Our Latest Longest War: Losing Hearts and Minds in Afghanistan. Aaron B. O’Connell (ed). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2017.
As the three-year anniversary of the end of Operation Enduring Freedom approaches, autopsies on the thirteen-year endeavor have increased. With every passing month, it seems a new memoir or examination is published. Accordingly, it would be easy to dismiss Our Latest Longest War: Losing Hearts and Minds in Afghanistan, a collection of essays edited by Aaron O’Connell, as the latest in a long line of lamentations on what went wrong.
While senior leaders were erudite students of history and aware of similar missteps in Vietnam, America’s deeply entrenched liberal values and bureaucratic methods led them to repeat many of the same mistakes.
O’Connell, though, has assembled a top-notch array of authors with expertise and experience in the Afghanistan of Enduring Freedom. These authors cut across a wide range of topics: training Afghan National Security Forces, implementing the rule of law, reconstructing and developing Afghan infrastructure, and transitioning to an environment with Afghan Security Forces in the lead. The eleven essays comprising Our Longest War convincingly argue the cultural friction between American and Afghan officials scuttled numerous efforts to stabilize this war-torn society. It is the essays by O’Connell, former Afghan Ambassador Ronald Neumann, and Aaron MacLean, a former Marine infantry officer, that pack the most punch in underscoring the tragedy of Afghanistan: while senior leaders were erudite students of history and aware of similar missteps in Vietnam, America’s deeply entrenched liberal values and bureaucratic methods led them to repeat many of the same mistakes.
Ambassador Ronald Neumann’s essay, “Washington Goes to War,” is a brutal assessment of America’s bureaucratic proclivity to undermine efforts overseas. Neumann, a Vietnam veteran and former Ambassador to Afghanistan (2005-2007), pulls no punches in highlighting the similarities between our missteps in Afghanistan and Vietnam: inability to listen to locals, staggering incompetence in implementing policies, personnel policies that repeatedly destroyed our institutional knowledge, and a jumbled military chain of command that often developed strategies in a vacuum and undercut competing efforts.
The former Ambassador highlights Washington’s schizophrenic attempts at developing policy from the invasion to the end of Enduring Freedom. Neumann highlights, for example, how Washington seemingly ignored Afghanistan after the initial invasion and then overreacted to the rise of the Taliban by opening the spigots that flooded the country with reconstruction and development monies. This was compounded by the Obama administration’s refusal to acknowledge their expansive nation building endeavor. This contradiction created strategic confusion because the means, the rhetoric, and the ends did not match.
Neumann provides a senior-level view of Washington’s many missteps, especially its mishandling of former Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Perhaps nothing underscores this more than former Vice President Joe Biden’s infamous 2008 meeting with Karzai, where Biden publicly rebuked Karzai before departing a public dinner in a harrumph. As Neumann sarcastically states, “There may be a nation in which one can repeatedly insult its president in front of others...but it is certainly not Afghanistan.”
Following Neumann’s dissection of Washington’s errors, a wide array of Afghan veterans take turns highlighting how cultural friction doomed U.S. efforts in Afghanistan, but the best chapter is in the middle of the book. Paying homage to former Ambassador Robert Komer’s 1972 RAND essay about Vietnam, aptly titled “Bureaucracy Does Its Thing,” Aaron Maclean’s “Liberalism Does Its Thing” is a tour de force. In fact, it should have been moved up in the book, as it would have provided readers a theoretical foundation for the book’s thesis. MacLean provides the reader with a short history of Western thought that connects our past with recent counterinsurgency methods. An author does not often weave Machiavelli, Hobbes, Hegel, Rousseau, Afghan history, and the tenets of Pashtunwali into a cogent analysis of America’s inherent predilection to impose Liberal values in far off countries. MacLean, however, who is the current managing editor at The Washington Free Beacon, does so without a whiff of the academic verbosity that plagues similar efforts.
MacLean’s argument is similar to Walter McDougall’s concept of America’s Global Meliorism in Promised Land, Crusader State: The American Encounter with the World since 1776. Echoing McDougall’s takedown of America’s post-Cold War zeal to make the world democratic, MacLean persuasively argues America attempted to impose its concept of governance on a country without a Rousseau-like social contract. This mistake led to a waste in blood and treasure, as “policymakers and practitioners were not able to apply either coercion or persuasion effectively to change the fundamental nature of Afghan society.” MacLean, who was an infantry officer and took part in Operation Moshtarak in Helmand, highlights that Moshtarak’s meaning (together in Dari) was largely lost in the Pashtun-dominated southern province where Pashto reigns supreme. In fact, he argues the security progress in Helmand after the operation was a mirage and was not due to an increase in the Afghan government’s capacity to hold ground; rather, it was due to the United States Marine Corps renting Afghan loyalty through a work program. That said, MacLean does not despair over America’s penchant for Liberalism. Instead, he calls for prudence in attempting to replicate western democracy in cultures vastly different from our own.
America’s overarching narrative guarantees it repeats the same missteps.
O’Connell, a Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, who served as an advisor to General David Petraeus, the Commander of the International Security Assistance Force from 2010 to 2011, concludes the book. In this last essay, O’Connell persuasively argues, “American leadership suffered not from ignorance but from informed hubris.” This is what is likely to sting the most for veterans of Operation Enduring Freedom. America’s defense intellectuals who pushed counterinsurgency spent considerable time thinking and writing on America’s struggle in Vietnam. Even so, they were incapable of steering American efforts away from the same potholes into which our predecessors careened. O’Connell highlights the structural reasons America repeated some of the same mistakes in Vietnam and Afghanistan. More importantly, he suggests the main issue at fault is our propensity to champion liberal, democratic, values, “...the United States just never escaped the prison of its culture.” In short, America’s overarching narrative guarantees it repeats the same missteps.
Although this book is superb overall, some areas were lacking. While one chapter featured the unique perspective of a former Afghan police officer’s thoughts on the Afghan police, including additional chapters from other allies would have added some much-needed depth to the work. Any number of the European partners participating in the Enduring Freedom effort would have captured the cultural friction they also felt while working with American forces in Afghanistan. Further, the essay on Village Stability Operations in particular lacked introspection. While these operations had some successes, many Afghans rightly feared they were simply putting uniforms on the same predatory militias that have long afflicted Afghanistan. Lastly, an essay on the Government of Afghanistan and the United States’ failed insurgent reintegration programs would have provided further insight into how cultural friction scuttled attempts at reconciliation with the Taliban.
Despite these small oversights, this book is a must for any student, policymaker, or practitioner seeking to better understand America’s war in Afghanistan––even if that student disagrees with its conclusions. As America seems to be on the verge of stepping into the Afghan breech yet again, this book should serve as warning to the over-zealous or those prone to hubris. Moreover, Our Latest Longest War must be included in any pre-deployment reading list for any soldier, diplomat, or aid worker heading to Afghanistan.
Will Selber is an Air Force Foreign Area Officer and a former Afghan Hand. The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone, and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Air Force.
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Header Image: From "How not to run an aid programme: Afghanistan" (OxFam/The Times)
 Ambassador Ronald Neumann, “Washington Goes to War,” in Our Latest, Longest War: Losing Hearts in Minds in Afghanistan, ed. Aaron O’Connell (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017), 65,
 Aaron MaClean, “Liberalism Does Its Thing,” in Our Latest, Longest War: Losing Hearts and Minds in Afghanistan, 241.
 Aaron O’Connel, “Out Latest Longest War,” in Our Latest, Longest War: Losing Hearts and Minds in Afghanistan, 307.
 Ibid, 317.