- A Military History of Afghanistan: From the Great Game to the Global War on Terror by Ali Ahmad Jalali
One cannot but succumb to a deep and depressing sense of déjà vu when reading Jalili’s encyclopedic history of two centuries of Afghanistan’s military history. Although the precise military nomenclature may change, there is a dispiriting commonality between the British dispatching heavily armed columns to mount a show of force in the three Anglo-Afghan Wars and twenty-first century talk of deploying a “surge” to bring a resolution to the ongoing conflict. This observation is not specific to the British and the Americans; the Soviets were also drawn to use ultimately futile strategies when dealing with Afghanistan (at the time of this writing, President Trump has just announced another surge). On two occasions in the nineteenth century, the British governors-general of India resorted to a similar strategy in reaction to the Afghan people’s failure to concede defeat and comply with what others assumed was in their best interests. Moreover, conflicts in and with Afghanistan, whether [End Page 181] in 1838, 1879, 1919, or 1978, were all too often the result of heavy-handed attempts at regime change. If history does not repeat itself, mistakes and misreadings certainly do.
Jalili offers a conventional, albeit highly detailed and thoughtful, chronology of the major military and political events throughout the course of the past two centuries. This work is based on the premise that “military history is virtually the history of Afghanistan” (xi). Hence, Jalili builds his narrative around the many ill-fated efforts at welding together a modern state along a major strategic fault line, whether these efforts emanated from indigenous, external, or mixed sources. He accomplishes this detailed reconstruction with a clear commitment to being as even-handed and as comprehensive as he can with regard to the principal actors. He carefully considers the decisions and underlying motives of key decision makers and offers fresh insights into the actions taken by Afghan rulers.
Jalili’s sources are mostly published primary accounts. Readers will be grateful for his inclusion of published works in languages other than English, such as Russian, Pashto, Farsi/Dari, and Urdu. But this reliance on published primary accounts is not without its dangers. For example, Jalali turns to Sita Ram’s memoir of life as a sepoy in the mid-nineteenth century British Indian Army to illustrate British experiences in the first Anglo-Afghan War, apparently unaware of the debates about the authenticity of this work.1 Moreover, although he seems to be familiar with much of the extant published scholarly accounts, his omissions are noteworthy, particularly for the British period. For example, there is nothing from Yapp or Norris.2
Jalili supplements the wide range of published sources with his own personal knowledge and experience derived from his extensive employment in the higher levels of the Afghan army and government. Currently Afghanistan’s ambassador to Germany, Jalili spent two decades as an officer in the Afghan army (1961–1981), and in the immediate post-Taliban period, he was appointed Interior Minister (2003–2005). His detailed familiarity with the region gives credence to his cautionary injunctions against much of what we have learned from Western officials and media reports. For example, concerning the Tora Bora cave complex to which Osama bin Laden retreated following the American invasion, he notes that most public accounts “overestimated the complexity of the caves, as though they were cavern castles built for the villain in a James Bond film” (479).
Jalili stresses the impact of geography throughout this work, repeatedly presenting Afghanistan as a nation in arms, wherein geography [End Page 182] encourages and reinforces localized armed responses whenever central authority collapses. No single authority has successfully monopolized coercive power for long. Consequently, the history of Afghanistan has been marked by the co-existence of regular and irregular warfare, and by unresolved national and local tensions that created complex and ever-shifting situations in...