Afghanistan: The Graveyard of Empires

Afghanistan is known as the Graveyard of Empires, and, as you might agree, with good reason. In his new book, “In the Graveyard of Empires: America’s War in Afghanistan,” RAND political scientist Seth Jones chronicles Afghanistan’s descent back into war.

Or hell.

Jones spoke July 17 on NPR’s “Morning Edition” and provided historical perspective as well as up-to-date insight into U.S., coalition, and Taliban efforts there.

Historically, says Jones, less-than-successful attempts to secure Afghanistan date to Alexander the Great. Some have had a go at the prize more than once, like the Brits. The Soviet’s disaster can partially be attributed to their heavy-handed, traditional warfare approach.

A very different view was taken at the turn of the last century. “The less the Afghans see us, the less they will like us.” Though attributed to Sir Frederick Roberts, a British commander, it could have been uttered by a handful of current U.S. military leaders.

Jones says it is clear the U.S. has learned from its predecessors. The localized, light-footprint approach of 2001 was heartening, but there were other detrimental issues: no serious Afghan government, no serious Afghan security forces, and too few U.S. forces.

Jones is buoyed by the increase in U.S. forces and by what he sees as a definite shift under Gen. Stanley McChrystal to a true counterinsurgency to “protect” the Afghan people. The footprint remains light, but reliable government and security forces (what Afghan forces?) still are an issue.

Maybe most importantly, Jones notes the top-down focus should move toward a bottom-up approach. (This was the idea behind some programs like the provincial reconstruction teams, but a stronger effort is needed.) He says Afghanistan has been at its most stable with local Afghans at the village level. Tribes, sub-tribes and clans are crucial. There currently is a local anti-Taliban sentiment, and it presents an opportunity for the coalition — but a shift in Taliban tactics (more on that later) might close that window sooner than thought.

We hope to highlight writings and discussions on the topic of Afghanistan in the coming weeks. These will include books, essays, op-eds, and maybe speeches from those who have sweated over what might be the most important challenge facing the U.S. in some time. (Sorry, healthcare.)
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