Where America Went Wrong in Afghanistan (Review Essay)

Historians in the News
tags: books, military history, book reviews, war on terror, Afghanistan

Fredrik Logevall, a professor of history and international affairs at Harvard, is the author, most recently, of JFK: Coming of Age in the American Century, 1917-1956.

A History
By Carter Malkasian
Illustrated. 576 pp. Oxford University Press. $34.95.

A Secret History of the War
By Craig Whitlock
Illustrated. 368 pp. Simon & Schuster. $30.


In the predawn hours of July 1 they departed, the few remaining U.S. troops at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, the center of operations for America’s longest war. At its peak the sprawling compound — there were two runways, a 50-bed hospital, shops and restaurants, and a notorious “black jail” prison — housed tens of thousands of U.S. service members; now the last of them flew off, without fanfare and after shutting off the electricity. It marked the symbolic end of America’s 20-year military intervention in a war-ravaged land.

Left behind at the base were some 3.5 million items, carefully cataloged, including furniture and electronics, small arms and ammunition, as well as thousands of civilian vehicles and hundreds of armored trucks. The plan was for the material to be inherited by the Afghan military; most of it was, but not before looters made off with a substantial haul.

It will be up to historians of the future, writing with broad access to official documents and with the kind of detachment that only time brings, to fully explain the remarkable early-morning scene at Bagram and all that led up to it. But there’s much we can already learn — abundant material is available. When the historians get down to work, chances are they will make ample use of two penetrating new works: Carter Malkasian’s “The American War in Afghanistan” and Craig Whitlock’s “The Afghanistan Papers.”

The two volumes constitute a powerful one-two punch, covering as they do the key developments in the war and reaching broadly similar conclusions, but with differing emphases. Malkasian provides greater detail and context, while Whitlock’s United States-centric account is fast-paced and vivid, and chock-full of telling quotes. Both authors paint a picture of an American war effort that, after breathtaking early success, lost its way, never to recover.

My recommendation is to read the Malkasian first. A former civilian adviser in Afghanistan who also served as a senior aide to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Malkasian speaks Pashto and has a doctorate in history. In this, his third and most comprehensive book on Afghanistan, he provides a broad-reaching and quietly authoritative overview of U.S. involvement, from 9/11 onward. He is good on military operations, including the Battle of Marjah in 2010. No less important, he enlightens us on the Afghan part of the story — on the tribal system and its variations; on the forbidding geography, so vital in the fighting; on the Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar and his decision-making; on the complex and ever-shifting relationships between the government of Hamid Karzai and the warlords in the provinces.

Read entire article at New York Times

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