By Patrick Anderson
PBN Staff Writer
Brian Glyn Williams spent years studying the history of central Asia, but found little interest in the subject in the United States and moved to England to find teaching work. Shortly after he returned to America to teach a course at UMass Dartmouth on a little-known group called the Taliban, the 9/11 terrorist attacks put his knowledge of Afghanistan in high demand. The military hired him to write a field guide to Afghanistan that was distributed to troops and has now been published for a general audience by University of Pennsylvania Press.
PBN: Why did you write “Afghanistan Declassified?”
WILLIAMS: I had done some work for various government agencies and, due to the nature of my work, it suddenly became [part of the] mainstream. I had done things like advise the CIA and track suicide bombers.
I was brought to the attention of an ultra-secret group called Joint Operations Warfare and became sort of an in-house advisory for them. Around 2006-2007, the Army asked me to write a field manual on everything for Afghanistan. We have this war, the longest war in American history, and they have no manual for it.
PBN: What kind of reaction did you get from troops who read the field manual?
WILLIAMS: A lot said thanks for putting my own mission in context. And they wanted more. I had people wanting me to expand my manual and bring it up to date with current events.
That inspired me to expand my manual and bring it up to date for the general public.
PBN: In the U.S., do you think Afghanistan has been misrepresented or just under represented?
WILLIAMS: Both. I think Afghanistan has been the forgotten war. In many ways these troops considered Iraq to be a distraction from the real war against al-Qaida. The misrepresentation is you get dilettantes saying how they, the Afghans, all want us out of the country. In reality, it is a multiethnic country and most of the groups have blood feuds with the Taliban.
I traveled everywhere and most of what I heard is: “Don’t leave.”
PBN: In your travels in Afghanistan, did you ever feel you were in personal danger?
WILLIAMS: It runs the gamut. Sometimes you feel very safe. One time we were driving down a road that had been declared off limits and we didn’t know it. A convoy behind us got ambushed.
Every time I leave Afghanistan I thank God.
PBN: How has Afghanistan changed since you first wrote the book?
WILLIAMS: I started writing in 2007. [That year] Iraq was the focus of the media and the focus of the Bush surge. It was where Americans were fighting and dying. At the time I wrote the manual, Afghanistan was the forgotten war. Central command took their eye off the ball and focused on Iraq.
The war wasn’t as bad then. There were zones I drove though in 2005-2006 that I can’t go to anymore. Red zones they call them now. It’s too dangerous.
Since then, the war has really gotten much worse in Afghanistan.
PBN: Where do you see this current conflict heading?
WILLIAMS: I have a very grim prognostication for the future of Afghanistan.
We are already withdrawing troops; the Obama troop surge will bring home 10,000 by end of the year, so we are down to 90,000. And then gradually drawing down the rest until 2014, or at least most. I don’t think we can win the war in Afghanistan. At best it will devolve into a civil war after we leave between the embattled Kharzei government.
The Taliban have one very ill-boding slogan: the Americans might have the watches, but we have the time.
PBN: At this point, what could policymakers do differently to create a better future for Afghanistan?
WILLIAMS: In my opinion everything that can be done
to defeat the Taliban on the
battlefield, to build up the Afghan army and give Afghanistan
a breathing space is being done, however belatedly. This full-court-press approach should have been applied back in 2002 when the Taliban had been initially defeated during Operation Enduring Freedom. … Today there are 100,000 U.S. troops and 50,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan doing all they can to clear, build and hold. It costs U.S. taxpayers $120 billion a year to run the war in Afghanistan and many Republicans, including presidential candidate Ron Paul, have turned on the war so we can use the money to engage in nation-building at home instead. … It remains to be seen whether or not the Afghan army will be up to the task of militarily defeating the resurgent Taliban after we draw down most of our forces in 2014.
PBN: Do you envision a follow-up work to “Afghanistan Declassified” or a field manual for any other countries?
WILLIAMS: Yes, I am currently working on a book project that will provide a history of the war on terror. It is very difficult to write a history of events that we are living through, but that is the sort of history I find most challenging. Our nation has experienced many seminal events in the last 10 years that are not fully understood, from the early successes in Afghanistan in 2001, to the near failures in invading Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, to a return of U.S. Central Command’s focus on Afghanistan. … I am hoping to provide a bird’s-eye view of these remarkable times for a public that has now spent a decade at war against al-Qaida and the Taliban in Afghanistan and various socialist and jihadist insurgents in Iraq, but often does not know who we are fighting and why. •
Brian Glyn Williams
Position: Associate professor of history at UMass Dartmouth
Background: After receiving his doctorate in central Asian studies, Brian Glyn Williams taught Middle Eastern and Balkan history at the University of London before being hired by UMass Dartmouth, where he now teaches Islamic civilization. After 9/11, the U.S. Army hired Williams to write a field guide to Afghanistan, which has now been published under the name “Afghanistan Declassified: A Guide to America’s Longest War.”
Education: Bachelor’s in history from Stetson University, 1988; master’s degrees in central Eurasian studies and Russian history from Indiana University, 1990 and 1992, respectively; PhD in central Asian history from the University of Wisconsin, 1999
First Job: Soccer referee in county youth league