The Wars of Afghanistan

Messianic Terrorism, Tribal Conflicts, and the Failures of Great Powers


By Peter Tomsen

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As Ambassador and Special Envoy on Afghanistan from 1989 to 1992, Peter Tomsen has had close relationships with Afghan leaders and has dealt with senior Taliban, warlords, and religious leaders involved in the region’s conflicts over the last two decades. Now Tomsen draws on a rich trove of never-before-published material to shed new light on the American involvement in the long and continuing Afghan war.

This book offers a deeply informed perspective on how Afghanistan’s history as a “shatter zone” for foreign invaders and its tribal society have shaped the modern Afghan narrative. It brings to life the appallingly misinformed secret operations by foreign intelligence agencies, including the Soviet NKVD and KGB, the Pakistani ISI, and the CIA.

American policy makers, Tomsen argues, still do not understand Afghanistan; nor do they appreciate how the CIA’s covert operations and the Pentagon’s military strategy have strengthened extremism in the country. At this critical time, he shows how the U.S. and the coalition it leads can assist the region back to peace and stability.


Praise for The Wars of Afghanistan

“Accolades like ‘magisterial,’ ‘definitive,’ and ‘vital’ should be reserved for rare books like Peter Tomsen’s The Wars of Afghanistan. Few Americans are as knowledgeable about that tormented land’s past; none have been more savvy or prescient about its unrolling future. Tomsen’s compelling narrative draws upon meticulous scholarship and virgin archives, personal frontline engagement, and close ties with major players. This multilayered volume melds sweeping history, cultural painting, political analysis, governmental battles, dramatic action, and provocative prescriptions. The Wars of Afghanistan is bound to have urgent impact and enduring resonance.”

—Winston Lord, former U.S. ambassador to China and former president of the Council on Foreign Relations

“For those seeking to understand the origins of the west’s entanglement in Afghanistan, Peter Tomsen’s The Wars of Afghanistan offers deeper historical context. . . . [Tomsen focuses] presciently on the fast-deteriorating relationship between Washington and Islamabad. He argues plausibly that the U.S. has been hoodwinked by Pakistan, which has long used Afghanistan as a means of creating ‘strategic depth’ against India and fomenting jihad against the west.”

Financial Times

“[Tomsen] draws extensively on his own contemporary dispatches to show that, throughout his long association with the region, he repeatedly and vainly warned successive administrations about the follies of their policies—or lack of them.”

Sunday Times

“Excellent. . . . Tomsen knows the country, its culture, and the last thirty years of U.S. history there, inside and out.”

Best Nonfiction of 2011

National Review Online

“This weighty narrative . . . will be a major source for Afghan studies.”

Library Journal

“It is also difficult to imagine a more impeccably informed author than Peter Tomsen . . . now retired from the State Department (he has kept a close eye on the region ever since), and . . . [he] has produced a magnum opus. . . . The drug trade in Afghanistan is probably worth a billion or two billion dollars a year. . . . The Wars of Afghanistan is an important work and an urgent warning. Anyone with an interest [in] U.S. foreign policy in the region needs to read it, starting with our policymakers.” —Drug War Chronicle

“Peter Tomsen, a former U.S. envoy to ‘the Afghan resistance’ from 1989 to 1992, reminds us in his sweeping history that the CIA has a miserable record in understanding the politics of the region. The Wars of Afghanistan is rich with details about his interactions with key players during this critical period. After the Soviet withdrawal, the United States continued to oppose compromise with the last Afghan communist ruler, Mohammad Najibullah, and to arm the mujahideen, including figures who are now fighting Americans. Drawing on these lessons, Tomsen persuasively calls for wresting policy-making away from the Pentagon and spy agencies, and advocates U.N. mediation of an Afghan peace process.”

San Francisco Chronicle, Best Books of 2011

“U.S. policy toward Afghanistan needs more careful calibration than the all-in/all-out policy schizophrenia of the last three decades. To be consistent and successful, our policy makers and practitioners in Afghanistan must be aware of the intense and often tragic history of our relations with that country. Ambassador Tomsen’s book provides an admirable service toward that end.”


“Through failure to understand past mistakes and a dangerous misreading of the nature of the tribal environment, Tomsen argues, American strategists have facilitated the Taliban’s resurgence. The Wars of Afghanistan offers fresh, provocative solutions to shoring up the Afghan state, dealing with Pakistan’s intrigue and duplicity, and returning a measure of stability and peace to this persistently chaotic region. This truly epic insider’s account of modern Afghanistan is indispensable reading for anyone wanting to understand one of America’s toughest foreign policy conundrums.” —The Foreign Service Journal

“A fascinating tome.” —Philadelphia Inquirer

“[A]dmirably sound.” —Times Literary Supplement

“The reader will come away with a greater understanding of a land many of us knew little about, but in which we’ve had a military presence since 2002.”



America and its allies are mired in Afghanistan’s endless war. It is still possible to achieve an acceptable outcome, but only if our policies respect Afghan history and culture and we heed the lessons of past foreign interventions.

That is why I wrote this book.

My motive sprang from concerns for our national interests and the desire of Afghans, Americans, and the broad international community to break the cycle of tragic wars in Afghanistan.

I have been personally involved in Afghan affairs for over two decades, including three years as U.S. special envoy to the Afghan resistance (1989–1992). This book reflects my firsthand experiences as well as my interviews of other eyewitnesses. It also draws upon the works of scholars, historians, journalists, and diplomats. It plows new ground in over six hundred newly declassified State Department, Pentagon, and CIA documents. It traces the sagas of the major actors since the 1979 Soviet invasion, many of whom I have known well. Where possible, I have presented documentary evidence and references to back up explanations and conclusions. The opinions and characterizations in this book, however, are my own and do not represent official positions of the United States government. Spaces marked “redacted” indicate the removal of words the United States government considers classified.

There has been an explosion of documentaries and commentary on Afghanistan since 9/11. But a pervasive ignorance about this unique country and its history, culture, and tribal society persists in the West. Our misreading of the Afghan environment and Pakistan’s intentions in Afghanistan are the main reasons why America and the international coalition are today bogged down in the Afghan quagmire, wondering how this has happened despite the commitment of over 100,000 troops and $330 billion. If the United States does not change its policies, conditions in Afghanistan will look even worse in 2014 when the American-led combat troop drawdown is tentatively scheduled to end and the next constitutionally mandated Afghan presidential election is to take place.

U.S. policy during the 1980–1989 Soviet-Afghan war succeeded largely because it resonated with the mainstream aspirations of more than 20 million Afghans to expel the invader. After the Soviet pullout, the United States gradually shifted its attention away from Afghanistan and the region. Washington did not grasp the dangerous implications of Pakistani and Saudi strategy to transform Afghanistan into an extremist Islamic state. That Islamist vision, developed by Pakistani President Zia ul-Haq in the 1980s and carried on ever since by his military successors, contradicts fundamental U.S. interests. It has stymied efforts to end the wars of Afghanistan and combat global terrorism.

After 9/11 Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf formally joined President George W. Bush’s war on terrorism. But on the ground, Pakistan clandestinely continued to provide sanctuary, training, and weapons to the Afghan Taliban and other Islamic militants to stage a counterattack into Afghanistan. The United States, after routing the Taliban, once again downplayed Afghanistan. Washington provided minimal assistance to war-devastated Kabul and redirected attention and resources to Iraq. The result was a Taliban resurgence.

Today bin Laden is gone, but al-Qaeda and its allies still view Afghanistan as the major arena—and the first step—in an epochal, twenty-first-century struggle between their extremist version of Islam and moderate Islam. Their strategy targets not only Afghanistan but also the West and pro-Western governments in the Muslim world. Their suicide bombers attack around the globe. Some indigenous Pakistani Muslim extremist groups tied to al-Qaeda have turned on the Pakistani state. Meanwhile, many Afghan leaders have failed to overcome their historical proclivity for infighting and placing personal aspirations above unity and stability in their country. Corruption pervades the government. President Hamid Karzai’s regime is weak and unpopular.

We have suffered not only from poor policy but also from poor process and execution. Unwieldy, compartmentalized bureaucracies in Washington have failed successive Republican and Democratic presidents. As the 9/11 Commission noted in 2004, the current national security system was created after World War II to meet the challenges of a “different era” and to confront a “different enemy”—the Soviet Union. In the past decade it has been weighed down by vast numbers of employees and splintered by bureaucratic stovepipes. Giant military and intelligence institutions operate like mini-governments, administering their own budgets and sometimes contradictory policies.

The George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations adopted some of the 9/11 Commission recommendations to improve interagency cooperation toward common goals. But they have not overcome debilitating interagency turf battles. The White House has yet to enforce disciplined implementation of a coherent Afghan policy, even while American men and women are fighting with valor and skill on the battlefield. The Pentagon and the CIA must function as policy-implementers, not policy-makers. They are indispensable to winning wars. They should participate in the deliberation process. But after decisions are made, their military and intelligence assets should concentrate on executing the policy.

The opening chapters of this book describe the historical forces that have forged contemporary Afghanistan, its tribal system, its traditions, and a moderate Islamic faith. They discuss the ethnic and tribal frictions that divide Afghans, and they explain the center-region equilibrium that mid-twentieth-century Afghan monarchs created to maintain stability and promote nation-building. During that half-century, the government in Kabul established a cooperative relationship with autonomous tribal and religious forces in the countryside. The center gradually extended its influence into the provinces and expanded the national army and police force. That structure holds the key to stabilizing the country today.

Part Two covers the wars of Afghanistan during the thirteen-year Afghan communist era, drawing on fresh material from the Soviet archives. The last chapter in this part describes Pakistani dictator Zia ul-Haq’s vision to establish strategic depth against India by creating Pakistani hegemony in Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal. Since Zia’s death in 1988, his successors have collaborated with Pakistani and Arab extremists to insert foreign versions of Islamic extremism into Afghanistan’s fundamentally moderate tribal society. The Saudi government supported this futile venture during the 1980s and early 1990s, but then turned against the extremists when al-Qaeda began to threaten the Saudi kingdom in 1998.

Part Three shifts to a first-person narrative account of my three-year immersion in Afghanistan as President George H.W. Bush’s special envoy to the Afghan resistance. I draw on declassified U.S. government documents to describe what happened during those pivotal years. There are firsthand accounts of my meetings with Mujahidin politicians and commanders, the former Afghan king Zahir Shah in Rome, Pakistani intelligence officers and other Pakistani officials in Islamabad, Saudi princes in Riyadh and Jeddah, and Soviet officials in Moscow.

Part Four examines the Pakistani Army’s persisting strategy to mobilize radical Islamic fury against the Afghan government and the U.S.-led coalition inside Afghanistan. In its pursuit of this goal, Pakistan covertly fosters Islamic extremist groups that stage terrorist attacks against America and its friends and allies. The splendid American military-intelligence operation to kill bin Laden on May 1, 2011, in Abbottabad, yanked the veil from the Saudi terrorist’s government-protected sanctuary in Pakistan. It exposed Islamabad’s duplicitous denials that the world’s most wanted terrorist was not in Pakistan. The killing of bin Laden reinforced important themes in this book—the epicenter of world terrorism is in Pakistan, not Afghanistan; the terrorist sanctuaries in Pakistan are breeding grounds for terrorists targeting many nations around the world, Muslim and non-Muslim; and Pakistan’s genuine cooperation in the struggle against terrorism is essential to achieving success.

Bin Laden’s death delivered a major blow to al-Qaeda’s diverse terrorist network. It projected American power, competence, leadership, and determination. It lifted the morale of Americans and many others around the world. But it was not a decisive blow. The al-Qaeda ideology did not die with bin Laden, nor has it changed. Like the Cold War, the struggle against radical Islamist terrorism will be a multi-decade one.

At the end of Part Four, I propose a new direction, a way ahead, to end the wars of Afghanistan. The prescriptions will require great finesse and political will to succeed, especially in convincing Islamabad to change course. Will they need adjustments as developments unfold? Of course. Will they guarantee success in the next decade? No. But if we do not draw the appropriate conclusions from Afghan history and from the tragic consequences of foreign interventions in the Afghan cauldron, then we can guarantee failure.

The essence of this book is how history has shaped the current impasse. My hope is that the reader’s journey through the wars of Afghanistan will inform the national debate on the way ahead. I believe that an enlightened path, over time, can yield the results we seek—to bolster our national security; to redeem the sacrifices of Americans, allies, and Afghans; and to lift the horizons of a region deeply scarred by conflict.

It is time to turn the page.



Alexander the Great: The fourth-century B.C. Macedonian conqueror who established an empire stretching from Greece to the Pamirs, introducing Hellenistic culture in the territory of present-day Afghanistan.

General Surena: The Parthian military leader whose 10,000 horse archers in 53 B.C. annihilated a 35,000-strong Roman army under Crassus at the Battle of Carrhae. Crassus was moving east through Mesopotamia, seeking to extend Rome’s hegemony to the lands conquered by Alexander the Great two centuries earlier.

Abu Hanifa: The ninth-century founder of the first, most moderate, and most widespread (including in Afghanistan) of the four great orders of Islamic jurisprudence. Afghans believe Abu Hanifa’s family originally came from Charikar.

Rumi: Afghans also claim the great thirteenth-century Sufi poet Jalaluddin Rumi, who was born in Balkh. He spent most of his life in Turkey preaching, writing, and meditating.


Ahmad Shah Durrani: Founder of the Afghan state in 1747. Pashtun. He built an Afghan empire encompassing parts of present-day India, Iran, and Central Asia.

Habibullah Kalakani: Better known as Bacha Seqao, the Tajik “son of the water carrier,” he was the first to enter Kabul in 1929 after King Amanullah’s hasty departure in his Rolls Royce. Bacha Seqao declared himself the new Afghan ruler but reigned only ten months before being driven from power.

Abdur Rahman Khan: Emir of Afghanistan (1881–1901). Pashtun. Ruthlessly suppressed internal revolts, launched wars of conquest in the Hazarajat and Nuristan, and fused together the modern Afghan state.

Amanullah Khan: Son of Habibullah. King Amanullah pushed modernization too fast in the 1920s. He did not possess a large standing army capable of putting down the tribal uprising that erupted against his reforms in 1928. Abdicated his throne in 1929 and fled into foreign exile.

Habibullah Khan: Son of Abdur Rahman Khan. Heeded his father’s advice to implement social and economic reforms gradually. His network of European-style secular educational institutions became the foundation for Afghan modernization progress over the next seven decades.

Hashim Khan: Nadir Shah’s half-brother and Zahir Shah’s uncle. Directly ruled Afghanistan as prime minister from 1933 to 1946. Succeeded by his brother, Shah Mahmud.

Mohammad Daoud Khan: The older Musahiban dynasty brothers passed the prime ministership to Daoud Khan of the second Musahiban generation in 1953, bypassing Daoud’s cousin King Zahir Shah. Daoud’s advocacy of Pashtun irredentist claims on Pakistani territory backfired. He was forced to step down in 1963. Returned to power 1973–1978.

Mohammad Nadir Shah: Executed Bacha Seqao in December 1929 and created the Pashtun Musahiban dynasty that presided over nearly a half-century of modernization programs in constitutional, economic, and social areas. King Nadir Shah was assassinated in 1933. Succeeded by his oldest son, Zahir Shah.

Queen Soroya: Amanullah’s wife, who promoted social, especially gender and educational, reforms in the 1920s.

Mahmud Tarzi: The foreign-educated Afghan intellectual who devised many of Habibullah’s and Amanullah’s reforms. He, too, was forced to flee abroad as furious rural tribes closed in on Kabul.

Abdul Wali: Zahir Shah’s cousin and son-in-law. General Wali commanded the Central Army forces guarding Kabul. He failed to detect Daoud’s 1973 coup. Daoud exiled Zahir Shah and Wali, abolished the monarchy, and made himself president of Afghanistan.

Dr. Mohammed Yousuf: A German-educated Afghan politician, Dr. Yousuf, a Tajik, served as prime minister from March 1963 to October 1965 when street demonstrations forced him to resign.

Mohammad Zahir Shah: King Zahir Shah was relegated to ceremonial functions until he took control of the Afghan government in 1963. In the ensuing “decade of democracy” he accelerated democratic reforms before being overthrown by his cousin Daoud Khan in a military coup in 1973. Died in 2007.


Hafizullah Amin: Pashtun. Member of Taraki’s Khalq faction. He deposed President Taraki in September 1979. Was Afghan president for the four months leading up to the 1979 Soviet invasion.

Abdul Rashid Dostum: Powerful Uzbek warlord in northern Afghanistan. Famous for switching sides in accordance with prevailing winds, from the Soviets to the Mujahidin to the Taliban to the current Karzai regime.

Sayed Mohammad Gulabzoi: Khalqi air force officer and interior minister. Pashtun. In 2005 he contested and won a seat in the Afghan parliamentary elections.

Babrak (“Friend of Labor”) Karmal: Purportedly Tajik. Leader of the Parcham (Flag) faction of the PDPA. Was president of Afghanistan for six years (1980–1986) after the December 1979 Soviet invasion.

Mohammad Najibullah: Pashtun. Known simply as Najib, he was a leading Parchami and secret police chief until the Kremlin installed him as Afghan president in 1986. Remained president until the Afghan communist regime collapsed in 1992. Executed by the Taliban in 1996.

Assadullah Sarwari: Dubbed “King Kong” for his ruthlessness when Khalqi secret police chief under Taraki. Pashtun. Soviets made him deputy PDPA leader after Moscow’s 1979 invasion and later exiled him to Mongolia as ambassador.

Shahnawaz Tanai: Pashtun. Feisty Khalqi commando who rose to be defense minister in 1988. Staged an abortive coup against President Najibullah in 1990 and escaped to Pakistan. Under the tutelage of Pakistan’s military intelligence, the ISI, Tanai joined forces with Mujahidin extremist leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and later the Taliban. He is active in contemporary Afghan politics.

Nur Mohammad Taraki: One of the founders of the Afghan communist party known by its acronym, PDPA. Pashtun. Was PDPA party leader and head of the Khalq (Peoples) faction of the party. Became Afghan president and prime minister after the April 1978 communist coup that ended Daoud’s rule.

Mohammed Aslam Watanjar: Khalqi tank commander and minister in successive communist governments. Pashtun. Led the tank assaults that overthrew Zahir Shah in 1973 and Daoud in 1978.

Ghulam Farouk Yaqubi: A trusted ally of Najibullah and head of the Afghan secret police after Najibullah became president in 1986. Pashtun.


Dr. Abdullah Abdullah: Born in Kabul. Received MD degree from Kabul University in ophthalmology in 1993. Joined Ahmed Shah Masood in the Panshir in 1986. Foreign minister of the Afghan government in exile (1998–2001). Foreign minister of Afghanistan (2001–2006). Runner-up presidential candidate in 2009.

Mohammad Fahim: Panshiri Tajik, one of Ahmed Shah Masood’s generals. Succeeded Masood in September 2001, days after Masood’s assassination. Coordinated with U.S. military to drive the Taliban from northern Afghanistan. Reputed to be very corrupt. Was defense minister (2002–2004). President Karzai’s vice president (2009–present).

Sayyid Ahmad Gailani: Moderate. One of the seven Peshawar party leaders chosen by Pakistan to lead the Mujahidin. Titular head (pir) of the Qadiriya Sufi order. The ISI (Pakistan military’s Interservices Intelligence Directorate) downgraded his once formidable Mujahidin military organization after the Soviet Army withdrew in 1989.

Abdul Haq: Moderate, nationalist, and popular Mujahidin Pashtun commander during the anti-Soviet jihad. Outspoken critic of ISI and CIA favoritism for the Afghan extremists, which precipitated an ISI-CIA cutoff of support. Organized the National Commanders’ Shura in 1990. Opposed the introduction of American ground forces into Afghanistan after 9/11. Called for the United States to assist Afghans to chart their own destiny. Executed by the Taliban in October 2001 while attempting to rally anti-Taliban resistance in eastern Afghanistan.

Jalaluddin Haqqani: ISI-supported, Pakistan-based Pashtun warlord. Sunni extremist. Worked closely with Osama bin Laden in the 1980s. Taliban government minister and militia leader in the 1990s. His son, Sirajuddin Haqqani, today leads one of the three anti-Kabul and anti-U.S. coalition fronts operating from sanctuaries inside Pakistan.

Sirajuddin Haqqani: Afghan terrorist based in Pakistan. Son of Afghan warlord Jalaluddin Haqqani. Supported by the ISI. Leads the Haqqani terrorist network centered in North Waziristan, Pakistan. Works closely with al-Qaeda to mount attacks into Afghanistan.

Gulbuddin Hekmatyar: The warlord of choice of the Pakistani Army and of the Pakistani politico-religious party Jamaat-i Islami. Pashtun. Recruited by the ISI when a student at Kabul University in the early 1970s and has remained linked to the ISI. Was one of the seven Peshawar party leaders chosen by Pakistan. Support base remains mainly in Pakistan. Today, leads one of the ISI-organized anti-Kabul and anti-U.S. coalition fronts from sanctuaries in Pakistan.

Hamid Karzai: Moderate-nationalist Pashtun tribal leader from Kandahar. Political adviser to Sibghatullah Mojaddedi (1980–1992); deputy foreign minister of the Afghan government (1992–1996); in exile in Pakistan until October 2001, when, after American military intervention, he organized a tribal uprising in southern Afghanistan with the assistance of U.S. Special Forces. Afghan interim president and president (2001–present).

Abdul Karim Khalili: Moderate Hazara Shia cleric, succeeded Abdul Ali Mazari as leader of the Hazara Hezb-i Wahdat (Party of Islamic Unity) after the Taliban murdered Mazari in 1996. Has remained President Karzai’s second vice president since 2002.

Masood Khalili: Personal friend and adviser to Ahmed Shah Masood. Ambassador to India (2001–2006), Turkey (2006–2010), Spain (2010–present).

Yunus Khalis: Conservative, virulently anti-Shia Pashtun religious cleric and one of the seven Peshawar party leaders. Befriended Osama bin Laden during the Soviet-Afghan war and facilitated his escape from Tora Bora into Pakistan in December 2002.

Ismael Khan: Moderate, powerful Mujahidin Tajik commander in western Afghanistan during the Soviet-Afghan war. After the Soviets left, his military position declined. Made a comeback in the West after the Najib regime collapsed in 1992. Captured Herat but lost it to the Taliban in 1995. Won Herat again after the 2001 American intervention routed the Taliban, later moved to Kabul to become energy minister in President Karzai’s cabinet.

Ahmed Shah Masood: Successful Mujahidin Panshiri Tajik commander in northern Afghanistan during the Soviet-Afghan war. Contended with Pakistani ISI and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar attacks during and after the Soviet-Afghan war. Captured Kabul when Najib fell in April 1992. Fought the ISI-backed Taliban and al-Qaeda (1995–2001). Killed by al-Qaeda two days before the 9/11 attacks, on September 9, 2011.


On Sale
Dec 10, 2013
Page Count
912 pages

Peter Tomsen

About the Author

Peter Tomsen was President George H.W. Bush’s Special Envoy on Afghanistan with the rank of Ambassador from 1989 to 1992. Tomsen entered the Foreign Service in 1967 and served in Thailand, Vietnam, China, and the Soviet Union. He was United States Deputy Chief of Mission in China from 1986 to 1989, deputy Assistant Secretary for East Asian Affairs from 1992 to 1995, and the American Ambassador to Armenia from 1995 to 1998. He lives in Virginia with his wife.

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