Review

Afghanistan: A Military History From Alexander the Great to the Present

by Stephen Tanner



For two and a half millennia, Afghanistan has been a centerpiece
for imperial ambitions. Its strategic location in Asia has made
this an important crossroad for trade and conquest. Throughout the
centuries the Afghanis have developed a warrior class with nearly
unparalleled fighting skills and instincts. Time and again, this
people has done whatever necessary to win battle after battle
against invading and occupying forces, with little or no
consideration for what we in the West would call appropriate rules
of play. What we might call treachery, to the Afghani warrior is
simply another strategy to be deployed on a fluid battlefield in a
war that must be won. Switching sides during a pitched battle is
not extraordinary --- nor would it be out of the ordinary to switch
sides twice during a battle. In fact, looking over two-and-a-half
thousand years of recorded military history, one would find this a
commonplace strategy.

Prior to September 11th, many Americans may have had only the
vaguest of notions about Afghanistan. Some will have known the
piercing gaze of a beautiful young Afghani girl staring out from
the cover of an old National Geographic magazine. Others may
remember the epic occupation and eventual defeat of the Soviets in
the 1980s. Fewer still will know that Iran and the Russians have a
long military history intertwined with the Afghanis or that the
British fought two massive campaigns in this country and were
soundly defeated in both. And perhaps only a small number of
erudite readers and scholars know that Alexander the Great and
Genghis Khan both moved through this region wreaking havoc and
subjugating the population. Today, in the post 9-11 world, we can't
help but be acutely aware of Afghanistan's Bhurka clad women, the
Taliban, and the US led struggle to terminate terrorism as it
springs from the terrorist training bases and ancient caves that
pepper the countryside.

For those of us with this most cursory of knowledge, Steven
Tanner's new book AFGHANISTAN: A Military History from Alexander
the Great to the Present lays out the country's long history
through a lens of military conflict, starting with Alexander the
Great's march through the region (prior to its becoming known as a
country) and ending with the American and coalition response to the
events of September 11. Tanner takes his readers on a remarkable
trip through an Afghanistan mostly forgotten, or unknown, by most
of today's people. For instance, the British defeat after their
colonial conquests is strikingly retold using primary source
literature: letters from soldiers, commanders, and families on the
ground during the conflicts. During the Second Anglo-Afghan war,
Captain Julius Blackhouse noted in his journal a grim passage about
the fate of British troopers who tangled with the Afghanis earlier
in the year:

"The sight of the remains of the unfortunate Kabul force in this
pass was fearfully heartrending. They lay in heaps of fifties and
hundreds, our gun wheels passing over and crushing the skulls and
other bones of our late comrades. At almost every yard for three,
four or five miles; indeed the whole of the marches from Gandamak
to Kabul, a distance of about seventy miles, may be said to have
been over the bodies of the massacred army."

All told, Steven Tanner has put together a well-documented and very
readable military history of this strategically important land. If
there were any drawbacks to the book it might have to do with the
fact that I was reviewing uncorrected page proofs: The final
version may be a bit different. What distracted me throughout the
work was Tanner's method of citing reference works used. The
author's method makes cross-referencing citations to the
bibliography problematic for the trained reader and far too
difficult for those not used to reading works of scholarly merit.
The manuscript could also benefit from the use of more objective
language in the latter part of the composition where American
involvement is detailed. The author's tone toward the Americans
seems just a bit too heavy-handed. No doubt though, the final work
will be a thoroughly informative and enjoyable history of
Afghanistan's military past.

Afghanistan: A Military History From Alexander the Great to the Present
by Stephen Tanner

  • Publication Date: November 30, -0001
  • Genres: History, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Da Capo Press
  • ISBN-10: 0306811642
  • ISBN-13: 9780306811647