The broadsides on America’s strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan are persistent given the indubitable lack of progress in both theatres for almost two decades. As both wars continue, not only are global powers like the United States still involved, but many small states remain engaged. Each keeps contributing to, and participating in, these ongoing conflicts. While the criticism of the American strategic effort is sweeping, and may be considered justified, this critique spills over as collateral to the small allied states who continue to contribute to both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
The return of great power geopolitics has transformed Afghanistan’s strategic circumstances, affecting both its future and the long-term interests of the United States. These conditions reinforce the enduring importance of Pakistan to America’s strategic flexibility, particularly in an era of renewed great power competition.
This book reveals very little about national strategy or defense policy, or even about the effectiveness of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but it is a worthwhile read for those interested in the ground-level experience of war and Americans who want to know more about the actions committed overseas in their name.
The experiences of American soldiers deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, sometimes over and over again, are central to this story, including consideration of the lasting impact of their time abroad. American culture is already rife with conversations about post-traumatic stress, veterans’ services, and treatments following deployments. Unfortunately, the voice of the veterans themselves is seldom heard with clarity in these conversations.
No general would ever suggest you read this book, and maybe that is why you should make time to do it. The first person perspective offered by Kassabian is unpolished, irreverent, and told from a soldier’s perspective. In a world full of strategic challenges it is, in my view, a good thing for those making the decisions and grappling with the consequences to get an appreciation for what the greatest of plans looks like when 18-year-old Americans are sent forth to implement them.
Having squandered earlier opportunities, the United States now faces a conundrum in Afghanistan, where neither staying nor going will likely produce a favorable outcome to its Afghanistan adventure. Most likely, America will soldier on in Afghanistan, following flawed strategies until some unexpected event or developing trend—such as American retreat from global leadership—causes Washington policymakers to conclude that America has done enough.
An interesting read, but it will not be sharing space on my shelf of favorites, alongside other war poets such as Brian Turner, Marvin Bell, and Wilfred Owens. The book may, however, appeal to the casual poetry reader or to those trying a cross sample of the writing generated by individuals who fought this century’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Taliban Narratives, by Professor Thomas Johnson, explores Taliban and U.S. communication cultures by analyzing narratives, propaganda, and stories between 2001-2011. Johnson decodes the Taliban’s master narrative, information operations, target audience, and their propaganda tools such as circulars, shabnamahs (night letters), internet accounts, graffiti, poetry, and chants, which he refers to as cultural artifacts. He argues the Taliban, unlike the U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan, have culturally relevant information closer to the values held by the local population. Aiming at changing the emotions and perception of people, Taliban campaigns target rural Afghans by focusing on local issues.
Students of the Afghan conflict, information operations officers, public affairs professionals, diplomats, relief workers, and those working in the intelligence and psychological operations arenas would all be well served to have this reference close at hand. One can only hope the failures Johnson cites are not repeated, and, if the war cannot be won by the West, perhaps this book can help the Afghans find an honorable and enduring conclusion.
In the November/December 2017 issue of Foreign Affairs, Kosh Sadat and Stanley McChrystal defended the ongoing state-building and counterinsurgency project in Afghanistan as both right and necessary. In doing so, however, they revived the fallacies that have long obscured problematic aspects of the US-led campaign in that country. Proponents of the open-ended commitments to Afghanistan have long misrepresented the governance and security issues in Afghanistan as merely technical, albeit complicated, and overstated the ability of American means to remedy such issues. Like others before them, Sadat and McChrystal have addressed neither the complex prerequisites to state building nor the consequences of ongoing American political ambivalence towards the war. Either one of these factors alone could derail US aims. The fact that both are present should give policymakers pause.
When discussing the struggles of the U.S. military in the early years of the Iraq War, Davidson uses the phrase “adapting without winning,” a formulation that surely continues to accurately describe the American experience of the post-9/11 wars. Despite the optimistic characterizations on the dust jacket that frame this book as a manual for how to succeed at counterinsurgency, though, Lifting the Fog of Peace sounds a note of caution about the gap between tactical adaptation and strategic success, even as it lauds the U.S. military for the evolution of its lesson-learning apparatus.
Operational and strategic level leaders cannot get caught in the rapid pace of tactics, but neither can they ignore the fact that decisions at the tactical level must proceed at the pace demanded by the situation. When operational and strategic leaders increase the pace of decision-making, it can lead to a chasing of the bright and shiny object mentality. Decisions in these orbits include a set of dialogues and tend to be iterative. Further, leaders at all levels must consider the complexity of decision making at each level above and below them.
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.
It is time that the United States and its allies plan for the long haul of supporting the Government of Afghanistan instead of remaining fixated on the immediate crisis at hand. For far too long the international community has tried and repeatedly failed to create a durable peace on a Western timeline. By dividing the insurgency into smaller manageable groups, pressuring amenable Afghan leaders, and aligning the win sets across all levels, the United States may eventually help the Government of Afghanistan bargain a tenable peace and achieve an honorable exit from its longest war.
The present center of gravity in Afghanistan is the Taliban subsystem of the greater Pashtun social system enabled by Pakistani elites. The insurgency is effectively wielding power to meet their independence and removal of foreign occupation objectives. Re-analyzing the critical factors and engaging the critical vulnerability of ineffective governance forces nonlinear change. Ineffective governance by all relevant actors is mitigated by transforming Afghanistan into a federal system of government with semi-autonomous areas. This includes political accommodation, ethnic nationalism, financial incentive structures, and power sharing.
Democracy will always benefit from the requirement to persuade the public––to gain consensus on, and legitimacy for, the use of force in order to defend or pursue national interests. If this opportunity is ceded for fear of being unconvincing, or in fear of explaining the ugliness it will entail, then a society will find itself bereft of clarity in the political objective and therefore unable to craft strategy appropriate the task at hand. Furthermore, the failure to have these discussions leaves the populace underprepared for the brutality and sacrifice that war may require.
In this––our final installment––we appeal to each element of the Clausewitzian Trinity to do its part. To remain silent as practitioners of policy and war, we believe, would perpetuate the betrayal of those troops and civilians––American and foreign––who have made the ultimate sacrifice for reasons this country still struggles to articulate.
More U.S. troops are likely headed back to Afghanistan soon, while the Trump Administration is also now considering withdrawal. Before either option—or anything in between—is considered, the U.S. needs to decide what version of victory it wants before it can decide on a strategy, but debates often consider strategies in isolation, and this is a mistake. Strategies must be judged relative to the realistic alternatives.