Afghanistan's Endless War: State Failure, Regional Politics and the Rise of the Taliban


Going beyond the stereotypes of Kalashnikov-wielding Afghan mujahideen and black-turbaned Taliban fundamentalists, Larry Goodson explains in this concise analysis of the Afghan war what has really been happening in Afghanistan in the last twenty years.

Beginning with the reasons behind Afghanistan’s inability to forge a strong state — its myriad cleavages along ethnic, religious, social, and geographical fault lines — Goodson then examines the devastating course of the war ...

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Going beyond the stereotypes of Kalashnikov-wielding Afghan mujahideen and black-turbaned Taliban fundamentalists, Larry Goodson explains in this concise analysis of the Afghan war what has really been happening in Afghanistan in the last twenty years.

Beginning with the reasons behind Afghanistan’s inability to forge a strong state — its myriad cleavages along ethnic, religious, social, and geographical fault lines — Goodson then examines the devastating course of the war itself. He charts its utter destruction of the country, from the deaths of more than 2 million Afghans and the dispersal of some six million others as refugees to the complete collapse of its economy, which today has been replaced by monoagriculture in opium poppies and heroin production. The Taliban, some of whose leaders Goodson interviewed as recently as 1997, have controlled roughly 80 percent of the country but themselves have shown increasing discord along ethnic and political lines.

University of Washington Press

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Editorial Reviews

New York Times Book Review
A comprehensive history of Afghan politics in the 20th century, highlighting the events leading up to the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan (which effectively instigated American involvement in the region). It's useful reading for anyone who wants a guide to the overall economic, social, cultural and political situation at the present moment.
Foreign Affairs
After a good introductory chapter and a well-done short account of historical factors shaping Afghanistan, Goodson documents in eight stages the continual war from 1978 to early 2001. The detail of his periodization is daunting, but it brings out well the feudal reality of Afghanistan's many warring factions... a useful guide.
Wall Street Journal
Afghanistan’s Endless War is a serious study of, as its subtitle says, 'state failure, regional politics and the rise of the Taliban,' and it brings us right up to early 2001... Read this book and you'll come to realize that the Saudi Osama bin Laden and other terrorists were foisted on an unwilling population from the outside. Political Islam and the fundamentalist theocracy that now governs the country were also an alien and unwelcome imposition on a people happily accustomed to keeping their mullahs confined to mosques.
Journal of Democracy
Essential reading for anyone—and nowadays this should mean all of us—who wants to understand what Afghanistan is like and how it got to be that way.
Seattle Post-Intelligencer
A mix of interviews with Taliban leaders and field research combine to illuminate what has been happening in Afghanistan over the last 20 years and concludes, presciently, that 'what happens in Afghanistan will continue to affect stability and security in an increasingly important region of the post-Cold War world
Salem Statesman Journal
Goodson knows what he is talking about. He has been to the places he writes about. He knows the people. He has studied his subject carefully and closely. And he has thought about it all and turned what he knows and saw into a solid, and seriously disturbing, book... Readers will close this book with key knowledge they could find elsewhere only by going to multiple sources. They will also encounter a keen mind that doesn't parrot common rhetoric.
Goodson delivers a brief but powerful analysis of the ethnic, religious, social and geographic divisions which have produced seven million refugees, two million deaths and a whole lot of heartache and pain.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
While the current tragedy of Afghanistan is well known, its history remains relatively unknown. This comprehensive academic text written and prepared before Sept. 11 and the subsequent U.S. air strikes on the Taliban examines the past few decades, delving into the interwoven historical, political, economic and geographic factors that precipitated the country's woes. There's information here that will surprise some, such as Goodson's emphasis on the role of Pakistan in bringing the Taliban to power; and the weakness of support for the Taliban outside of the Pashtun tribe. The overall argument about Afghanistan's disintegration has been well covered in the media, but Goodson, a professor of international studies, highlights the impact of interethnic conflicts, exacerbated by the destructive intervention of the U.S.S.R., the United States and Pakistan. There's also more depth, complexity and detail here than the media can provide for example, Goodson estimates that 15% of the population has died since fighting first broke out in 1978. The only solution he offers is the one the West wants a multiethnic, power-sharing government. But writing before the current conflict, Goodson holds little optimism: "the situation there is terrible, and prospects for the future are dismal." And ominously, Goodson believes the collapse of state power in Afghanistan could occur elsewhere in Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe. General readers might find the book dense and dry, but it provides a helpful background to Afghanistan's current morass. A paperback edition is due in March. (Dec.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780295980508
  • Publisher: University of Washington Press
  • Publication date: 8/28/2001
  • Pages: 282
  • Sales rank: 1,030,380
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.64 (d)

Meet the Author

Larry P. Goodson is associate professor of international studies at Bentley College, Waltham, Massachusetts.

University of Washington Press

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Afghanistan in the
Post-Cold War World

Although it is little noted today, one of the world's most famous border crossings lies between Afghanistan and Pakistan at a tiny town called Torkham. It is there that the fabled Khyber Pass cuts through Pushtun Afridi tribal territory to take the traveler out of the high mountains of Central Asia to the plains of India. These days there are a lot of people on the street in Torkham because under the Taliban, the most recent rulers in Kabul, long-haul buses no longer cross the border. Instead, passengers get out and walk the last few hundred meters and submit to a desultory inspection by a teenage Taliban soldier before passing into Pakistan's Khyber Agency. Actually, the little stroll out of Afghanistan is quite refreshing, for before it occurs the traveler will have bounced for hours (three if from Jalalabad, ten if from Kabul) over roads that no longer deserve that name and through country that is largely barren of life. To get out and walk at the end of such a journey brings an almost visceral sense of separation, of leaving it behind, that many travelers desperately need when departing Afghanistan today.

    Not that many travelers find their way to Afghanistan at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Since the rabidly puritanical Taliban movement swept into Kabul in September 1996, Afghanistan has been cut off from most of the rest of the world. Only Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates have recognized the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan; therest of the world either recognizes the ousted government of Burhanuddin Rabbani, now clinging desperately for survival to a small northern stronghold, or ignores Afghanistan altogether. Taliban policies that degrade and harm women have raised the ire of Western human rights and feminist organizations, while Taliban sanctuary for suspected terrorists and the blossoming of the opium-heroin trade under Taliban patronage has prompted Western nations, led by the United States, to adamantly withhold recognition for their regime, despite its de facto control of nearly 90 percent of the country by late 2000.

    Prior to the Taliban, years of war and lawlessness had destroyed much of the country, driven millions of its people into exile, and brought its economy to a standstill. The "Hippie Trail" that brought thousands of travelers through Afghanistan to India in the 1960s and 1970s no longer exists, and virtually no business organizations have been willing to invest in such a troubled country. Only a handful of outsiders venture into Afghanistan today—aid workers, journalists, intelligence agents—not counting the thousands of Islamists who have come to join the Taliban on their holy crusade to conquer Afghanistan, establish an Islamic state and society there, and then ... what? Poised between Central Asia, the Middle East, and South Asia, is Afghanistan the headquarters of a new global movement of Islamist militancy that blends anti-Western adherents from all over the Islamic world? Or is Afghanistan today merely the shattered remnant of a country destroyed by two decades of horrible war, whose society is now struggling to re-create itself?

    Certainly Afghanistan today is one of the poorest and most troubled countries in the world. No longer isolated in the mountain fastnesses of central Asia, it finds itself a critical geographic crossroads once again—as it has been through the ages. It began the twentieth century as the buffer state that separated the British and Russian empires; it ends the century as the linchpin to trade and political development in Central Asia. Afghanistan will be the key to peace and stability, economic development and growth, and social change and human development in this region of the world. Thus it comes as no surprise that all of Afghanistan's neighbors are deeply involved in manipulating its internal affairs. Pakistan and Iran, Russia and India, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Saudi Arabia, even Turkey and China: all have significant interests in Afghanistan and most have supported at least one of the many parties contesting for power in that country's interminable and devastating civil war.

    Afghanistan is a country shaped and molded by its experience with more than two decades of war. The Afghan War has been one of the deadliest and most persistent conflicts of the second half of the twentieth century. Nearly 2 million Afghans have been killed so far (as well as at least 15,000 Soviet soldiers during the 1980s), and 600,000 to 2 million wounded. More than 6 million Afghans fled to Pakistan and Iran, producing the world's largest single refugee population since 1981, while at least 2 million more Afghans were internally displaced. Thus, more than 50 percent of Afghanistan's indigenous population (estimated at 15 to 17 million persons at the war's beginning, now estimated to be as many as 22 million) became casualties—killed, wounded, or made homeless by the war.

    Every region of Afghanistan has been touched by the war. Even residents of the government-held urban centers in the 1980s were not safe. The countryside was ravaged, with widespread destruction of villages, fields, orchards, and irrigation systems. The Soviet army in Afghanistan and the Afghan communist government planted an estimated thirty million mines throughout the country, most of them completely unmarked and unmapped. Afghanistan's natural resources, particularly the natural gas reserves near Shiberghan, flowed north to the Soviet Union during the 1980s, and Afghanistan's economy collapsed. Today Afghanistan's chief export is opium, in which it surpassed Burma in 1998 to become the world's leading producer. Otherwise, its economy is still in complete disarray. The education system and other modernizing sectors of Afghan society were completely disrupted, and the struggle for control of the central government delays efforts to improve the situation. Afghanistan, a desperately underdeveloped country attempting to modernize throughout the twentieth century, finally caught up to the modern world—in high-technology warfare. The result has been the ruin of the country and society and very nearly the destruction of the people and their culture.

    That such an impoverished and war-torn country should have such an important role to play in its neighbors' futures is not unusual, nor is the sad reality that there has been little effort to end its long war or rebuild its shattered infrastructure. The changed context of international affairs in the wake of the Cold War, which Afghanistan played a pivotal role in bringing to an end, now endows Afghanistan's role with greater importance while simultaneously making it harder to understand that role or predict its dynamics exactly. Nonetheless, in this book I attempt to forecast Afghanistan's future and how that future will affect the region in which Afghanistan is so centrally located. In a broader context, I adopt the thesis 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 a great influence on the region but also because of what it reveals about the transforming nature of the international system today.


For the past 350 years, the international system has been constructed of states, although most of the more than 190 states that exist at the beginning of the new millennium are less than 50 years old. A state is a political entity that has a recognized territory, a population that sees itself as belonging to the state, and institutions of government that are sovereign within that territory. Although the word nation is often used synonymously with state, nation refers more to the shared identity, often centered on a common language, religion, history, or other cultural trait, that a group of people sometimes feels. Psychological attachment to a nation, or nationalism, has often been central to state formation in the modern era. The relationship between state formation, which involves the creation of coercive, extractive, and regulatory institutions of governance, and nation building, which is often centered on the use of symbols and the selective interpretation of history to create the psychological bonding characteristic of nationalism, differs from one country to another. Indeed, not all states possess strong nationalism, for they may be multinational or have national groups that straddle their borders with other countries. Nor do all national groups possess states. Owing in part to the strength of its nation building, but also to other factors discussed in greater detail later, a state may be relatively weak or strong in relation to both its own society and other states in the international system.

    The end of the Cold War has altered the environment in which the state exists, presenting different states with a range of both challenges and opportunities. How well a given state does in this altered environment depends on its position in the international and regional systems in which it exists, its internal stability and strength, and its regional conditions. So far, however, there have been some obvious winners and losers. The United States, the major Cold War victor, today finds itself the world's sole superpower, with the military power, robust economy, and political voice to lead the international order. Russia, the major Cold War loser, has become but a weakened component of the now-dissolved Soviet Union, and despite possessing a large nuclear arsenal and substantial regional weight, its depressed economy and political instability make even its claim of great power status a tenuous one.

    The impact of the end of the Cold War on other states has been just as mixed. On the one hand, it released the middle and regional powers in the international system from the constraints imposed by a bipolar world. In the 1990s regional powers found they could once again engage in foreign policy-making independent of Washington or Moscow, and geopolitical maneuvering began in numerous capitals throughout the world. Although the post-Cold War international order may well be unipolar on one level, the lack of clear hegemonic behavior by the United States has contributed to the development of a robust multipolarity. Not only China, Russia, and the European powers but also numerous Third World countries have engaged in power projection, arms acquisition, and other such activities vis-à-vis neighboring countries, especially as it has become increasingly obvious that neither the United States nor the United Nations has established clear standards for intervention in regional conflicts.

    On the other hand, the elimination of Cold War constraints has not only provided opportunities for second- and third-tier powers but also posed problems for weak states. No longer important to the major powers for strategic reasons, these states, predominantly found among the poorer developing countries, face challenges to their continued existence from a variety of threats. Indeed, for these states, the end of the Cold War era has revealed an international system that is flawed and troubled.

    For the weaker states, the system itself and the concept of the state are under attack from below and above. Both the forces of "tribalism" (nationalism, religious fundamentalism, political dogmatism) and "globalism" (integration, transnational regimes, multinational corporations) threaten the existence of the weak state today, and even the continuation of a world system organized around states. To Europeans and North Americans, who live in healthy, mature states and for whom this international system feels natural on the basis of their long experience with both its founding and its domination, its potential collapse threatens to destabilize the foundations of their world. Most of the world's population, however (about 80 percent), lives in the developing world, and many of these people reside in states whose political structures, boundaries, and even very existence are highly artificial, often mere legacies of a now-repudiated colonial history whose passing was never lamented. The surge of state building that accompanied the decolonization of the European empires in the twentieth century did not always produce strong, vibrant states with loyal, nationalistic populations. Thus, it is not uncommon in many Third World countries for national loyalty to be quite weak and for the institutions of the state (governmental, financial, social) to suffer from a crisis of legitimacy. Yet in some fashion or another, these states basically held together for most of the period following the decline of the colonial empires.

    That is, they held together until the glue holding the international system in place—the Cold War and the bipolar structure that characterized it—finally weakened with age. With the end of the Cold War, the weaker states in the international system began to fall apart, no longer buttressed by client-patron relationships with the major powers. The communist countries of the Second World began to unravel first, but they were followed quickly by weak Third World states such as Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan, and Zaire (now Congo). Although these countries had never developed into strong states, Cold War bipolarity in the international system had imposed on them a constraining rigidity that assured their continued existence. After the Cold War ended, these states began to change, to be transformed, and in some cases, ultimately to dissolve. It was always assumed in the West that with the end of the Cold War would come the fundamental alteration—even the end—of the Eastern European states. It was less well understood that the end of the Cold War could also sound the death knell for many weak Third World states.

    Afghanistan is such a state: a weak and fragmented country on the verge of collapse and perhaps even disintegration, brought to this condition by the Cold War struggle of the superpowers and their post-Cold War disinterest in its fate. Afghanistan's state structures persist largely because of neighboring countries' maneuvering for geopolitical and economic advantages in the post-Cold War power vacuum in the region. A distant and uninterested United States and a weakened Russia exert limited influence in Afghanistan's part of the world at the moment, allowing resurgent or newly emergent regional powers such as Iran, Pakistan, Turkey, and Uzbekistan to jockey for position.

    Afghanistan sits astride three major regions—the Middle East with its Islamic civilization, South Asia with its Hindic civilization, and Central Asia with its Orthodox Christian and Confucian/Sinic civilizations—and it guards the southern access to the oil and mineral wealth of Central Asia. The geopolitical and economic stakes are high for Afghanistan's neighbors, which leads them all to play proxy games in Afghanistan's seemingly endless civil war. Thus it is that Afghanistan, a country whose central government and formal economy have essentially ceased to exist, can influence several major regions of the international system. Indeed, the situation in Afghanistan today reveals many of the dynamics affecting the entire international system as it undergoes a great transition. It demonstrates what happens when weak states come under enormous internal and external pressures to survive, and it illustrates how regional powers compete for influence in the absence of superpower leadership.


Both nation building and state consolidation in certain transitional (formerly Second and Third World) states have been delayed or even arrested by factors both domestic and international. Domestically, societal cleavages between competing ethnic, linguistic, religious, and economic groups frequently cause or exacerbate fragmentation, undercutting the concept of the nation. (By fragmentation, I mean the weakening of a central government's control over its periphery, which may or may not lead to state disintegration.) Economic underdevelopment, coupled with poor political institutionalization, further fractures society between modernizing and traditional elites, leaving peasants and the urban underclass alienated and largely outside the struggle for domestic power. Even geographical and topographical factors, such as vestigial colonial boundaries, strategic location or isolation, and absence or possession of critical resources, may undermine the creation of strong states in the developing world.

    International factors also have delayed nation and state building in the Second and Third Worlds. The existence of the Cold War for most of the post-World War II period created an essentially bipolar international system that often affected developing states. Superpower competition quickly moved beyond the frozen frontiers imposed by the Iron Curtain in Europe to the more fluid developing areas and was frequently manifested in efforts to manipulate struggles for power within Third World countries. Regional conflicts of the 1980s in Afghanistan, Angola, Central America, Cambodia, and the Horn of Africa were the logical extension of a pattern of superpower involvement in Third World conflicts that had assumed even more blatant proportions a generation earlier, especially in Southeast Asia. Motivated by different ideologies and worldviews, each superpower saw the other as engaged in dangerous expansion (US perception of the USSR) or unwarranted containment (USSR view of the US) and sought allies and clients in the developing world. The two superpowers were drawn into ideologically tinged anticolonial struggles, the USSR supporting fledgling leftist revolutionaries while the US sought to maintain pro-Western regimes through counterrevolutionary tactics. The development of an international economic framework that was biased structurally against the single-commodity-based economies of many developing states further limited their ability to mitigate internal unrest brought on by scarce resources that often were distributed inequitably.

    The combination of these factors frequently led to unrest, rebellion, revolution, and civil war in the developing countries. These forms of political violence can hasten or delay the process of nation building, serving either to eliminate cleavages and resolve power struggles or to deepen existing divisions and harden attitudes. Similarly, political violence may allow the coercive arm of the state, its military and security forces, to penetrate society more completely, thus advancing state building, or it may lead to the destruction of existing state institutions, undermining state building. There is no clear prescription for the role of violence in nation and state building. For example, whereas revolution may have some value for restoring a lost sense of nationhood and cultural heritage to colonial peoples, post-independence violence that continues as part of the internal struggle to shape national agendas is generally destructive of national unity and state political institutions. If the nation being destroyed, however, is replaced by a new nation or nations whose foundations run along more viable ethnic-linguistic-religious or economic lines (e.g., Eritrea), or if improved state institutions are created out of the rubble of those institutions that are destroyed, then the violence may have served a useful purpose after all.

    With the end of the Cold War, Third World states that have labored to develop politically and economically no longer face many of the constraints mentioned earlier. Especially critical is the sudden absence of an organized power system in international politics as the major powers turn inward to reorient resources once committed to the continuation of the Cold War and as the second-order powers of Europe concern themselves with further integration of the European Union. In this power vacuum the continued existence of states that have had only marginal success at political institutionalization and have been saddled with internal problems appears no longer significant to the international power balance. Thus, in the face of challenges to their continued existence, many weak states are failing, either through the collapse of their governing institutions, through internal fragmentation, or even through political disintegration. Although this phenomenon has been most obvious so far in the former Soviet Union, former Yugoslavia, and former Czechoslovakia, all of which have disintegrated, it is appearing in virulent form in Somalia, Sudan, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, sub-Saharan Africa, and Afghanistan. More ominously, the collapse of one state may have profound implications for regional stability, as is the case in Afghanistan.

    The post-Cold War world is on the verge of profound change, as Robert Kaplan suggested in his provocative article "The Coming Anarchy": "Most people believe that the political earth since 1989 has undergone immense change. But it is minor compared with what is yet to come. The breaking apart and remaking of the atlas is only now beginning. The crack-up of the Soviet empire and the coming end of Arab-Israeli military confrontation are merely prologues to the really big changes that lie ahead." Some of this "remaking of the atlas" will occur in the developed world, and some of it will involve the integration of economies, polities, and even societies (e.g., in the integrating states of the European Union, Germany, Yemen, and possibly Korea and China). But the bigger and more threatening changes will occur in the developing world and will involve state failure. Weak states will be especially prone to this malady and may well infect their surrounding regions with the violence and instability that generally accompany state failure.

    Weak states have distinctive political, social, economic, demographic, and even geographic characteristics. Among these characteristics are limited political institutionalization and penetration in society, strong ethnic, linguistic, and/or religious divisions, and slow economic and social development. Some other characteristics may also be present, such as rapid population growth and/or resource problems, the interference of neighboring countries and/or big powers, and even geostrategic location. Weak states have poor capabilities "to penetrate society, regulate social relationships, extract resources, and appropriate or use resources in determined ways (author's emphasis)." In the Cold War years, many weak states managed to maintain their territorial integrity because of the relative rigidity of the international system. In the more fluid post-Cold War era, an age of both globalist and localist pressures, weak states appear to be more likely to fail. That in itself is a phenomenon worthy of our attention, but its importance is compounded when we consider the impact that weak state dysfunction, collapse, fragmentation, and ultimately disintegration can have on regional and even international stability.

    Afghanistan provides us an excellent case with which to explore this weak state syndrome that is such a threat to the international order in the new millennium. Four specific features of the Afghan case make it especially worthy of analysis in relation to weak state syndrome. First, it is an extremely weak state, almost the archetype of one, made all the weaker by two full decades of highly destructive war. Second, Afghanistan is the axle on which several regions swivel, one of which, Central Asia, is composed of newly emergent states, relatively weak themselves, that regional powers wish to influence. Third, Afghanistan also borders on or is influenced by several regional powers, all of which have begun to attempt to project their power in the wake of the Cold War. These include Russia, China, India, Pakistan, and Iran (the first four are nuclear powers), with Saudi Arabia and Turkey also having an interest. Finally, Afghanistan has been the on-again, off-again recipient of superpower and international attention and manipulation, which has contributed to its weakening yet holds out the greatest hope for shaping a viable future for the country.


Excerpted from Afghanistan's Endless War by Larry P. Goodson. Copyright © 2001 by University of Washington Press. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Table of Contents

Maps and TablesPrefaceAfghanistan in the Post-Cold War WorldHistorical Factors Shaping Modern AfghanistanModern War in Afghanistan: Destruction of a StateImpact of the War on Afghan State and SocietyAfghanistan and the Changing Regional EnvironmentThe Future of AfghanistanAppendix: Major Actors in Modern Afghan HistoryNotesGlossaryReferences CitedIndex

University of Washington Press

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 4, 2002

    If You Read One Book On the Afghan War, Read This One

    I lived and worked in Afghanistan and Pakistan in the late 1980s, early 1990s, and I can tell you that Goodson really knows what he is talking about. Goodson filled in the blanks for me in a lot of areas that I didn't quite understand. Also, I enjoy his writing style. The book is a scholarly work that reads like a novel. Goodson has a tremendous knowledge of the subject gained from first-hand experience. However, he has the ability to place this experience within the larger framework of scholarly understanding. This makes for great reading, because it combines the compelling urgency of a journalist with the larger-world view of an academic. The only thing I don't like about the book is the cover photo. There must be a more compelling photo of war than something that looks like a street demonstration.

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