For us, Afghanistan is destroyed. It is turning to poison, and not only for us but for all others in the world… Maybe one day they (Americans) will have to send hundreds of thousands of troops to deal with that, and if they step in, they will be stuck. We have a British grave in Afghanistan. We have a Soviet grave. And then we will have an American grave,” commander Abdul Haq was quoted as saying in The New York Times in March 1994.
Few in history share the unenviable fate that has befallen the people of the landlocked Afghanistan. From playing host to a liberal monarchy to a communist takeover to being the centre-piece of the Cold War to a civil war-ravaged country to one under an externally sponsored religious movement and finally to the one from where began the historic post-9/11 ‘war on terror’, it would be an understatement to say that Afghanistan has witnessed a lot in a relatively short span of six decades.
Today, after 14 years of an internationally-led effort, the Afghans are back at the helm. The announced end of combat role by the American troops (last among the NATO states) at the end of last year has also meant that the responsibility of keeping the resurgent Taliban at bay is now on the shoulders of the Afghan National Army (ANA) and Afghan National Police (ANP). Interestingly, this transition coincides with the massive political and administrative churning following the recently concluded presidential elections, what the Afghans refer to as the ‘decade of transformation’ (2015-2024).
What have we got at the end of the last century’s biggest military effort – and this century’s first? Vishal Chandra’s book, The Unfinished War In Afghanistan 2001-2014, is thus a timely effort in answering this key question and in doing so, appraise the reader with an overall sense about the country, its recent history, its neighbours, challenges and the road ahead.
Beginning with an aptly titled chapter ‘New Order, Old Politics’, the book offers interesting insight into the murky world of Afghan politics.
Beyond the usual government versus Taliban discourse, what very few know and understand is the effectiveness of the opposition parties in Kabul. The functioning of the parliament, the writing of the constitution and the politics of confirming cabinet ministers by the parliament have been documented well.
In its following chapters, it explains how America’s desire to ‘strongly react post-9/11’ combined with its urgency of launching military operations ensured an ill-planned entry and subsequently a half-hearted, confused stay. The book handholds the reader through the early days of Bonn Process, Hamid Karzai’s reign, the opposition he faced including the ambiguity and politics of the Taliban, and leaves us with an assessment of key factors which will determine the road ahead. The largest chunk has rightfully been reserved for the chapter focusing on the ‘other’ key neighbours, including the stakes and ties that Iran, Russia, China and India share with Afghanistan.
If there is one institution which can make or break Afghanistan in the time to come, then it is the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) which includes the ANA, ANP and its nascent air force, which for now remains an arm of the ANA. For researchers looking at data, the book has a lot to offer, be it regarding the strength, evolution, funding as well as assets.
The book is unsparing in its studied criticism of how the West failed to focus its energies when the situation demanded so. It finely dissects that notwithstanding the usage of jargons like ‘war on terror’, ‘war of necessity’ by the Americans, they have failed to achieve their goals and why.
The account, however, suffers from some deficiencies. First among them would be that the book looks and reads like a research paper. As a reader, one expected a personal touch given the author’s extensive travel within Afghanistan. Anecdotes, photographs – easiest ways to connect with the reader are missing. At Rs.1,495, Chandra’s book, while attractive, may not reach the masses. One also came across a few instances of poor editing.
In summing up, Chandra’s book is a detailed effort at helping readers better understand a country whose fate will influence not just its neighbours but the world at large. For anyone interested in geopolitics, history and terrorism in south Asia, The Unfinished War in Afghanistan should be part of your arsenal.
Reviewer works as Special Correspondent for Headlines Today news channel