Ghosts of Afghanistan: The Haunted Battleground

Old fort nr Bamiyan

Jonathan Steele has written a book that is brazenly illuminating. Ghosts of Afghanistan charts a sinuous and sobering history of the country over the past thirty five years. The results are grim reading but also perversely satisfying, as the categorical exposé of hubris always is.

Steele assiduously points out the many oversights of the Soviet and US campaigns in Afghanistan to teach us to learn from these mistakes. “The biggest lesson of recent Afghan history,” he writes, “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.”

Rather than using chronological narrative form, Steele opts for myth debunking to shed light on the crisis. Thirteen myths are dispelled throughout the book. Some are more pertinent to the current Afghan context than others. Myth eleven, for example, writes Steele, is that the Taliban invited Osama bin Laden to use Afghanistan as a safe haven. The ramifications of this misguided intelligence were enormous. It became the principle rationale for the U.S. invasion.

Ghosts benefits from Steele’s thirty years plus of reporting on both the Soviet Union and Afghanistan. The prose is clear and lively. The personal anecdote is never far away. His history is well-researched. Steele examines WikiLeaks’ diplomatic cables from actors such as former U.S. Ambassador Eikenberry to demonstrate the increasingly cagey U.S. relationship with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, as well as the support the Pakistani intelligence service provided to the Taliban.

Steele also offers interesting analysis into reasons for U.S. reluctance to entertain a political solution between the Afghan government and the Taliban, based on America’s historical experience; namely, the success of fought victories in the Civil War and the two World Wars, versus their unsatisfactory negotiated settlements in Vietnam and Korea.

Where Steele perhaps comes up short is in his exploration of ghosts, if only because he could have taken it so much further. The Soviets called the mujahedin dukhi – ghosts – since they were so shadowy, much like the Taliban for the U.S. military today. But if today’s various insurgent factions remain spectres in the eyes of the West, then so too does the country as a whole.

This metaphorical ghostliness, or more precisely, misperception, strikes not only at the heart military failings in Afghanistan, but actually at the whole notion of foreign intervention in a weak state that has been – and remains – so weakly understood by outsiders working in the country. This military myopia stems from an overwhelmingly ‘blind’ international civilian engagement. And this breeds the myth-making that has partly caused such tragedy in Afghanistan.

Times Literary Supplement

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