The Afghan Way of War

Culture and Pragmatism: A Critical History

September 2011 9781849041065 256pp
April 2014 9781849043762 256pp


Included in the narrative are the wider Pashtun population that lived astride the British Imperial/Pakistan border, not just those Pashtuns resident in the modern state of Afghanistan.

The literature on the Afghan wars and frontier actions is almost entirely Anglo-centric and ‘agency’ on the part of Afghans/Pashtuns is largely missing. Even modern accounts by journalists, former soldiers, policy-makers and commentators have tended to reduce the Afghans and Pashtuns to stereotypes and deprive them of any initiative. Ironically their nineteenth-century contemporaries were rather more generous in their appraisal of their fighting prowess.

Rob Johnson presents more than just another military history of the Afghan Wars; he seeks to open a new chapter in the debate about Afghanistan and, crucially, aims to ‘tell the story’ from the Afghan side, countering the inaccurate and sometimes rather fanciful interpretations of events, in order to present a more fully rounded account of the military history of the Afghans.


‘Required reading for the leaders of both the U.S. and U.K., as well as the grunts on Afghan soil.’ — TIME

‘For many observers Afghanistan, its people, and their conflicts remain mysterious, explicable primarily through vaguely Orientalist constructs of “culture” or “tribe”. Johnson helps explain “the Afghan way of war” as Afghans themselves understand it. As such, this impressive work is an important contribution to the study of Afghanistan.’ — David Kilcullen, author of Counterinsurgency and The Accidental Guerrilla

The Afghan Way of War is a superb book. It offers an unprecedented historical account of the evolving nature of warfare in Afghanistan over the past two hundred years, and overturns long-held assumptions about the Afghans as fighters. Its careful historical analysis makes it essential reading for anyone interested in understanding Afghanistan — and, perhaps more importantly, Afghans themselves.’ — Seth G. Jones, author of In the Graveyard of Empires: America’s War in Afghanistan

‘The most comprehensive attempt yet to try to explain why in Afghanistan “killing was a way of life” — the words of an SAS officer quoted here. Rob Johnson’s cool, clear, forensic examination underlines how, in Afghanistan, he who controls the past controls the future.’ — David Loyn, BBC foreign correspondent and author of Butcher and Bolt: 200 Years of Foreign Engagement in Afghanistan

‘There are many recent accounts of Afghanistan’s wars, but none that pays as close attention to how the Afghans, as well as foreigners, planned and carried out their military campaigns there.  This well written book provides fresh insights on both old and new conflicts that deserves a wide readership.’ — Tom Barfield, author of Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History

‘For those who are interested in appraising how Afghanistan’s remote as well as immediate past may shape its complex and clouded present, Robert Johnson’s The Afghan Way of War offers an exciting starting point.’ — William Maley, Director, Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy and author of Rescuing Afghanistan

‘A scholarly yet highly accessible book (an exceptional phenomenon in its own right) that takes the reader, in Johnson’s own words, beyond “the narrow and colonial impression” of previous writing about the Afghans and the region. … Johnson is certainly well qualified to construct a clear analysis of the political and ethnic complexities of the current Afghan conflict. … The Afghan Way of War is likely to long remain an invaluable reference work for understanding conflict in Afghanistan’ — Jules Stewart, Military History Monthly

‘Johnson makes a forensic study of a wide range of sources, analysing not only British engagement in Afghanistan, but also the perennial conflict on the North Western Frontier, the Russian occupation of the 1980s, and also civil wars between Afghan factions in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. His careful work is a challenge to lazy thinking … subtle, well-researched and convincing.’ — Asian Affairs

‘Afghanistan has a long and storied military history. For many Westerners, however, that history is known more through myth and apocrypha than serious historiography. Rob johnson does an important service by overturning many such myths in a rich overview of nearly 200 years of Afghan warfare.’ — Stephen Biddle, Roger Hertog Senior Fellow for Defense Policy, Council on Foreign Relations



Rob Johnson is Director of the Changing Character of War Centre at the University of Oxford.

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