Blood Washing Blood

Overview

A clear-eyed view of the conflict in Afghanistan and its century-deep roots.

The war in Afghanistan has consumed vast amounts of blood and treasure, causing the Western powers to seek an exit without achieving victory. Seemingly never-ending, the conflict has become synonymous with a number of issues — global jihad, rampant tribalism, and the narcotics trade — but even though they are cited as the causes of the conflict, they are in fact symptoms.

Rather than beginning after 9/11 or with the Soviet “invasion” in 1979, the current conflict in Afghanistan began with the social reforms imposed by Amanullah Amir in 1919. Western powers have failed to recognize that legitimate grievances are driving the local population to turn to insurgency in Afghanistan. The issues they are willing to fight for have deep roots, forming a hundred-year-long social conflict over questions of secularism, modernity, and centralized power.

The first step toward achieving a “solution” to the Afghanistan “problem” is to have a clear-eyed view of what is really driving it.

Reviews

A curious fact about the Afghan war is that many soldiers we sent to fight the Taliban — a movement whose names translates as "students" — themselves became students, educating themselves about the history and peoples of South Asia. Some of these warrior-scholars read deeply, and could hold their own in any room of grey-bearded tribal leaders. Phil Halton is an exemplary part of that tradition, a careful historian who knows the facts about Afghanistan but also knows the limits of any foreigner's understanding. His sweeping narrative is foundational reading for any student of the war, or anyone curious about why our armies fared no better than their predecessors.

Graeme Smith, Emmy-winning journalist and bestselling author of The Dogs Are Eating Them Now: Our War In Afghanistan

Afghanistan's history and evolution is often as mysterious as it is complex to many outsiders, but Halton has expertly unpacked it for the reader in this richly detailed and easily readable overview of its past hundred years. Combining extensive research and sources with first-hand experience on the ground, he has given us an invaluable primer for unlocking the reasons behind much of the recent conflict taking place there.

LCol. Andrew B. Godefroy, CD, PhD, Canadian Army Command and Staff College

Understanding Afghanistan and its evolution necessitates a grounding in its political history. In this volume, Phil Halton has taken a complex topic and woven a detailed, highly readable narrative that makes the topic easily accessible to anyone interested in the region, and how it became what it is today. The events of 9/11 created a resurgence in our interest in Afghanistan. In Blood Washing Blood, author Phil Halton has shown that path to 9/11, and beyond, actually began much earlier. Tracing the last century of twists and tumult in Afghan history, he has created a narrative which makes a very complicated history readily accessible to the contemporary student of the religion.

Colonel Tod Strickland, CD. Commandant, Canadian Army Command and Staff College

I wish Blood Washing Blood had been available to read before my first deployment to Kandahar, Afghanistan in 2007 or even my second tour to Kabul in 2012. I would have made it compulsory reading for my whole combat team or task force. It provides a detailed but easily understood analysis of the complicated, convoluted intricacies of Afghan history, politics, tribal relations, and power struggles.

Colonel (retired) Alex Ruff, The Royal Canadian Regiment

Blood Washing Blood is an extremely readable account of a century of unending Afghan warfare. It provides valuable context and understanding to the human dimensions of a conflict in which the West has been mired for the last two decades.

Dr. Howard G. Coombs, Associate Chair War Studies, Royal Military College of Canada

Halton has an easy style, which he uses to effect in this well-researched and highly readable history, while endeavouring to untangle a highly complex subject. The author wisely goes back more than a century in order to establish that the current animosities had their roots long before the Soviets or the West found themselves fighting in Afghanistan. This book is a necessary read for any outsider wishing to gain any appreciation of the many factions, tribes, leaders, families, and individual actors and their loyalty-based and highly complex interactions. Further, Halton has done a good job of presenting the history from an Afghan perspective. He rightly concludes that while most observers may wrongly trace the current troubles to the September 2001 attacks (or even the Soviet invasion in 1979), in fact, this misunderstanding "... fails to recognize that the conflict is an internal one between elements of Afghan society, and that Western actors — military, humanitarian, and political — merely exacerbate the conflict... " This book is at once both a warning and required reading for any who would insert expeditionary military forces into parts of the world that they do not fully comprehend.

Colonel (Ret’d) Charles S. Oliviero, CD, PhD

Through this sweeping and grand political history of Afghanistan, Halton proves himself to be one of Canada's leading warrior-scholars. Blood Washing Blood combines meticulous scholarly research and ground-level field experience in a compelling story about Afghanistan's enduring war.

Dr. Aisha Ahmad, University of Toronto, author of Jihad & Co. Black Markets and Islamist Power

Phil has done an impressive job of objectively chronicling and making unique sense of the devilishly complicated subject of contemporary political and social upheaval from an Afghan perspective. The conflicts between Afghanistan's strategic partners and adversaries, the international community, the coalition, and governments of the day are a backdrop to the "Afghan way" of personal, tribal, and ethnic influences and loyalties that have shaped domestic power struggles. Something that is exceedingly difficult for outsiders to grasp. It is one thing to see the continuing saga as an outcome of The Great Game, but Phil nuances this by additionally portraying how Afghan leaders have consistently levered the Great Powers to their particular purposes. This is a very credible and readable work that resets the narrative around 100 years of upheaval, progress, and setback.

Michael J. Ward, Major General (Retired), Deputy Commander NATO Training Mission Afghanistan 2009-2010

About the Author

Phil Halton

Posted by Dundurn Guest on March 27, 2018
Phil Halton photo

Phil Halton

Phil Halton has worked around the globe as a soldier and security consultant, including in Afghanistan. He is the author of the novel This Shall Be a House of Peace. He lives in Toronto.