The Good War. Why We Couldn't Win the War or the Peace in Afghanistan
by Jack Fairweather
Basic Books, New York, 2014. 395 pp.
It is often stated that "Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires." I suppose Afghanistan was the graveyard of the brief post-Cold War dreams of an Imperial America using its military might to spread democracy and Western values to the oppressed peoples of the globe under a Pax Americana. Afghanistan was at least the graveyard of a lot of naive good intentions.
After reading a lot that was focused very narrowly on the Canadian efforts in Afghanistan, and much of that having a very personal point of view, I thought I should read something broader and get some sense of the wider strategic and political scope of the war.
This book delivered that. Fairweather lays out the background from the overthrow of the King of Afghanistan, the rise of the Taliban to 9/11 and the American response until the final withdrawal of NATO troops in 2014. He follows the decision making in Washington, London and Kabul and how political pressure influenced military decisions, plus how military pressure influenced the political.
The author maintains objectivity with both Bush and Obama. Even Karzai is depicted fairly objectively. But all come in for criticism. Even international aid organisations are taken to task for their patronising approach which ended up undermining the government and contributing to the instability they were trying to fix. Pouring in money didn't help, pouring in troops just made things worse. Classic COIN OPS just drove the population to side with the insurgents instead of separating them. Allies like Pakistan actively aiding the insurgents didn't help either.
The politics of the war were agonisingly complex and beyond the scope of a blog post, so I'd highly recommend that you read the book for yourself to gain some insights.
But a few things did strike me. The Americans in the east, the British in Helmand and the Canadians in Kandahar were fighting three very different wars. The slowness with which the Americans and British equipped their troops with MRAPs is appalling. The American author's take on operation MEDUSA is also interesting; in a Canadian book on the battle, TF Grizzly, composed of American special ops, the remains of C Coy 1RCR (down to half strength after attacking the White School House and then being strafed by an A-10 before they could renew the attack) and some ANA, is tasked with pinning the Taliban and keeping their attention on Masum Ghar in the south while the weight of the NATO attack is shifted to B Coy 1RCR driving in from the north. In this book the author credits the American special ops with winning the battle and implies the RCR didn't really try at the White School House and that Omar Lavoie, CO of the RCR wasn't up to the job. So I also wonder about his views on the British experience in Helmand.
Except for that it's a good book for the strategic overview.