Book Review: Ghosts of Afghanistan
Weekly Pulse
Oxford, 22 November 2011
Jonathan Steele’s Ghosts of Afghanistan: The Haunted Battleground is the latest in a series of recent books which have attempted to critically evaluate the evolution of Afghan conflict since the 1979 Soviet intervention. As the title itself suggests, the book considers Afghanistan as a haunted battlefield, with America and its allies facing its ghosts—as they fail to learn valid lessons from Soviet military intervention and "political defeat" in Afghanistan over two decades ago.

Jonathan reported the conflict’s successive stages in the last 30 years for British newspaper, The Guardian. Now, with a narrative full of descriptive details and personal anecdotes, he offers an insightful analysis of Afghanistan’s successive wars, from the anti-Soviet jihad of the 80s, to the 90s’ intra-Afghan fighting leading up to the rise of Taliban, to the current Taliban-led insurgency against the US-led coalition.

However, what makes Jonathan’s work so distinct from other authors on the subject is, first, his attempt to expose some of the most prominent myths about the Afghan conflict and, two, his effort to compare the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan (1979-1989) with the American intervention in Afghanistan (2001-2011). In the second case, he underscores the US failure to learn from the Soviet experience in Afghanistan, especially in terms of seeking a peaceful end to the war.

Published by London-based Portobelo Press, the 437-page voluminous book has 14 chapters, besides an introduction and a conclusion. Recently, Jonathan spoke about his work at Oxford University’s Rothermere American Institute, sharing with a rich audience of scholars and students some of its main observations, conclusions and suggestions. While arguing that “reconciliation with the Taliban” was the only way forward in Afghanistan, he wondered why the Americans had failed to emulate a similar strategy the Soviets under Gorbachev adopted to prevent a humiliating military defeat and secure a smooth withdrawal of their troops in Afghanistan by February 1989.

According to him, for the Soviets, there was no recent precedent of an international war over Afghanistan, as the last such battle had occurred sixty-plus years before their intervention in 1979. So, their mistake in militarily intervening and occupying Afghanistan could be understandable. But the memories of the Soviet experience were still afresh at the time of 9/11. The Americans could draw valid lessons from a war that had come to end only 12 years before they intervened in 2001.

This is precisely what the United States has failed to. “Unfortunately, the Obama Administration continues to opt for a Garrison strategy premised on a false hope that there can be a military solution to the conflict.” This, he argued, was despite the fact that the current stalemate in the Afghan war necessitates its political resolution through reconciling the forces of insurgency.

Currently, the main challenge in Afghanistan, he said during the Oxford talk, was that its Pashtun majority population, constituting the Taliban and their insurgent allies, was not duly represented in its political, economic and especially security structure. “The Pashtuns form 42 per cent of the Afghan population, yet their current share in Afghan National Army is only 4 per cent." This, according to him, means that even Afghan troops deployed in Pashtun-dominated insurgency-ridden southern and eastern Afghanistan are perceived as an occupation force.

To Jonathan, such internal dynamics of the Afghan conflict are more important than its alleged regional linkage, particularly the oft-pronounced notion of the support to Afghan insurgency from across the country’s rugged frontiers with Pakistan. He stressed the indigenous roots of growing Afghan insurgency, when I asked him whether it was appropriate to consider Pakistan as solely responsible for the trouble in Afghanistan.

Instead, the author's portrayal of Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan in the book is essentially in terms of the country’s crucial role in peace making. He writes, “Pakistan remains the key outside player in any process of ending the Afghan war. Second only to the United States, it plays the central role in whether there can be reconciliation between the Afghan parties. It may even hold a veto on whether talks even start.” He cites the opinions of top British and US and British envoys, who served recently in Afghanistan and Pakistan, to suggest that “the Pakistani Government and Army would like to see a stable non-Taliban government in Afghanistan as long as it is dominated by the Pashtun.”

However, the central theme of Ghosts of Afghanistan remains on the similarity of the Soviet and US interventions, and the lessons that ought to be learned. “Described as wars of necessity, they were really wars of choice. In each case the decision to invade was made on the grounds of protecting national security but with little thought of the consequences,” argues the author.

He continues,“The wars became unpopular, and new leaders emerged in Moscow and Washington who had to weigh the wisdom of continuing the struggle. Mikhail Gorbachev and Barack Obama each inherited a war their predecessors had begun too lightly. The Soviet leader decided the war could not be won and opted for a negotiated troop withdrawal, initially hoping to persuade Pakistan and the United States to end their support for the mujahedin insurgents. When this proved unreachable, he pressed his Kabul allies to talk to the opposition with a view to a ceasefire. He was even willing to urge his Afghan clients to resign in the name of national reconciliation.”

“Obama’s strategy,” according to Jonathan, “has been different from Gorbachev’s. Allowing military commanders to persuade him that military success was possible, he launched two large surges of extra US troops and brought the number of foreign forces to well above the Soviet figure. As for the notion of talks with the insurgents, the US president has paid only recently started to pay lip service to the idea but not yet dropped the doomed strategy of building up local Afghan forces to prolong the civil war.”

“The biggest lesson of recent Afghan history,” he points out, “is that it is wrong for foreigners to arm factions engaged in civil war. For foreigners then to intervene with their own troops is even greater folly. The only way to end thirty-five years of war is through a negotiated peace in which the main fighting groups and their political allies are included. Obama needs to change course, as Gorbachev did.”

Jonathan further states: “Washington and the government of Hamid Karzai must make a sustained effort to negotiate local cease-fires with the Taliban, leasing to a nationwide halt in the fighting and a complete American withdrawal in parallel with a power-sharing deal among the key sectors of Afghan society, no doubt with a substantial devolution of power to the provinces. Pakistan, India, Iran and other regional neighbours need t be part of a companion deal in which their interests in sovereign but neutral Afghanistan are preserved...It will not be easy, but if peace is to be restored, there is no other way. The Americans have already been in Afghanistan longer than the Soviets were. The victory that eluded Moscow will not be achieved by Washington.”

As mentioned before, the main body of Jonathan’s book is a detailed narrative of Afghanistan’s successive wars, including the current one—as personally observed by the author as well as the critical conclusions he drew from his participatory observation in each instance.

As the author moves from one chapter to the next, while explaining the complex but tragic course of the recent Afghan history, especially the process of death and destruction associated with it, he does what British historian Niall Ferguson, for example, has by revisiting the causes of global conflict in the 20th century: challenge and expose some of the major myths about the conflict in Afghanistan, as it has evolved in the last over three decades.

The Afghan myths expose by him are: The Taliban have little popular support; the Soviet invasion was an unprovoked attack designed to capture new territory; the Soviet invasion led to a civil war and Western aid for the Afghan resistance; the USSR suffered a massive military defeat in Afghanistan at the hands of the mujahedin; Afghans have always beaten foreign armies, from Alexander the Great to modern times; and the CIA’s supply of Stinger missiles to the mujahedin forced the Soviets out of Afghanistan.

Other myths about Afghanistan the author exposes include: After the Soviets withdrew, the West walked away; in 1992, the mujahedin overthrew Kabul’s regime and won a major victory over Moscow; Soviet shelling destroyed Kabul; the Taliban were by far the harshest government Afghanistan has ever had; the Taliban invited Osama bin Laden to use Afghanistan as a safe haven; the Taliban are uniquely harsh oppressors of Afghan women; and, finally, banning girls from school are a Taliban trademark.

The prevalence of these myths about Afghanistan may be the reason why the decades-old conflict in the country and its complex causes are still gravely misunderstood. In the book as well as during his Oxford talk, Jonathan was particularly critical of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for continuingly subscribing to the myth of the West “walking away” from Afghanistan after the Soviet defeat. He instead argued that the United States continued to support the mujahedin factions for some years even after the Soviets withdrew the last of their troops from Afghanistan in February 1989.

Even though one couldn’t agree more to the author’s refreshing factual discourse on Afghanistan—which challenges most recent works on the subject in terms of their subscription of many of these myths—his counter-argument about America and the West not “walking away” from the Afghanistan theatre after the Soviet defeat could still be contested.

For the actual context within which such argument is generally made—for example, by the Pakistani security establishment—is moralistic: that the US should not have abandoned Afghanistan in the early 1990s, and, instead, should have partnered with its anti-Soviet allies in rehabilitating the tens of thousands of mujahedin who were brought into the Afghan theatre in the 1980s. It was precisely due to the failure to do so, as the argument goes, that al-Qaeda and its jihadi allies in the region came into being, and the region and the world had to experience in subsequent two decades a wave of extremism and terrorism, with accompanying death and destruction.

It is perhaps the Afghans who have paid the heaviest price of recurrent warfare in their land. The book under review also concludes with a note on the Afghan tragedy: “After three decades of war, too many of its people have been traumatised by the loss of the loved ones and years spent as refugees. The country is full of men with guns who have spent much of their lives in official or unofficial armed units and know nothing of normal social and economic exchange.”

And, then, the author makes his final point: “A peace deal is only the first step in what will have to be a long process of healing and repair. But local ceasefires and negotiations, between Afghans and foreigners and among Afghans themselves, are the only way to start the process. They will give the people of Afghanistan a sense of physical security that so few of them have ever known.”

Despite lacking academic analysis, Jonathan’s detailed study of the Afghan conflict is a valuable addition to the contemporary literature on Afghanistan. Having covered Afghanistan as a reporter during the rise of the Taliban in mid-1990s, I can understand how deeply the author feels about the tragedy haunting the Afghan people, which is why he values a peace deal in the war-torn country in which the interest of the Afghan should be central and everything else should be secondary. To conclude, Ghosts of Afghanistan is a recommended text for all those interested in understanding Afghanistan’s complex reality, and an important guide for scholars, journalists and officials dealing with Afghanistan.

The commentary was can be accessed at