A comprehensive history of a storied nation held together by an alliance of tribal and political groups that threatens to dissolve at any moment.
Afghanistan “emerged from the collapse of three great empires,” writes British historian Lee (The “Ancient Supremacy": Bukhara, Afghanistan, and the Battle for Balkh, 1731-1901, 1996, etc.), that once held sway across broad stretches of Central Asia. It has famously been the graveyard of empires since, an indomitable place that has stymied armies from Britain, Russia, and now the U.S. The modern nation is an ever shifting blend of ethnic groups and traditions and efforts at power-sharing in a political entity that Lee describes as “unstable and riddled with factionalism.” By the author’s reckoning (and many other observers’), the U.S. invasion has not helped matters; instead, it has put Afghans in the familiar if uncertain position of reading the wind to see who’s in charge. For instance, Lee calls the rout of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida a pyrrhic victory since it was replaced by the “hydra-headed movement” called the Islamic State group. Previous efforts have not been much better. As the author chronicles, Indian rulers attempted to bring Afghanistan under their rule, and following them, the British, whose earliest reports from the field noted “the sectarian and ethnic tensions at court” and who later blundered into a war that saw its army suffer its worst defeat since the American Revolutionary War. For all that, Lee adds, Afghanistan has had moments of calm, including a relatively stable period of self-rule under a monarchy that lasted, “in one expression or another,” until the communist regime that came into power in 1978. Many of Afghanistan’s true modernizers, this long but well-written chronicle documents, were royals who looked westward to places like Turkey but could not replicate such elements as a well-educated managerial and officer class and a developed intelligentsia. What remains is a country that today seems unfortunately and unjustly adrift.
Anyone seeking to understand a complex, even bewildering part of the world will benefit from Lee’s careful account.