book with a total of 538 pages of text. The current conflict, after the initial invasion and Operation Anaconda (at Tora Bora), is, like the war with the Soviets, too extensive to be covered in the same way as the narrative of the three Anglo-Afghan wars that makes up the core of this book. Because of the scope of the subject matter, even with a thick book, this is a largely narrative survey that has to cover a lot of ground. Readers unfamiliar Afghanistan’s history, especially the physical and human geography, would be well advised to start with an introductory volume such as Thomas Barfield’s Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History.
The author has done his best to write a narrative military history of Afghanistan, a task, however well done, that is highly unlikely to lead to fame or fortune. This book draws on Afghan as well as English and Russian language sources. The Afghan side of the Anglo-Afghan Wars has been conspicuous by its absence in English-language history, and this book helps redress this lack. While the book’s treatment of recent events and the more polarizing parts of Afghan history will certainly not be uncritically accepted by Afghans and foreigners alike, the author largely plays it straight and aims to write objective history. In this, he has done a better job than many, including the memoirs of US or British government officials and soldiers who have been involved with post-2001 Afghanistan.
The University of Kansas Press have done their usual superior job on this volume, offering good production values at a reasonable price, a number of sketch maps (but please do not omit scales in the future) and decent editing, though considering the broad scope of the subject matter and its likely unfamiliarity to English-language readers, it really did need an additional editing effort to identify concerns such as repetitions or unclear references. They even manage to get their books into bookshops. The writing is clear, even when dealing with the complexities of battlefields and politics. Only the occasional awkward phrase reminds the reader that English is not the author’s first (or second) language.
History – even distant history – is important for understanding the Afghanistan of today. When new threats have emerged in Afghanistan, they have tried to legitimate themselves by claiming connection with a larger historical context. Both the Islamic State/Daesh and Al Qaeda have chosen to describe their presence in Afghanistan in terms of Khorasan, the long-ago province of the Umayyad. They both claim it is their “black banners out of Khorasan” that will signal the start of the end of history.
A Military History of Afghanistan, a volume in the University of Kansas series “Modern War Studies”, has a value and significance beyond most military history volumes, however well done, for its value in understanding not only the past, but to the future as well.
Note: A Military History of Afghanistan is also available in several e-editions.
Our Reviewer: David C. Isby is a veteran historian, defense analyst, and war game designer, with has quite a number of books, articles, and games to his credit covering the Second World War, the military institutions of the Soviet Union, and military aviation in general. During the Soviet-Afghan War he observed the fighting on the front lines, and is the author of Afghanistan: Graveyard of Empires: A New History of the Borderland.