Continued from page 1

Mr. Barfield even makes the surprising suggestion that Washington should have cut a deal with President Mohammed Najibullah Ahmadzai after his Soviet protectors withdrew. The author argues that only Pakistan benefited from the ensuing conflict, which empowered Islamic radicals and ultimately the Taliban.

He writes: “Had the dead spirits of the British raj arisen to give their advice on the matter they would surely have advised their American cousins to cut a deal with Najibullah now that he had become an Afghan nationalist and proved his staying power.” The problems with such an approach are obvious, but it looks ever better in hindsight.

More than a few mistakes have been made since then by Washington. Some were strategic, including attempting to create a centralized government in Kabul and diverting resources to Iraq. Some were tactical, such as providing aid with “little familiarity with Afghanistan’s culture or history.” The result, Mr. Barfield observes, was that “spending large amounts of money that generated disappointing results at the local level exacted a political price when rural Afghans came to believe that their needs were being ignored.”

At this stage, there are no good options. Mr. Barfield dispassionately discusses the dangers of escalation and risks of disengagement, concluding that “as the second decade of the 21st century dawned, Afghanistan could expect to remain the focus of world attention for years to come.”

Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History” is an invaluable book. Mr. Barfield does not give the United States a way out of Afghanistan, but he does provide the context necessary for good policymaking. The next step is up to U.S. officials.

Doug Bandow, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, is the author of “Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire” (Xulon, 2006).