Conflict in Afghanistan: An Encyclopedia (review)
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Reviewed by
Conflict in Afghanistan: An Encyclopedia. By Frank A. Clemens. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 2003. ISBN 1-85109-402-4. Maps. Photographs. Glossary. Bibliography. Index. Pp. xxxii, 376. $85.00.

If he had been faced with reconciling centuries of Afghanistan's obscure and improbable realities with the encyclopedia format, Diderot probably would have kept his day job. In this volume, the author attempts a task that would prove daunting even to the relatively few Anglophone Afghanistan experts backed by a deep-pockets publisher. This heroic effort has yielded a problematic result. [End Page 1023]

While its subject is conflict in Afghanistan since its emergence as a proto-state in 1747, this volume offers a wide range of entries concentrating on post-1978 conflicts, updated to mid-2003. These are supplemented by a chronology, bibliography, and a limited number of maps and graphics. All have, unfortunately, significant problems and limitations that undercut the volume's utility to either the nonspecialist seeking an introduction to a specific subject (and where to go for more information) and the specialist seeking ready reference to complex changes, facts, and details.

Afghanistan suffers from the fact that much of what is known about it happens not to be true. This is why this volume's weakness in fact-checking is a particular drawback. Many of its entries—those dealing with recent decades, especially post-1992—have multiple errors, ranging from the minor and embarrassing to the major and confusing. Errors of omission are also common, with many of the entries leaving out key factors or individuals in the events they are describing. Afghanistan is a country where experts, foreign ministries, and intelligence services interpret complex realities through institutional prisms that often function as kaleidoscopes; getting things wrong is understandable but inaccuracy constrains an encyclopedia much more than, for example, the newspaper accounts or collections of essays that were relied on in its compilation.

The subject matter—while admirably broad in its attempted coverage—is also skewed in actuality. While the updating of the coverage to mid-2003 is a plus, the individuals and movements shaping events are not detailed. The more recent warlords, cabinet ministers, and foreign figures receive less emphasis than those that are well represented in clippings files from earlier years. Other figures, still on the political scene, have their biographies truncated as of a decade or two ago. The basic facts on difficult people, institutions, and events that are likely to influence tomorrow's news are not there in a reliable and accessible format.

The chronology suffers from a similar random selectivity, in the events included, reflecting more what was reported in the press than events on the ground, as might be expected in an encyclopedia of conflict. The entries—especially on more recent events—tend to take the form of descriptive essays more than encyclopedic recapitulations.

The bibliography is limited to English-language published sources. This limitation, for example, has forced the author to rely on Cold War era accounts of the Soviet war, without updating them from more recent
Russian-origin material. Even allowing for these limitations, the bibliography has both surprising and significant omissions as well as large and small errors.

A wise publisher would undertake a thorough revision, which the changes in Afghanistan will soon mandate. The admirable effort reflected in this work needs more thorough editing and fact checking. Afghanistan has long defeated would-be conquerors. It has now also defeated a would-be encyclopedist.

David C. Isby
Alexandria, Virginia
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