Book Review: The Afghan Way of War

Although former British Army officer Robert Johnson wrote his book, “The Afghan War of War” in 2011, his conclusions and observations are just as valuable, if not more valuable today than ever. The premise of his book is that very few authors, officers, or politicians have throughly studied the Afghan side of many of the conflicts that have taken place in Afghanistan, whether it be Afghans against foreign invaders/occupiers, or civil war within the country such as during the 1990s. What I especially liked about the book was a number of very useful points that Johnson raises, that I honestly had not thought of before. I’ll summarize some of these points below, as these were my key takeaways from the book.

A Nation of a Thousand Tribes

Johnson goes to great lengths to make the point that Western observers have seen Afghans as “unchanging”, the “Graveyard of Empires”, and “fierce tribal fighters”, and this has stereotyped impressions of the Afghans since the first Anglo-Afghan War in the 1840s. Throughout the book we have countless counter-examples where this doesn’t seem to be the case. Where Afghan tactics have changed, altered, and have been reactive to the threats faced, in addition to being proactive and forcing Western troops to be constantly on the defensive.

But there is one constant that hasn’t changed, and that is the tribal and group dynamics that have existed for several hundred years. What we see is that instead of seeing Afghanistan as a single entity, or even an ethnic group as an entity, what is really going on is hundreds of individual tribes, sub-tribes, clans, and families that are essentially looking out for the best option for their individual group. Whether they ally with the British, or with the King, whether the Mullahs decide to go to war at all, whether peace is on the table, etc… Any of these decisions are made for the benefit of the particular group (tribe, clan, village, etc…). And these often change. What is beneficial for a village one month, may be detrimental for it the next. This means that to the British, Soviets, or Americans, it can be increasingly frustrating trying to maintain alliances and agreements.

Something that Johnson doesn’t mention, but a personal observation that I’ve made is how economy plays into these decisions. The lack of a stable exportation or cultivation of any natural resource (other than crops and opium) has been a limiting detractor throughout the countries history and still affects national security today. But when local tribes and villages can’t rely on natural resources like oil, mining, etc… the need to fight tooth and nail for alliances, positions, and funds becomes even more apparent.

Foreign Invaders Unify Afghans

In the example of every invading or occupying force, one of the constant themes is that one of the only forces that has ever truly united Afghans of different ethnic origins in some fashion has been the need to expel a foreign one. Johnson doesn’t point this out explicitly but this is evident in his descriptions of the country before several conflicts. The state of the country under the King appeared to be on the brink of falling apart on numerous occasions, when senior leadership pushed for further hostilities against the British or during the time of communism, against the Soviets. Even under the Taliban during OEF, the need to unite under an Islamic banner instead of an Afghan, or Pashtun one was strategically necessary to be able to sweep tribal differences aside.

Differences in Technology

The first Anglo-Afghan War saw the widespread use of muzzleloading rifles and muskets on both sides of the conflict, with the British armed with the Brown Bess, and the Afghans with the Jezail muzzle loading rifle. Apart from the British cannon and cavalry, the two forces were somewhat equal in terms of actual hardware.

However in the second Anglo-Afghan War this dynamic dramatically changed with the introduction of breech-loading rifles that could not only be reloaded quicker, fired faster, but also more accurately and further. This changed the way Afghan tribesmen attacked British columns. They had to close in faster, not allowing the British to use their artillery, and often attacked at night.

Similarly, in the war against the Soviets, the use of Stinger MANPODS was brought up. The popular misconception is that Stingers helped win the war. Although they did strike fear among Soviet helicopter pilots, especially the Hind attack helicopters, their introduction was too late to make a difference in 1986, when the Soviet Union had already decided to being fighting a delaying action instead of an all-out offensive. In addition, by altering their flying practices to fly at higher altitudes, the Soviets realized they could go outside of the Stinger’s capabilities and lessen the risk.

In Operation Enduring Freedom, the prevalence of IEDs took precedence over light Infantry attacks that the Taliban initially tried to use against the British in Helmand, but suffered costly casualties due to the artillery and air assets. IEDs used by the Taliban deserve to be studied much more in detail due to the complex escalation’s and counter escalation’s executed on each other throughout the entire campaign.

Operation Enduring Freedom/Operation Herrick Observations

One point I think the book could have been improved on is the OEF/Op Herrick. In retrospect, this isn’t really Johnson’s fault because the war is still ongoing, and he can’t have access to many of the after action reports, or even just the massive amount of experience associated with the current operations from hundreds of thousands of veterans and currently serving troops. He picks out specific situations and TTPs that are usually from the British perspective, that doesn’t typify what other forces might have faced in their fight against the Pashtun lead Taliban insurgency.

His conclusion though is flawless in that he identifies that any considerable gains going forward will have to be an Afghan solution to an Afghan problem. Personally I think this has to have enormous emphasis on the countries economy, and being able to become prosperous on exporting natural resources already present in order to actually provide some capitol for a government entirely propped up on international aid money.

The Afghan Way of War is available on Amazon for $35.95.

Miles is the founder, editor, and local Khan governing Silah Report. He is quite found of obscure languages, dangerous locales, and fascinating small arms designs and uses.

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