When I was in 7th grade (about 1987), I remember an assignment that required us to do a report on a country of our choosing outside the United States. For a reason I cannot quite remember, I had chosen Afghanistan and put together a small booklet containing illustration and text that I still have today. It mentions the mountainous geography, the ancient Buddhist relics and salt mines amongst other things. Quite absent is Afghanistan's long history of war and conflict between peoples local and from all around the world, something a junior high encyclopedia was unlikely to document for a 7th grade audience. Little did I know at that time just how prominent of a story Afghanistan would become in our lives and on the world stage today. As a result, I find myself seeking out a deeper understanding of the land and rough boundaries of Afghanistan.
While in a local, second hand bookshop, I was fortunate to come upon the book, "Afghanistan's Endless War." Published in 2001, but before September 11th, the book reads today with an understanding of the country and surrounding region that remains extremely relevant to the critical choices continuing to be made by our political and military leaders.
What I like about the Preface and Chapter 1: Afghanistan in the Post-Cold War World is the regional perspective the author, Larry Goodson, brings to the table. In introducing his book, he writes:
"To date, no single work has analyzed both the comprehensive impact of the war on those factors that have historically been most influential in Afghanistan (ethnicity, state-vs.-society struggles, Islamic ideology, economy) and the way in which Afghanistan today influences a dramatically changed region (geopolitics)...it is my contention that Afghanistan has a singular importance in the regions it touches and that it must also be understood in terms of how it influences its neighbors and other international actors. In this latter sense, Afghanistan provides a useful point of departure for understanding how failed and failing states, through the very ills that are brought about or exacerbated by their weakness, can have such disproportionate influence in regional and international politics in the new milennium."
Wrapping up the Preface and moving into Chapter 1, Mr. Goodson explains that the focus of his thesis is that:
"...Afghanistan's situation is illustrative of a significant problem facing the post-Cold War world. It is useful to understand what is happening in Afghanistan not just because its continued turmoil has such great influence on the region but also because of what it reveals about the transforming nature of the international system today."
This statement begins to provide a clear rationale of why we should be focused on not just Afghanistan's success, but also the success of the surrounding region. But the difficulties of Afghanistan have many roots, and Mr. Goodson begins to paint a picture on page 17 of how ethnic boundaries transcend geographic boundaries:
"...all of Afghanistan's major ethnic groups except for the Hazara overlap the international borders into neighboring countries, especially:
- Pashtuns (NW Pakistan)
- Tajiks (Tajikistan)
- Uzbeks (Uzbekistan)
- Turkomens (Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan)
Moreover, the Hazara, Aimaq, and Farsiwan are thought to be ethnic cousins of the Eastern Iranian Berberi. Because all of Afghanistan's major ethnic groups either straddle the border with neighboring countries, all of those countries have built-in incentives for meddling in Afghanistan's internal affairs."
To conclude Chapter 1, Mr. Goodson steps back again and sets the stage for further chapters:
"With the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, Afghanistan finds its geo-strategic position still important, but for different reasons. No longer merely a buffer state, Afghanistan is now a crossroads between states that want and need trade, as both Iran and Pakistan engage in a struggle for access to Central Asia's mineral wealth and markets."
If the U.S. and NATO fail to help Afghanistan succeed in getting through the current turbulence of difficulties it now faces, it will be because, as Dr. Thomas Barnett continually refers to, our leadership has failed to design and execute a Central Asia strategy as comprehensive and thorough as that being currently conceived for action within Afghanistan's porous borders.
In a couple weeks, I will review Chapter 2: Historical Factors Shaping Modern Afghanistan.