Customer Reviews: The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan, 2001-2014
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on April 10, 2014

Gall has used strong journalism skills to render a compelling discussion of the U.S. experience in Afghanistan since the 9/11 Jihad. The reader quickly understands that there are truths about our War in Afghanistan that we have not learned in the Mainstream Media. We all have heard countless times that our enemy is al Qaeda and its enabler, the Taliban. But what Gall teaches us is that the Taliban is not just some organic organization left over from the Soviet occupation. The Taliban owes its founding and continued existence to the Pakistan Government, more specifically the ISI (Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence).

Gall's story is mostly linear so it is easy to follow. It is replete with details of her fact finding over a dozen years in Afghanistan and Pakistan and years before in that part of the world. Gall gives eyewitness accounts of the collapse of the Taliban crushed on the ground by the Northern Alliance and the United Front and completely decimated by U.S. bombing.

Gall spends some time describing Hamid Karzai and Mullah Omar. Karzai quickly rose to the top the U.S. list of trusted Afghans and then was elected President. Omar was an Afghan and the long-time leader of the Taliban. Gall contradicts the standard wisdom that has evolved over the years about the ineptness of Karzai. She maintains that Karzai is a skilled politician and effectively bonded together the War Lords into an Afghan State and has tried to get the U.S. and the Media to understand that the real enemy lies in Pakistan. His great failing, however, is his ineptness at administration and his micromanaging. Toward the end of the book, Gall relates that one of Karzai's greatest failures is in not seeing the value of distributing the police power to the districts. Had he effectively trained and armed local police forces instead of holding the power centrally in Kabul, the districts might have been able to stand up to the legions of Taliban fighters pouring into Afghanistan from Pakistan. This was the movement that Generals McChrystal and Patreaus began in 2010, though with no support from Karzai.

"The Wrong Enemy" guides the reader through the maze of characters on both sides of the border in making the case against the ISI. Gall does project a ray of hope in the last chapter. Chapter 14, "Springtime in Zangabad," describes the popular uprising in southern Afghanistan by a group of villagers who finally had enough persecution by the Taliban and, importantly, also had a competent and aggressive local police force. This combination, even in the heartland of the Taliban, was enough for the people to exercise their own initiative and drive the Taliban thugs away.

In the words of Gall:
<<"What had changed in Panjwayi was the shift in the balance of power. The surge had routed the Taliban in much of Kandahar province in 2010, and it had taken another two years for the secondary and tertiary phases of the counterinsurgency strategy, the "hold and build" stages to keep the Taliban out and build a security and administrative system in the area, to take effect. A watershed moment came in 2012 in neighboring Zhare district, according to the American commander in southern Afghanistan in that period, Major General Robert B. Abrams. The Taliban had declared their intention to regain lost territory in Zhare in 2012 but failed to do so. Instead, they had steadily ceded ground and by 2013, had fallen back across the river, making southern Panjwayi their last stronghold. They were forced to retreat because of the newfound strength of the Afghan security forces, people told me. The surge had not only flooded the southern provinces with thousands of American troops, but also with twice their number of Afghan soldiers and police. By 2013, there were 17,000 American and coalition troops in the four provinces of Regional Command South, as well as 52,000 Afghans across various agencies of police, army, and intelligence. Kandahar had two Afghan army brigades and 10,000 police manning checkpoints on virtually every road in the province, and another 2,000 local police in the villages.">>

The lesson is that this could happen across Afghanistan with properly trained--and armed--local police. This harkens to the American Revolution when the local militias, which were self armed, were able to be organized to defeat the strongest army on earth. After this glimmer of hope, reality sets in when we realize that, with the U.S. forces due to withdraw this year (2014), the popular uprising is probably too little and/or too late. [p.s. 4-14-2014--The second sentence of this paragraph is incorrect. A reader (johnc) was kind enough to point out that the militias had little effect on the outcome of our Revolutionary War. Read his comments at the end for details.]


This leads to a deficiency in Gall's narrative. In an interview with Wudood, the leader of the popular uprising, he said: "They came by force. We could not say anything to them. We did not have weapons." In other words, the farmers were unarmed. Gall's only other reference to this condition of being disarmed prior to 2001 was in Chapter Four:
<<"Through murderous methods and with Pakistani help, the Taliban took power in the south. ... but they did deliver law and order, gaining a monopoly of force and disarming the population.">>
Disarming the people is a critical and classic strategy in subduing a population. It has been used countless times by monarchs and dictators throughout history. It prevented the people from defending themselves and deserves much more consideration in this book than these two minor references.


Now let's get to the real reason why I am critical of this otherwise fine and vital book. It's hard to imagine a book about Jihad in Afghanistan and Pakistan without at least some discussion of Islam. The political and religious ideology of Islam is at the very heart of the war in Afghanistan. Since human nature is so complex, there are, of course, many other power, money, and tribal issues that muddy up the waters. But make no mistake that Islam is at or near the core of all the problems in the region. One of my motives for picking up the book was to see if the principles of Jihad and the Caliphate are the same there as what I know of them in the Arabic regions.

Since the Quran (the absolute and eternal word of Allah) and the Hadith (the teachings and traditions of Muhammad, the perfect model for all men) are written in Arabic and are spread to believers throughout the world as much by the spoken word as by the written word, there may be differences in emphasis from place to place. The Quran says: "And fight them until persecution is no more, and religion is all for Allah." (Surah 8. Verse 39) Remember that one meaning of "persecution" to Muhammad was having his demand to convert and submit to Islam rejected by someone. Is this what Afghans and Pakistanis believe? Is this what is taught in the madrassas?

The closest Gall comes to this is in the Foreword:
<<"I came across international jihadis in the Pakistani city of Peshawar then, too. We called them Wahhabis, after the fundamentalist Islamic sect that has its roots in Saudi Arabia. ... I saw Wahhabis turn up in Chechnya in 1995 and watched how they transformed the Chechens' deserving cause for self-determination into an extremist Islamist struggle. ... They wrought even greater havoc in Afghanistan and Pakistan. They dreamed of creating an Islamic caliphate stretching across South and Central Asia, home to some 500 million Muslims. Pakistan, the first nuclear-armed Muslim state, would be at its core.">>

Wahhabism is the aggressive form of Islam that dominates North America, Europe, and the Middle East, where Islam is mostly Sunni. Thus I would suppose that Islam in Afghanistan and Pakistan is leaning toward Saudi Arabia. What the madrassas teach is important, as is the motivation of a young person or their parents to attend or send their children to them. This should be discussed.


Gall also does not treat the important Sunni/Shia split. Since Wahhabism, al Qaeda, and the Taliban are Sunni, and I assume many in Afghanistan's northern districts are Shia, this must create significant friction. Gall also mentions "emirate" as if it is the same as "caliphate." An emirate is a physical Muslim state, whereas THE caliphate is the capitol of the worldwide body of believers. Islam has been without a caliphate since the Caliphate of Istanbul was terminated at the end of WWI.

One final issue is maps. It is important for me to have a sense of place when studying history. Thus I was frequently consulting my atlas maps, however many of the place names were not on my maps, probably because the places were so small. A few maps in the book showing the places discussed would have been very helpful.


Despite these critiques, I found the book very well written and absorbing. I also consider it to be essential information for understanding Afghanistan and especially Pakistan and for putting America's huge human and financial investment into perspective.

I will close with a quote from Gall:
<<"America should have selected to crush al Qaeda and the Taliban in Pakistan, rather than go to war in Iraq," the former senator and leader of the Baloch National Party in Quetta [Pakistan], Habib Jalib Baloch, told me in May 2003. He warned that the Taliban were being reorganized with funding from Arab countries, and that Mullah Omar and the top Taliban commanders were all in Pakistan, protected by their links to the Pakistani establishment. "You need to cut the funding," he said. "You will not kill them with a hammer. You must cut the funding and the connection.">>

That wisdom still applies eleven years later.
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Carlotta Gail's well-done history of the Afghanistan conflict is valuable for how it breaks free of the US-centric news and storylines we often get. There's no shortage of soldier's stories, or accounts from US unit actions, but few books that tell the larger story beyond American interests.

And that's vital to know and this book reminds a reader why the Afghanistan effort was doomed to fail in the way the US conducted it. From 2001 going forward, the US behaved like our actions were the only ones that mattered and the regional situation had no influence on the military operations in Afghanistan.

That hubris failed to take into account Pakistan's national interest in keeping the Taliban, if not in power, at least a legitimate force outside their borders. Since Pakistan is dealing with Muslim extremists in their own borders, it's in their best interest to keep Afghanistan as a way to relieve that pressure - so for Karzai to be successful, for the Taliban to be evicted, meant they would then be operating in Pakistan...which that country did not want.

So while they were an "ally" in name, Gall lays out a compelling argument that in every action they were working at cross-purposes with the US, and often in direct opposition. I can't even blame Pakistan - it's really no different than the US invasion of Iraq. Since WE considered Saddam Hussein's government a national threat, our mission to remove him was more important than what it would do to the regional situation (empowering Iran, etc). In this case, Pakistan has no advantage by helping Karzai or the US - but DOES have an advantage in helping the Taliban. Not because they "like" them, but because it serves their strategic and national interest.

So when a country like the US engages in foreign adventurism, our policy makers never considered how other countries would adjust their own interests to offset the chaos that would follow. And they certainly weren't going to damage Pakistani interests for the sake of the Karzai regime.

If all that's confusing, well, that's a big part of the problem. Gall does a great job explaining it all, but there's a reason it takes 400 pages.

Her detail and history of the Taliban is very informative - I had little knowledge of the background on the people, like Mullah Omar and others. They're certainly bad people - but so are most of the warlords. It seems there were multiple missed opportunities to bring them into some sort of power-sharing agreement after the 2001 invasion. Instead, we viewed them as "terrorists," which is simplistic. Bad or not, they did actually run a country - so they were a bad government with human rights violations, but the Taliban aren't really "terrorists" themselves. They did harbor terrorists, but that's another argument. Once Al Qaeda had been defeated, nothing was stopping the US from working with the Taliban on some level - but we didn't.

In fact, considering how backstabbing the Pakistan government is, you could make an argument that we would have been better off allying ourselves WITH the Taliban AGAINST Pakistan, considering most of Al Qaeda's logisitical support came from there. The Taliban often seem like aggravated hosts of Al Qaeda much less than partners - although the Massoud assasination was meant to help the Taliban.

I'm not sure there was a solution or course of action on Sept. 12, 2001 that would have led to a better situation. Gall does not deal in hypotheticals or wishful thinking about what-might-have-been. She is giving the history of what happened behind the scenes and often in full-view that we simply didn't pay attention to.

A reader will finish this with little doubt that government elements in Pakistan knew full-well where Bin Laden was hiding...not because they were allied with Bin Laden, but because Bin Laden tried to keep Al Qaeda elements from working against Pakistan. It's all a very messy story, and it reminds the reader how little serious thought went into our 2001-2003 quest for vengeance, and how much we're paying for it today. I bet I could ask 99 percent of the people currently opining on the Bowe Bergdahl release (which happened just a few days ago) and they might know 1 percent of the information that Gall included here. So we sail on in our ignorance, boats against the current, always reaching for a shoreline that we don't know is a mirage.
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on April 22, 2014
As America prepares to withdraw troops from Afghanistan after nearly thirteen years of warfare, thousands of deaths, and endless devastation to the country's physical environment, we finally have a skilled reporter who has been there from beginning to end confirming what many of us suspected. We've committed untold resources to fighting the wrong enemy and neglecting the source of the problem.

As the Taliban resurgence began soon after their 2001 defeat, even from the distance, many Americans began questioning the role of the Pakistan military in arming and directing the activities of the Taliban in Afghanistan, knowing that Mullah Omar and other key leaders had fled to and remained sheltered in Pakistan. The US government maintained that it was necessary to provide financial and military aid to Pakistan to retain them as an ally. The 2011 killing of Osama Bin Laden in close proximity to Pakistan's key military site confirmed Pakistan's duplicity to the world.

Gall's book reflects her long term relationships with Afghan, Pakistani, and US military leaders as well as networks among Afghan civilians. Her interviews reflect changing perspectives from all sides and create a balanced picture of the problem the US has failed to confront. She praises the US and NATO surge that defeated the Taliban for the second -- and far more difficult time -- but warns how difficult it will be for any Afghan central or local governments to continue to defeat the Taliban if the world does not acknowledge and deal with Pakistan's paranoia about India that causes the ISI to seek surrogate fighters to control neighboring Afghanistan.

For anyone who wants to understand what went wrong, this book is fascinating reading.
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VINE VOICEon May 30, 2014
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It is spurious to claim that Carlotta Gall's decade-plus in Afghanistan puts her "too close" to the war, or her narrative "too personal", as some have. Folks who formulate policies or books from thousands of miles away with no experience of the realities on the ground are the ones who get us into these ugly little wars. Is Gall's narrative Afghan-centric or anti-military? Well it should be Afghan-centric, being as that is the book's subject. And anti-military? If you are uncritical of the government or military then you are naive, as healthy skepticism was advocated by Franklin, Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln, to name a few.
Carlotta Gall has a wealth of in-country experience dating back to the mujahideen, reporting right up to recent days, and hence has a knowledge of the long-term effect of various strategies, and a network of contacts on both sides that would be the envy of any intelligence officer. Gall was in Abbottabad within a day of the bin Laden whack, and has had numerous near misses with IEDs. 'The Wrong Enemy' is a studied and thoughtful appraisal of our longest war, one that uncovers the grim realities of airpower's ineffectiveness in counterinsurgency. (FM 3-24, the 2007 U.S. Army and Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual devotes only a paragraph in the appendix to airstrikes, thus proving its newly-discovered irrelevance.)
Alongside Girardet's 'Killing the Cranes', Gall's 'The Wrong Enemy' is well-written and necessary regional reading.
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Carlotta Gall has impeccable credentials with regard to Afghanistan and Pakistan, having reported "on the ground" from the region for a very, very long time. In "The Wrong Enemy", she carefully, forcefully, meticulously and diligently points out exactly who the actual enemy in this case is: it's Pakistan.

The US government has had a fraught relationship with Pakistan for decades. After Partition, an event that cost many thousands of lives and a harbinger of things to come, the US was more-or-less sympathetic to the new Muslim nation. Why? Because India wasn't especially cloaked in fealty to the West, choosing instead to assume the mantle of the then-fashionable, "third way"; the Non-Aligned Movement. Indifference to Pakistan later became distinctly chilly, when Pakistan detonated it's first atomic weapon. Sanctions were imposed and distance grew. However, as India became more capitalistic and Pakistan more overtly militaristic and Islamist, sentiments and policy shifted. Following the September 11 events, the War on Terror began and Pakistan became a close chum of the USA.

Despite the new cozy relationship, the Pakistani military and the legendary Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency never ceased to support a stunning array of terrorist organizations: Kashmiri-Islamist militants, anti-India terrorists and, of course, the Taliban with it's "affiliates". Did the US know this? Of course. It's been assiduously documented by a panoply of journalists (Wright, Lieven, Packer, Rashid, Coll and many others); it's public knowledge. Did the US do anything about it? According to Gall and all available evidence: no.

Thus, as Gall points out, the US and its NATO allies are simultaneously supporting the logistical/operational/financial/ideological base for terrorism in Afghanistan (i.e., Pakistan) whist fighting the symptom, to wit, the Taliban. Bizarre? Yes. Clearly documented by Gall? Yes. Realpolitik? Maybe. Myopic? Definitely.

Worse, following what Gall (optimistically) characterizes as a successful counterinsurgency campaign and a belated troop surge, culminating in a sort of Iraq-like wave of anti-Taliban sentiment by some tribes, the US adroitly decides to pull out of the country, leaving the corrupt, ineffectual and angry Karzai regime in tatters while elections are pending. Shades of Vietnam? Maybe.

So, how does it end? Gall isn't much prone to idle speculation, but she seemingly concludes that the "long war" is about to end as a debacle, this due to political expediency by the Obama administration and war fatigue at home and amongst the NATO allies. Who wins? Looks like Pakistan 1: USA 0 on this one.

(Update: Extensive commentary on Gall's book by Ahmed Rashid appears in the current issue of The New York Review of Books. He takes issue with several of her claims, especially regarding a "Bin Laden desk" at ISI and her perceived failure to recognize "evolution" of Pakistan's attitudes toward the Taliban and other Islamist extremist groups).
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on April 12, 2016
Carlotta Gall is truly courageous in reporting the story of this horrific war in Afghanistan and its complexity. The most memorable quote was “America should have selected to crush al Qaeda and the Taliban in Pakistan, rather than go to war in Iraq” by Habib Jalib Baloch and, of course, Ambassador Holbrooke, “We may be fighting the wrong enemy in the wrong country.” Vice President Cheney remarked, 13 March 2002 “The Taliban is out of business, permanently.” Secretary of Defense, Rumsfeld, declared in 2003 “We clearly have moved from major combat activity to a period of stability and stabilization and reconstruction activities…The bulk of the country (Afghanistan) is permissive, it’s secure.” President Bush remarked, 6 March 2006 “Pakistan "will be a steadfast partner…. A force for freedom and moderation in the Arab world." However, finally, the New York Times reported on 22 September 2011 “The nation’s top military official said Thursday that Pakistan’s spy agency played a direct role in supporting the insurgents who carried out the deadly attack on the American Embassy in Kabul last week. It was the most serious charge that the United States has leveled against Pakistan in the decade that America has been at war in Afghanistan.” The realization that Saudi Arabia, Pakistan (ISI) and the Taliban, al-Qaeda represented a deadly enemy, a triangle of Islamist jihadist terrorism of death, an endless war in Afghanistan and the spread of Islamic terrorism everywhere, be it Iraq, Syria, Libya, Russia, Turkey, and in Paris and Brussels with more promised. The over 3,400 Coalition/NATO/U.S. military personnel that have been killed , 2,400 of them American, have been killed by the proxy forces of al-Qaeda and the Taliban representing this Islamic Triangle of Death of Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the Taliban/al-Qaeda. The United States is engaged in a death struggle in Afghanistan with Islamic extremism fostered and supported by Saudi Arabia & Pakistan with their proxy armies of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, fanatical jihadist funded worldwide by Saudi Arabia (Wahhabism) with deep involvement of Pakistan. While the cognizance of this triangle was well know, certainly described thoroughly by Ambassador Peter Tomsen “The Wars of Afghanistan” it was essentially ignored by the U.S. with failure to hold Saudi Arabia and Pakistan accountable, they have, are and will continue to kill and wound Americans as well as Afghans. As now recognized, Bush, Cheney and especially Rumsfeld and his assistants in DOD were arrogant, deceitful and ignorant of Afghanistan’s culture and history, but the Joint Chiefs of Staff also became accomplices in failure to confront the Islamic Triangle of Death and thus allowing U.S./NATO forces to be exposed to these proxy forces of the Islamic Triangle of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, much as described by H.R. Master “Dereliction of Duty” in the Vietnam War of the JCS.
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on June 27, 2014
I am reading this book now and finding it enlightening and distressing. It will be my book group's selection for October. I feel every American needs to be acquainted with this information, especially given the recent events in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria.

I WISH THIS BOOK HAD A GOOD MAP inside. I would so like to follow the events by their location, and unfortunately am not acquainted with the smaller towns and villages of Afghanistan or Pakistan, or even the provinces. I can look on the computer, but this isn't always convenient, and, sad to say, even there I don't always find a fair number of the locations. I would also like to see pictures of some of the key players, and a list of these figures and their rolls would be a helpful reference (I keep flipping to the index to refresh my recollection).

A must read for anyone interested in better understanding this alarming situation. My heart breaks for the people. Thank you Carlotta Gall.
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VINE VOICEon May 24, 2014
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
This is old school journalism. The author lived in Afghanistan for years, and thus knows the people, the customs, the history, and the culture of this country. She writes from "the inside" rather than from a distant vantage point - which sometimes clouds her judgement somewhat. She clearly loves Afghanistan and the Afghans, and she also clearly despises the Pakistani government, which she holds responsible for most of the evils that had befallen Afghanistan in the last two decades. But more often than not, her political analysis is spot on, especially when she describes the involvement of the US in that whole mess. All in all, despite a mild case of "colorblindness", this book gives a comprehensive, detailed, and factual overview of what went wrong in Afghanistan. Highly recommended, since it is not only filled with facts, information and analysis, but also written in a very pleasing manner.
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on May 31, 2014
An very well researched and written book. A lot hard work went into the book and it shows. Well documented. Of its nature patterns of facts lead to many of its conclusions. The book has the ring of truth to it. Its contents deserve to be well known.
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on June 16, 2014
Over all I like what was in the book. Gall covered several years of the war and gave countless examples of how this conflict originates in the border regions and is promoted by the ISI all the way to the top. I knew very little about the place and had a map of Afghanistan with me as I read the reporting. The map really helps understand the layout The author ends the story with the opinion that America and Americans should stay and keep law and order. On this point we part company. If any one should be in the thick of this it is the British who drew up the borders in the first place. Why does America always end up cleaning up after europe? This is a good book for a novice like me on the region.
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