THE AMERICAN WAR IN AFGHANISTAN: A History
Author: Carter Malkasian
THE AFGHANISTAN PAPERS: A Secret History of the War
Author: Craig Whitlock
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
In the predawn hours of July 1 they departed, the few remaining US troops at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, the centre of operations for America’s longest war. It marked the symbolic end of America’s 20-year military intervention in a war-ravaged land.
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 the key developments in the war and reaching broadly similar conclusions, but with differing emphases. 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 US involvement, from 9/11 onward. 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.
Whitlock, a veteran Washington Post reporter, expands on a much-discussed series of articles that appeared in The Post in late 2019 and that were based on interviews and documents gathered by the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) for several “Lessons Learned” reports. In Whitlock’s grim assessment, American military and civilian leaders in three successive administrations from George W Bush’s to Donald J Trump’s engaged in an “unspoken conspiracy to mask the truth” about the almost continuous setbacks on the ground in Afghanistan.
It wasn’t always that way. In early October 2001, the United States rode a wave of international support following the 9/11 attacks to launch a sustained aerial campaign against Al Qaeda and the ruling Taliban and dispatched Special Operations forces to assist a resistance organisation in northern Afghanistan. The result was a rout. Within 60 days, the Taliban was driven from power, with the loss of only four US troops and one CIA agent. It was a stunning victory, even if Osama bin Laden and top Taliban leaders eluded capture. Flushed with success, US planners were uncertain about what to do next. They feared that Afghanistan could descend into chaos, but didn’t want to be saddled with the tasks of nation-building. Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld, who is a key figure in both volumes, personified the indecision. Empowered by George W Bush to oversee the mission, Rumsfeld shared the president’s inclination to view the Taliban and Al Qaeda as inseparable. Yet he also showed a subtler side.
“Respectful of Afghanistan’s history,” Malkasian writes, Rumsfeld “was aware that U S troops could upset the Afghan people and trigger an uprising. He wanted to outsource to Afghan partners and be done with the place as soon as possible. In hindsight, he was prescient. Yet his actual decisions cut off opportunities to avoid the future he so feared.”
Thus Rumsfeld ignored entreaties to include the Taliban in the postwar settlement in late 2001 and sanctioned overly aggressive counter-terrorism operations that alienated ordinary Afghans and in short order drove former Taliban supporters to resort again to violence. And thus he and Bush turned a blind eye to the repressive actions of Karzai’s government and its warlord allies. Yet even as American planners acknowledged — behind closed doors — that they were losing in Afghanistan, they kept up the bullish public pronouncements. “Lies and Spin,” Whitlock titles a particularly devastating chapter, as he quotes general after general declaring to reporters that the trend lines pointed in the right direction, that the enemy was on the ropes, that victory would soon come. Never mind the plethora of intelligence assessments showing the opposite. Neither of these authors gives much reason to believe that an alternative American strategy would have brought an appreciably different result. Malkasian, the more sanguine of the two, identifies some missed opportunities to limit the bloodshed and cut back US involvement, but concludes that Afghanistan was always destined to be a long and difficult slog. Whitlock credits President Joe Biden for his April decision to pull the US forces from what the author terms an “unwinnable war.”
Indeed, one puts down these two estimable works with the strong sense that the very presence of the United States created a monumental problem for the Kabul government. Much like South Vietnam a half century before, it could never escape being tainted by its association with a foreign occupying power.