The Wars of Afghanistan: Messianic Terrorism, Tribal Conflicts, and the Failures of Great Powers


As Ambassador and Special Envoy on Afghanistan from 1989 to 1992, Peter Tomsen has had close relationships with Afghan leaders and has dealt with senior Taliban, warlords, and religious leaders involved in the region’s conflicts over the last two decades. Now Tomsen draws on a rich trove of never-before-published material to shed new light on the American involvement in the long and continuing Afghan war.

This book offers a deeply informed perspective on how Afghanistan’s ...

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As Ambassador and Special Envoy on Afghanistan from 1989 to 1992, Peter Tomsen has had close relationships with Afghan leaders and has dealt with senior Taliban, warlords, and religious leaders involved in the region’s conflicts over the last two decades. Now Tomsen draws on a rich trove of never-before-published material to shed new light on the American involvement in the long and continuing Afghan war.

This book offers a deeply informed perspective on how Afghanistan’s history as a “shatter zone” for foreign invaders and its tribal society have shaped the modern Afghan narrative. It brings to life the appallingly misinformed secret operations by foreign intelligence agencies, including the Soviet NKVD and KGB, the Pakistani ISI, and the CIA.

American policy makers, Tomsen argues, still do not understand Afghanistan; nor do they appreciate how the CIA’s covert operations and the Pentagon’s military strategy have strengthened extremism in the country. At this critical time, he shows how the U.S. and the coalition it leads can assist the region back to peace and stability.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Ambassador and special envoy to Afghanistan from 1989 to 1992, Tomsen combines scholarship, analysis, and personal experience in an encyclopedic if disturbing history of post-WWII Afghanistan. Tomsen addresses not only America's ignorance of Afghanistan's complex tribal networks but every previous foreign invader who made that error. America's unique blunder, according to Tomsen, has been outsourcing Afghan policy to Pakistan. At Pakistan's insistence, beginning with the 1979 Soviet invasion, the U.S. funneled aid to the mujahideen through Pakistan's military, which was dominated by radical Islamists. Afghanistan lapsed into lawless warlordism after the Soviet 1989 withdrawal. Then the brutal, Pakistan-supported Taliban took control in 1996. Pakistan, happy at receiving an avalanche of aid after 9/11, says Tomsen, stood by as American-supported rebels routed the Taliban, but resumed support of the Taliban when America turned its attention to Iraq. Tomsen explains how to fix things by "genuine Afghanization and de-Americanization." Most important, we must take back control of Afghan policy, stop praising Pakistan for its cooperation, stop pouring in unconditional military aid, and insist that Pakistan must help stabilize Afghanistan. Readers will appreciate his expert, if discouraging, insights and wonder how he would add to his analysis following Osama bin Laden's death. Maps. (July)
Kirkus Reviews

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 betweenPashtunwali("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.

Stephen Tanner
[Tomsen] had close relationships with a range of major players—Afghan commanders, mullahs and politicians, Pakistani generals, Soviet diplomats and Saudi princes—and he pours his insights into this thick, important volume…This long-overdue work, which takes us up to the…killing of Osama bin Laden, is the most authoritative account yet of Afghanistan's wars over the past 30 years and should be essential reading for those wishing to forge a way forward without repeating the mistakes of the past.
—The Washington Post
From the Publisher

Steve Coll, author of The Bin Ladens and Ghost Wars
"Peter Tomsen has a depth of understanding and knowledge about the history of Afghanistan that makes him a unique asset in our effort to grapple with the multiple conflicts and intricate politics in what has turned out to be America’s longest war.”

Winston Lord, former Assistant Secretary of State 
“Accolades like 'magisterial,' 'definitive,' and 'vital' should be reserved for rare books like Peter Tomsen's 'The Wars of Afghanistan.' Few Americans are as knowledgeable about that tormented land's past; none have been more savvy or prescient about its unrolling future. Tomsen's compelling narrative draws upon meticulous scholarship and virgin archives, personal frontline engagement and close ties with major players. This multilayered volume melds sweeping history, cultural painting, political analysis, governmental battles, dramatic action, and provocative prescriptions. 'The Wars of Afghanistan' is bound to have urgent impact and enduring resonance.”

Lee H. Hamilton, former congressman and co-chair of the 9/11 Commission
The Wars of Afghanistan is a richly detailed account that places current U.S. interests in Afghanistan in the historical, political, and cultural context of this troubled land. Peter Tomsen’s compelling analysis of Afghan leaders and tribal politics makes this book invaluable to the policy maker. His wise and carefully considered policy blueprint—basically, America will still help and America is withdrawing—serves American interests and uplifts Afghanistan.”

Chuck Hagel, United States Secretary of Defense
“The authenticity of Tomsen’s Afghanistan experiences, knowledge, and analysis is the foundation of a superbly well-written and documented presentation of an astoundingly complicated part of the world. He brings remarkable clarity to a very complex story. Tomsen’s book is the most current, informed, and complete Afghanistan publication in the market today … and maybe ever. It is not an exaggeration to say that he has created a masterpiece. It’s that good."

San Francisco Chronicle, A Best Book of 2011
“Peter Tomsen, a former U.S. envoy to "the Afghan resistance" from 1989 to 1992, reminds us in his sweeping history that the CIA has had a miserable record of understanding the politics of the region. "The Wars of Afghanistan" is rich with details about his interactions with key players during this critical period. Following the Soviet withdrawal, the United States continued to oppose compromise with the last Afghan communist ruler, Mohammad Najibullah, and to arm the mujahedeen, including figures now fighting the Americans. Drawing on these lessons, Tomsen persuasively calls on Washington to wrest policymaking back from the Pentagon and spy agencies, and advocates U.N. mediation of an Afghan peace process.”

Publishers Weekly, May 16, 2011
“Ambassador and special envoy to Afghanistan from 1989 to 1992, Tomsen combines scholarship, analysis, and personal experience in an encyclopedic if disturbing history of post-WWII Afghanistan. Readers will appreciate his expert…insights.”
Foreign Affairs, September/October, 2011
“Magisterial… A career U.S. diplomat, Tomsen served as Washington's special envoy to the Afghan resistance in 1989-92, an experience that gave him almost unrivaled personal insight into Afghanistan's slide from anti-Soviet jihad into civil war. His account of the country's political dynamics before, during, and after this period is exhaustively researched, levelheaded, and persuasive....The Wars of Afghanistan should have a place among the indispensable books on the topic.”
Times Literary Supplement, September 30, 2011
“[A]dmirably sound.”
Philadelphia Inquirer, October 6, 2011
“A fascinating tome.”

National Review Online, Best Nonfiction of 2011
“Excellent…Tomsen knows the country, its culture, and the last 30 years of U.S. history there, inside and out.”

“U.S. policy toward Afghanistan needs more careful calibration than the all-in/all-out policy schizophrenia of the last three decades. To be consistent and successful, our policy makers and practitioners in Afghanistan must be aware of the intense and often tragic history of our relations with that country. Ambassador Tomsen’s book provides an admirable service toward that end.”

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781586487638
  • Publisher: PublicAffairs
  • Publication date: 7/12/2011
  • Pages: 912
  • Sales rank: 1,352,989
  • Product dimensions: 9.30 (w) x 6.42 (h) x 2.68 (d)

Meet the Author

Peter Tomsen was President George H.W. Bush's Special Envoy on Afghanistan with the rank of Ambassador from 1989 to 1992. Tomsen entered the Foreign Service in 1967 and served in Thailand, Vietnam, China, and the Soviet Union. He was United States Deputy Chief of Mission in China from 1986 to 1989, deputy Assistant Secretary for East Asian Affairs from 1992 to 1995, and the American Ambassador to Armenia from 1995 to 1998. He lives in Virginia with his wife.

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