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Central Asian Survey

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Afghanistan declassified: a guide to America's longest war

J. Edward Conway
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University of St Andrews Version of record first published: 10 Dec 2012.

To cite this article: J. Edward Conway (2012): Afghanistan declassified: a guide to America's longest war, Central Asian Survey, 31:4, 465-467 To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/02634937.2012.738848

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Central Asian Survey Vol. 31, No. 4, December 2012, 465 474

Book reviews
Afghanistan declassied: a guide to Americas longest war, by Brian Glyn Williams, Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012, xii + 248 pp., US$34.95 (hardcover), ISBN 9780812244038 As the title suggests, this book is a declassied, civilian version of a US Army guide to Afghanistan initially written by the author during his time as an advisor to the US militarys Joint Information Operations Warfare Command in 2008 (though it has been updated in 2011). In the authors words, this text separates itself from existing works on the country by aiming to enhance the U.S. militarys overall operating knowledge of the Afghan people and their homeland (p. xii). The book is divided into ve chapters across two parts: the Basics, which includes an ethnic and a geographic overview of the country in respective chapters, and History Lessons, which over three chapters begins with a pre-Soviet history of the country, moves into the Soviet years and the rise of the Taliban, and ends with the post-9/11 US presence in the country that continues to this day under Operation Enduring Freedom. This book is not structured around a theoretical framework, or any sort of central argument, or a series of critical, explicitly-stated questions but importantly, the author does not claim any of these as larger objectives of the book. Rather, this is a primer on Afghanistan written by an historian with extensive eld experience in the country, and it should be treated as such. While the author has taken the unusual step of omitting any form of explicit citations no parenthetical referencing, no footnotes, no endnotes, not even a bibliography it is clear from the content that the author had unprecedented access to some of countrys most inuential personalities, namely the famous general Abdul Rashid Dostum and the mujahideen ghters of the late Ahmad Shah Massoud. Dostum, an Uzbek who was the leader of a powerful pro-Communist militia during the 1980s and for a time held Kabul in the 1990s, quickly became a critical ally of the US military as it invaded Afghanistan in late 2001. Today he is widely recognized as controlling the northern Uzbek areas of the country. Massoud, a Tajik leader of the anti-Soviet mujahideen and then the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, was assassinated by the Taliban on the eve of September 11, 2001. Unfortunately, the authors eld experience and laudable access to individuals like Dostum and Massouds men have the adverse effect of an unbalanced book thick and rich in areas the author knows well, thin and underdeveloped in the areas he does not. Complicating this trend is the fact that the regions in Afghanistan more critical to US forces today tend to be the ones in which the author has the least experience, calling into question the books applicability to its intended audience. Afghanistan Declassied starts strongly, but over time becomes increasingly confusing to follow and decreasingly loyal to the guides stated intent of clarifying the country and its people to broader audiences. The rst chapter, on the countrys ethnic landscape, is concise and easily grasped, touching on key cultural practices relevant to the patrolling US soldier or Marine such as Pashtunwali, the Pashtun code of honour and hospitality. But from there, the book becomes a disappointment. The following chapter, on geography, reads more like a travel guide to the least important places in the country (as measured by the books intended US military audience), such as in the authors mountain trip to Bamiyan province to explore one of the most isolated regions of Afghanistan, where he nally feels free from the conning protection of my Karzai hosts, the pollution of Kabul, and the war that raged in the lowlands. It is, of course, the war that rages in the lowlands that is of greatest signicance to US forces.
ISSN 0263-4937 print/ISSN 1465-3354 online http://www.tandfonline.com

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466 Book reviews In the second part of the book, the author tells the history of the country one leader at a time. At rst this makes for page-turning, informative reading, taking the reader through successive personalities in the country, starting with Ahmed Shah Durrani in the 1700s and up through King Zahir Shah and Prime Minister turned President Mohammad Daoud, who would overthrow the monarchy and declare the country a republic in the 1970s. But with the advent of chapter 4, the history-by-individual approach breaks down, because from the late 1970s up through 2001 the country experienced several self-declared leaders of their respective regions concurrently, with constant back-and-forth control of Kabul. The overall narrative becomes difcult to follow as the author continually jumps forward and backward in time, from prole to prole, like a play repeatedly delivered from beginning to end, one actor at a time. In the nal chapter, on the US presence in the country since 9/11, the format unravels altogether as the author attempts to cram into the chapter every newsworthy event relevant to the country since 2001, capped off with the targeted killing of Osama bin Laden in neighbouring Pakistan. The greatest frustration of Afghanistan Declassied is that in trying to detail every development within the country, the author fails to fully leverage his most valuable experiences namely his access to Dostum and to Massouds men. In 2003, the authors ve-minute conversation with Dostum became several weeks of embedded interviews (pp. 93 94), including interviews with dozens of Taliban prisoners held by the warlord (p. 97). The author later describes traveling to Massouds town, where he was embraced by his followers and invited to live literally in Massouds old quarters. In the pockets of this book that are clearly informed by these experiences, the author shines and (more importantly) provides valuable insight into the successful and failed insurgency and counterinsurgency strategies in the country, as learned by the individuals who have fought these battles over decades immeasurable value for the primary intended audience, the US military. Unfortunately, in extending his coverage of Afghanistan to areas the author is less familiar with, he dilutes these insights and fails to develop their signicance to the fullest extent, leaving the reader eager for more. Dostum and Massoud, for instance, both controlled at various points in time areas within the capital city of Kabul (in some instances as allies, in others as enemies), which the author describes broadly but does not explain. What were their strategies? Their errors? How can their lessons enlighten current strategic planning to ensure that the Taliban does not retake Kabul following the US withdrawal? Further, the history of Dostum and Massouds relationship with one another holds in itself great potential for US military commanders and diplomats. These two leaders would shift between being enemies and being allies from year to year (recall that Dostum initially led a Soviet-supported militia whereas Massoud was a leader of the anti-Soviet jihad). The author celebrates their alliances but fails to give any details other than what is already widely known. In the highly fractured, informal power networks of Afghanistan that continually challenge US policymakers, where are the insights from Dostum on how Massoud brought him to the table? What were the mechanics of power-sharing that allowed these two strong personalities to work together? These questions are neither asked nor answered but are replaced with weakly informed, broader contemporary coverage of areas like Kandahar and Helmand which are critical to the US effort and the locus of most US causalities, but nevertheless not the authors area of strength. This is captured, for instance, in the authors depiction of Operation Moshtarak, initiated in February 2010 to retake the Taliban-controlled town of Marjah in Helmand Province. The author dedicates a single page to the operation, mentioning casually that the town had become the de facto capital of the Taliban in Afghanistan (which in itself seems like an observation worthy of detailed explanation) and that the US strategy of bringing a government in a

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Book reviews 467 box to the area appears to have stalled and is a stalemate at best (p. 235). The author then moves on to describe a different operation in the country, reecting only minimally on why Moshtarak was not the success it planned to be. Where is the scrutiny? The criticism? The analysis? How would the authors grasp of Afghan culture, politics and geography improve upon Marjahs stalemate? In the absence of the ability to answer these questions, a more valuable approach would have been to ignore events like Moshtarak altogether and instead focus more deeply on drawing out the full value of weeks embedded with General Dostum, for instance, or the authors access to Dostums Taliban prisoners. It is perhaps the fact that this book begins with no driving question or argument that opens it up to a confusing structure that does not overlap appropriately with the authors clearly valuable experience, expertise and access. This is regrettable, because it is obvious to the reader that only a fraction of the authors prized insight into Afghanistan is represented in this book.
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J. Edward Conway University of St Andrews j.edward.conway@gmail.com # 2012, J. Edward Conway http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/02634937.2012.738848

State building and conict resolution in the Caucasus, by Charlotte Hille, Leiden, Brill, 2010, xiv + 359 pp., US$153.00 (hardcover), ISBN 9789004179011 Charlotte Hilles monograph is more of an historical study than an essay on state building and conict resolution. Like the vast majority of scientists who have worked on the Caucasus, she maintains that most of the tensions and conicts here originate from the tormented history of the region, and more especially from the period under the highly repressive and authoritarian Soviet rule. The 20 chapters in the book are of uneven value. The rst chapter is an introduction to the geography and history of settlement in the region. Incidentally, the author here questions clanism in the Caucasian societies as a fundamental and constitutive phenomenon, and asks if it works as an impediment to the development of modern states. To this last question she gives a hurried judgment (p. 18), suggesting that clans after 1991 have perfectly managed the ideological transition, adapting themselves from a communist to a nationalist regime. Chapter 2 outlines theoretical elements and denitions that are used throughout the text: population, territory, state, etc. The analysis of the state-building process in the Caucasus through the theory of the Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States is of particular interest. The study of the principles codied and dened in the 1933 Montevideo Convention as well as an overview of the historical context in which it took place casts a new light on the state-building processes at work in the Caucasus today (pp. 27 28). Chapters 3 through 13 explain the phenomenon of state building in the South and North Caucasus before and after the period of the Russian Revolution. For each of the three countries (Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia), but also for the Northern Caucasian republics included in the Russian Federation, the author provides the chronology of the major events that encouraged and facilitated the emerging of a national phenomenon. And each time, the role of Russia in the state-building process is extremely important, as the imperial power has always been highly inuential in national and identity creation in the Caucasus (p. 47). Chapter 9 sheds light on