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Perspectives on a complex conflict

Come From the Shadows: The Long and Lonely Struggle for Peace in Afghanistan
Terry Glavin
Vancouver, 2011, 235 pages, $29.95

Afghanistan as metaphor for the Spanish Civil War? Throughout this latest book by journalist Terry Glavin, there is a comparison between the present Afghan conflict and the Spanish civil war, with the Taliban insurgents playing the part of Franco’s Fascist Nationalists. “Canadian soldiers engaged in Afghanistan’s anti-Taliban struggle deserve to be understood as successors of the brave anti-fascists of the 1930s who fought in the Spanish Civil War,” Glavin writes, and he clearly does not want the Western world to abandon Afghanistan to a form of fascist rule as was the case in Spain over 73 years ago.

Afghanistan: How the West Lost Its Way
Tim Bird and Alex Marshall
New Haven, 2011, 303 pages, $ 29.96

Written by two British defence academics, Afghanistan discusses the strategy and policy of “America’s longest ever War, NATO’s first major engagement outside Europe and Britain’s most expensive conflict since World War II.” It also duly notes Canada’s higher per capita casualty rate than the U.S. However, Canadians may be dismayed at what was achieved in return for this loss of life in the opinion of the authors. They offer “myriad reasons why Afghanistan is unlikely to develop into a state that bears some resemblance to Western nations.”

Like Glavin, the authors take issue with the media, in this case for coining the phrase “COIN strategy.” They argue that COIN theory demands “a legitimate and credible local partner.” While they deem the risk of a complete Taliban takeover of Afghanistan to be low – Uzbeks, Hazaras and Tajks will all ferociously resist the establishment of a Taliban national regime – they argue that only one actor, the United States, had the capability to bring coherence to the international effort and “failed to do so.”

The Wars of Afghanistan
Peter Tomsen
New York, 2011, 849 pages, $43.00

Peter Tomsen, George H. Bush’s special envoy, with ambassador status, to the Afghanistan resistance to the Soviets from 1989 to 1992, provides much context to this conflict from his two decades of involvement with the region. There are 17 pages alone dedicated to the cast of characters who provide the backdrop to the alleged “failure” cited by Bird and Marshall. Eleven maps help make sense of the mass of detail. Tomsen believes “it is still possible to achieve an acceptable outcome but only if policies respect Afghan history and culture.” Poor policy, poor process and poor execution are responsible for the challenges we now face.

Fresh material from Soviet archives such as Mitrokhin’s work, The KGB in Afghanistan, helps inform this work. There are unexpected surprises such as his allegation that Pakistani regular forces joined the Taliban in their attacks on Masood in 1999. The author suggests Karazi’s feeling for the Pakistani authorities may be shaped by his father’s assassination, which Tomsen suggests could be ISI-inspired or, at minimum, condoned, occurring as it did in Quetta after his father was told to leave Pakistan. This book truly complements the Louis Dupree classic, Afghanistan.

Tomsen’s conclusions for the way ahead are directed at American audiences. He assesses President Obma’s struggle to resolve the Pakistan dilemma as one of the signature issues of his presidency.

The Unravelling: Pakistan in the Age of Jihad
John R. Schmidt
New York, 2011, 279 pages, $29.95

“Unravelling” is how John Schmidt, a former U.S. Islamabad embassy political counsellor prior to 9/11, sees the state of “governance” in the nuclear-armed state of Pakistan. The feudal politicians and the Pakistan Army, who hitherto have taken turns trying to run this diverse country, are now facing a new challenger for rule – homegrown Pakistani jihadists. Schmidt asserts that the history of Pakistan since partition over 60 years ago is a “story without heroes.” Moreover, it is also a “story about India” and Kashmir since “animus toward India has driven the Pakistanis to use jihadist groups for state ends.” Now there is a question of who controls whom. So while the Pakistani army may combat the so-called Pakistani Taliban, it also maintains a level of neutral tolerance with respect to Afghan Taliban residing in the Tribal areas as long as their activities are directed across the Durand Line where NATO forces serve. One can not read this book without a shiver of apprehension.

Reviewed by Roy Thomas, MSC, CD, MA (RMC)

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