Why I wrote Afghanistan, Graveyard of Empires. A New History of the Borderland

The children seemed not to know what to make of it. But they could see that their parents were happy and so they decided to smile and chatter with each other. There were cameras and foreigners and much talking, and their parents seemed to think that great good would come of that days events. It was 21 March 2002; in Afghanistan, Nawroz (New Years Day) of the year 1423 A.H.. The schools were reopening throughout the country on the traditional first day of spring classes.

The parents smiled at of the happy children, now clutching aid-donated books and pencils handed them for the benefit of the cameras. To others at the ceremony, the children were evidence of how much Afghanistan had changed in the few months since the US and its coalition allies, through the use of a few hundred special operations forces personnel and intelligence agents, supported by the judicious use of airpower, had enabled Afghanistans Northern Alliance to topple the Afghan Taliban regime and their Al Qaeda patrons and drive them over the border into Pakistan. While they were in power, the Taliban had barred girls from attending school throughout most of Afghanistan as anathema to their fundamentalist vision of Islam. Boys education had been cut back. But today, boys and girls would go to school together in Afghanistan. The donated notebooks were an earnest of the promise of outside aid, making education available to them all. That was what had made their parents happy. Surely, the parents thought, with the Taliban gone and the conflicts that had embroiled Afghanistan since 1978 finally over, a bright future seemed to be opening up that morning along with the schools.

The reopening of Afghanistans schools on Nawroz in 2002 was the first act by an Afghan government that had been accepted and implemented countrywide in Afghanistan since 1978. Then, the Communist putsch had been the first step in a long chain of events that plunged the country into the start what was to become decades of conflict. Since then, Afghanistan had always been a country at war. But on Nawroz, 2002, with the children clutching their donated books and going off to school, Afghanistan was a country full of hope. Afghans of all ethnolinguistic groups were happy to see the end of the Taliban. They were sure that the international intervention that had brought it about was going to be the start of a new and better era for Afghanistan.

Today, some eight years later, there are over six million Afghan children in school (up from 750,000 in 2001), with a third of the primary school children being girls. But Afghanistans hope, so bright and strong on the day the schools reopened, has faded. Afghanistan is once again a country at war. Schools are burned by the Taliban as the creations of an infidel invader, 1,089 in 2005-07 alone, more have since been destroyed. Teachers are killed or scared away as agents of a puppet government. Afghanistan has a lot of conflict and not much hope.

The story of how Afghanistan went from a country at war to a country with hope and has now gone back again and whether this can be halted or reversed is the subject of my new book, Afghanistan: Graveyard of Empires. A New History of the Borderland published by Pegasus Books in New York.

This is the fourth book I have written about Afghanistan at war. I have been studying Afghanistan and its conflicts for almost thirty years. I have also written reference books on the armed forces of the Soviet Union and NATO that both, to their own surprise, have ended up fighting there in conflicts that will determine their ultimate success or failure. Over the years, I have traveled many times to Afghanistan and Pakistan. I shared the hope that was so abundant on Nawroz, 2002.

It took a lot to go from the hope-filled Afghanistan of 2002 to the looming crises and multiple, overlapping conflicts of the present day. I wanted to show how Afghanistan got there. . The Pakistanis offered a sanctuary to the Taliban and much of Al Qaeda, seeing them as a way to influence the new Afghanistan and hoping that, if they focused their aggression against the government in Kabul, they would not turn on that in Islamabad. Drawing on the Taliban culture that had taken root there since the 1980s, a revived Taliban insurgency was able to bring a minority of Afghanistans Pushtun population into arms against the new government by 2005-06. Al Qaeda joined forces with Pakistan-based terrorist organizations, previously limited to the conflict in Kashmir, and rallied them to strike back at infidels worldwide.

I had seen the Afghans in bad times and, having shared their optimism in 2002, to see things go back again was a painful personal blow. The Afghans were willing to take the short-term, self-interested view time and again. The Afghans, while proud of the constitution they created, ended up practicing a divisive approach to internal politics that led to a culture of corruption.

In 2009, the security situation around Kabul had deteriorated. The Afghan presidential election was tainted by corruption. In the US, the bipartisan consensus on Afghanistan that had endured since 2001 crumbled in the first nine months of the new administration. In the US, UK, Canada and other countries with troops in Afghanistan, the electorate is losing patience with the casualties and cost of a commitment that is little understood and seems to offer nothing but unending frustration.

So I wrote this book to explain how, with Afghanistan filled with hope, on the day the schools reopened in 2002, today hope is in danger of drying up and blowing away. How we the US, the Afghans, everyone went from the hope-filled Afghanistan of March 2002 to the hope-imperiled Afghanistan of today was at the heart of what I wanted to tell But Afghanistan is not lost past redemption or repair, even in the most insurgent-plagued districts or in the most corrupt ministries.

It is important that hope be kept alive in Afghanistan, important not only for the Afghans but for the countries in the regions that border them and also for people in the US. Afghanistan has a real potential to affect their lives. If the average American saw, when the recession went global in 2008, how interlinked economies are, this conflict is showing threats of fundamentalism and terrorism, unlike armies, cannot be contained across oceans. Afghanistan was allowed to function as a haven for international terrorism under the Taliban. It was where Al Qaeda trained for and planned the 9/11 attacks. But even if Al Qaeda never came back to Afghanistan, if the Taliban insurgents end up back in power, it would not only be dreadful for the people of Afghanistan it would encourage all those that believe that the US, the West and their Moslem allies cannot stand up to radicalism. Terrorists will see a success greater than 9/11. The Muslim world will see that armed fundamentalism can triumph over western-supported democracy. This will have an impact throughout the world. That I why I believe it is important to revive Afghanistans hope.

Afghanistan: Graveyard of Empires. A New History of the Borderland is published by Pegasus Books in New York. It is available at bookstores nationwide as well as on-line.

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