Jeremy Kuzmarov, Review of Tim Bird and Alex Marshall's "Afghanistan: How th West Lost Its Way (Yale University Press, 2011)
Jeremy Kuzmarov is assistant professor of history, University of Tulsa.
For a long time, Afghanistan was considered to be ‘the good war’ among western pundits and intellectuals, a noble crusade against Islamic extremism which the Bush administration neglected in favor of the illegal invasion of Iraq. Slowly but surely, as the corruption of the Karzai government was exposed, as U.S.-NATO bombings repeatedly struck at civilian targets, and as the Taliban gained strength in the countryside, this image began to shift and choruses of dissent began to emerge.
Tim Bird and Alex Marshall’s book Afghanistan: How the West Lost Its Way is the latest to challenge triumphalist narratives about the war being promoted in Washington. The authors, a lecturer at the Joint Services Command and Staff College at King’s College in London and a lecturer in war studies at the University of Glasgow, argue that the U.S.-NATO coalition squandered a small window of opportunity after the ouster of the Taliban to engage in effective state-building actions capable of solidifying the new order. Shifts in subsequent military strategy consequently proved futile in containing the Taliban. The Western powers worsened the situation as a result of their lack of clear strategy and ideological commitment to neo-liberal economic paradigms which have contributed to declining living standards for the majority of the population.
Drawing primarily on previously published articles and books, Bird and Marshall provide a valuable historical overview of the war in Afghanistan from the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001 to the recent Obama troop surge. They emphasize the perils associated with the U.S. strategy of supporting Northern Alliance warlords, many of whom built personal fortunes from the drug traffic and were implicated in serious human rights crimes during the 1990s civil war. Hamid Karzai, the U.S.-NATO client, was a minor tribal leader prone to accommodating the warlords, with disastrous effects for women’s rights and the population at large. In military operations, the CIA played an influential role in buying loyalties and was prone to manipulation by local officials who provided false intelligence for bombing attacks. Five minutes before he received the call from U.S. envoys in Bonn that he was to be the Afghan leader, an American B-52 mistakenly dropped a 2,000 lb bomb on Karzai’s own forces, killing three Special Forces soldiers, three bodyguards and nearly Karzai himself. A few months later, a convoy of Karzai’s supporters and friends was attacked by an American aircraft, killing dozens.
U.S.-NATO efforts to build up local security forces have been especially catastrophic. The army became quickly dominated by ethnic Tajiks and was known for high defection rates and corruption. The police meanwhile extorted from the population, took drugs and even robbed banks. Because of a lack of sufficient funds, they at times interrogated people in their private residences – a telling sign of the failure of western state-building efforts. Since around 2006, military specialists have emphasized the importance of population-centric counter-insurgency (COIN) strategies designed to win villagers “hearts and minds.” As Bird and Marshall point out, however, success in COIN is contingent on the legitimacy of the incumbent government as well as a larger cultural awareness and the ability of local forces to curry favor among the public, all lacking in this case.
Pakistan represents perhaps the greatest failure of western policy, as the U.S.-NATO coalition has helped to empower the army and intelligence services which are sympathetic to the Taliban and have enflamed the population by carrying out brutal reprisals on pro-insurgent communities. Predator drone attacks – whose success in targeting insurgents is estimated by the Brookings Institution to be under 10 percent – are supported by less than 7 percent of the population.
Bird and Marshall on the whole provide a well researched chronicle of the failed U.S.-NATO war in Afghanistan. They raise serious questions about the viability of Western intervention and state-building capabilities, providing a cautionary tale as the West embarks on another potentially disastrous intervention in Libya. The authors state at the end of the book that the most basic lesson from the Af-Pak fiasco is the need “to think long and hard before embarking on attempting to reshape states and societies to make them conform to our whims,” a point difficult to disagree with.
For all the book’s strengths, there are a number of areas it could be broadened. Absent from the bibliography is Malaila Joya’s A Woman Among Warlords, which details the terrible humanitarian consequences of the war for ordinary Afghans and deconstructs the myth that the war was about liberating Afghan women (as Laura Bush, Oprah Winfrey and even some liberal feminists originally claimed). Threatened with assassination for criticizing the government, Joya points to the importance of grass-roots organizations such as the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) in defying the U.S. backed warlords. University of New Hampshire professor Marc Herold’s writings are also overlooked. He has done valuable work exposing the horrific effects of the U.S.-NATO bombing campaigns which have killed thousands of civilians and struck at least four wedding parties.
Bird and Marshall could provide a better historical perspective. The title of the book suggests a golden age of the West. Colonial interventions however have always been exploitative and engendered resistance among the subject society, pointing to much greater degree of continuity from the past than the authors imply. The origins of the U.S.-NATO war should also be more critically assessed. A recent study published by New York University points to long-standing friction between the Taliban and Al Qaeda, who according to former commanding General Stanley A. McChrystal, have less than 100 fighters stationed in Afghanistan. If this is the case, then what is the war really about? While perhaps an emotional reaction to the 9/11 attacks, there are also underlying strategic objectives which the United States and Western countries have been pursuing in Afghanistan, including access to oil pipelines in Central Asia and the country’s newly discovered mineral wealth which the authors might better emphasize. The war furthermore is based on questionable legality, having been fought without authorization by the United Nations Security Council, or court-sanctioned proof of bin Laden’s role in 9/11 and his ties to the Taliban regime.
In a just world, Bush administration officials and high-ranking military Generals and their Canadian and European collaborators could thus potentially face legal censure for their role in the destruction of Afghanistan, which has been considerable.
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