The Foreign Service Journal, July-August 2012

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. R EVIEWED BY S USAN B. M AITRA 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 62 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 B OOKS The history Tomsen recounts is so breathtakingly outrageous that no one could make it up.