Thursday, September 8, 2011

Tim Bird and Alex Marshall's "Afghanistan: How the West Lost Its Way"

Tim Bird is a lecturer at the Joint Services Command and Staff College and the Defence Studies Department, King's College, London. Alex Marshall is Lecturer in History in the War Studies Department of the University of Glasgow.

They applied the “Page 99 Test” to their new book, Afghanistan: How the West Lost Its Way, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Afghanistan: How the West Lost Its Way recounts the Bonn conference which met in the wake of 9/11 and American intervention in Afghanistan. The conference witnessed positive contributions by Russian and Iranian diplomats; as the authors of this book note, ‘there was a coincidence of interests between the Russians, Iranians, Indians and Americans that was highly unusual.’ Bonn offered an early opportunity to create what some American analysts were still urging nearly ten years later-the opportunity to forge a regional ‘grand bargain’ upon which to embed future Afghan stability. This opportunity was largely snubbed by the Bush administration at the time; within two months of Bonn, President Bush had dubbed Iran part of a global ‘axis of evil’. US-Russian relations subsequently deteriorated to such a stage that the incoming Obama administration famously later felt it essential to initiate a diplomatic ‘re-set’ with Moscow. The missed opportunity of Bonn served as an early indication of both the Bush administration’s general approach to international affairs, and the geopolitical context which has always made stability in Afghanistan itself so difficult to achieve. Another forewarning was the recalcitrance of Pakistani representatives at Bonn; over the course of the following ten years, Pakistani ISI support for the Taliban would become something of an open secret.

Page 99 happens to capture an important dynamic in this book, namely why the regional context makes the execution of Western strategy in Afghanistan difficult. Sometimes this has been due to duplicity by regional actors; often it has been due to Western arrogance and desire to expand its own region of influence to the exclusion of others. Despite a common interest in a stable Afghanistan, US-Russian relations famously declined due to US bases in Central Asia and US training and support for Georgia, which launched a war of aggression of its own in 2008, provoking Russian counter-intervention. Unwillingness to engage with Iran or acknowledge their own legitimate interests led to similarly deleterious longer-term consequences in both Iraq and Afghanistan. As the book’s conclusion notes, strategy in essence is about correlating ends, ways, and means, and Western-ultimately American-strategy towards Afghanistan has been notably deficient in this regard for over a decade. Though the book contains many other messages, page 99 in this instance provides an unusually accurate shorthand insight into the book’s overall theme: understanding how the West lost its way.
Learn more about Afghanistan: How the West Lost Its Way at the Yale University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue