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The Wars of Afghanistan: Messianic Terrorism, Tribal Conflicts, and the Failures of Great Powers [Hardcover]

Peter Tomsen
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

July 12 2011
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. At this critical time, he shows how the U.S. and the coalition it leads can assist the region back to peace and stability.

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Review

Steve Coll, author of The Bin Ladens and Ghost Wars
"Peter Tomsen has a depth of understanding and knowledge about the history of Afghanistan that makes him a unique asset in our effort to grapple with the multiple conflicts and intricate politics in what has turned out to be America’s longest war.”

Winston Lord, former Assistant Secretary of State 
“Accolades like 'magisterial,' 'definitive,' and 'vital' should be reserved for rare books like Peter Tomsen's 'The Wars of Afghanistan.' Few Americans are as knowledgeable about that tormented land's past; none have been more savvy or prescient about its unrolling future. Tomsen's compelling narrative draws upon meticulous scholarship and virgin archives, personal frontline engagement and close ties with major players. This multilayered volume melds sweeping history, cultural painting, political analysis, governmental battles, dramatic action, and provocative prescriptions. 'The Wars of Afghanistan' is bound to have urgent impact and enduring resonance.”

Lee H. Hamilton, former congressman and co-chair of the 9/11 Commission
 “The Wars of Afghanistan is a richly detailed account that places current U.S. interests in Afghanistan in the historical, political, and cultural context of this troubled land. Peter Tomsen’s compelling analysis of Afghan leaders and tribal politics makes this book invaluable to the policy maker. His wise and carefully considered policy blueprint—basically, America will still help and America is withdrawing—serves American interests and uplifts Afghanistan.”

Chuck Hagel, distinguished professor, Georgetown University, and former U.S. senator (1997–2009)
“The authenticity of Tomsen’s Afghanistan experiences, knowledge, and analysis is the foundation of a superbly well-written and documented presentation of an astoundingly complicated part of the world. He brings remarkable clarity to a very complex story. Tomsen’s book is the most current, informed, and complete Afghanistan publication in the market today … and maybe ever. It is not an exaggeration to say that he has created a masterpiece. It’s that good.”

Publisher’s Weekly, May 16, 2011
“Ambassador and special envoy to Afghanistan from 1989 to 1992, Tomsen combines scholarship, analysis, and personal experience in an encyclopedic if disturbing history of post-WWII Afghanistan. Readers will appreciate his expert…insights.”
 
Foreign Affairs, September/October, 2011
“Magisterial… A career U.S. diplomat, Tomsen served as Washington's special envoy to the Afghan resistance in 1989-92, an experience that gave him almost unrivaled personal insight into Afghanistan's slide from anti-Soviet jihad into civil war. His account of the country's political dynamics before, during, and after this period is exhaustively researched, levelheaded, and persuasive....The Wars of Afghanistan should have a place among the indispensable books on the topic.”
 
San Francisco Chronicle, July 3, 2011
“Peter Tomsen, a former U.S. envoy to "the Afghan resistance" from 1989 to 1992, reminds us in his sweeping history that the CIA has had a miserable record of understanding the politics of the region. "The Wars of Afghanistan" is rich with details about his interactions with key players during this critical period. Following the Soviet withdrawal, the United States continued to oppose compromise with the last Afghan communist ruler, Mohammad Najibullah, and to arm the mujahedeen, including figures now fighting the Americans. Drawing on these lessons, Tomsen persuasively calls on Washington to wrest policymaking back from the Pentagon and spy agencies, and advocates U.N. mediation of an Afghan peace process.”
 
Times Literary Supplement September 30, 2011
“[A]dmirably sound.”
 
Philadelphia Inquirer October 6, 2011
“A fascinating tome.”
 
National Review Online, Best Nonfiction of 2011
“Excellent…Tomsen knows the country, its culture, and the last 30 years of U.S. history there, inside and out.”

San Francisco Chronicle, Best Books of 2011
“In his sweeping history, Tomsen persuasively calls on Washington to wrest policymaking back from the Pentagon and spy agencies, and advocates U.N. mediation of an Afghan peace process.”

American Diplomacy.org
“U.S. policy toward Afghanistan needs more careful calibration than the all-in/all-out policy schizophrenia of the last three decades. To be consistent and successful, our policy makers and practitioners in Afghanistan must be aware of the intense and often tragic history of our relations with that country. Ambassador Tomsen’s book provides an admirable service toward that end.”

Kansas City Star
“Stewart’s book is impressive in scope and painstakingly researched.”

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, 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.

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By Jeffrey Swystun TOP 50 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover
I am grateful for this book. As its author, Peter Tomsen, points out there is pervasive ignorance about Afghanistan's history, culture and tribal society. It is a complex mosaic that has never truly experienced a central government due to tribal, ethnic and religious differences.

Many have compared the U.S. and Coalition forces efforts in the country to previous disasters experienced by the British and the Soviets. Tomsen writes, 'The 1838 British invasion of Afghanistan established a pattern repeated during future invasions of Afghanistan: hubristic justifications, initial success, gradually widening Afghan resistance, stalemate, and withdrawal.'

Fast-forward 150 years and at their peak the Soviets controlled only 20% of the country and 15% of the population. The Politburo's discussions in the 1980's regarding withdrawal sounded eerily similar to what U.S. leaders would debate. Both faced high casualties, big expenditures, antiwar sentiment at home, and little progress on any front.

Afghani history is incredibly bloody and the complex society largely unstable with violence an accepted option. This is even more the case when outsiders enter their borders. Afghans also have a tradition of changing sides,' they favor the probable winner so loyalties beyond families and clans are far from assured.

This history was incredibly helpful, however, it was when the author (and former Special Envoy on Afghanistan from 1989 to 1992) covered the last twenty years of Afghan history. It confirmed my own conclusion about Pakistani culpability in promoting radical Islam and orchestrating extremist proxy warfare.

As Tomsen says, 'The epicenter of world terrorism is in Pakistan, not Afghanistan.
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Amazon.com: 4.8 out of 5 stars  23 reviews
71 of 75 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Thorough, comprehensive, insightful history and analysis July 14 2011
By David C. Isby - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
The story of the United States' policy in Afghanistan, from the war against the Soviets to the vacuum of the 1990s to today's frustrating and costly yet needed commitment is presented with great clarity and insight by a veteran diplomat who was at the center of many of the events he writes about.

Even where Ambassador Tomsen was not directly involved, he knew enough that, looking in from the periphery on events, he brings unique insights beyond those of the journalists and Washington players whose writings represent the first draft of history. This is Afghanistan 2.0.

I am an American that has been working on Afghanistan since soon after the Soviet invasion in 1979. I have written four books on the subject (the most recent of which, AFGHANISTAN: GRAVEYARD OF EMPIRES, has just been published in a revised paperback edition). So I know the subject and I know Ambassador Tomsen and his work over the years. From my experience, this book is accurate and objective. The author has by no means averted his eyes from the many, many policy failures, including those by the State Department, that have taken place over the years. Nor does he hesitate to name the Great and Good in Washington who, with reputations untarnished, managed to inflict lasting harm on Afghanistn and the Afghans.

Anyone interested in Afghanistan beyond the headlines and todays' too-often-sterile policy debates needs to read this book.
20 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars More ammo for the rhetorical question: Why are we still in A-stan? Aug. 23 2011
By S. J. Snyder - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Beyond learning more detail about the dysfunctional tribalism of a country whose current, colonial-imposed borders make even less sense than most of those in Africa (either western Pakistan and its Pashtuns should be added to Afghanistan or southern Afghanistan and its Pashtuns should be added to Pakistan, for starters) the single biggest takeaway I got from this book?

The HUGE degree of outright lying, and other general deception, practiced by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence, the infamous ISI, to its own country's (and its own institutional) goals, often shortsighted ones, since even before the old USSR officially announced it was pulling out of Afghanistan.

Pakistan's long-term President Zia, per the author, said that in negotiations it was perfectly OK to lie to the USSR since it had non-Muslim leadership. It's clear from this book that he and many other Pakistani leaders must feel the same about the United States. (That said, they at least indirectly lied to the Saudis at times, too.)

That said, speaking of Zia, Pakistani heads of government, including but not limited to Zia, and both civilian and military in background, have shown plenty of their own duplicity.

Second biggest takeaway? Long before 9/11, the CIA was clueless about A-stan, and what it called "intelligence" was usually stuff uncritically culled from the ISI. Too bad we didn't have leadership after 9/11 who saw this as the perfect reason, time, and excuse to get rid of the CIA.

Thomson was the first U.S. representative to Afghanistan after the Soviets announced their pullout, with ambassadorial rank. He repeatedly saw firsthand both ISI duplicity and CIA ineptitude (mixed with undercutting the State Department; that happened more than the ineptitude during his 1989-92 service).

Given that the ISI is still in true control of Pakistan, and given that it will go to any end for its own objectives (including, as events of this spring showed, some likely complicity in harboring bin Laden), why are we still in Afghanistan? Short of actual full-blown war with Pakistan (or siccing India into that), and not just pinprick drone attacks, nothing we do will change its course, period.

And, as Thomson details the degree of dysfunctional tribalism, if we stay, anyway ... what do we expect to accomplish?

That said, there are some errors, mainly minor, in the book. "Millennia" is a plural word, not a singular, for example.

But, this book is still chock-full of information on Afghanistan of the past 100 years, and well worth a read.
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Afghanistan is Not a Country - it is one of the longest-running wars in human history Dec 5 2011
By Jeffrey Swystun - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I am grateful for this book. As its author, Peter Tomsen, points out there is pervasive ignorance about Afghanistan's history, culture and tribal society. It is a complex mosaic that has never truly experienced a central government due to tribal, ethnic and religious differences.

Many have compared the U.S. and Coalition forces efforts in the country to previous disasters experienced by the British and the Soviets. Tomsen writes, "The 1838 British invasion of Afghanistan established a pattern repeated during future invasions of Afghanistan: hubristic justifications, initial success, gradually widening Afghan resistance, stalemate, and withdrawal."

Fast-forward 150 years and at their peak the Soviets controlled only 20% of the country and 15% of the population. The Politburo's discussions in the 1980's regarding withdrawal sounded eerily similar to what U.S. leaders would debate. Both faced high casualties, big expenditures, antiwar sentiment at home, and little progress on any front.

Afghani history is incredibly bloody and the complex society largely unstable with violence an accepted option. This is even more the case when outsiders enter their borders. Afghans also have a tradition of changing sides - they favor the probable winner so loyalties beyond families and clans are far from assured.

This history was incredibly helpful, however, it was when the author (and former Special Envoy on Afghanistan from 1989 to 1992) covered the last twenty years of Afghan history. It confirmed my own conclusion about Pakistani culpability in promoting radical Islam and orchestrating extremist proxy warfare.

As Tomsen says, "The epicenter of world terrorism is in Pakistan, not Afghanistan." He describes Pakistan as an army with a state rather than other way around. So why has the Pakistani military and their intelligence agency, the ISI, meddled so deeply in Afghan affairs? Tomsen explains that they aim for an Afghanistan ruled by pro-Pakistani Afghan religious extremists to help create "strategic depth" against India, stave off the "Pashtunistan" cause - the unification of Pashtuns on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistani frontier, while maintaining control in Pakistan's domestic policy.

Incredibly, the U.S. still supplies Pakistan with staggering amounts of cash and Tomsen claims that America "outsources" its Afghan policy to Pakistan. This when the evidence continues to stack up against Pakistan in their complicity in the actions of the Taliban, al Qaeda, and other extremist groups. Tora Bora and Osama bin Laden's last hideout are clear indictments. The irony is Tomsen documents Taliban complaints of Pakistani duplicity.

This nine hundred and seventy two page book moves with speed. The complex and dense content is well laid out. Tomsen is highly credible and maintains objectivity though he is firm in his conclusions and convictions. He offers a prescription at the end of the book which speaks to an optimism that may surprise given the mess that is Afghanistan.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Showing the History Behind the Headlines Feb. 22 2012
By William Terdoslavich - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
It takes time for headlines to settle into history. Peter Tomsen is not interested in waiting that long.

Tomsen once served as US ambassador to Afghan resistance groups from 1989 to 1992. The job required him to dive into the tangled thicket of Afghan tribal politics, little understood by the casual observer but crucial in crafting any political deal that could stick in Afghanistan. Tomsen coupled his practical experience with a good read of Afghan history to place today's conflict within the context of history, showing that the solution to Afghanistan's problems are really easy. It's just too damn hard to get there when outside powers are eager to fill the power vacuum in this hostile corner of central Asia.

Do not give Tomsen the benefit of your doubts. He did not write the single "go to" book explaining Afghanistan. And he does have an ax to grind. He stands in a small but growing minority of policy makers and analysts who see Pakistan as playing the U.S. to further its interests in Afghanistan at the expense of all. While this story has emerged in the past decade through news coverage, Tomsen's indictment goes back to the 1970s, as Pakistan used US aid to support favored resistance groups that could fight the invading Soviets. But the real goal was to install a friendly puppet government in Kabul once the Soviets quit the country, so Tomsen argues. Resistance groups led by in-country leaders in Afghanistan were overlooked by the CIA and State department higher ups. These leaders were more moderate and broad-based, truly expressing Afghan political will as opposed to the Pakistani-based groups that veiled the long-term interests of their hosts and paymasters.

Tomsen writes with a straight prose style that does bog down in names, dates and places, a common error made by journalists who recycle past stories into thick books. He hews to the straight and narrow path of narrative, using no more facts than needed to tell the story consistently from start to finish. His past meetings with the various participants in the Afghan wars color his story, providing insight and background that explains their interests and agendas. The Afghan penchant for infighting also runs rampant, forming many frustrating counter-points to every well-laid plan by friend or foe.

It would be too easy to walk away from the whole mess and let the players of the new Great Game continue their intrigues and proxy wars for control of Afghanistan. For Tomsen, this is not an option. He truly wants to see Afghanistan get its act together and go back to being a neutral buffer state keeping larger players from going at each other. Such an Afghan state once had a weak central government that provided some common good to the disparate tribes and ethnic groups that existed with fierce autonomy, respecting the honor and interests of each. That solution, proven workable by history, remains elusive to those who ignore it.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Detailed Recent History Feb. 20 2012
By Laura R - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This book provides an excellent, detailed overview of Afghan politics and loyalties since the Cold War. Tomsen clearly is a vault of information on this area, stemming from the amount of time he spent there. Well worth the (admittedly long) read for the take on contemporary Afghanistan (up through the death of Osama bin Laden) and the hammered-home message that no one can seek to control or invade Afghanistan, and effective policies must rely on a detailed knowledge of local tribal motives.

Minus a star for the woefully brief and inaccurate coverage of Afghanistan before the 19th century. Tomsen relies very heavily on Barfield's outdated theories to cover this period of Afghan history, leaving the impression that Afghans are perpetual victims of brutal invasions who need our pity and aid, rather than discussing how cultural interaction even in the midst of past conflict has helped shape the Afghan society of today. Tomsen's tome is invaluable in discussing contemporary Afghanistan, but I would look elsewhere if you seek to know more of its pre-Cold War history. For that I would suggest you turn to the work of Rubin and Centlivres.
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