Messianic Terrorism, Tribal Conflicts, and the Failures of Great Powers
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Former special presidential envoy to Afghanistan takes the long view of the political failures in that country and suggests a more hands-off U.S. approach, especially in checking neighboring bully, Pakistan.

After a distinguished career in foreign service, Tomsen served as President George H.W. Bush’s ambassador to Afghanistan from 1989 to 1992, during a time of building an Afghan consensus following the Soviet withdrawal. Here, the author fashions an ambitious, wide-ranging, informed historical overview as well as a detailed record of his work, and the American failures since. Afghanistan has geographically operated as a “buffer” state between powerful, marauding empires, such as those by Alexander the Great, the Mongols, Mughals and Persians, creating what Tomsen calls a “shatter zone,” isolating the nomadic tribes from global currents. Later, the British empire used the country for criss-crossing rather than colonizing, and Afghanistan remained factiously independent and resistant to repeated imperialist onslaughts. The author examines the Afghan tribal and religious makeup, especially the friction between Pashtunwali (“the way of the Pashtun,” the dominant tribal group) and Sharia law, factors that have been misunderstood by foreign governments to their own peril. Tomsen jumps to the disastrous invasion by the Soviet Union in 1978, coinciding with the rise of a radical Wahhabi ideology in Saudi Arabia. Pakistan became the refuge of the Mujahidin, the “freedom fighters” largely supported by the United States and Saudi Arabia—and therein lay the problem, the author astutely asserts. The U.S. aid package to Pakistan’s General Zia starting with the “Reagan Doctrine” of 1980 essentially funded an “unholy alliance” of Islamist extremists such as Osama bin Laden and the Taliban--all who have come back to haunt America in the wake of 9/11. Tomsen warns of the current dangers in continuing to “outsource” American Afghan policy to Pakistan, and instead sets forth a detailed, cogent plan involving tougher conditions to bolster a more autonomous Afghanistan.

Wise words from trial-and-error experience in the trenches.


Pub Date: July 12th, 2011
ISBN: 978-1-58648-763-8
Page count: 896pp
Publisher: PublicAffairs
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15th, 2011


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