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  • A Bitter Harvest: U.S. Foreign Policy and Afghanistan
  • Milt Bearden
Tom Lansford, A Bitter Harvest: U.S. Foreign Policy and Afghanistan. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2003. 206 pp.

If there is room for just one book on Afghanistan in the rucksacks and sea bags of the tens of thousands of Americans who will be rotating through that unruly land over the next decade or so, it should probably be Tom Lansford's Bitter Harvest: U.S. Foreign Policy and Afghanistan. Bigger and better books exist on Afghanistan, but most have dealt with an exotic place long on Kiplingesque history and short on relevance for most Americans.

All that changed in October 2001, when U.S. forces joined a long line of foreign armies venturing into or through one of the most dangerous and contested pieces of real estate on earth. None of these earlier armies had come out the better for it. The United States now owns a growing stake in Afghanistan, and knowing something about the new property is no longer a trivia game; it is essential. Hence, the timeliness and relevance of Lansford's little book on Afghanistan.

Lansford takes his readers on a journey through the martial history of a country that has figured in all of the great movements of armies, ideas, and trade between China, India, Persia, and the lands north of the Oxus River, from Alexander the Great's dangerous traverse of the region in 327 B.C. to Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001. He walks the reader through the British catastrophes of the nineteenth-century Great Game, when Imperial Russia and other great powers struggled for domination of Central Asia. In the process, Lansford explains in eminently readable form why foreign armies have always fared so poorly when venturing into the tortured geography between the Oxus and the Indus. The British lost an army on the road from Kabul to Jalalabad in the nineteenth century; the Soviet Union lost an empire along [End Page 146] those same roads a century-and-a-half later. Americans, Lansford points out, need to be aware of this historical context.

In dealing with the decade of U.S. support for the Afghan resistance to the Soviet occupation from 1979 to 1989, Lansford avoids recycling the trendy but shallow assessment that all the terror in our dangerous world is "blowback" from earlier, misguided American policy adventures in Afghanistan. He does, however, quite correctly characterize U.S. policy toward Afghanistan since World War II as having been reactive and easily distracted. Indeed, if there was a serious policy failure connected with U.S. support for the Afghan resistance during the Soviet occupation, it was that the United States lost interest in Afghanistan after the Soviet Union pulled out, leaving the country to its own devices. That observation drives home the fact that during foreign invasions of Afghanistan over the millennia—the Great Game or the Soviet occupation or Operation Enduring Freedom—the Afghans themselves were always secondary to the interventions. Lansford warns dryly that this time around the United States "must not only stay in Afghanistan, but it must deepen its presence" (p. 185).

Lansford treats the question of Pakistan's national interests in Afghanistan with the eye of the historian and political analyst, explaining the complex relationship between Pakistan's view of its own national security imperatives and the historical tensions that have been a constant in eastern Afghanistan and Pakistan's western provinces ever since roughly 25 million Pashtuns were decreed by colonial British surveyors to live on one side or the other of an artificial national boundary drawn at the end of the nineteenth century. Although many contemporary writers treat Pakistan as a meddlesome interloper in Afghan affairs, Lansford highlights the complexities of the so-called Pushtunistan problem that has always been the driver of Pakistan's policy toward Afghanistan.

Lansford's discussion of the ethnic divides of Afghanistan, and their relevance to earlier foreign adventures and disasters, is concise and instructive. Without preaching, Lansford points out the ethnic traps that always seem to lure foreign armies onto the shoals. He leaves open the question of whether the United States will succeed in its...