We’re all used to reading about South Asia in the headlines, but it takes an expert to grasp the complex political, social, and military history of a region that has spent the last thirty-plus years as one of the focal points of U.S. foreign policy. Dilip Hiro, author of more than 30 books, and a frequent commentator on South Asian and Islamic affairs, is just such an expert, and in Apocalyptic Realm: Jihadists in South Asia, Hiro offers a comprehensive look behind the headlines and into a region where Pakistan is “the keystone” in an increasingly unstable architecture in which India and Afghanistan are essential components.
Hiro follows the trajectory of the conflict over Kashmir, delves into the time leading up to Pakistan’s development of nuclear weapons, and, of course, traces the history of U.S. intervention in the region. Incorporating newly available information from the classified U.S. Embassy documents published by Wikileaks and recently released archival material from the Kremlin, Hiro gives an up-to-date, rigorous, and balanced analysis of a series of highly charged events—from before the rise of the Taliban all the way up to Obama’s May 2011 announcement that Osama bin Laden had been killed by U.S. forces.
Apocalyptic Realm offers more than a political history; a series of maps of the region allow the reader to follow Hiro’s geographical analysis, especially important in his treatment of Afghanistan. Throughout the book, Hiro also intersperses sections that deal with cultural and religious issues, opening his first chapter with a description of his visit to the mausoleum of a Sufi saint in Delhi, which he uses as a window onto the complex religious climate of South Asia.
The “apocalyptic” of Hiro’s title refers to jihadist efforts to destabilize existing structures in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the word conveying an urgency the reader cannot help but feel in the face of what Hiro makes clear is a rapidly escalating threat of terrorism in South Asia. In his introduction, Hiro does not mince words; the growing jihadist efforts, he writes, represent a “complex but interrelated sociopolitical phenomenon, covering a vital region in turmoil, which has the potential to threaten world peace.”
In less than two months, the world will mark the tenth anniversary of the global War on Terror. It seems impossible that so much time has gone by when we think of the morning of 9/11. Yet when we recall the past decade, we remember that each year of war felt like it dragged on for ten years on its own. According to Taliban author, Ahmed Rashid, in this morning’s New York Times: “Afghanistan just got more dangerous and unpredictable.” For many of us, although we have watched the war unfold for years, it remains difficult to understand the war as a whole. Looking at a timeline of the decade of war helps organize the events in our minds, but just knowing the basics is not enough to answer all the nagging questions. Tim Bird and Alex Marshall’s Afghanistan: How the West Lost Its Way not only chronicles the United States’ longest war but also addresses the questions that have plagued the West since the early years.
Bird and Marshall examine the volatile history of ungovernable Afghanistan before the War on Terror, showing how unlikely a unified Afghanistan was before the intervention. They then analyze the miscalculations by the United States and its Western allies, scrutinizing both U.S. presidential administrations involved in the war. For example, during a September 12, 2011 meeting with President Bush, Richard Clarke (the National Coordinator for Security, Infrastructure Protection, and Counterterrorism) insisted that al-Qaeda was clearing responsible for the attacks of the day before. President Bush countered, “Look into Iraq, Saddam.” Such smaller events, which originally went unnoticed, create a clearer picture of the intervention that became a disaster.
Some of the smallest missteps are the most enlightening. In one Afghani village, Western military officers attempted to convince two Afghani elders to trust them by showing a film sent from London. While the movie did include a message from coalition forces, the officers were embarrassed to realize that the film-makers had also added ten minutes of underwater footage from Blue Planet. Why would they do that? Westerners’ understanding of Afghanistan had not improved after years of war. Even in March 2009, when President Obama refocused U.S. core objectives in Afghanistan, his administration seemed to be following “the pattern of strategic incoherence that had characterized” the entire war’s progression. With the West unable to fully comprehend the nature of Afghanistan, the gap between it and Afghanistan only widened.