Book Review: Afghanistan: What Everyone Needs to Know



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Oxford University Press, 07 October 2020 (Estimated)

Hardback, 240 pages, 47.99 , ISBN: 9780190496630

Author: Barnett R Rubin


By: Hafizullah Nadiri    5 October 2020

The author of the book is, as is required by the series ‘What Everyone Needs to Know’, a leading expert on Afghanistan. He has written some of the most influential books and articles on the country over the years. The book is comprised of answers to questions the author himself drafted and provides an introduction to many aspects of Afghanistan, including its earlier history, the social construction of the country, communism, civil war, drugs, and international intervention, among others. What makes this book unique is the fact that the author was engaged officially in Afghanistan cooperating with one of the parties involved particularly in the recent wars in the country. The latter, however, is a cause which in certain cases turns the book biased towards the opposite party.

By reading its first chapter titled “Afghanistan Seen by Others” one thinks that the book is written to an international reader, notably to an American one. Following through the rest of it and especially arriving at the topics like the myth ‘Afghanistan the graveyard of empires’, it gets known that the book is addressed to the public Afghans as well. The first question by which the book opens is: “Do the United States and other countries have an obligation to help Afghanistan?”. The answer is a long one yet seems negative since the author recalls his conversation with Amrullah Salih, now the Afghan deputy president, in which he had told him that international politics is based not on morality.

It seems that the author’s official positions through which he was engaged with Afghanistan to have affected the book in both positive and negative ways. Following his former engagements, he was during 1994-2000, director of the Center for Preventive Action whose principal job was “to prevent and mitigate armed conflict around the world, especially in places that pose the greatest risk to U.S. interests”. From 2009 – 2013, he was the Senior Advisor to the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan in the U.S. Department of State. Most importantly, he served during the Bonn Conference – the occasion which sat up the post-2001 order in Afghanistan – as Special Advisor to the UN Special Representative for Afghanistan. All these positions helped him get access to the sources which otherwise could not be possible. For example, he mentions his interview with Haji Abdul Qadir (p. 90). However, Qadir has since died and we thus have to trust Rubin on his word. The author also claims that “as far as we know” the Taliban knew nothing about 9/11 before it happened (p.126). Again, we have to trust the author on his word.

The next effect of his official positions can be seen in the way specific topics are dealt with in the book and the language used to describe certain groups there. In the case of the war against the communist regime, for instance, the author only notes the atrocities committed by the Soviets and forgets about the crimes committed by the Mujahedeen who were principally supported by the US (p.57). When insurgents are mentioned during the anti-communist war, either they are called the “resistance” or the “Mujahideen” but never the warlords. However, when it comes to the era after the departure of the Soviets and as well following 2001, they are, although in parentheses, called the “warlords”. It has been claimed in the book that it is a common name for them in Dari and that that they are those who in the present-day Afghanistan “exercise a combination of the institution and extra-institutional power” (p. 149). Mujahideen had common names during the war against the communists as well but the author is not using them in the book.

The author also presents, during the anti-communist war, two looks at the Mujahedeen: one from “Peshawar” and the other from “on the ground”. The first sees them the resistance who fight the occupation. For the next, however, their act is an egalitarian uprising against the state structure installed by Durranis (p. 65). Yet, we hear nothing from the author how at the least Kabul residents were describing Mujahedeen, many of whom had been their victims as they are now of the Taliban and ISIS. One expects him to have added here elements from his testimony in 1990 before the US congress in which he provided a balanced analysis of the situation in Afghanistan.

Yet when the resistance against the communists is depicted, one has the impression that the Mujahedeen have revolted naturally and preemptively against the communist regime, as like in the movie Charlie Wilson’s War and the US and Pakistan just went there to help them continue what they were doing (pp. 58-65). However, other recounts claim that both communists and Islamists had limited connection to the public and all their activities were limited to the Kabul University. It was the support by the anti-communist world which imposed the Islamists on a few natural tribal revolts. These tribes cooperated with them and were obliged, in case staying in Pakistan, to give up their nationalist or tribal ideology replacing it with radical Islam (see, for example, Edwards, 2002).

The other three authors, Nematullah Bizhan, David Mansfield, and Antonio Giustozzi, whose names do not appear on the cover, contribute also critically to the book. They look at the reconstruction of Afghanistan after 2001, drugs, and war. Each. These parts are very critical towards the post-2001 engagement of the international community, particularly the US, in Afghanistan. These chapters challenge common beliefs related to the shifting of the state’s function to the humanitarian response, the policy of linking drug trade with counterinsurgency, and the nature of the Taliban.

This book is dense. It speaks to everyone. It provides new lessons on Afghanistan as well as the stakeholders engaged in the post-war state-building. It is, however, written on Afghanistan from an anti-communist point of view, and having a basic background on the pro-communist version of the story will help a reader acquiring a more balanced understanding of the situation.