- Afghanistan from the Cold War through the War on Terror by Barnett R. Rubin
Barnett Rubin’s recent addition to the growing scholarship on Afghanistan and the US-led war there is sure to stand out to those interested in the region for a number of reasons. Arguably the most prominent of these is the author himself. Rubin is one of the most respected and knowledgeable academics whose focus on and interest in Afghanistan predates the events of September 11, 2001. He has authored a number of seminal works on Afghanistan’s post-1978 political history.1 Perhaps more importantly, Rubin has long been an academic activist for Afghanistan, working for NGOs, the UN, and most recently, the US government. Along with Vali Nasr, now dean of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, Rubin served as an advisor to Richard Holbrooke, the US Special Representative who advocated the well-known “AFPAK” strategy before his sudden death in 2010. Precisely because of his academic knowledge and professional experience, readers may expect both a sharply analytical and politically revealing work. Unfortunately, they will be disappointed on both counts.
Afghanistan from the Cold War though the War on Terror is a rather imposing and ultimately unwieldy tome running nearly 500 pages divided into 20 chapters. The latter are grouped into three parts (1. Prelude, Afghanistan between Two Wars, 1989–2001; 2. Nation-Building Lite; and 3. Back to War) that largely follow a chronological trajectory of the recent history of conflict in Afghanistan. Nearly all the chapters, with the exception of the introduction and epilogue, have been published previously in academic journals, the popular press, or as think tank papers. As articles, the chapters were structured and written as stand-alone pieces. In editing the book, there appears to have been little effort in weaving them together into a coherent whole. As a consequence, the book is more an anthology of Rubin’s writings rather than a new addition to them. While this is a worthwhile exercise in itself given his stature in academic and policy circles, in its present form, the book leaves the reader largely unsatisfied.
In terms of content, although many chapters offer important detail, few tell us much that is new. Though partly due to the fact the individual chapters have been previously published, more generally they tell a by-now-well-known story with which most knowledgeable observers of Afghanistan will be familiar. There is a great deal of overlap between the chapters, with many covering the same material with similar analysis. One of the key themes Rubin repeatedly returns to is the nature of the Afghan state — highly centralized in design, it has historically attempted to assert itself over a highly decentralized political and administrative topography — as the key problem that has not been effectively addressed by the international efforts of the past 13 years. There is little with which to disagree in this, and other assessments he offers. Yet much of this we have heard before, not least from Rubin himself in his previous works.
By far the book’s most interesting chapters are its introduction and epilogue, perhaps the only two sections written specifically for it. Rubin’s tone here is much more memoir-like, and he engages the reader with a number of personal anecdotes that both illustrate his point and establish his authority and credibility. For example, in the Epilogue, he tells of a night in 2002 spent in Kabul with Ashraf Ghani (minister of finance, 2002–2004) and Qayyum Karzai (brother of President Hamid Karzai) where the three discussed the failures of the international community, as well as the Afghan diaspora, in establishing peace and stability in Afghanistan. His analysis of these failures, which the remainder of the epilogue [End Page 644] projects forward into the following decade, is buttressed by his familiarity and working relationship with many of Afghanistan’s ruling elite. It is a fascinating view of an important insider who has affected both US and international policy...