War Comes to Garmser: Thirty Years of Conflict on the Afghan Frontier Illustrated Edition
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"presents a richly detailed and complex historical narrative ... for scholars of Afghanistan, US foreign policy, international relations, and counterinsurgency studies, the wealth of details about the Taliban, the Afghan government, and the intersection with counterinsurgency programs makes for an important, and ultimately, sobering read." -- James Bradford, H-Net
About the Author
Carter Malkasian spent nearly two years in the Afghan district of Garmser, in war torn Helmand province as a political officer for the US Department of State. For the last decade, he has studied war, and written about it, and worked in war zones, including long stints in Iraq's Al Anbar province. The author of Counterinsurgency in Modern Warfare (named by Foreign Affairs as one of the ten books to read on counterinsurgency) and A History of Modern Wars of Attrition, he has also served as the director of the stability and development program at the Center for Naval Analyses. He has a Ph.D. in history from Oxford University.
- Publisher : Oxford University Press; Illustrated edition (August 3, 2016)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 360 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0199390010
- ISBN-13 : 978-0199390014
- Item Weight : 1.05 pounds
- Dimensions : 9.1 x 1.1 x 6.1 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #1,518,112 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
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It is often said that all politics is local. Nowhere is that more true than in devising and executing effective counter-insurgency actions. For the most part, US forces arrived blind to the backstory shaping events at the local level. It wasn’t just about fighting the Taliban and conducting civil projects to support the local community. The background to the unstable situation was highly complex and convoluted, as Malkasian makes abundantly clear in his amazing narrative of the Garmser campaign. He constructs in minute detail the various tribal alliances and feuds – most dating back to the Soviet jihad and continuing through the civil war and Taliban times – that shaped events on the ground in 2010. As Malkasian writes, “Jihad, civil war, and then the Taliban had split society asunder.”
Malkasian models his book on the legendary counter-insurgency study “War Comes to Long An” by Jeffery Rice. Rather than take a US-centric view to the conflict, he seeks to recreate the situation based on local history. How he was able to do this is beyond me. Malkasian describes the personal relationships and tribal affiliations in excruciating detail. It is almost impossible for the reader to keep everything straight. A few things clearly emerge from the story, however. First is that the Taliban was far more effective and humane than traditionally given credit for. Far from being the blood-thirsty religious fanatics of popular image, Malkasian shows that the Taliban (in Garmser at least) was capable of implementing a stable and somewhat efficient administration. Their rule was firm, to be sure, but not barbaric. They built their government on a solid foundation of support from religious leaders and the local poor. “For those today who claim that Afghanistan is ungovernable,” Malkasian writes, “Taliban rule offers a striking counter-example.” Thus, when the Marines arrived and tried to enforce the Karzai government’s administration in Helmand Province they faced stiff resistance from a local populace that had little faith in the central government and more than a few reasons to support Taliban rule. Moreover, the tribal leaders upon whom the US-led coalition aimed to build government power had shown themselves unable to govern effectively in the past – at least not as effectively as the Taliban could.
Reading Malkasian’s narrative, which flows from times of King Ahmad Shah Durrani in the 1970s straight through to the present, paints a picture of shifting tribal loyalties and personal grudges. “What had begun as a battle over control of Garmser and Helmand had turned into a deep feud,” he writes. US counter-insurgency policy would have to account for these local politics to be at all effective. How much Malkasian knew about local affairs when he arrived in Garmser is unclear. However, I’m certain that US intelligence could not have provided him with the situational awareness necessary for him to do his job. He had to learn it on the fly.
Another thing Malkasian’s history makes abundantly clear is that the US Marines are not to be trifled with. Their ability to clear and hold terrain shocked and terrorized local Taliban leaders. They would provide the shield necessary for Malkasian and his colleagues to attempt their governmental implementation, most of it based around the local figure of Abdullah Jan, a man of some standing in Garmser politics, but not without his history of personal feuds and administrative miscues.
The American team in Garmser devised a rather simple playbook that they used to expand the authority of the Karzai government in Taliban-held areas of southern Helmand Province. They would recruit village elders, supply them with a small militia for personal safety and local stability operations, and then dole out a handful of local development projects. Using this basic process and relying on the support of a few local leaders they were able to hold the areas the Marines cleared. It also gave them the breathing space to mentor local leaders, reach out to religious leaders, address the vexing land issues that plagued the district, expand the community council, turn militia into properly trained police, and facilitate long-term economic growth. Overall, at least for a period of time, they succeeded. Malkasian claims that “by June 2011 [when he left the district] the Taliban appeared thoroughly defeated in Garmser.”
But can it last? That is an open question and only time will tell. But the odds aren’t great. Malkasian says three reasons stand out. First, there are deep rifts in Afghan society. Unlike the hierarchical managed Taliban, the Afghan government is hopelessly fractured. The author bemoans the fact repeatedly. “There was no reason why the Karzai government could not have emulated the Taliban’s better practices and attained greater success itself.” Second, the political cleavages in Garmser work against preventing a united front against the unified Taliban. The political leaders often see themselves as representing their tribe, not the government, and the spoils of government as a zero sum game. “Against the Taliban, tribal and government leaders were like the Great Powers facing Napoleon: unable to form an alliance to defeat the common threat.” Finally, there is the somewhat intractable issue of land reform. The US-led initiative to build and then maintain the irrigation canals in Helmand created fertile land. Great swaths are owned by the tribal leaders and even greater area is inhabited by immigrant squatters. These squatters are, along with the religious community, the Taliban’s prime base of support. Malkasian concedes that there is not much that can be done to ameliorate the issue.
In closing, “War Comes to Garmser” is a remarkable account of warfare in one small community. Again, how Malkasian uncovered all of the details is beyond me. But he has left for us and future historians an amazing case study in counter-insurgency operations.