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In the Graveyard of Empires: America’s War in Afghanistan

by Seth G. Jones, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2009, $27.95

In Graveyard of Empires, Seth Jones points out that armies as capable as those of Alexander the Great found operations in Afghanistan far more challenging than they’d expected. An account by Roman historian Quintus Curtius Rufus of Alexander’s march through the Kabul Valley could easily have been describing the plight of Victorian British, Soviet Russian or even NATO troops: “The army…endured all the evils that could be suffered—want, cold, fatigue, despair.” As Jones clearly shows in his survey of Afghanistan’s military history, every army attempting to subdue the region has endured a long, difficult and costly campaign.

Unlike many earlier invaders, the United States has considerable resources to pour into the war effort. But that is the easy part: As Jones notes, the U.S. and its allies have to beat back the Taliban and provide a sense of security while building up the Afghan army and police; boost civilian expertise in the country and address government corruption; and undermine the insurgent sanctuary in northwest Pakistan.

Nine years ago, the U.S. and an amalgam of warlord-led indigenous fighters had the black-turbaned insurgents and al Qaeda fighters on the run. Even as late as 2004, the Taliban remained at bay, and Afghan schools and hospitals reopened. Afghanistan began rebuilding its shattered cities and roadways and elected a government. Its army was functioning effectively as its soldiers “began to earn a reputation as tenacious fighters in battle.”

But the government that began looking good on paper was really only a government of the major cities, while “governance did not extend into the rural areas of the country,” Jones says. Some of the administrative failures were due to widespread corruption in the form of collection of unofficial fees and a result of the immense illicit drug trade. These shortcomings had a crippling effect. “It is not just that law and political institutions in [weak] states are ineffective,” Jones writes. “It is that the faith in law and political institutions that underpins policing and order does not exist.”

Don’t come to this book looking for a flowing narrative; it reads like a textbook, but it’s a splendidly researched textbook that will give readers a nuanced understanding of the task the United States faces in Afghanistan.


Originally published in the March 2010 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here