Formerly the Guardian’s Moscow bureau chief – and with over 30 years of reporting on Afghanistan with distinction – Jonathan Steele makes a comparative analysis of the US and Soviet occupations the backbone of this book.
Alternating reportage with a careful dismantling of ‘13 myths about Afghanistan’, he finds many similarities and at least one crucial difference. Both occupations were essentially interventions in a civil war, pitching a high-tech military against a poorly-armed insurgency with disastrous consequences for millions of ordinary Afghans.
However, while in the Soviet context ‘[a] new leader came to power in the Kremlin, abandoned hopes of victory and tried hard to achieve a negotiated settlement’ – efforts cynically blocked by the west – in the US Obama has escalated the war and refused to countenance serious peace talks.
Steele is clear that, ‘while preferable to staying in the country in a futile search for military victory … the option of withdrawing from Afghanistan without a negotiated settlement, as the Soviets did, is not the best one.’ Nonetheless (and this is one of the book’s major strengths) he is also clear that negotiations to end Afghanistan’s long‑running civil war, coupled with local ceasefires on and the adoption of a regional agreement on non-interference in Afghan affairs, remain a realistic prospect – provided that the US is prepared to jettison its plans for a long-term military presence and withdraw.
A recently-leaked Nato report, based on interrogations of thousands of captured Taliban fighters, concluded that: ‘While they [the Taliban] are weary of war, they see little hope of negotiated peace… [and] believe that continuing the fight and expanding Taliban governance are their only viable course of action.’
The Taliban’s recent announcement that it plans to open a political office in Qatar has provided the international peace movement with a brief window of opportunity to provide an alternative by forcing the US to the negotiating table.
For many years I have been directing activists interested in learning more about Afghanistan to Sonali Kolhatkar and James Ingalls’ excellent but now dated Bleeding Afghanistan. From now on I shall be recommending this book.