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Book Review


Rasanayagam, Angelo. Afghanistan, A Modern History: Monarchy, Despotism or Democracy? The Problems of Governance in the Muslim Tradition. (London: I. B. Tauris, 2005). 311 pp, $19.95.

     In the past few years Afghanistan, for obvious reasons, has been increasingly discussed in the classroom, even if only in passing.  Yet despite being a frequent visitor on the front page of newspapers and television news programs, it remains an enigmatic country.  The average person probably knows more about its future history—what the various players in the current conflict want—rather than its actual history. In the past decade, even before 9/11, there several other works on the history of Afghanistan appeared, but Angelo Rasanayagam's work stands apart, particularly for its use in teaching or studying world history.

     Rasanayagam organizes his book into four distinct sections.  The first, "Building the State" discusses exactly that.  He works through the origins of a true state from the disparate elements that inhabited the region to the abolition of the Monarchy and the imposition of a presidency.  Although brief, it is an excellent survey of Afghan history prior to the Soviet invasion. From this, it becomes abundantly clear that the centralization of authority has never been easy.  Rasanayagam does a remarkable balancing act in this section. While the British involvement in Afghanistan is well known, Rasanayagam does not fall in the trap of lingering too long on this topic or any other aspect of the 19th century Great Game—a difficult task considering the many numerous intriguing facets that one could explore. Instead, the focus is where it should be—on Afghanistan.

     Furthermore, the author skillfully draws out why the Soviets were more successful in developing ties to Afghanistan than the United States was during the Cold War.  Both loaned money, equipment, and attempted to build strong ties to Afghanistan, but the Soviets' success was greater in part because of tangible projects.  Whereas the United States helped build education systems, banking, wheat, and grants for students, etc., essentially "invisible services", as Rasanayagam calls them, the Soviets and Warsaw Pact allies built roads, hospitals, etc.—large, physical structures that displayed the obvious assistance given by Communist countries.  Ironically, the communist world beat the capitalist world in a marketing competition.  In addition, the U.S. tied its assistance to political considerations—namely not to offend Pakistan, a strong U. S. ally. Afghanistan, however, insisted on not being drawn into the Manichaean world of the Cold War in the 1950s and 1960s.  Nonetheless, because of the Soviets' willingness to "do business", Afghanistan was drawn into the Soviet orbit.  To be fair, Pakistan was increasingly viewed as a necessary partner for the United States to contain communism, and geographically speaking, the Soviets had too much of an advantage in Afghanistan.

     In the second section, the author deals with the Soviet invasion. As is well-known now, but overlooked, ignored, or just misunderstood by think-tanks, and policy-makers at the time, the Soviet invasion was not an attempt to make Afghanistan "communist" or part of a drive to the Indian Ocean.  Instead, it was simply an attempt to bring order to a volatile region on its borders. The attempts by communist groups within Afghanistan to centralize authority ultimately caused chaos. Ties between Afghanistan and the U. S. S. R. were too well established to ignore it. As Rasanayagan illustrated quite well throughout part one, resistance to centralized government was not a new development. However, once the Soviets intervened, events escalated out of control, particularly with the increasing emphasis of a religious based resistance.  To be sure, not all of the mujahideen were devout Muslims, but increasingly those that played the religion card received the most aid from the C. I. A., Pakistan, and other donors.

     Part three focuses on Afghanistan from 1989 when the Soviets withdrew to 2001 and the events of 9/11. The first chapter aptly describes Afghanistan during this period:  the disintegration of the state. Again, Rasanayagan provides a nuanced and balanced account of the history of Afghanistan during this period. He clearly outlines the various factions and the various outside players involved, and the impact of what happened when the United States lost interest after the Soviet withdrawal. The description of the rise of the Taliban is an excellent introduction to that particular segment of the history of Afghanistan, and it becomes clear how the movement gained momentum and eventually dominated most of Afghanistan.  World historians will also appreciate the discussion of the impact of Afghanistan on the neighboring states. 

     This indeed is the strength of the book. Although the author focuses on Afghanistan, he never forgets to consider the impact that it has on the neighboring region. The impact on Pakistan has been well documented, but rarely does the impact on Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Iran receive as much attention. The scrabble for pipelines and dealings with the Taliban by various companies and governments also are revealing and serve as a reminder of ethical issues in capitalism as well as realpolitick.

     The final section is one that world historians must read as it considers the impact of the chaos of Afghanistan on the world stage.  During the Afghan-Soviet war, thousands of Arabs went to fight there, funded and aided by not only Saudi Arabia and other Arab states, but also the United States.  After the Soviet withdrawal, these became known as the Afghan-Arabs.  Many returned home, enthused by their experience in the Jihad (although their involvement was often negligible) and radicalized by it. Invariably they became a source for discontent in their home countries.  Rasanayagam traces their influence in world affairs, and eventually focuses on Osama Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri.

     Again the reader benefits from Rasanyagam's insights and clear vision as he provides a substantial background on these figures.  This not only examines their roles in Afghanistan, but also back in their home countries of Saudi Arabia and Egypt respectively. From here, Rasanyagam is able to explore the formation and operations of the terrorist organization known as al-Qaeda, and its ties to the Taliban and other organizations.  While Osama Bin Laden's activities in Afghanistan are well known, it is rarely recognized that other Islamists were forged in the crucible of the Afghan-Soviet war and that he is not an anomaly, but rather just the most well known. 

     In conclusion, it is hard to find fault with Angelo Rasanyagam's Afghanistan.  He writes well and provides balanced coverage on topics that have become polarizing issues. If one must find a fault, it would be that in the first section he is, at times, overly reliant on the works of Louis Dupree.  Yet, considering the pioneering work of Dupree, it would be hard not to fall into that trap.  The strengths of the work rest clearly in his vast and nuanced knowledge of the topic and presentation from a multitude of perspectives. In terms of classroom use, it could be used at any level, from undergraduate to the graduate level.  Indeed, AP classes might find it useful—it will surely shatter youthful idealism about a black and white worldview.  Instructors at all levels should read it, not only to be able to create or be prepared for a "teachable moment", but to understand the complexity of current events in its proper context. 


Timothy May
North Georgia College and State University

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