The conflict in Afghanistan is now into its fourth decade, with no end in sight. In spite of the fact that Afghanistan is a poor and landlocked country in Central Asia, the violence there has echoed across the world. Camps in Afghanistan that trained Islamic fighters during the initial phase of the conflict later produced Islamist radicals who organized terrorist attacks on the US, Madrid and London. These same groups have radicalized public opinion and brought increasing violence to Muslim countries in the Middle East, North Africa, and Indonesia. And the wave of violence has most assuredly impacted Pakistan, one of the front line players in the initial conflict, and India, its neighbour and adversary.
The broad outline of the conflict is familiar to anyone who keeps abreast of politics and world affairs. The Soviet Union engineered a coup in Afghanistan to install a friendly government there and later invaded and occupied the country in order to prop up a failing regime. The Mujahidin then began a guerrilla war against the occupation with support from the US, Pakistan, and numerous Arab countries. Subsequently, when the Cold War ended, the world lost interest in Afghanistan, and it was abandoned in a state of civil war until the Taliban took control. The Taliban offered safe haven to Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda, who planned terrorist attacks on the West. While this is the broad outline of recent history, we appreciate that a more comprehensive understanding requires a much deeper analysis of events. Deepak Tripathi, the author of The Bush Legacy, has produced a new book, Breeding Ground: Afghanistan and the Origins of Islamist Terrorism, which provides exactly such an analysis. In his concise yet powerful book he details the interlocking decisions and strategies that inflamed the conflict and produced a new and dangerous historical context.
Tripathi has relied on a broad array of sources, many of them unavailable until recently, including archives of both the US and Soviet governments. Hence there is ample material in the book to supply a source for further historical study. As he promises in the acknowledgments, Tripathi’s “analysis goes where the archives take it”, and he pulls no punches. As the story unfolds, Tripathi examines the thinking behind the fateful decisions of the players involved, which resulted in the spiral of violence. But this story unveils a still deeper tragedy. The US government, in its effort to contain the expansion of communism, was drawn into the ‘Great Game’ that Tsarist Russia and the British empires participated in during the 19th century. More tragic still, the evidence demonstrates that all the players developed their simplistic strategic goals with only a shallow understanding of Afghanistan’s history and with little regard for the human cost to the Afghan population.
In addition to relating the history of the conflict, Tripathi presents a thesis on the causes underlying the growth of Islamic terrorism. In brief, he says that the phenomenon arose as a consequence of a prolonged period during which a culture of violence prevailed in Afghanistan. The US, through Pakistan, provided a vast amount of weaponry to the Mujahidin. Foreign fighters were attracted from the Middle East to participate in the jihad against the communist occupation. And the violence antagonized long silent religious, ethnic, and tribal differences within Afghanistan itself. These antagonisms created a virtual vortex of descending violence that has nurtured the growth of global Islamic radicalism. One could argue, of course, as Zbeigniew Brzezinski did in 1998 (p. 64) that the collapse of the Soviet empire was far more important to world history than the rise of the Taliban. But such a view is not only cynical, but now quite obviously short sighted. And Pakistan, in its attempt to ensure a pacified northern neighbour, has inflamed Pashtun nationalism and Islamic radicalism within its own borders in the so called Federally Administered Tribal Area.
One wonders after reading Tripathi’s rich and insightful book whether the damage can ever be undone, whether Afghanistan might become a peaceful country and Islamic radicalism be tamed. For his part, Tripathi proposes a shift in US policy toward the use of soft as opposed to hard power. That is a sensible approach, if one analyzes events from a realpolitik perspective. As the sole remaining superpower, the US will inevitably exercise its influence in world affairs. But the line between the use of soft and hard power is fuzzy. The Soviets initially supported a nearly bloodless coup in Afghanistan, only later to become drawn into a full scale invasion and bloody occupation in order to preserve their gains. Given the multi-ethnic and tribal structure of Afghan society and the culture of violence that Tripathi has so vividly described, what are the chances that the US will be able to succeed in nation building there? Whether through the use of soft power or counterinsurgency, the effort would appear doomed. It seems to me that the real tragedy of history lies precisely in the meddling of world powers in foreign lands, be it through clandestine activities or direct military intervention. Tripathi sums this up beautifully in his closing quote from Tolstoy, “In all history there is no war which was not hatched by the governments, the governments alone, independent of the interests of the people, to whom war is always pernicious, even when successful.”