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by Eric S. Margolis
Toronto: Key Porter Books, 250 pages, $22.95
Reviewed by Major J.C. Stone

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Margolis’ War at the Top of the World: The Struggle for Afghanistan is an update of his earlier version of this book published in 1999. It is a very useful book for gaining a basic understanding of the complexity of issues in Afghanistan and South East Asia. This updated edition presents an overview of the ongoing conflicts and struggle for control of the Himalayas and the importance the region to India, Pakistan and China. Margolis also discusses the Taliban, Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda issues with particular emphasis on link-ages to the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States. The central argument of this work remains unchanged from the earlier edition: the centuries of religious and ethnic conflict in this region have created, and will continue to create, a threat to international peace and security. More importantly, Margolis argues that this conflict is much more significant and volatile than most nations in the Western world realize.

The book begins with a discussion of Afghanistan, the history of the region, how the Taliban came to power and the significance of Osama bin Laden. Then Margolis moves to the India-Pakistan dispute over Kashmir. This part of the book includes a very useful discussion of some of the issues facing both sides, and the consequences if either India or Pakistan allowed the dispute to become a full scale war now that nuclear weapons have been added to the equation. Finally, the book tackles the Chinese occupation of Tibet and the challenges facing this unique part of the world. In the broader context, Margolis does a very good job of summarizing the four-way situation in this very complex region of the world.

As much as War at the Top of The World is enjoyable to read, it is not without its distractions. Margolis uses history, war and personal anecdotes from his own extensive travels in the region to make his arguments, and the reader may often become irritated at the self-aggrandisement of the author in his descriptions of what he has done in a region. As well, the reader should be careful when reading the book. It is apparent where Margolis’ sympathies lie, and the book should be read with this bias in mind. Additionally, since the book is not intended as an academic text, there are no footnotes or references. This is of particular concern given the context of some of the significant and unsubstantiated accusations made by Margolis. For example, on page 33 Margolis states that the “KGB staged carefully calibrated assassinations, ambushes and raids complete with faked evidence left behind, that convinced Mujahedin leaders they were being attacked by other allied Mujahedin groups.” This may or may not be true, but it is a significant accusation offered without substantiation. Other reviews on this and the first edition have challenged some of the facts and geographical descriptions articulated by Margolis. In other words, readers must be aware of the author’s bias and make their conclusions accordingly.

Notwithstanding these somewhat negative observations, military officers who read the book cannot help but increase their level of understanding of a very complicated region, a region that will likely occupy our interest for many years to come.

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Major J.C. Stone is a PhD student at Royal Military College.

University of New Brunswick

Centre for Conflict Studies Conference 2003

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Terrorism and Trans-National Crime: Evolving Challenges to Security and Policing

3-4 October 2003

Registration fee: $125.00, Banquet (4 October): $25.00

To register and for other information, contact:
Deborah Stapleford at
The Centre for Conflict Studies, University of New Brunswick, Fredericton, NB E3B 5A3
phone: (506) 453-4587
email: conflict@unb.ca