Stephen Tanner, Afghanistan: A Military History from Alexander the Great to the War against the Taliban. 392 pages. Da Capo Press; First Edition 2003, Revised Edition edition (April 27, 2009).
A much needed revised addition of Stephen Tanners acclaimed book on military history of Afghanistan appeared in April 2009.
Following the events of September 11, 2001 many “experts” proclaimed that Afghanistan would be the grave of the American army. They had not counted on the fact the military might of the United States is extraordinary in world history. This reviewer believes that America’s victory over the guerrillas of the Taliban regime was proof that at present America’s military might is unique. It can handle counterinsurgency too although there is some refinement to be made. More psywar and political warfare too meet Taliban propaganda in traditional media and on the Internet.
For over 2,500 years this Asian country has served as meeting place of empires, the Greeks, Arabs, Mongols, and Tartars, Britain and Russia. It is ridiculous to claim that Afghanistan could be the graveyard of American forces. The defeat of the guerrillas is only a matter of politics. If the United States and the European Union were willing to send 200,000 men and increase political warfare the war in this remote country would soon be over. Military victory is not the only necessary tool. The country could become a democratic model in Asia and needs much development, construction and education.
Unlike some mountainous lands, such as Peru, Nepal, and Norway — even at times Switzerland, its closest European counterpart — it has never been Afghanistan’s lot to exist benignly apart from the rest of the world. It has instead found itself at the hinge of imperial ambitions since the beginning of recorded history, from the world’s first transcontinental superpower, the Persian Empire… In between enduring or resisting invasions from every point of the compass (and most recently from the air), the Afghans have honed their martial skills by fighting among themselves, in terrain that facilitates divisions of power and resists the concept of centralized control.
A geographical map, more than a political one, best explains Afghanistan’s importance over the centuries. It is the easternmost part of the great Iranian plateau, and given the nearby impenetrable arc of the Himalayas, it is the primary land conduit connecting the great empires of Central Asia, the Middle East, and the Indian subcontinent…Afghanistan’s claustrophobic passes have borne mute witness to armies of Persians, Greeks, Mauryans, Huns, Mongols, Moghuls, British, Soviets, and Americans — among others — including many of the most famous captains in history. As a strategically vital piece of real estate, Afghanistan has also given birth to empires of its own such as the Ghaznavids, Ghorids, and Durranis, who spread fear of Afghan fighting prowess from Delhi to the Caspian Sea.
Comparative Civilizational Science
One can only admire the way Tanner uses Arnold Toynbee to explain the complicated geopolitical and civilizational role of this large but thinly populated country:
The historian Arnold Toynbee once suggested that upon viewing the rise of civilization from its center in Mesopotamia, the map of the Old World becomes startlingly clear. He distinguished countries between blind alleys and highways, and among the latter he thought two held prominent place: Syria, which was the link between the civilizations of Europe, Africa, and Asia; and Afghanistan, which was the nodal point between the civilizations of India, East Asia, Central Asia, the Middle East, and thence Europe. “Plant yourself not in Europe but in Iraq,” he wrote, and “it will become evident that half the roads of the Old World lead to Aleppo, and half to Bagram.” Toynbee noted that Bagram was once the site of Cyrus the Great’s Kapish-Kanish as well as Alexander the Great’s Alexandria-in-the-Caucasus. He would have nodded appreciatively had he seen Bagram airfield become the primary Soviet base in Afghanistan during the 1980s and that at the onset of the 21st century not only American but British, German, and Australian troops have been disembarking at that strategic spot, nestled in the southern foothills of the Hindu Kush.
The present geopolitical picture of Asia is one based on the rimland theory of American geopolitician Nicholas Spykman. Much of the turmoil after 1991 is ongoing in the southern part of the rimland that surrounds the Russian heartland of Sir Halford Mackinder. Compared to Iran, Pakistan and India one cannot be so sure about Afghanistan’s historical role in the fate of nations.
Historian Rhea Talley Stewart has stated that two men did irreparable damage to Afghanistan. The first was the conquering Genghis Khan; the second was Christopher Columbus, who sailed past the presumed ends of the earth, establishing tremendous avenues for commerce and conquest that did not depend on land powers. Another writer explained:
“Afghanistan is far less important to a round world than it was to a flat one.”
To refer further to Mr. Tanners excellent recent article in National Review:
Once global seapower emerged as an equivalent to land power (airpower was not yet on the drawing board), the definition of Afghanistan changed from an essential passageway between civilizations to a place more desirable as a no-man’s-land. It remained crucial territory in the view of great empires, but in a negative rather than a positive sense. In the 19th century the world’s greatest seafaring empire and the world’s greatest land one vied for control of Afghanistan in a Cold War–like contest known as the “Great Game.”
There is however no new “Great Game”. There are no competing superpowers. There is only the American hegemon for mainly freedom and democracy. Of course there is a necessary national interest to some extent in what the United States does. It is only a matter of dividing resources to the different flashpoints of the world in cooperation, sometimes, with the European partners.
Tanner points out in National Review:
Among Afghanistan’s more remote mountain regions are tribes, still governed on a feudal basis, that have never been conquered. Neither have they ever been fully subjugated by domestic government. Invading armies may pass through, seizing sedentary communities on accessible transit routes, which in Afghanistan are more the exception than the rule, while among remote heights and deep valleys tribes have maintained their independence for thousands of years. This is not to say the country’s mountains are populated by hermits or pacifists. On many occasions the tribes have descended from Afghanistan’s mountains with devastating results: to participate in collective defense, civil wars, or expeditions for plunder. When the Afghans have acted in common cause, their country — though often ravaged — has never been held down by a foreign power; on the other hand, evidence indicates that Afghanistan is only capable of unity when its people respond to a foreign threat. Left to their own devices, Afghans engage in internecine battles….
One can only hope that Mr. Tanner’s revised edition of Afghanistan. Maybe a copy of the 2009 edition could be given to American and European servicemen going to the battlegrounds in this crossroad of the empires.