It is now over seven years since US and British forces invaded Afghanistan. For much of this time there has been little news about the country, with the attention of the US and anti-war activists focused on Iraq. This is now changing however, and Obama has followed up his campaign pledges by committing an extra 17,000 US troops to Afghanistan. Britain enthusiastically supported this move, and is likely to increase the 9,000 UK troops already there.
In this context then, increasing our understanding of Afghanistan – and the role of US and British forces – is an increasingly urgent task for anti-war activists, and this book is an excellent starting point: readable, informative, challenging and thought-provoking.
The authors have both lived and worked extensively in Afghanistan, and have many interesting insights. This is a genuine exercise in observing and learning from what is actually happening and drawing your analysis out of that observation, and leads to one of the central points of the book: that any successful policy in Afghanistan needs to be based on an understanding of Afghanistan’s social structures – an understanding that the West has shown no grasp of or interest in.
Leslie and Johnson show very convincingly that the motivation for war was self-serving, with a rhetoric of democracy used to hide the pursuit of western interests. They see establishing security for Afghan people and rebuilding the effectiveness of state institutions as essential, but are devastating in their critique of the role of the UN and NATO.
Despite this, they do not see complete withdrawal as a solution: “having gone to war … we cannot simply back off and leave Afghans to face the consequences of our intrusion… we need to rethink what we’re doing in the country, to judge whether our goals are realistic and fit with the priorities of ordinary Afghans, and ensure that there are the resources to complete what we’ve committed to do.” I was unconvinced by this. My gut reaction has always been for withdrawal, but this view had been strengthened by the book.
Given the mass of evidence they provide, it’s hard to imagine the UN and NATO changing radically enough to be a positive, rather than a negative, force. This is a useful and important discussion to raise, though, and clearly something anti-war activists need to give more thought to.
This book was first published in 2004, and reprinted in 2008 with a new introduction. For me, this new introduction was the weakest section – partly because it’s already out of date, but also because I didn’t feel that it added much and was harder to get into than the rest of the book.
This is a minor criticism though, and I would thoroughly recommend this book to anyone seeking a greater understanding of the war in Afghanistan.