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What Went Wrong in Afghanistan — and How to Make It Righ
War Comes to Garmser: Thirty Years of Conflict on the Afghan Frontier. BY CARTER MALKASIAN. Oxford University Press, 2013, 352 pp. $27.95.
The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan, 2001–2014. BY CARLOTTA GALL. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014, 352 pp. $28.00.
No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes. BY ANAND GOPAL. Metropolitan Books, 2014, 320 pp. $27.00.
In the concluding pages of his fascinating memoir, War Comes to Garmser, Carter Malkasian, a Pashto-speaking U.S. diplomat who was stationed in a volatile region of Afghanistan in 2009–11, voices a fear shared by many of the Westerners who have participated in the Afghan war during the past 13 years: «The most frustrating thing about leaving Garmser in July 2011 and now watching it from afar is that I cannot be certain that the [Afghan] government will be able to stand on its own. … The British and the Marines had put the government in a better position to survive than it had enjoyed in the past. What they had not done was create a situation in which the government was sure to win future battles against Taliban [fighters] coming out of Pakistan.»
Malkasian’s frustration is understandable. Over the past 13 years, Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s central government and many of the people Karzai has appointed as regional governors have proved inept and corrupt, alienating ordinary Afghans in rural areas, many of whom have come to see the Taliban as the lesser of two evils. Karzai’s time as president will soon come to an end, but Karzai is not going quietly. His efforts to manipulate the results of the elections held this past summer to choose his successor — and to ensure that he himself will retain significant influence even once he leaves office — have cast a pall over a democratic transfer of power that might otherwise have helped stabilize the country. The massive fraud that marred the election (and in which Karzai was almost certainly complicit) aided the Taliban’s cause and endangered the country’s unity by reigniting the same regional and ethnic tensions that fueled the civil war of the 1990s.
The United States also deserves some share of the blame. A cornerstone of contemporary counterinsurgency doctrine is the idea that outside actors must avoid the temptation to take direct control of a friendly country’s military and governing responsibilities and should instead build up its institutional capabilities. But the United States ignored that axiom in Afghanistan, making many of the same mistakes that plagued the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s. For the past decade, U.S. generals have dominated the military effort against the insurgency. Washington has chosen Afghanistan’s leaders. Americans have conceived, planned, financed, and overseen economic projects in which Afghans have played only supporting roles. And yet there has never been a possibility that the United States and its allies could win the war against the Taliban. Only Afghans themselves can do that.
The Bush administration never truly accepted that basic premise. And neither the Bush administration nor the Obama administration fully grasped the true depth of Pakistan’s duplicity; the U.S. war in Afghanistan has been, in no small part, a war against Washington’s putative partners in Islamabad, who have covertly propped up the Taliban insurgency to suit their own purposes. In late 2009, the Obama administration wisely moved to “Afghanize” the war, putting Afghans in charge of defending their own country by increasing the number of U.S. troops but gradually shifting them to a supporting role, allowing the largely U.S.-financed Afghan security forces, which now boast 340,000 soldiers and police officers, to take the lead in combat operations. Nevertheless, the Obama administration has yet to confront, much less resolve, the dilemma posed by Pakistan’s two-faced strategy.
Thanks in part to the flawed policies that have flowed from Washington’s misapprehensions, the new Afghan government that emerged from the contested presidential election will face long odds in its effort to hold off the Taliban and counter Pakistani meddling. For the Afghan state to win its war against the Taliban and the group’s patrons in Pakistan, it will need the United States and NATO to sustain their support. Ultimately, however, success in Afghanistan will depend on internal Afghan and geopolitical developments that the United States and its allies cannot control: the ability of moderate Afghan tribal and ethnic groups (who together represent a majority of the country’s population) to unite behind a representative, competent, reform-minded leadership; a fundamental shift in Pakistani policy away from destabilizing Afghanistan; and diplomatic cooperation among external powers, including China and India, to restore Afghanistan’s classic buffer role in the region.
Malkasian’s book and two other recent books on the war in Afghanistan — Carlotta Gall’s The Wrong Enemy and Anand Gopal’s No Good Men Among the Living — help reveal why those outcomes remain uncertain, and even unlikely. Taken together, these books explain how it can be that more than 13 years after 9/11, the Afghan war is far from over, even if Washington insists that the U.S. war in Afghanistan will soon come to an end.