Will Byrnes's Reviews > In the Graveyard of Empires: America's War in Afghanistan

In the Graveyard of Empires by Seth G. Jones
Rate this book
Clear rating

Seth G. Jones is a “senior political scientist” at the RAND corporation (as in Research AND Development, not that other Rand). He worked in the Defense Department for a couple of years, and has taught classes on counter-terrorism issues since 2002 at Georgetown and since 2005 at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School. He has also written on nation building. His stated goal in this book is “ to understand the motivations of the key actors and to assess what factors contributed to the rise of Afghanistan’s insurgency.”

If policy analysis is your cup of chai, this will serve you nicely. Jones has met with a host of relevant parties to the unpleasantness, both historical and ongoing, in Afghanistan and that region. He offers an academic analysis of what underlies problems with nation-building there, citing a list of the usual suspects, and arrives at a place that might strike some as unexpected. Why do so many people support the Taliban? Is it inherent religious extremism, or are there other reasons? What is Pakistan’s role in the persistent problems of its neighbor? What are Pakistan’s goals and how do their actions reflect them? How might the West promote stability, and freedom from tyranny in Afghanistan?

If you are new to the subject, this is not a bad introduction, although I would recommend Ahmed Rashid’s “Descent into Chaos” as a better intro to the area. If you have read a fair bit about Afghanistan and that region, there is little here that is new in his overview. Jones cites many, many sources, and a lot of them are familiar. Yes, we know that Pakistan is interested in maintaining Afghanistan as a buffer against India. We know that they have supported and continue to support the Taliban. We know that the central government in Afghanistan is corrupt

But aside from the broader strokes, Jones drills down to some revelatory information. For example he offers profiles of some of the significant warlords in Afghanistan. He presents telling details in other areas, such as the structure of how Al Qa’ida communicates. He goes into specifics about the ISI, which is associated with the military, and the Pakistani Frontier Corps, which reports to an entirely other ministry, and their roles not only in supporting the Taliban, but in attacking western forces. He talks about the “light footprint” notion espoused by Donald Rumsfeld, and shows how that affected the ability of the military to pacify the nation and begin rebuilding. A particularly interesting bit of data was a comparison of the number of personnel used in other post-war scenarios to pacify the entire country and provide security. The role of the U.S. vis a vis other Western nations regarding developing an Afghani police force is illuminating. His view of insurgency as a parallel attempt at nation-building and not merely as a negative force, is fascinating. He also looks at how some post-colonial governments had not been properly prepared for independence, thus leading to structural weakness and susceptibility to internal disruption. And Jones points out many instances in which American penny-wise-pound-foolish policies allowed the continuation and expansion of significant national problems. Jones’ wonkish appreciation for policy details is most welcome.

He writes about Al Qa’ida as a force multiplier, insisting that it is well incorporated into the Taliban and that the Taliban will, should it regain power, return to providing a safe haven for an organization that Jones insists offers a strategic threat to the U.S. It sounds like he is making a case that any acceptance of Taliban control of Afghanistan, partial or whole, would necessarily mean more attacks on the West from that base of operations. The implication is a need for continuing, probably increased Western military presence there.

In critiquing what is wrong in Afghanistan, one of the key problems is corruption. If people feel no trust in their police, judges, military or government, why should they not support someone or some group outside government? Although it was beyond the purview of this book, it does seem that the generic notion of a public loss of confidence in government impartiality, honesty and willingness and ability to deliver services has implications well beyond those in Afghanistan.

It is his take that top-down nation-building in Afghanistan is exactly the wrong approach. It would seem that, so far at least, the evidence bears him out. But if we in the West remain unwilling to invest resources in building up from below, what is left?

One pet peeve I had with the book was that Jones introduces two voices, Zalmay Khalilzad and Ronald Neumann, into his narrative intermittently. While their involvement in the affairs of Afghanistan as diplomats was significant, telling us about their early careers seemed thrown in. It struck me as a bit of in-house politicking by Jones, who has connections to both men. Another gripe is that he seems to be trying as best he can to place outside the White House responsibility for a lack of investment in Afghanistan after the removal from power of the Taliban, citing, specifically, resistance from the department of OMB. Under an increasingly imperial Bush presidency, it defies reason that a program the White House wanted could be hindered by OMB. The president could simply inform the OMB director of his wishes and make it clear that remaining in his post was contingent on satisfying the person who put him there. It is the occasional item like this one that instilled in me a feeling of caution while reading the book. If a purely political motive informed the writing of this piece, how many other, less obvious, examples might there be tucked away in the crevices. Thankfully, I did not find enough of these ticking devices to fully counter the overall value of the book. Jones has added thoughtful analysis to a broad view of Afghanistan history and current (2009) goings-on to hone a pointed set of recommendations for securing progress in this battered nation that are worth considering.
38 likes · flag

Sign into Goodreads to see if any of your friends have read In the Graveyard of Empires.
Sign In »

Reading Progress

December 6, 2011 – Shelved
December 6, 2011 – Shelved as: military-and-intelligence-non-fic
December 6, 2011 – Shelved as: nonfiction
December 6, 2011 – Shelved as: afghanistan
Started Reading
December 21, 2011 – Finished Reading
January 9, 2012 – Shelved as: the-bush-administration
January 9, 2012 – Shelved as: terrorism

Comments Showing 1-4 of 4 (4 new)

dateDown arrow    newest »

Will Byrnes Thanks. Brian. Yes, it is interesting, but for me what held value was his drilling down to details of this or that.

This is not a book that really addresses CIA-Al Qaida connections. If memory serves, Ghost Wars might be better for that. There may be better but none pops to mind.

I expect that Al Qaida was less a direct recipient or tool of the USA than a sort of collateral recipient of aid. After all, Osama brought his own dollars and Saudi funding sources into his battles. Training and supplies in the Anti-Russian war in Afghanistan was directed to sundry warlords, and in any case, as it was mostly channeled through the ISI, was more subject to Pakistani control than ours.

message 2: by Brit (new) - added it

Brit Cheung illuminating.…

Will Byrnes It is a weird and fascinating part of the world. Very difficult to get a good grasp pf all the elements and their interaction.

message 4: by Brit (new) - added it

Brit Cheung Yes,mentor. When I didn't explore this part I have immense ignorance over it. Compared to East Asia, North America and Europe, this part seems “ostensibly” not that prominent. but the more exploration(i)engage the more understanding (i)can get.(only shallow ideas). It Still seems difficult to shatter ones preconceptions over something, an inclination I should be wary of……

Till now, I know nothing about this region.

back to top