Barnes & Noble Review

In the Graveyard of Empires

A review of Seth G. Jones’s In the Graveyard of Empires, in the Barnes & Noble Review.


A few years ago, the Turkish defense minister bragged that the Turkish contingent in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) had finished an entire tour in Afghanistan’s Wardak province without firing a shot. To some, including his intended audience of Turks, this boast was cause for approval and appreciation. To others — presumably the battle-weary American soldiers who complained bitterly that ISAF had come to stand for I Saw Americans Fight — the boast demonstrated all that was wrong or bogus about the NATO effort in Afghanistan, and epitomized the woes that the Americans would eventually have to redouble their efforts to repair. 

In the Graveyard of Empires, Seth Jones’s new history of post-invasion Afghanistan, is at its best when it describes the follies and occasional acts of heroism emanating from the patchwork of nations that now take collective responsibility for Afghanistan. The coalition he describes includes many dedicated soldiers and canny diplomats, but it errs frequently, and in the end its members amount to just a few fully committed nations: the U.S., the U.K., Canada, and the Netherlands. Most others commit soldiers only in nominal amounts, or halfheartedly — under the condition, say, that they build roads and schools instead of killing Taliban, even if the Taliban are destroying the roads or murdering the teachers.

Among general surveys of recent Afghan history, Jones?s book is rare in its having taken seriously the war concept that was originally conceived: a coalition of NATO armies coming to the defense of a member state, namely the U.S., that was under attack. The U.S. military campaigns in the early days of the war, such as Operation Jawbreaker (the Tora Bora assault on Bin Laden) and the late 2001 horseback Special Forces action in the north, have already drawn plenty of ink, some of it ink well spent. Gary Schroen, the CIA operative who led Jawbreaker, produced a book of his own, and Sean Naylor’s Not a Good Day to Die delivers a more serious account than its breathlessly macho title promises.

Jones describes other campaigns that have attracted less attention, not because they are less interesting battlefield case studies but because the U.S. part in them is secondary. His is one of the few histories to devote more than a few paragraphs, for example, to Operation Medusa, the worthwhile Canadian initiative that ended in the largest land battle in NATO history — a days-long, costly conventional fight between NATO forces and the Taliban. The Canadian-led coalition routed the Taliban, but the region has remained extremely dangerous. ever since. Jones provides step-by-step coverage of how the battle unfolded, with interviews of the key officers involved.

If Jones had confined his study to overlooked battles and the NATO politics that continue to keep the war effort from proceeding as efficiently as it might, his book would be laudable and insightful throughout. Unfortunately, its scope is hilariously broad, and its ambitions both more and less than its readers deserve. The narrative veers from battlefield accounts to pre-invasion tales of Taliban brutality to descriptions of the poppy question; there are even several pages on counterinsurgency theory placed awkwardly in the middle of the book. None but the first focus is especially fresh or at all unorthodox in its approach.

As if to justify its inauspicious and clichéd title, the book starts with a potted chronicle of the previous 2,000-odd years of invasions and failed occupations, from Alexander the Great to the Soviets, and then pronounces a head-shaking warning that we should remember our history. But Jones is a little too quick to embrace the conclusions of the doomed-to-repeat-it school of historical insight, for the lessons of the past are by no means clear. Alexander, for example, famously insisted that his officers take local wives and gave his men reason to believe that most would never see Macedon again; surely forcing an officer to marry an Afghan and never to go home counts as a sign of resolve and a commitment to “local” initiatives, if not of the precise modern liberal variety Jones prefers.

The Soviet lesson is equally ambiguous. Are we to conclude that big countries always fail to occupy Afghanistan? Or that countries with terroristic policies toward Afghans eventually get booted out? The only clear lesson from these horror tales, from the Hellenistic period to the Anglo-Afghan wars to the Soviet period, is that wars in Afghanistan are not easy. This is hardly news, and hardly justification for so many pages of pre-modern history.

Jones has visited Afghanistan repeatedly, and his endnotes reveal much original interviewing and greasy-fingered lunching with Afghans. Compared to the re-rehearsed narratives of the rise of the Taliban, and the career path of Osama bin Laden, these interviews pay dividends: he shows flashes of color and detail, illuminating known public figures like Zalmay Khalilzad, as well as other, more obscure Afghan ones. This Afghan perspective is one that Jones includes too sparingly. He suspects (and so do I) that figures like Khalilzad and Canadian generals mean a great deal to each other but not much to the average Afghan, who knows and cares little about politics but is obsessed with achieving security. Afghans do not think in the language of NATO.

This realization is important. It is a shame, then, that while Jones is smart enough to make it, he fails to deliver anything but a sadly bland and anodyne set of remedies for Afghanistan’s ills — fight corruption, act locally, and undermine the Taliban’s sanctuaries in Pakistan. This is a prescription that could have come from Brussels, one that would have been implemented by now if it were anything less than fiendishly difficult. Jones would have done well to explicate these suggestions more clearly, and to come up with a few less familiar. A study that boldly tries to encompass so much might have aimed to be bolder in its advice as well.


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