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Afghanistan: For Your Reading Pleasure | The Nation

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Robert Dreyfuss

Bob Dreyfuss

News of America’s misadventures in foreign policy and defense.

Afghanistan: For Your Reading Pleasure

Having spent a while reading about Afghanistan, I've collected some resources for anyone who'd like to learn a little more about that godforsaken country and about what various strategists think ought to be done. Pretty much everything I've listed below is useful to read, even if you don't agree with all of the conclusions that analysts come up with.

A good place to start is The Forgotten Front, published more than a year ago by the Center for American Progress. Written by Caroline P. Wadhams, an extremely bright young analyst, and Lawrence Korb, a veteran defense expert, it's a primer about the war. Many progressives won't like their conclusion that the United States needs to send more troops. (At the time, when the US had 25,000 troops in country, CAP recommended adding 20,000 more. Currently, there are 36,000 US forces, and President Obama has ordered the deployment of 17,000 more.) And CAP puts too much emphasis on NATO, saying, "A failure in Afghanistan would throw NATO's relevance into doubt" -- as if the war were about NATO, not Afghanistan. But "The Forgotten Front," even though it is somewhat overtaken by events, is a very useful guide to the issues in the war, complete with maps, charts and graphs.

One of the very best analysts on Afghanistan is Seth Jones of the RAND Corporation. His book-length monograph is called Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan. Especially valuable for those seeking to understand who, exactly, we're fighting in Afghanistan is Chapter 4 of Jones' report. "Insurgents and Their Support Network." He writes:

The insurgency in Afghanistan included six main insurgent groups: the Taliban, Hezb-i Islami, the Haqqani network, foreign fighters (mostly Arabs and Central Asians), tribes based in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and criminal networks.

Jones provides an extremely useful tour of the insurgency, making clear to anyone who reads it that the United States is engaged in a struggle against an opponent far richer and more complex than "the Taliban." (You can read a lot more of Seth Jones' work here.)

In connection with Jones' report, read RAND's James Dobbins' testimony, on February 26, 2009, to the Senate Armed Service Committee, also called Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan. Dobbins, President Bush's first envoy to Afghanistan who also served as liaison to the Afghan exile opposition before 2001, says that since the Taliban operate mostly in the country's south, with headquarters in Pakistan's Baluchistan region, that the United States ought to consider targeting the Taliban inner shura ("council") with the same Predator drones that it's using further north in the tribal areas of Pakistan.

If you want to get inside President Obama's Afghan review, start with the work of the man who's leading that review, Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institution. I'd recommend reading several of his recent papers and analyses, including an interview Riedel did with the Council on Foreign Relations in January. Riedel's work on Pakistan is very insightful, and to start with read his Pakistan and Terror: The Eye of the Storm. First sentence: "Pakistan is the most dangerous country in the world today."

For sheer detail, including hundreds of pages of charts and power point slides, slog your way through Anthony Cordesman's work at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Cordesman, a conservative military analyst who believes that the United States must dramatically escalate its effort in Afghanistan, has written dozens of reports on the subject. Your eyes may glaze over, but it's worthwhile stuff, and you'll learn a lot that you didn't know. Start with one of his most recent reports, The Afghan-Pakistan War: The Rising Threat, 2002-2008. You may not like Cordesman's solutions, but he's a no-nonsense analyst who doesn't sugar coat things.

The always useful International Crisis Group has a lot of material on Afghanistan, including a very good 2006 report called Countering Afghanistan's Insurgency: No Quick Fixes that, though somewhat dated, is extremely well written and comprehensive. Like the CAP report, it's a primer, and a good place to start for those unfamiliar with Afghanistan. The ICG also published, recently, a scathing report on Afghanistan's corrupt and disorganized police, Policing in Afghanistan: Still Searching for a Strategy.

A must-read, of course, is From Great Game to Grand Bargain in Foreign Affairs, byu Barnett Rubin and Ahmed Rashid. Rubin, one of America's premier Afghan analysts, and Rashid, a prominent Pakistani journalist, emphasize the need for a diplomatic solution in Afghanistan, bringing in Afghanistan's neighbors, Russia, China, and others. They write:

[The] medium- to long-term objective would require reducing the level of armed conflict, including by seeking a political settlement with current insurgents. In discussions about the terms of such a settlement, leaders linked to both the Taliban and other parts of the insurgency have asked, What are the goals for which the United States and the international community are waging war in Afghanistan?

Good question.

For even deeper analysis, besides Ahmed Rashid's recent book, Descent Into Chaos: The United States and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia, I strongly recommend The Taliban and the Crisis of Afghanistan, edited by Robert D. Crews and Amin Tarzi, a chapter-by-chapter review of the war and its origins. Especially good are Chapter 7, "Moderate Taliban?" and Chapter 8, "The Neo-Taliban," for understanding the complex nature of the movement that the United States is taking on.

Happy reading!

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