Afghanistan: From the Great Game to the Global War on Terror

Afghanistan: From the Great Game to the Global War on Terror
(Ali Jalali, April 26, 2017)

Transcript available below

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About the speaker

Ambassador Ali Jalali served as Afghanistan’s Ambassador to Germany and designated Special Envoy to NATO. He served as Interior Minister from 2003-2005, overseeing the creation of a trained force of 50,000 Afghan National Police and 12,000 Border Police to work effectively in counter-narcotics, counter-terrorism, and criminal investigation.

He recently served as a Professor at the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies at National Defense University in Washington D.C. His new book is A Military History of Afghanistan from the Great Game to the Global War on Terror (2017).

A former officer in the Afghan Army, Col. Jalali served as a top military planner with the Afghan Resistance (Mujahedin) following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

He graduated from high command and staff colleges in Afghanistan, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

A published writer in three languages (English, Pashto, Dari/Farsi), Ali A. Jalali is the author of numerous books and articles on political, military and security issues in Afghanistan, Iran and Central Asia. He is the author of The Other Side of the Mountain: Mujahideen Tactics in the Soviet-Afghan War.

Ali Jalali has taught at higher education institutions of Afghanistan and extensively lectured at U.S. National Defense University, U.S. Army War College, U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, California, Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and the British Army Staff College, Camberley, England.

During his VOA career from 1982 to 2003, Jalali directed broadcasts in Pashto, Dari and Farsi (Persian) languages to Afghanistan, Iran and Tajikistan. As a journalist, he covered the war in Afghanistan (1982-1993) and the former Soviet Central Asia (1993-2000).

For more on Afghanistan, see Dr. Daniel R. Green’s Westminster talk: In the Warlords’ Shadow: Special Operations Forces, the Afghans, and Their Fight Against the Taliban and Hassan Abbas’s Westminster talk: The Taliban Revival: Violence and Extremism on the Pakistan-Afghanistan Frontier.


Robert R. Reilly:

It’s a special pleasure to introduce our guest tonight because he’s an old friend. I had the privilege of working with him at the Voice of America and I’m happy to welcome the Voice of America Persian service here tonight, as well as Afghan television, as well as the members of the Afghan Embassy who are with us.

Ali Jalali was the director of the Persian service at VOA, one of the most distinguished services that he ran so well. And in my brief tenure as the Director of Voice of America I asked him to please take over the Afghan service, the Pashto and Dari, with which there were some problems. He did that so capably he became head of the Radio Afghan Project, which included the construction of two giant transmitters outside of Kabul and of course that was another big success.

And then he left us to become Minister of the Interior of Afghanistan. As you shall hear, he is currently serving as Afghanistan’s Ambassador to Germany and is the designated special envoy of Afghanistan to NATO.

He served as the Minister of the from 2003 to 2005 during which time he oversaw the creation of an Afghan National Police of 50,000 men. In addition to a 12,000 border police force to work in counter-narcotics, counter-terrorism, and criminal investigation. He’s served for many years as a professor at the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies at National Defense University.

He us a former colonel in the Afghan Army, was a military planner with the Afghan Mujahedin in their struggle against the Soviets, and he is the co-author of a seminal book on the tactics used in that struggle by the Afghan resistance called, The Other Side of the Mountain: Mujahedin Tactics in the Soviet-Afghan War.

Now, he is here with us. There are many other distinctions that he has earned in his career, but he is here tonight to talk about his new book, which is just out. We have copies of it available in the other room. I’m sure Ambassador Jalali will be happy to sign them for you. The book was released at $35. Through a special arrangement it’s there for $20.

For those of you who would like a copy, I can simply tell you that Dr. Fred Starr, who is one of the great scholars of Central Asia, sent me a message when he found out that Jalali was talking here tonight, saying that this is the book on Afghanistan and I quote him, “the best history of Afghanistan in any language.” Please join me in welcoming Ali Jalali, who will tell us about the military history of his country.

Ali Jalali:


Director Reilly, Ambassador Mohib, ladies and gentlemen, thank you very much for coming here and giving me the opportunity to speak about certain issues in Afghanistan. Any issue about Afghanistan is both complicated but at the same time probably interesting, and news.

I am very pleased to have Bob Reilly here with us. We worked together during very difficult times. After 9/11 when Afghanistan National Transmissions were destroyed and he asked me to head that project for which we actually got about $20 million and then contributed to this during the Tokyo Conference in 2002. And I went back- when I went to Afghanistan later and I saw how effective that project was. I remember that one day the head of the- Chief- Chairman of- Director of the BBG came to Kabul and assured him of all the issues and this all because Bob believes in a war of ideas and he has done a lot on this issue.

Now, first thing first, a disclaimer. My remarks today represent only my own personal opinions and does not necessarily reflect the opinion of any any official institution, any government, or anybody else.

Afghanistan Today

Today, the news from Afghanistan is not encouraging. Sometimes when people ask me how is the situation in Afghanistan – everybody asks that – I say, “In one word, good. In two words, not good.”

But good and not good both are very, very charged words, so they have different aspects, different dimensions, and others, and it is a complicated country. And it is in a complicated region and international environments, so if you want to understand that, okay, good luck, but you have to put it in a historical context. That is what I try to do, to put it in historical context. There are certain things, certain trends, although they are changing.

You know after 9/11 many authors wrote very good studies, great books. However, their studies tried to find a typology of the way of war in Afghanistan. Most of them actually focused on stereotypes and misinterpretations, and only focused on the last century.

Some people actually wrote books on Afghanistan being the ‘graveyard of empires’. Afghanistan is not the graveyard of empires. In Afghanistan, many empires actually faced military defeat, but Afghanistan is also the hub of empires. Many great powers came to Afghanistan and created great empires, both military empires and cultural empires.

So I think we have to be very careful when we put Afghanistan in this historical context. It is a very unique country, of course. It is locates on the fault-lines of three main regions; Central Asia, Middle East, and South Asia, but at the same time that fault-line continuously becomes a distinctive entity of its own. Although it is on a fault line, it became a major independent kind of historical unit.

Why? In this book I wrote about the geopolitics of a peripheral state because the empires that were created in Central Asia or in the Middle East or in India either crashed the ages of their empires, which Afghanistan suffered, or when they became weakened, they were unable to control the peripheries, so a periphery by itself, by default became independent.

Therefore, Afghanistan’s history is not mostly based on geography, but it is most based on history. But geography played a major role in shaping the history. Geography had been static and dynamic. When there was nothing around, it was static. Nobody bothered, it was ignored. But then when it became prominent because of the geopolitical ambitions of others, the miscalculations actually shaped the future of that part of the world.

In the old days, in the old times, India’s only corridor from West to East was Afghanistan. That was when major armies Greeks, Persians, Mongols, Turks crossed. But after the discovery of sea routes, the gates of India became water gates, sea routes, so Afghanistan was important. Then in the Middle Ages, the fifteenth century, when three major gunpowder empires emerged, the Ottoman Empire, Safavid Empire, Uzbeks in South Asia, and the Mongolian Empire in India, then Afghanistan became instead of a gate to India, it was a gate of India to fight these other rival powers.

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