With President Obama recently announcing a drawdown of US troop numbers in Iraq and more boots on the ground for the ‘good war' in Afghanistan, it is more important than ever to have a good understanding of this long-running and often confusing conflict.
First published in 2004, Afghanistan. The Mirage of Peace was considered too pessimistic by many critics. Five years and an updated introduction later it comes across as an impressively prophetic analysis of this increasingly bloody occupation. Having lived in Afghanistan for a combined 20 years, the authors are certainly experienced guides, with Chris Johnson working for a variety of NGOs including Oxfam and Jolynon Leslie working as the UN Regional Coordinator in Kabul from 1997 to 2000.
Mixing firsthand accounts, anecdotal stories and scholarly research, Johnson and Leslie give a comprehensive and very readable survey of Afghanistan's recent political and social history, from the chaos that followed the withdrawal of Russian forces, to the strained relationship between Western aid agencies and the Taliban, and the continuing economic importance of the poppy crop.
They are particularly scathing about the official reasons given for attacking and occupying Afghanistan after 9/11, noting "there was no explicit agreement under international law for the USA to go to war". Rather than the red herrings of terrorism and the liberation of Afghan women, the realpolitik of Western interests in the region are laid bear by a US diplomat talking about his country's support for the regime they would topple in 2001: "The Taliban will probably develop like the Saudis did. There will be Aramco, pipelines, an emir, no parliament and lots of Sharia law. We can live with that."
Turning their attention to the current situation, Johnson and Leslie argue "nothing has done more damage to the image of the international military presence in Afghanistan than their increasing reliance on air power". And their contention that the recent upsurge in violence is directly related to the increase in number of NATO troops doesn't bode well for President Obama's Afghan ‘surge'.
Always at pains to highlight the complex and contradictory nature of life in Afghanistan, Johnson and Leslie offer no easy solutions to the fighting. Importantly, they do not advocate a full withdrawal of NATO forces ("leaving the job unfinished will improve neither the lot of the population nor the security of the west", they believe) but rather a radical shift in tactics - essentially less war-war and more jaw-jaw.
With a continuous stream of body bags returning home from Helmand and a November 2008 BBC/ICM poll showing 68 percent of respondents favour the withdrawal of all British forces within a year, the Government is increasingly concerned about the low level of public support for Britain‘s open-ended mission in Afghanistan. No doubt this sensitivity largely explains the sickening Pravda-style media coverage of Prince Harry trying to kill ‘Terry Taliban' and Ross Kemp's popular, MoD-endorsed, Sky One documentaries. At a slim 255 pages, Afghanistan. The Mirage of Peace is both an essential antidote to this often simplistic propaganda and a superb primer on a war-torn country that is likely to be the central focus of US and UK foreign policy for years to come.
Afghanistan. The Mirage of Peace by Chris Johnson & Jolyon Leslie is published by Zed Books, priced £14.99. firstname.lastname@example.org.