A Military History of Afghanistan

A Military History of Afghanistan

From the Great Game to the Global War on Terror

Ali Ahmad Jalali

University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas, 2017, 656 pages

Book Review published on: April 20, 2018

Professor Ali Ahmad Jalali of the National Defense University has written a major one-volume history of the wars in Afghanistan that is both comprehensive and readable. A Military History of Afghanistan: From the Great Game to the Global War on Terror spans over two millennia, from 550 BC to 2016 AD, devoting chapters to periods generally representative of specific eras, and discussing notable conflicts and the resulting impacts in the modern era. This work takes note of Afghanistan’s formidable geography and analyzes its impact on the culture, society, politics, economics, and conduct of wars within and adjacent to Afghanistan.

The book describes the general cause, conduct, and outcomes of conflicts and analyzes their resulting impacts on leaders and their societies. With the beginning of the Great Game in the early nineteenth century, as described in chapter 3, Jalali adopts a general approach to describing the contemporaneous environment, discussing threats as seen by the respective players; a brief discussion of the capabilities and organization of the armies involved; the conduct of wars and its engagements; the effects on the participating armies and their key leaders; and the approximate impact on the nations and the peoples involved. This approach logically builds a basis for comparison to track developments in weapons and tactics employed by opposing forces as well as the engagement’s role in shaping the conduct of the political-military strategies of the primary nations involved. Notable in this book is the marked similarities between the operational approaches of the Western powers and the Afghan resistance, the effects achieved, and the political results of the wars of all the periods described and assessed.

Jalali draws from a wide array of primary and secondary sources in a number of languages. As both a participant and a witness to the conflicts of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, his career as a trained soldier, scholar, politician, and skilled analyst makes him eminently qualified to analyze the most recent conflicts. It takes a highly skilled and highly credible source to understand and describe the complex links between the Afghan tribes and ethnic groups; their governments and leaders; the opposed or supporting Soviet, Pakistani, Iranian, and United States governments and their allies; and the origins and dynamics of their militaries, resistance movements, or designated terrorist organizations.

If there is one weakness of this magnificent work, it is the relative lack of maps reflecting the not-so infrequent changes to the names of towns, provinces, and terrain features over time as noted in the text. A simple notation of “north” would have permitted a better understanding of the movements described—made it more readily relatable to other important references—with the generously provided tactical sketch maps. Perhaps one day a companion portfolio can be assembled to support this formidable book.

This magnificent achievement by Jalali should certainly become the new standard by which all other histories of conflict in the region are judged. The introduction and chapter 13’s “Conclusion” are must reads. Any military member, government representative, or other interested party who served in Afghanistan and the adjacent states in the past, present, or future can gain a much fuller appreciation of the environment and its challenges, opportunities, and risks. The aphorism that those who do not study history are destined to repeat it may have never been truer than this vitally important work on Afghanistan so conclusively demonstrates.

Book Review written by: Lindsay H. Gudridge, Fort Gordon, Georgia