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Book Review: ‘The Wars of Afghanistan’

The Wars of Afghanistan: Messianic Terrorism, Tribal Conflicts, and the Failures of Great Powers. Peter Tomsen. Public Affairs, NY, 2011.

Peter Tomsen has crafted an immense project with The Wars of Afghanistan. Powerfully written, well-resourced and well-referenced, it serves as a large mainstream addition to understanding the political situation of Afghanistan and Pakistan in relation to previous empires and to the United States in particular. For those without some background knowledge already, it might appear rather formidable to follow, as it is densely written with well-detailed political actions between the many and varied players. Peter Tomsen’s knowledge of the area and its history is based on extensive firsthand experience during the early years of the Afghanistan segment of the war on terror, during which time he encountered most of the main political and military players in Afghanistan.

The CIA receives significant blame for problems dealing with Afghanistan. The military-political planners in the White House receive blame for their ‘un-intentions’ in Afghanistan, treating the situation after the fall of the Soviets as a discarded afterthought. The tribal situation in Afghanistan is clearly defined, and the relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan is highlighted, with Pakistan also receiving significant blame for the adverse military-political situation between the two countries. Saudi Arabia is implicated in it all, which should raise readers’ questions about the U.S. relationship with that dictatorial monarchy. There are few good guys in this history, save a few like Ahmed Shah Masood of the Northern Alliance and, if what Tomsen self-reports of his own actions, perhaps the author himself included.

For the United States, this work does admirably fill the accepted mainstream position. Outside of the mainstream, in the back-eddies and whirlpools of history, problems remain. The first main problem is the acceptance and valorization of U.S. military force as a means of conducting international affairs. The second problem is bin Laden and his alleged attacks on the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001. A third problem is the apparent lack of understanding of the overall U.S. strategic purposes in the region—Afghanistan and Pakistan—and the Middle East.

Military Valor

The first problem is apparent in the introduction and the concluding sections. It is a double-edged sword in which “The White House has yet to enforce disciplined implementation of a coherent Afghan policy, even while American men and women are fighting with valor and skill on the battlefield.” I am not sure how urinating on dead bodies, burning Korans, night assaults on families, and declared but otherwise indiscriminate drone attacks reflect valor and skill.

In the closing chapter header quote, Tomsen cites his own testimony to Congress about the “stunning American led military victory which ousted the Taliban-al-Qaeda regime.” Stunning? After ten years of trying? After repeated condemnations of the CIA and Pakistani ineptitude? Certainly opportune political news, but hardly stunning for the vaunted military prowess of the United States. If bin Laden was “the single most important objective of Operation Enduring Freedom” it took much, much too long, with huge tolls on the life of Afghans, to be considered stunning.

Bin Laden

Relating to the above problem, the assassination of bin Laden is described in the introduction as a “splendid military-intelligence action to kill bin Laden” and in the conclusion as a “spectacular success,” this following on many terse statements on bin Laden being the person who perpetrated events on 9/11. Importantly, bin Laden does not play a central role in this narrative, although his role is identified as critical in two areas: money and training for jihadists; and more central to all arguments, his 9/11 attacks.

Tomsen obviously accepts the mainstream view, the 9/11 Commission’s report on the attacks. There is no question of its authority, and distributed sparsely through the work are terse references to bin Laden’s culpability: “al-Qaeda piloted planes struck America itself,” with bin Laden as the “mastermind of the al-Qaeda attacks.” Later, while posting dates for Pakistan’s proxy wars, certain events unfolded “until al-Qaeda planes struck the Twin Towers and the Pentagon,” with a similar sign post later described as “until 9/11 when al-Qaeda attacks staged from Afghanistan,” and again “until after al-Qaeda struck the U.S. homeland from Afghanistan.”

The emphasis is on all the planning for al-Qaeda, including on 9/11, all took place in Afghanistan. It is all tidily summed up later in the work with the statement, with a quote repeated from above that “Capturing or killing bin Laden, the terrorist who perpetrated the 9/11 attack, was the single most important objective of Operation Enduring Freedom.”

For the actual historical record of events, this accounting of bin Laden is somewhat insignificant. However, for the interpretation of events and their justifications and rationalizations that created the events, it is extremely important. Tomsen is quite clear in his descriptions of many of the power players in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Russia, China, the U.S., Saudi Arabia and others involved. He is also quite clear in his descriptions of bin Laden’s movements and efforts in other arenas of action, yet when it comes to 9/11 his point of view is simplified to “bin Laden did it” without any description as to how or why he may have been able to do this—other than by accepting the 9/11 Commission report.

Islamic Terror

9/11 is the identified “new Pearl Harbor” that initiated many earlier plans for global military hegemony with full spectrum dominance; it sits in juxtaposition with many unanswered scientific questions that have been raised about the attacks. Tomsen’s work rests squarely in the uncritical mainstream corporate media presentation about the wars in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Middle East—it is a problem with Islamic terrorism.

In his introduction, Tomsen states that the “Islamist vision, developed by Pakistani President Zia ul-Haq in the 1980s and carried on ever since by his military successors, contradicts fundamental U.S. interests. It has stymied efforts to end the wars of Afghanistan and combat global terrorism.” True.

But what are the real “fundamental U.S. interests?” And there is no definition of what global terrorism really is, although it is implied that it is Islamic terrorism and that is where the terror originates, a highly arguable and poorly defensible position. Yes terrorism exists, but without an examination of its actual roots, where it is found, why it is found there, and without an actual definition of terror to operate with, the presumptive nature of U.S. terror wars need to be examined with a good mirror.

The Soviet invasion is implicated for opening “the way for Pakistani and Saudi-supported Muslim extremists to penetrate Afghanistan.” This and other comments concerning both Pakistan and Saudi Arabia highlight another awkward positioning of the war on terror. For if there were 19 or 20 Saudi’s on the planes that attacked the U.S., and the Saudi’s are known to aid and abet terror in other regions of the Middle East, and if Pakistan is a known center of Islamist terror instruction, why was Afghanistan attacked? Those “fundamental U.S. interests,” meaning Arab oil and Pakistani nuclear weapons presumably had something to do with that (see below on U.S. strategic interests.)

The “natural offshoot” of the original Pakistan-Saudi-Taliban ideology in the early 1980s (remember Ronald Reagan’s “freedom fighters”?) has global terrorism as its “natural offshoot” that “poses an existential threat to the West, to moderate Islamic countries, and to the Saudi kingdom itself.” A lot of blowback to empire’s thrust seems the more likely threat, while the moderate Islamic countries seem to have little to fear. It is the dictatorial monarchies of the Saudis and other Arab states who seem to have the most to fear if current events around the Arab spring, NATO interference in Libya—and non-interference in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Yemen—are any indicators.

Once again, this terrorism is directly tied to 9/11, as “Pakistani supported Islamic extremism….inexorably led to the rise of the Taliban, al-Qaeda’s training camps in Afghanistan — and 9/11.” Once again, why then not invade Pakistan as the terror state? Or its monetary supporters, the Saudis? Yes, there is a direct tie of these events to 9/11, but not as the highly dubious official report makes it out to be. 9/11 is the “new Pearl Harbor” where the plans of the neocon generation could be implemented for the imperial global hegemon.

U.S. Strategy

There are statements throughout the work where Tomsen discusses the lack of an overall strategic plan for the region, in his thinking a major cause of their lack of success. Tomsen himself seems to be quite accurate with his descriptions of other state actors in this complicated history but when it comes to his own country, he seems confused about it intentions.

This is seen with the earlier citation about the White House needing a “disciplined implementation” of some strategic plan. The confusion is perhaps willful, as Tomsen indicates a selective ideology, saying, “the British and Russian governments (not unlike the twentieth century [sic] Soviets) explained their motives in ideological terms.”

Another confusing statement says, “The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan…was a blatant imperialistic act. The American military intervention was prompted by al-Qaeda’s attack on the American homeland from Afghanistan. If 9/11 had not occurred, the United States would not have attacked al-Qaeda and the Taliban.” [italics added]

This raises questions about imperialism and military intervention, as they look quite similar to most people. Also, a historian cannot rewrite history in a conjectural mode. 9/11 happened, probably not by the official account, but it did happen, and it did set off a series of events that fit well within U.S. desires to be the imperial global hegemon.


About the Author

Jim Miles

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Jim Miles
Jim Miles is a Canadian educator and a regular contributor/columnist of opinion pieces and book reviews for The Palestine Chronicle. Miles' work is ilso presented globally through other alternative websites and news publications. 
  • Marcus Clonch

    i LOVE HOW YOU DESCRIBE AMERICAN SOLDIERS VALOR IN AFGHANISTAN. THOSE INCIDENTS YOU DESCRIBE ARE NOT THE NORM AND THE FACT THAT YOU DEPICT THEM AS SUCH MAKES YOU A LIAR AND A DISTRIBUTOR OF MISINFORMATION. GET YOU FACTS STRAIGHT JACK ASS