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Journal of Democracy 13.1 (2002) 170-175

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Reconstructing Afghanistan

Michael McFaul

Afghanistan's Endless War: State Failure, Regional Politics, and the Rise of the Taliban. By Larry P. Goodson. University of Washington Press, 2001. 264 pp.

Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil, and Fundamentalism in Central Asia. By Ahmed Rashid. Yale University Press, 2000. 279 pp.

By the time this review appears in print, the U.S.-led military campaign in Afghanistan may already be over. The unforeseen speed of the Taliban's defeat has shown once again that the U.S. armed forces are second to none. Decades of sustained investment in military training, technologies, and personnel have paid off. To be sure, the U.S. military should have retooled and reorganized faster for dealing with the new security challenges of the post-Cold War era. The tens of thousands of U.S. troops stationed in Germany to repel a Soviet tank offensive need new missions. Nonetheless, the effective air campaign against Taliban strongholds, combined with the less-advertised successes of American special forces working on the ground with the Northern Alliance, has reaffirmed the position of the United States as the world's lone super-power.

Destroying bad old regimes--especially unpopular ones like the Taliban's in Afghanistan--is always easier than building good new ones that work well and will last. Thankfully, the United States seems committed to leading the effort to rebuild Afghanistan, a task whose first step will be forming a new government for the country. In providing support to postwar settlement and reconstruction, however, U.S. [End Page 170] diplomats will find that they are much less prepared than their military counterparts to fulfill their mission. While the state-destroying arm of the U.S. government--the military services--spent the 1990s training, upgrading, and preparing for the next challenge, the government's state-constructing wing--the State Department, the U.S. Agency for Interna-tional Development, and the U.S. Information Service--endured budget cuts, brain drains, and charges that they have failed at their recent nation-building assignments. Those U.S. officials assigned to help rebuild Afghanistan have accepted their mandates with little expertise regarding either Afghanistan in particular or the problems of rebuilding war-torn states in general.

Before endorsing any peace plans, these newly deputized nation-builders must read Ahmed Rashid's Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil, and Fundamentalism in Central Asia and follow it up with Larry Goodson's Afghanistan's Endless War: State Failure, Regional Politics, and the Rise of the Taliban. They are different books, but between them they give the best and fullest picture of the underlying situation that one is likely to find between hard covers. Rashid's story is a lively, well-written journalistic account of the rise of the Taliban (a name meaning "seekers" or "students"), and those who helped in that ascent. With less flare, Goodson offers more context as well as a more analytical account of the strife that has long wracked this small, ethnically divided country ringed by bigger and stronger neighbors. Each book is excellent in its own way, and each is essential reading for anyone--and nowadays this should mean all of us--who wants to understand what Afghanistan is like and how it got to be that way.

Not surprisingly, both these recent studies warn emphatically that the process of state reconstruction in Afghanistan will be fraught with thorny difficulties. At the same time, in their shared diagnoses of many of Afghanistan's recent problems, both books inadvertently suggest ways to forge a lasting peace there.

In a cautionary vein, both books describe in detail the deep ethnic and religious divisions that have plagued Afghanistan for the last three decades. Rashid's narrative is especially gripping. A Pakistani journalist who has spent decades writing about the region, Rashid is among the world's leading experts on Afghanistan. His book demonstrates his amazing access to all major political actors in or near the country. Without losing his focus on the already or soon-to-be extinguished Taliban, he provides ample historical and political background and explains...


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