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Lessons Unlearned
The Wars of Afghanistan:
Messianic Terrorism, Tribal
Conflicts and the Failures
of Great Powers
Peter Tomsen, PublicAffairs Books,
2011, $39.99, hardcover, 849 pages.
B. M
Barely two years before the pro-
jected final withdrawal of all U.S. com-
bat forces from Afghanistan, the way
out of America’s longest-running war
seems far from clear. How and why
has it come to this? And what is U.S.
policy in Afghanistan, anyway?
Retired Ambassador Peter Tomsen
addresses these fundamental ques-
tions in a compelling narrative that
gives legs to the old adage that truth is
often stranger than fiction.
From the first chapter, a dramatic
account of President Mohammad Na-
jibullah’s attempt to flee Kabul in 1992
as his regime crumbled, the reader is
swept into the tragedy and complexity
of the past three decades in Afghani-
stan and the broad pattern of that
country’s encounters with foreign
powers over centuries.
What makes this 849-page tome so
vital — and important — is that the
author was directly involved in the
drama and has personal relationships
with many of the principal actors. As
President Ronald Reagan’s special
envoy, with the rank of ambassador, to
the Afghanistan resistance from 1989
to 1991, Tomsen was charged with im-
plementing U.S. policy for the White
House during the critical period in
which the anti-Soviet jihad turned into
civil war, Pakistan became an interna-
tional terrorist base, and the stage was
set for the fateful U.S. invasion.
The career diplomat came to the
job well prepared. As deputy chief of
mission in Beijing from 1984 to 1988,
Tomsen had been engaged, among
other things, on the Afghanistan issue.
Before that, as a political officer in
Moscow from 1977 to 1979, he had
witnessed the lead-up to the porten-
tous Soviet invasion.
Still earlier, he’d lived in South Asia
for seven years, five as political officer
in India and two as a Peace Corps Vol-
unteer in a Nepali village. So he knew
the territory.
The trouble for Tomsen was that it
was hard to know what U.S. policy re-
ally was. From official ignorance of
Afghanistan and lack of understand-
ing of Islam and the Muslim world, to
Washington’s de facto outsourcing of
Afghanistan policy to Pakistan via the
CIA and the military, and the result-
ing divergence between official U.S.
pronouncements and actions in the
field — the story of the U.S. misad-
venture in the Afghan “shatter zone”
is so breathtakingly outrageous that
no one could possibly make it up.
Tomsen brings history, hard-won in-
sights and a keen grasp of Afghan tribal
culture to bear in explaining the dy-
namics of what he calls the Afghan po-
litical cauldron. There each invader’s
hubristic “we can play them” conceit
meets its rude and inevitable demise.
He recounts how the Soviet gov-
ernment was sucked into that caul-
dron lock, stock and barrel — the
Politburo’s time-tested bag of tricks for
controlling East European satraps
thrown back in its face and its own in-
telligence agencies turned into the
competing servants of a tribal power
struggle in Kabul.
That story is arresting enough. But
the detailed record he presents of
America’s dive into the very same abyss
— the result of militant ignorance, bu-
reaucratic stovepiping and a bad, Cold
War-related habit of deference to the
Pakistan military’s InterServices Intel-
ligence organization — is, frankly, em-
barrassing. (Who can forget the ISI’s
champion, the extremist Gulbuddin
Hekmatyar, who was on the verge of
F O R E I G N S E R V I C E J O U R N A L / J U LY - A U G U S T 2 0 1 2
The history
Tomsen recounts
is so breathtakingly
outrageous that
no one could
make it up.