- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 16, 2010

AFGHANISTAN: GRAVEYARD OF EMPIRES: A NEW HISTORY OF THE BORDERLAND
By David Isby
Pegasus Books, $28.95,
464 pages

THE MOST DANGEROUS PLACE: PAKISTAN’S LAWLESS FRONTIER
By Imtiaz Gul
Viking, $26.95,
320 pages

The insurgencies of the Taliban and their al Qaeda allies against Afghanistan and Pakistan have made these two countries among the most dangerous places in the world. The United States and its Western allies regard the threats posed by these insurgencies as their highest national-security priorities, not only because of the instability they have brought to these two countries but because many of al Qaeda’s attacks in the West have originated in the provinces where these terrorist groups found safe haven.

The complexities and challenges presented by these insurgencies and the reasons the two countries have had so much difficulty containing their insurgencies - even with Western assistance - are explained by two recently published books.


David Isby’s “Afghanistan: Graveyard of Empires: A New History of the Borderland” is a sweeping, insightful and authoritative account by one of the leading experts on that country, who began trekking through its rugged countryside in the early 1980s. I’ve known Mr. Isby throughout this period.

In “Afghanistan,” Mr. Isby ingeniously employs the metaphor of a vortex to portray the violent whirlpool created by the anarchic borderlands of Afghanistan and Pakistan, which are composed of large populations of ethnic Pashtuns who live on either side of the border. They seek to use terrorism and intimidation to create a harshly rigid religious theocracy, producing what Mr. Isby calls “an existential threat to these two countries and the regions they border.”

The present-day threats confronting these two historically conflict-ridden societies began following the overthrow of the Taliban and their al Qaeda allies in Afghanistan in late 2001, when they fled to Pakistan’s fiercely independent Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and the North West Frontier Provinces along the border with Afghanistan. It was there, Mr. Isby writes, that “Al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban were able to find sanctuary, a sympathetic culture, and a Pakistani government that originally moved against only foreign terrorist leaders and plotters, leaving Afghan and Pakistani insurgents alike unmolested.” By exploiting Pashtun ethnicity, nationalistic xenophobia and a militant form of global Islam, they succeeded in creating “the Vortex,” a place where Western and what they consider “non-Islamic ways … were increasing defined as illegitimate.”

Mr. Isby cautions that this vortex has produced “multiple threats and conflicts, rather than a unitary Armageddon” that threaten the legitimacy of the governments in Kabul and Islamabad, which so far have proved unable to impose their authority over the Pashtun territories controlled by the Taliban forces, whether in Afghanistan or Pakistan.

The chapters covering Afghanistan’s ethno-linguistic divisions of Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazara and Uzbeks; the role of traditional religion and culture in society; its weak central government; how patron-client relations shape the country’s parties and warlords; and the pervasiveness of corruption among the upper rungs of society, including “toleration” for narcotrafficking, help set the stage for understanding the intractability of the country’s deep-seated problems.

Also informative is Mr. Isby’s discussion of the efforts to counter Afghanistan’s insurgency, whether by the Kabul government or the U.S.-led NATO counterinsurgency campaign, which combines military operations against the Taliban forces and development aid projects to assist the local populations in creating a more stable society.

Mr. Isby concludes that there is “still cause for hope and prospect for success in Afghanistan,” with many non-Pashtun parts of the country remaining largely peaceful. And despite its problems: “Even today’s Afghanistan is much preferable to leaving the future to a new, morally brutal, Afghan Taliban and their allies.” The United States and its Western allies, he adds, must continue their efforts to help stabilize Pakistan as well.

Prominent Pakistani journalist Imtiaz Gul’s “The Most Dangerous Place: Pakistan’s Lawless Frontier” focuses on Pakistan’s lawless tribal areas, which became the new center of gravity of the Taliban and their al Qaeda allies following their expulsion from Afghanistan. What makes the book especially important today is Mr. Gul’s intimate knowledge of the actors who shape these areas, based on numerous reporting visits to the region, resulting in a highly detailed and revealing discussion of how the Taliban and al Qaeda quickly established themselves as the de facto rulers of this anarchic Pashtun region and the diverse factions that constitute the insurgent movements against both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

One of the book’s themes is how the jihadi cadres, who for years had been indoctrinated and trained by the Pakistani military and intelligence agencies to conduct subversion in Jammu and Kashmir and Afghanistan, have “gone their own way” and instead of destroying “the enemies of Islam and Pakistan, have begun to explode themselves [as suicide bombers] inside their own country, killing their fellow Muslims, civilian and military alike.”

To overcome these threats, Mr. Gul writes, “Pakistan will … have to look inward and to engage in the kind of overdue introspection that its civilian and military ruling elite have long avoided to fix the country’s pressing problems. Rather than externalize their internal issues and seek to blame America, or India, or any other handy scapegoat, the leadership will have to address issues such as good governance and the rule of law. It will also have to integrate FATA properly into Pakistan.”

Also noteworthy are two appendices that profile the Pakistani militant leaders and their organizations.

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