Peter Tomsen, the former special envoy on Afghanistan for President George H. W. Bush, will speak tonight in the Smith Memorial Student Union to promote his new book, The Wars of Afghanistan.
Tomsen’s book is an exhaustive, 700-plus page examination of Afghanistan’s modern role as what Tomsen calls a “shatter zone,” a term he uses to describe a country that has successfully withstood invasions by, most recently, the Soviet Union and the United States.
Tomsen argues that the American government’s inability to understand modern Afghanistan has led to the ineffective, often ill-advised military and intelligence operations that have undermined the U.S.’s status in the region.
“I wrote the book to inform people about Afghanistan,” Tomsen said via telephone from Seattle, where he has several speaking engagements. “I was troubled because there’s so little knowledge of Afghanistan in our country and in the West.”
The Wars of Afghanistan focuses primarily on Afghanistan’s wars against the British in the 19th century, the Soviet Union in the 20th century and the U.S. in the 21st century. Although each country’s specific motivations for invading Afghanistan varied, all three saw Afghanistan as a vital piece in their respective Middle East power games.
“The British invaded in the 19th century to keep the Russians out, and when the Soviets invaded in ’79, they were trying to get an advantage over the U.S. in the Cold War,” Tomsen said.
And although the terrorist attack of 9/11 was the initial reason for the U.S.’s invasion of Afghanistan, the country is still undeniably important strategically: “By dominating the Afghan highland, [an occupying country] can be closer to the oil lanes in the Persian Gulf,” Tomsen said.
Perhaps most importantly, Tomsen argues, if one country controls Afghanistan (e.g., the U.S.), then another country, like Iran or Pakistan, cannot. This inability of a foreign occupier to control the loosely connected network of Afghan tribes—let alone understand it—lies at the heart of modern Afghanistan’s story.
“These tribes are fragmented and scattered across the country, and when the invaders come, they rise up against the invaders,” Tomsen said. During the war between Great Britain and Afghanistan, a British military officer reportedly said that, “in their area, in the mountains, the Afghans are the best light infantrymen in the world.”
Tomsen’s tome covers Afghanistan up to and including the recent death of Osama bin Laden—an event that prompted some last-minute writing from the author.
“I was in Hawaii and the book was going to the printers when I got a call from the publisher,” Tomsen said. “They said, ‘You have to update the book; we just killed Osama Bin Laden.’”
Tomsen did so, and The Wars of Afghanistan came out in July through the Public Affairs imprint of Perseus Books. Tomsen has been on the road promoting the book ever since.
His Portland State lecture is co-sponsored by the World Affairs Council of Oregon and PSU’s Middle East Studies Center. The event is part of the center’s ongoing lecture series.
The Middle East Studies Center, which has been designated a National Resource Center by the Department of Education, aims to “spread knowledge and create a greater understanding of the Middle East,” said Elisheva Cohen, outreach coordinator for the center. “We do that through lectures like this, programs and cultural events.”
Tomsen’s book tour has included stops at universities, private functions and even a July appearance on The Daily Show.
Preparing for his interview with Stewart was like “studying for the Foreign Service test,” Tomsen said. “You never know what they’re going to ask.”
Before entering the studio, a Daily Show producer told Tomsen, “If you don’t understand the joke, just laugh.” Stewart then told a joke, Tomsen said, “about a movie I’ve never heard of with Samuel L. Jackson about snakes on an airplane. I laughed.”
The Wars of Afghanistan
Smith Memorial Student Union, room 294
Thursday, Nov. 10, 7 p.m.
Free and open to the public