Archive for July, 2009

In The Graveyard Of Scholarship (review of Seth Jones’ book)

Tuesday, July 28th, 2009

Much rubbish is published in all fields of thought all the time. But Seth Jones’ topic is not, say, Chinese porcelain of the 15th century. People–mainly Afghans–are dying in increasing numbers in Afghanistan right now, and using American troops and soft power to stabilize the country is not an academic issue. So when an author purports to explain “what factors contributed to the rise of Afghanistan’s insurgency,” as Jones does in his new book In the Graveyard of Empires: America’s War in Afghanistan, we are bound to take notice. And when that author–cloaked with the respectability of a RAND appointment and a University of Chicago Ph.D. in political science–offers up a foolish, ignorant and careless work of faux scholarship, he is guilty of more than wasting our time.

Jones has filled his 325 large-type, spaciously margined pages with potted history, irrelevant observations (Lord Curzon had to use a corset due to a childhood injury), excursions into the war on Iraq, the history of al-Qaida, and just about anything that might deflect the reader’s attention from the author’s sparse knowledge and shoddy analysis. Only pages 158 to 325, less several 20- to 30-page digressions, actually deal with post-9/11 Afghanistan. And what these hundred or so pages have to offer is the thinnest of intellectual gruel, served up with highly questionable judgment.

Let’s start with the hubris of discussing the causes of the current insurgency in Afghanistan without writing about the nation’s internal politics, sociology, electoral system, local governance or culture–apparently omitted because Jones doesn’t know anything about these topics.

According to Jones, Afghanistan has an insurgency mainly because of “weak governance” and “religious ideology.” It’s not underdevelopment, sociology, culture and ethnic schisms that are the problem, but “the inability of that government to improve life in rural areas.” It’s true that Hamid Karzai’s government has been disastrous in many ways. But this doesn’t explain why Afghanistan didn’t have an insurgency in 1959, or 1969, when it also had weak governance, a plentiful supply of illiterate Islamic conservatives, and much worse poverty.

If Jones had actually spent any substantial amount of time in the rural Pashtun belt, he might also have noticed that many of the men living in the provinces contested by the insurgents care little about the amenities the U.S. has brought them like roads (they have no reason to leave their mountain villages), electricity (they believe television is forbidden by the Quran) and water pumps (women haul the water on their heads for miles so who cares).