Hardcover, 352 pages
Published April 8th 2014 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (first published January 1st 2014)
Format read: Finished copy via publisher
She knows just how much this war has cost the Afghan people, and how much damage can be traced to Pakistan and its duplicitous government and intelligence forces. Now that American troops are withdrawing, it is time to tell the full history of how we have been fighting the wrong enemy, in the wrong country.Gall combines searing personal accounts of battles and betrayals with moving portraits of the ordinary Afghans who endured a terrible war of more than a decade. Her firsthand accounts of Taliban warlords, Pakistani intelligence thugs, American generals, Afghan politicians, and the many innocents who were caught up in this long war are riveting. Her evidence that Pakistan fueled the Taliban and protected Osama bin Laden is revelatory.
This is a sweeping account of a war brought by well-intentioned American leaders against an enemy they barely understood, and could not truly engage.
For 13 years, our soldiers have fought al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and other allied militants in the mountains and valleys; deserts and forests; and villages and cities of that war-torn nation. Although Afghanistan was easily conquered in the initial months of a US-led bombing campaign in 2001 and peace seemed to return, it did not last for long. A new insurgency emerged, gradually at first, but one that came close to toppling the Afghan government and defeating the NATO military coalition.
Was this avoidable? Author Carlotta Gall, a New York Times journalist who spent most of the last 13 years living in Afghanistan and Pakistan, believes so. In this book, she covers the war at multiple levels, from the intensely personal accounts of local Afghans and American soldiers in a war zone, to the highly secretive and dubious actions of the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence agency (aka the ISI).
Gall argues convincingly and passionately that America has been fighting the wrong enemy at the wrong time throughout this campaign. However, due to a series of poor policy decisions by American, NATO, and Afghan leaders, coupled with duplicity by Pakistan’s civilian government, military and intelligence agencies, a war that was all but won in early 2002 has continued to this day.
In the early days of the conflict, America’s bombing campaign, coupled with Special Forces and CIA operatives on the ground allied with the Northern Alliance, won a lightning victory over the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Almost immediately, US resources headed towards the impending showdown with Iraq, while Afghanistan was left to a small force of US and NATO forces.
While the initial days saw a unity government formed under Hamid Karzai, as well as peace and stability, a series of blunders by the Afghan, US, and NATO forces, compounded by the duplicitous support of militants by Pakistan, led to insurgency that required a US ‘surge’ of 101,000 troops in 2010. While violence has declined and Afghan security forces are increasingly taking the lead, the situation remains, as always, ‘fragile and reversible’.
How did this happen? How did a war that appeared won turn into a war that was almost lost? How did Hamid Karzai go from being America’s best to a detested outcast? Why did the Taliban return? More importantly, who was it that aided and abetted their return? What sparked the rise of the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) and their war on the Pakistani state? Gall answers these questions and more in this well-written, engrossing book.
Things that worked:
Writing on Afghanistan or Pakistan can be a laborious task. This reviewer once read a book about Pakistani history and culture that was over 800 pages long! Given the decades of conflict, politics, and key decisions involved in this part of the world, a book about Afghanistan and Pakistan could easily have become a book about everything.
Instead, Gall wisely casts a narrow view. Drawing upon first-person interviews and experiences, she writes in a very thematic style, which overlaps with the overarching timeframe of the conflict. By keeping this book of roughly 300 pages laser-focused on the years of 2001-2014, the reader gets a clear examination of the Afghan War that isn’t weighed down by too much history, but contains just enough analysis and context so as not to be too simplistic. I was quite impressed with the author’s abilities in this regard.
Gall’s personal writing style
In writing about complex issues of tribal disarmament, state-sponsored terrorism, and factional infighting, Gall impressively utilizes a series of personal interviews and stories to demonstrate the real-world impact of the war. From tribal elders to frontline soldiers, the author wisely brings the high-level politics into context. This clarity helps to emphasize the human impact of the war and, more importantly, shows that decisions can have an impact. ‘Winning’ this war was never going to look like a ticker-tape parade in New York City.
However, the war was not fated to be unwinnable either. By showing how so many, many choices made by key actors impacted the day-to-day lives of ordinary Afghans and Pakistanis, Gall demonstrates how the Taliban staged their successful resurgence and almost swamped ISAF. By doing so, she also shows how significant investments in forces and training by the US in 2010 beat back the Taliban surge and have given Afghanistan the first real shot at a lasting peace since early 2002.
Things that didn't work/Things to consider:
The critique of Pakistan is quite accurate. For decades now, the United States has been dealing with a ‘friend’ who behaves consistently like an enemy. Our own foreign policy in this area has been scattershot, to be sure. However, what we must ultimately ‘do’ with Pakistan is a question left unanswered and largely alone.
Pakistan is a nuclear-armed nation of 180 million people, next to Afghanistan, India, and China. What happens in this nation and the decisions made by policymakers and actors there will be a major driver of the 21st Century. Their support of terrorism, including militants who kill Americans and our allies, makes their behavior unacceptable in any reasonable sense. Yet, their size, military strength (including the bomb), and geographic location mean that there will be no easy answers.
America will likely be dealing with Pakistan’s behavior for decades. While vexing, this topic needs to be explored further. Invading Pakistan and destroying the ISI and militants might appear simple on paper, but it’s no more likely at this point then America invading China over Taiwan. Therefore, Americans need to discuss much more of what we specifically want from Pakistan and, more importantly, how we can achieve it without going to war.
Disclaimer: I received a hardcover copy of The Wrong Enemy from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and chose to review it!