The South Asia Channel

Counterinsurgency was never about Afghanistan

Matt Zeller, Watches Without Time: An American Soldier in Afghanistan (Charlottesville, VA: Just World Books, 2012). Ben Anderson, No Worse Enemy: The Inside Story of the Chaotic Struggle for Afghanistan (Oxford: One World Publications, 2011). Carter Malkasian, War Comes to Garmser: Thirty Years of Conflict on the Afghan Frontier (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013). ...


Matt Zeller, Watches Without Time: An American Soldier in Afghanistan (Charlottesville, VA: Just World Books, 2012).

Matt Zeller, Watches Without Time: An American Soldier in Afghanistan (Charlottesville, VA: Just World Books, 2012).

Ben Anderson, No Worse Enemy: The Inside Story of the Chaotic Struggle for Afghanistan (Oxford: One World Publications, 2011).

Carter Malkasian, War Comes to Garmser: Thirty Years of Conflict on the Afghan Frontier (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).

As the U.S. military reels from budgetary battles and withdraws from Afghanistan, commentators offer post-mortem after post-mortem on counter-insurgency (COIN) – an ambitious operational concept-cum-strategy hoisted on its own petard in Afghanistan.  These sundry writers – including military officers, scholars, bloggers, and talking heads – have collectively sought, in the words of one blogger "to fire a few shotgun rounds into the recently buried corpse of population-centric counterinsurgency to prevent it from rising again."  The specter of the Vietnam Syndrome has become flesh once more,  and now the U.S. military plans, or attempts to plan, what form it will take in the decades to come.  That is what the COIN debate has always been about – not Iraq or Afghanistan, but the future of the U.S. military. 

It is likely that the outcome of this struggle will have a far greater impact on the United States and the world than America’s strategic defeats in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Still, not only is it unfortunate that these debates are not more rooted in the theatres in which these conflicts have taken place, it is very typically American. Contravening Clausewitz, the COIN debate proceeds as if war can be divorced from policy and politics; as if the organization, training, and equipping of the U.S. armed forces can take place apart from the aims to which and the places where these forces will be applied. 

It is in this context that the books reviewed here all have considerable value, showcasing different perspectives of the Afghan campaign during its most crucial and resource-intensive years: the experience of an American soldier, a brave journalist covering the war for years, and a political officer coming to know his district and its history with an uncommon intimacy.

Matt Zeller’s Watches Without Time provides a moving portrait of the war in Ghazni province through the author’s eyes as a young lieutenant struggling to make sense of the war around him.  The book is a collection of letters, reflections, and diary entries on everything from combat to working with the Afghan National Security Forces to the journey home. If anyone is wondering what it is like to go to war, read this book.  It is packed with drama, excitement, fear, humor, and heartbreak.  More importantly, it contains incisive observations about Afghan society from a young man trying to understand the war around him.  His brief anecdotes and explanations of political corruption and the performance of the Afghan National Police are worth the price alone.

Of the many journalists who have covered the war in Afghanistan, Ben Anderson is one of the most impressive.  His book, No Worse Enemy, which informed his excellent 2013 documentary with Vice, "This Is What Winning Looks Like," spans 2007 to 2011 and covers his time with the British Army and the U.S. Marine Corps as they struggle to pacify Afghanistan’s deadliest province, Helmand.  As a military outsider, Anderson struggles to make sense of the British and American militaries as much as he tries to understand the war in Afghanistan, thus making No Worse Enemy an interesting companion read to Zeller’s insider account.  Anderson is at his strongest when his narrative illustrates the complexity of telling friend from foe and right from wrong in a country where such distinctions are hopelessly blurred.  He concludes that, if he were Afghan, he "certainly wouldn’t be picking sides." He continues:

If someone built me a school or repaired my mosque, I would undoubtedly smile, shake their hand, maybe even make them a cup of tea or pose for a photograph.  But this would be simple pragmatism.  It would not mean I offered them my loyalty, much less that I had rejected the Taliban.  The nature and detail of this pragmatism is entirely lost on idealistic foreign commanders.

This critique cuts to the heart of the series of assumptions that are often grouped under the misnomer of "counterinsurgency theory." If one cannot truly "clear" an area of the insurgency because the difference between a guerrilla and a disgruntled farmer is far from obvious, and one cannot effectively "hold" an area because the Afghan police are abusive and ineffective and Western forces rotate every six months (as in the case of the British and the U.S. Marines), or "build" in a "held" area because the government is alternatively venal, corrupt, and disinterested, what can Western counter-insurgents really accomplish in Afghanistan that will endure?  Through their engaging portraits of the campaign in the south, Anderson and Zeller confront these contradictions head on.

But one cannot truly understand the war unless one understands Afghan history, especially on a very local level.  Carter Malkasian, also in Helmand, clearly mastered these details. While all three books are excellent, War Comes to Garmser stands above the rest. The term "instant classic" long ago achieved cliché-status by being applied to middling works – much like the word "brilliant" has lost its luster by being applied to average people – but War Comes to Garmser truly became a classic as soon as it was put on store shelves.  It will be one of a small number of books on Afghanistan to be published in the last 12 years that will be read for decades to come, and demands to be consulted if the United States ever again dispatches its forces to a faraway land to embroil itself in an internal war. 

Malkasian’s book, a history of Garmser through the prism of conflict, begins centuries ago.  As someone who has also worked at the local level in Helmand, I can assure you it is no exaggeration to say that you must go this far back in order to truly understand the dynamics of the current conflict.  He narrates the tribal and factional dynamics as they developed over the decades, alternately forged and fragmented through war, until his own more recent labors as a State Department political advisor working with the U.S. Marines.  Malkasian – who is currently advising Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, the Commander of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force – is something of a folk he
ro among Afghan hands.  He learned Pashto, achieved an unmatched understanding of his district, admirably violated State Department security strictures in order to go where he needed to go and speak with whom he needed to speak.

Gen. Larry Nicholson – who knew Malkasian from his time commanding the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, Task Force Leatherneck, in Helmand – memorably said:"We need a Carter Malkasian in every district of Afghanistan."  But to say that is to draw the wrong lesson from both his book and the conflict.  While it is true that we cannot understand (and therefore cannot be effective) without understanding what I call "micro-conflicts" – the localized, enduring conflicts and rivalries driving politics within the Afghan government and the larger insurgency – and that Malkasian understood them as deeply as any outsider could, this level of understanding alone could not illuminate the nature of the Afghan campaign. 

This campaign, as Anderson vividly depicts, rests its "success" on empowering a government and security forces that behave monstrously and feed the problems they are funded to defeat. Which brings me back to my main argument: when a military campaign is so disconnected from politics that it cannot succeed without exacerbating the true political problem – in this case the Afghan government – it matters not how many Carter Malkasians we have or how "good" our military becomes at counterinsurgency.

Ryan Evans is the assistant director of the Center for National Interest in Washington, DC.  He is the editor-in-chief of the web magazine War on the Rocks.  In 2010-2011, he worked as a social scientist on a human terrain team in central Helmand province.  You can follow him on Twitter @EvansRyan202.

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