BOOK NOTES: Peter Tomsen Gives You the Straight Dope in 'The Wars of Afghanistan' -- Site of Our Longest War

By David M. Kinchen
BOOK NOTES: Peter Tomsen Gives You the Straight Dope in 'The Wars of Afghanistan' -- Site of Our Longest War
I'm calling my assessment of "The Wars of Afghanistan: Messianic Terrorism, Tribal Conflicts, and The Failures of Great Powers" (PublicAffairs, 912 pages, $39.99) a "Book Notes" instead of a "Book Review" because I skimmed the book; I didn't read every word -- which is my requirement for doing a book review.

The book is a timely reference because we've just started on our 11th year in Afghanistan, making it our longest war (if you don't count "military adviser" phase of the Vietnam conflict).

BREAKING NEWS: The United Nations, in a 74-page report released Monday, Oct. 10, has found "systematic' torture in detention facilities run by the Afghan intelligence service and the Afghan national police. The New York Times and every major worldwide news service reports that " Suspects are hung by their hands, beaten with cables and in some cases their genitals are twisted until they lose consciousness in detention facilities run by the Afghan intelligence service and the Afghan national police... The report provides a devastating picture of the abuses committed by arms of the Afghanistan government as the American-led foreign forces here are moving to wind down their presence after a decade of war. The abuses were uncovered even as American and other Western trainers and mentors had been working closely with the ministries overseeing the detention facilities and funded their operations."

The NY Times story said "The report found evidence of “a compelling pattern and practice of systematic torture and ill-treatment” during interrogation in the accounts of nearly half of the detainees of the intelligence service, known as the National Directorate of Intelligence, who were interviewed by United Nations researchers. The national police treatment of detainees was somewhat less severe and widespread, the report found. Its research covered 47 facilities sites in 22 provinces. “Use of interrogation methods, including suspension, beatings, electric shock, stress positions and threatened sexual assault is unacceptable by any standard of international human rights law,” the report said."

Obviously, Tomsen's insider's account of Afghanistan's history since the 1970s, and of U.S. involvement, is indispensable reading for anyone concerned about the current war, especially the involvement of our alleged ally, Pakistan. As Ambassador and Special Envoy on Afghanistan from 1989 to 1992, Peter Tomsen has had close relationships with Afghan leaders and has dealt with senior Taliban, warlords, and religious leaders involved in the region's conflicts over the last two decades. Now Tomsen draws on a rich trove of never-before-published material to shed new light on the American involvement in the long and continuing Afghan war.

This book offers a deeply informed perspective on how Afghanistan's history as a "shatter zone" for foreign invaders and its tribal society have shaped the modern Afghan narrative. It brings to life the appallingly misinformed secret operations by foreign intelligence agencies, including the Soviet NKVD and KGB, the Pakistani ISI, and the CIA.

American policy makers, Tomsen argues, still do not understand Afghanistan; nor do they appreciate how the CIA's covert operations and the Pentagon's military strategy have strengthened extremism in the country. As if this is a new revelation!

Our involvement in virtually all the countries, excepting Germany and Japan, both of which had a modicum of rule of law before the fascists arrived, has never worked as we hoped it would. As Tomsen shows, Afghanistan has been a "Great Game" tribal battleground for well over a century. The "Game" is the same, only some of the players have changed. As our involvement the war enters its eleventh year, he shows how the U.S. and the coalition it leads can assist the region back to peace and stability.

Frankly, I think Tomsen is a cockeyed optimist. Tribal countries lack the rule of law and are subject to the whims of individual leaders, and Wilsonian nation-building won't work any more than when the Sainted Woodrow tried to force democracy on the Mexicans and other nations in the second decade of the 20th Century.

The Arab Spring has, in the view of many, turned out to be a disaster. Look at the plight of the 10 percent of Egyptians who are Coptic Christians in an overwhelmingly Muslim country. Tomsen obviously knows more about the country -- and Pakistan -- the source of many problems for the U.S. and Afghanistan than just about anybody.

About the Author

Peter Tomsen was President George H. W. Bush's Special Envoy on Afghanistan with the rank of Ambassador from 1989 to 1992. Tomsen entered the Foreign Service in 1967 and served in Thailand, Vietnam, India, China, and the Soviet Union. He was United States Deputy Chief of Mission in China from 1986 to 1989, deputy Assistant Secretary for East Asian Affairs from 1992 to 1995, and the American Ambassador to Armenia from 1995 to 1998. He lives in Virginia with his wife.

Publisher's website:
  1. UN Report (260.03 KB)
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