.
T

hroughout the 20 years of America’s involvement in Afghanistan there have been countless books exploring nearly every aspect of the war. From how the conflict started to what comes next, from personal stories of heroism to the conflict’s effects further afield, very little of the conflict has been left unmined or unexplored. Yet, there is a rich seam of books that go beyond the established narratives of Washington or Kabul, beyond the well-trodden “I was there” memoir, and offer deep, if unconventional, looks at how the West found itself mired in Afghanistan, what took place there, and what could well come next. Here are several such books. 

Naturally, the intellectual antecedents of al-Qa’ida are critical to understanding how 9/11 came to pass and, ultimately, America invaded Afghanistan. Here, Thomas Hegghammer’s magnum opus “The Caravan: Abdallah Azzam and the Rise of Global Jihad” is exceptionally instructive, yet not nearly as well-known as it deserves to be. Hegghammer’s book, the product of over a decade of primary source research and on-the-ground interviews, explores the life and impact of Abdallah Azzam. While Azzam had some battlefield experience via the Muslim Brotherhood in Israel and Jordan, his sermons and calls to arms from Pakistan had far greater reach, and helped birth the global jihadist movement. 

In the course of his excellent book, Hegghammer dispels the notion, popular not just in conspiracy theory circles, that the United States backed Arab fighters in Afghanistan, the precursors to al-Qa’ida. There simply was no point to do so given how small a presence the Arab fighters were. This is to say nothing of the fact that the Afghan Arabs were keen to distance themselves from America. Nonetheless, the United States’ support to the Afghan mujahedeen was largely funneled via Pakistan to the more Islamist factions. While the proximate enemy, the Soviet Union, was defeated, the long-term impact of mobilizing the ummah contributed to the road to 9/11. 

In this same vein of deep reporting, and from a similar foundational view of the dynamics of Afghanistan is “Night Letters:  Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and the Afghan Islamists who Changed the World” by Chris Sands and Fazelminallah Qazizai. “Night Letters” offers a much-needed deep dive into the complexities and nuances of pre-revolution Afghanistan, the Soviet invasion, and the civil war that followed. As with Hegghammer’s book, “Night Letters” is deeply researched, bringing together six years of in-country reporting and several hundred interviews. Sands and Qazizai chart Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s rise from a student debating with communists in college through to the charismatic figure fighting against the Soviet Union and, as with Azzam, helping to both plant the seeds and encourage the growth of global jihadism. 

“Night Letters” places greater emphasis on Hekmatyar’s role in this rise in lieu of Azzam, arguing that many future jihadists followed the path and example of the former over the latter. While Azzam was clearly a warrior-scholar, more influential as a speaker and mobilizer, Hekmatyar was an organizer and operator. Indeed, his conflict with Ahmed Shah Massoud saw the Lion of Panjshir being arrested in Pakistan with Hekmatyar’s assistance. His Hezb-e-Islami was far more aggressive and violent than other militant groups, attacking other anti-Soviet mujahedeen groups his party deemed insufficiently pious. 

The authors certainly chart a much more wide-ranging path for the Afghan insurgent. That Hekmatyar has survived as long as he has is a testament to his canniness and resilience in an environment where loyalty is often fickle and transient. In 2016 he received a pardon from the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and later ran in the 2019 presidential election, placing a distant third. This while most of his peers including Azzam, bin Laden, and Massoud are all now dead. His path in Afghanistan is an instructive vehicle to understand the broader conflict, which Ahmed Rashid masterfully charts in his collected works. 

Rashid’s body of work was immediately sought after following the attacks of 9/11, and understandably so. The Pakistan-born writer authored one of the first widely read books on the Taliban and the dynamics of Central Asia, which quickly became the textbook on the Taliban, and was later joined by rigorous academic research, such as that from Dr. Antonio Giustozzi (about which more, below). He followed up with successive books on jihad in central Asia, and a critical book, “Descent into Chaos” on the effects of America’s intervention in Afghanistan. His most recent book “Pakistan on the Brink” explores the resulting dynamics within Afghanistan’s neighbors and the fallout of America’s intervention in central Asia. 

The richness of Rashid’s writing is found in his non-American, non-Western approach that grounds his research and perspectives. In the absence, thus far, of an Afghan academic or policy analysis, Rashid’s presents a critical—both in importance and tone—view from South Asia.

Too often in the Afghanistan campaign, Americans forgot that other countries stood shoulder-to-shoulder on the battlefields of Helmand and the other provinces. Their sacrifices were just as real and just as painful for the families in England as those in West Virginia. Toby Harnden’s  “Dead Men Risen” that is of particular interest here, looking at the fighting in Afghanistan from the perspective of the United Kingdom’s Welsh Guards. 

Harnden offers a full picture view of the Welsh Guards’ 2009 deployment to Helmand Province, exploring not just the soldiers’ ground-level view, but also the home front. “Dead Men Risen” won the 2012 Orwell Prize and it is unsurprising why—its reporting is raw and frank, it is objective, and its insights are challenging if occasionally uncomfortable. On this latter point, it is worth noting that the Ministry of Defence bought the entire first run, “pulping” it to ensure it didn’t see the light of day. It was later published with considerable redactions. 

Harnden’s UK-first focus is refreshing as it shows not just an army struggling to fight against an amorphous adversary, but fighting to find its post-9/11 footing, something that was not unique to the United States. It was equally indefensible in London as it was in Washington that the Welsh Guards found themselves under-equipped and with an unclear mission—a failing of the White House as much as 10 Downing Street. 

Arguably, this deep narrative thread that goes beyond the alluring simplicity of the front page of a broadsheet, reaches its apex in the writing of Dr. Antonio Giustozzi. A professor at King’s College London, Giustozzi consistently writes some of the most reflective and deeply analytical work on the Taliban and, now, the Islamic State in Khorasan. His explorations of the Taliban’s evolution in countless books are invaluable to appreciating just how complex the movement is in practice and how they view themselves on-the-ground. 

There is no small irony in the fact that the United States could find itself as a curious bedfellow, once or twice removed, from the Taliban in its fight against “The Islamic State-Khorasan”, the subject of Giustozzi’s latest book of the same title. Unsurprisingly it surged both in demand and price on Amazon in the wake of the Kabul airport attack in August, and is likely the single best source on the transplanted militant group. As Giustozzi describes, the group is far more complex and dynamic than merely a flag-waving offshoot, maintaining funding offices in the Gulf, and demonstrating far more military resiliency despite the anti-Islamic State campaign waged by the western coalition. Despite President Donald Trump’s claims that the Islamic State was defeated, the group is merely degraded and still a threat. 

One fears that Afghanistan may go the way of Vietnam in terms of literature, research, and policy analysis. Indeed, nearly 50 years since the last American troops withdrew from Vietnam, there is still a small cottage industry exploring the causes of the war and the roots of America’s failure, it seems to decrease with each passing year. Yet, it is the very fact that the United States found its efforts wanting in Vietnam that it should read more about that conflict, and it is the very reason too that the West must read more on and better understand what happened in Afghanistan before 9/11 and what followed after. The West may have withdrawn from Afghanistan, but Afghanistan may not be done with the West.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

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www.diplomaticourier.com

Looking for and Finding Complexity in Afghanistan

Herat, Afghanistan. Photo via Pixabay.

November 13, 2021

A rich body of literature seems to examine nearly every aspect of America's 20 years in Afghanistan, yet a rich seam of books that go beyond the established narratives is often overlooked. Joshua Huminski identifies and reviews some that he's found especially meaningful.

T

hroughout the 20 years of America’s involvement in Afghanistan there have been countless books exploring nearly every aspect of the war. From how the conflict started to what comes next, from personal stories of heroism to the conflict’s effects further afield, very little of the conflict has been left unmined or unexplored. Yet, there is a rich seam of books that go beyond the established narratives of Washington or Kabul, beyond the well-trodden “I was there” memoir, and offer deep, if unconventional, looks at how the West found itself mired in Afghanistan, what took place there, and what could well come next. Here are several such books. 

Naturally, the intellectual antecedents of al-Qa’ida are critical to understanding how 9/11 came to pass and, ultimately, America invaded Afghanistan. Here, Thomas Hegghammer’s magnum opus “The Caravan: Abdallah Azzam and the Rise of Global Jihad” is exceptionally instructive, yet not nearly as well-known as it deserves to be. Hegghammer’s book, the product of over a decade of primary source research and on-the-ground interviews, explores the life and impact of Abdallah Azzam. While Azzam had some battlefield experience via the Muslim Brotherhood in Israel and Jordan, his sermons and calls to arms from Pakistan had far greater reach, and helped birth the global jihadist movement. 

In the course of his excellent book, Hegghammer dispels the notion, popular not just in conspiracy theory circles, that the United States backed Arab fighters in Afghanistan, the precursors to al-Qa’ida. There simply was no point to do so given how small a presence the Arab fighters were. This is to say nothing of the fact that the Afghan Arabs were keen to distance themselves from America. Nonetheless, the United States’ support to the Afghan mujahedeen was largely funneled via Pakistan to the more Islamist factions. While the proximate enemy, the Soviet Union, was defeated, the long-term impact of mobilizing the ummah contributed to the road to 9/11. 

In this same vein of deep reporting, and from a similar foundational view of the dynamics of Afghanistan is “Night Letters:  Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and the Afghan Islamists who Changed the World” by Chris Sands and Fazelminallah Qazizai. “Night Letters” offers a much-needed deep dive into the complexities and nuances of pre-revolution Afghanistan, the Soviet invasion, and the civil war that followed. As with Hegghammer’s book, “Night Letters” is deeply researched, bringing together six years of in-country reporting and several hundred interviews. Sands and Qazizai chart Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s rise from a student debating with communists in college through to the charismatic figure fighting against the Soviet Union and, as with Azzam, helping to both plant the seeds and encourage the growth of global jihadism. 

“Night Letters” places greater emphasis on Hekmatyar’s role in this rise in lieu of Azzam, arguing that many future jihadists followed the path and example of the former over the latter. While Azzam was clearly a warrior-scholar, more influential as a speaker and mobilizer, Hekmatyar was an organizer and operator. Indeed, his conflict with Ahmed Shah Massoud saw the Lion of Panjshir being arrested in Pakistan with Hekmatyar’s assistance. His Hezb-e-Islami was far more aggressive and violent than other militant groups, attacking other anti-Soviet mujahedeen groups his party deemed insufficiently pious. 

The authors certainly chart a much more wide-ranging path for the Afghan insurgent. That Hekmatyar has survived as long as he has is a testament to his canniness and resilience in an environment where loyalty is often fickle and transient. In 2016 he received a pardon from the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and later ran in the 2019 presidential election, placing a distant third. This while most of his peers including Azzam, bin Laden, and Massoud are all now dead. His path in Afghanistan is an instructive vehicle to understand the broader conflict, which Ahmed Rashid masterfully charts in his collected works. 

Rashid’s body of work was immediately sought after following the attacks of 9/11, and understandably so. The Pakistan-born writer authored one of the first widely read books on the Taliban and the dynamics of Central Asia, which quickly became the textbook on the Taliban, and was later joined by rigorous academic research, such as that from Dr. Antonio Giustozzi (about which more, below). He followed up with successive books on jihad in central Asia, and a critical book, “Descent into Chaos” on the effects of America’s intervention in Afghanistan. His most recent book “Pakistan on the Brink” explores the resulting dynamics within Afghanistan’s neighbors and the fallout of America’s intervention in central Asia. 

The richness of Rashid’s writing is found in his non-American, non-Western approach that grounds his research and perspectives. In the absence, thus far, of an Afghan academic or policy analysis, Rashid’s presents a critical—both in importance and tone—view from South Asia.

Too often in the Afghanistan campaign, Americans forgot that other countries stood shoulder-to-shoulder on the battlefields of Helmand and the other provinces. Their sacrifices were just as real and just as painful for the families in England as those in West Virginia. Toby Harnden’s  “Dead Men Risen” that is of particular interest here, looking at the fighting in Afghanistan from the perspective of the United Kingdom’s Welsh Guards. 

Harnden offers a full picture view of the Welsh Guards’ 2009 deployment to Helmand Province, exploring not just the soldiers’ ground-level view, but also the home front. “Dead Men Risen” won the 2012 Orwell Prize and it is unsurprising why—its reporting is raw and frank, it is objective, and its insights are challenging if occasionally uncomfortable. On this latter point, it is worth noting that the Ministry of Defence bought the entire first run, “pulping” it to ensure it didn’t see the light of day. It was later published with considerable redactions. 

Harnden’s UK-first focus is refreshing as it shows not just an army struggling to fight against an amorphous adversary, but fighting to find its post-9/11 footing, something that was not unique to the United States. It was equally indefensible in London as it was in Washington that the Welsh Guards found themselves under-equipped and with an unclear mission—a failing of the White House as much as 10 Downing Street. 

Arguably, this deep narrative thread that goes beyond the alluring simplicity of the front page of a broadsheet, reaches its apex in the writing of Dr. Antonio Giustozzi. A professor at King’s College London, Giustozzi consistently writes some of the most reflective and deeply analytical work on the Taliban and, now, the Islamic State in Khorasan. His explorations of the Taliban’s evolution in countless books are invaluable to appreciating just how complex the movement is in practice and how they view themselves on-the-ground. 

There is no small irony in the fact that the United States could find itself as a curious bedfellow, once or twice removed, from the Taliban in its fight against “The Islamic State-Khorasan”, the subject of Giustozzi’s latest book of the same title. Unsurprisingly it surged both in demand and price on Amazon in the wake of the Kabul airport attack in August, and is likely the single best source on the transplanted militant group. As Giustozzi describes, the group is far more complex and dynamic than merely a flag-waving offshoot, maintaining funding offices in the Gulf, and demonstrating far more military resiliency despite the anti-Islamic State campaign waged by the western coalition. Despite President Donald Trump’s claims that the Islamic State was defeated, the group is merely degraded and still a threat. 

One fears that Afghanistan may go the way of Vietnam in terms of literature, research, and policy analysis. Indeed, nearly 50 years since the last American troops withdrew from Vietnam, there is still a small cottage industry exploring the causes of the war and the roots of America’s failure, it seems to decrease with each passing year. Yet, it is the very fact that the United States found its efforts wanting in Vietnam that it should read more about that conflict, and it is the very reason too that the West must read more on and better understand what happened in Afghanistan before 9/11 and what followed after. The West may have withdrawn from Afghanistan, but Afghanistan may not be done with the West.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.