The Mirage of Peace
By Chris Johnson and Jolyon Leslie
Supporters of Afghan president Hamid Karzai during the election campaign in 2004
Zed. 237 pp. Paperback, $22.50
Afghanistan, 1979 to the Present
By Gilles Dorronsoro. Translated from the French by John King
Columbia Univ. 370 pp. $29.50
The conventional wisdom about Afghanistan today goes something like this: President Hamid Karzai is only the mayor of Kabul; the Taliban are resurgent; the cabinet is dominated by Tajik members of the Northern Alliance; warlords control much of the country; beset by political violence, Afghanistan is becoming a Colombia-style narco-state.
The conventional wisdom, however, is about a year past its sell-by date. Karzai is a genuinely popular leader who won 55 percent of the votes in Afghanistan's October presidential contest, against more than a dozen other candidates in a reasonably fair election -- arguably a greater margin of victory than President Bush won against just one main challenger in 2004. The Taliban, the Islamist fanatics who ruled the country and harbored Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network, are spent as an effective military force, which their inability to disrupt the Afghan elections clearly demonstrated. Neighboring Pakistan suffers far more from political violence than Afghanistan. And Karzai has proven a deft politician who has edged out the warlords or "promoted" them to politically irrelevant positions. (Take Karzai's former defense minister, Marshal Mohammed Fahim, who is now without a job; the potentate of western Afghanistan, Ismail Khan, has lost the key governorship of Herat and received instead the consolation prize of the Ministry of Energy.)
Meanwhile, in the new cabinet announced in January, the only significant holdover from the Northern Alliance is Foreign Minister Abdullah, whose qualifications for the job are unmatched. Indeed, a third of the officials in the Afghan cabinet have PhDs. And the government's campaign to stamp out drug trafficking has met with unexpected success. This year's poppy crop has been cut by as much as 70 percent in Afghanistan's three key opium-growing provinces, according to a report in this newspaper in February. All of the above developments happened after the two books under review here were completed, which might explain why both volumes are more pessimistic about the future of Afghanistan than is warranted by events on the ground -- not least that some 3 million refugees have returned to Afghanistan in the past couple of years.
Afghanistan, one of the poorest countries in the world, could not survive without international aid. Indeed, aid plays the same role for the Afghan state that oil does for Saudi Arabia. Afghanistan: The Mirage of Peace -- by Chris Johnson and Jolyon Leslie, two veteran aid officials -- is a welcome addition simply because it has so much to say about the role of aid in the Afghan political economy. The book is also sharp as sociological analysis, with telling descriptions of the way Islam is woven into every facet of Afghan life and explanations of both the paramount importance of honor in Afghan society and the key role of "solidarity groups," which are based on village and tribe. The authors also acutely observe that "often the international community has talked of women's rights [in Afghanistan] as if someone could just flick a switch and bring them into being."
But as a work of political analysis, Afghanistan is often tone-deaf or simply wrong. "The liberal state," the authors declare, "has not in most parts of the world brought economic success." Come again? And the book reads in part like an apologia for the Taliban. The authors suggest that the U.S.-led war against the Taliban after the Sept. 11 attacks did not have the support of the United Nations, which, they write, passed a resolution "far short of an explicit authorization for the use of force." In fact, on Sept. 12, 2001, the Security Council passed an unusually forceful and unambiguous resolution "to combat by all means . . . terrorist acts" and to recognize its members' "inherent right of individual or collective self-defence." At one point, the authors call the "notion that the Taliban movement could be swept away by US military might" a case of "wishful thinking." Tell that to Mullah Omar. And bizarrely they write, "it remains to be seen if the successors to the Taliban are as adept in dealing with their international interlocutors." Since the Taliban were international pariahs recognized by only three countries, this is a pretty low bar.
The authors can be similarly myopic about what Taliban rule meant for those under their thumb. The book correctly emphasizes that the Taliban brought security to Afghanistan -- "For the first time in many years, it was possible to travel the roads at any time of the day or night without being held up by gunmen" -- and, in an excellent chapter on Afghanistan's drug trade, point out that opium production late in the Taliban's reign "fell to almost zero in areas under Taliban control." But Afghanistan is a selective history that barely mentions or simply ignores the fact that the Taliban and al Qaeda entered into an ideological and military alliance. It's also blind to the Taliban's spectacular acts of cultural vandalism, such as the destruction of the giant Buddhist statues in Bamiyan -- an act condemned by Muslims around the world.
For an authoritative account of modern Afghan history, we must turn instead to Gilles Dorronsoro's Revolution Unending. Deftly translated from the French by John King, it explains that conflict between the various ethnic groups in Afghanistan was never inevitable. It "was not 'ethnicities' that made war," Dorronsoro writes, "but political organisations with ideological objectives." To underline that point, Dorronsoro, a French political scientist, closely examines the emergence of the jihadist parties in Afghanistan as a counterweight to the country's communists in the late 1970s. The party that did the most to stir up ethnic conflict in Afghanistan was Hezb-i-Islami, which received the largest sum of U.S. aid during the 1980s jihad against the Soviet occupation. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the Islamist warlord who led the party, went on to become prime minister of Afghanistan during the mid-1990s -- a period during which he shelled Kabul on a daily basis, attacks that by 1996 "would claim 40,000 lives" and "destroy much of the capital, which till then had been intact."
Popular revulsion against warlords like Hekmatyar helped the Taliban, a band of Islamist Pashtun students that seized Kabul in 1996. The "Taliban, in common with rural Pashtuns in general, particularly detested the urban culture which it saw as anti-Islamic," Dorronsoro shrewdly observes. "The Taliban's seizure of power was among other things a class struggle, in which the urban bourgeoisie were for the moment the losers." It was for this reason that Taliban rule was often the harshest in the big cities. For women, this was especially true: "The imposition of the burqa [the garment that covers women from head to toe] . . . mainly affected the educated class, particularly in Kabul, where it had been in disuse for a generation."
Now that the Taliban are largely defeated, Dorronsoro concludes, the United States must remain engaged in the country. "Failure in Afghanistan would have significant consequences for America as a power," he writes, "and thus the issues involved in this interminable war extend far beyond the destiny of Afghanistan itself." In 1989, the United States closed its embassy in Afghanistan and essentially washed its hands of the country after the Afghans delivered a death blow to the slowly expiring Soviet corpse. A little more than a decade later, Afghanistan visited the United States in a manner that few could have predicted. It can't be permitted to happen again.
Peter Bergen is a fellow at the New America Foundation, an adjunct professor at the Johns Hopkins University and the author of "Holy War, Inc.: Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden."