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

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).

But Jones–despite claiming to have made “over a dozen” visits to Afghanistan and conducted “thousands of interviews”–relies heavily on previously published and often dated books and articles, and on a handful of interviews with two American diplomats who served briefly in Afghanistan (Ronald Neumann and Jones’ sometime co-author and RAND colleague James Dobbins), two Afghan cabinet ministers (Ali Jalali and Abdul Rahim Warkdak) and a few senior American military men (Lt. General David Barno, Lt. General Karl Eikenberry and Major General Robert Durbin).

Jones prefers quoting others’ papers to his own interviews, and never seems to interview a captain or major when a general is handy. So the granular detail almost never makes it into his accounts, and they are often stale.

Jones finishes a competent summary of the Afghan National Police’s first few years of training by foreign forces by quoting a June 2006 memo from a retired general who visited Afghanistan. But 2006 is generations ago in the saga of the ANP and the insurgency. Where are the references to the weeks Jones should have spent with the ANP, who are a huge part of the story in the counter-insurgency fight?

A clumsy writer, Jones has space to share with us the surprising news that Marin Strmecki is “a bright, somewhat reserved intellectual,” that Major General David Rodriguez is “tall,” and that former Ambassador Zalmai Khalilzad’s mother lacked a formal education, but none to mention Afghanistan’s disastrous single non-transferable vote parliamentary and presidential electoral system, or the discouragement of political parties. Or that weak governance might have to do with the fact that governors are appointed, not elected, that there are no mayors, that the only local elected bodies, the provincial councils, have no actual powers.

Dozens of pages could profitably be devoted to analyzing the ways Afghanistan’s parliament mainly doesn’t work, who controls what blocs and why, and the influence of Iranian and Russian money on legislators. A few charts detailing the constant reshuffling of the same few hundred power brokers among elected and appointed offices would have been eye opening. At the least, understanding the insurgency requires knowing who the major tribal leaders are, and how various governors and Afghan Army and Police generals deal with them. But this seems to be too much work for Jones to have contemplated.

Huge areas of Afghan reality are wholly absent from this book. Apparently none of the subjects of those “thousands” of interviews saw fit to mention that only 14% of Afghanistan’s land is used for agriculture, that distribution of a scarce resource, water, has a huge influence on local politics, tribal alliances, and the insurgency, and that significant numbers of Afghans are and have always been sharecroppers. (Five to 10 percent of Afghans were slaves until the 1890s.)

Nor does Jones devote any attention to the not unimportant facts that Afghanistan has next to no civil society, few functioning institutions besides the family and the army, and a tradition of cousin marriage that isolates families within themselves.

Jones gets points for being free of that subliminal hostility to the military that undermines many accounts of counter-insurgency efforts in Afghanistan, and for drawing attention to–if in a largely impressionistic way–the substantial economic progress in Afghanistan since 2001. And yes, Jones–like just about everyone who has ever addressed the topic–is right to conclude that ending corruption and the insurgents’ safe haven in Pakistan are part of the recipe for stabilizing Afghanistan.

But counterinsurgency and nation building are all about the details. You have to have specific knowledge from which to abstract lessons and ideas. Jones’ book is all abstraction, with no sense of texture, and hardly anything that couldn’t have been written from his armchair in Georgetown, despite “over a dozen trips” to Afghanistan.

Even as an armchair scholar, Jones inspires little confidence. No one who had spent much time with Mao’s writings on guerrilla warfare would say Mao “once wrote that insurgencies can be divided into three stages.” (Mao, it’s safe to say, never wrote anything just once.) Quoting Roger Trinquier (twice) on the need for obtaining “the unconditional support of a population” in counterinsurgency is a bit like quoting Attila the Hun on community relations. Trinquier was the executive officer to France’s Colonel Massu during the Battle of Algiers, a successful counterterrorism effort that killed thousands of Algerians and their European sympathizers without trial, usually after torture. Later, he achieved notoriety as a reactionary obsessed with the twin menaces of “Great International Capitalism” and communism.

When Jones turns to published sources, he has an unfortunate penchant for attacking his intellectual betters, often without understanding them. He slams James Michener’s novel Caravans as presenting a “perfunctory, stereotypical image of Afghanistan,” but this immensely readable work, the fruit of considerable time and cultural understanding, is still valuable 50 years after its publication. Jones’ book arrives outdated even as the insurgency takes place, and shows almost no understanding of Afghans.

Perhaps the worst error Jones falls into from the standpoint of policy analysis is attacking work by the brilliant scholar Thomas Johnson, a Naval Postgraduate School scholar, on Afghan electoral politics.

Johnson has shown through exhaustive statistical analysis that no candidate for president got much support from outside his own ethnic group, Karzai didn’t get a majority of any ethnic group except his own Pashtuns and that voters have a high propensity to vote against candidates from perceived opposed ethnic groups. Tajiks and Pashtuns, the two largest groups, tend to vote against each other. Jones lamely states that in an Election Day survey, “only 2% of Afghans said they voted for a candidate based on ethnicity.” Who cares what they said, given what they did?

Afghans have the misfortune to have inherited a mostly dysfunctional society characterized by low trust. Even if by some miracle a transparent, honest system of governance were grafted onto Afghanistan and all of the religious fanatics were banished, the country would still be poorly positioned to succeed on any terms. It’s a long, long struggle the U.S. has embarked on there. Jones’ disregard for the most basic requirements of scholarship does injury to the very cause he presumably seeks to help.

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