Afghan Mountain Strongholds

Afghanistan Cave Complexes 1979–2004
Mountain strongholds of the Mujahideen, Taliban & Al Qaeda

Written by Mir Bahyanmar
Illustrated by Ian Palmer


Osprey Publishing’s “Fortress” series

You might have seen this title when it first came out a few years ago and thought that it would be a not very exciting inventory of a bunch of caves in the mountains of Afghanistan.  Well, having read this book I can tell you that it is in fact a VERY interesting book – and essential reading for anyone wanting to gain a better understanding of the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan.

For starters, the book is written by a former US Army Ranger who is of Persian ethnic background – so he brings not only a great deal of “boots-on-the-ground” tactical and situational appreciation, and an eye-for-detail – but his cultural background also provides a unique, crucial and  invaluable lens for understanding the context of operations in Afghanistan.  In fact, in my opinion his introductory section ought to be required reading for every Western politician, civil servant, military personnel and non-governmental civilian involved with Afghanistan – before they even think of forming an opinion on the subject, let alone setting foot in the country.

Secondly, he doesn’t confine his examination to Operation Enduring Freedom and the years since – as the title suggests, he starts with the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and also looks at the tumultuous years in between the Soviet departure and the arrival of the Western coalition in October 2001.  The section on Soviet tactics (based on information provided by Russian sources – including a Spetsnaz veteran) is especially interesting and unique.

When the author does turn his attention to Operation Enduring Freedom and its enduring aftermath, the book becomes possibly more interesting and relevant to the interests of most of you reading this review.  The coverage of this phase of the enduring conflict in Afghanistan is excellent – its packed with very illustrative photographs and graphics, highly descriptive text and a Grunt’s insight and appreciation of the operational environment.  He also doesn’t pull any punches in his assessment of the undue influence over, and interference with, coalition-building and military planning and operations by untrained, dogmatic, civilian politicians such as Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Cheney and their cronies.  He makes a pretty compelling case that the Bush administration Executive Branch’s meddling and ineptitude contributed largely to the fact that we failed to annihilate Al Qaeda and The Taliban when we had them pinned down and holed-up.  On the purely military side of things, he also provides very good insight and analysis of cave and tunnel operations – how they’ve evolved since the days of  the “Tunnel Rats” in Vietnam, and also a comparison of American vs. Soviet tactics.

It has been said that you can tell a lot about a nation’s culture by looking at its architecture and by how it engages and interacts with its natural environment. So what do you make of a country that makes widespread use of caves and underground irrigation and food storage areas?  Well, Mr. Bahyanmar does a great job (in my opinion) of helping us to understand the Afghanis and the mixed-up social/tribal-religious-economic-political dynamics of the country – and that is probably the correct order of priorities for the “average” Afghani.  As an illustration, there really aren’t any “Afghani” traditions or a sense of Afghan nationality – there are only tribal, ethnic and regional identities and communities.  The only one thing that all Afghans have in common is religion (with various degrees of interpretation and devotion nonetheless), and this is a big part of why The Students of Islam (i.e., The Taliban) were able to gain power – and also why they still persist.  So, until a popular movement with a more just, tolerant and peaceful version of Islam is able to counter and break the influence and power of The Taliban, I don’t think we’ll see peace, stability and prosperity blossom in Afghanistan.

Conclusion:  Don’t be fooled by the fact that this is a relatively thin soft-covered volume, this is good stuff. The author’s style is clear, authoritative and engaging – you can almost smell the cordite and taste the dust as you read the book.  On the illustrations front; there are loads of good photos and diagrams, and although at first I was undecided about the use of computer-generated graphics they did actually work quite well in some instances to convey information better than traditional-style illustrations might have done.

So, what’s the final “Strike-Hold!” verdict?  If there is only book in your library about the conflict in Afghanistan, this should be it.  Get it.–2004_9781841767765

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