Carter Malkasian: American War in Afghanistan

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What Happened in Afghanistan and What Does it Mean for Canada?

Colin Robertson

August 25, 2021

On the advice of an American friend – one of the many American foreign service officers who had served in both Iraq and Afghanistan – I’d started reading Carter Malkasian’s The American War in Afghanistan: A History. It was early July and President Joe Biden had just given a news conference at the White House saying, “We did not go to Afghanistan to nation build. It’s the right and the responsibility of Afghan people alone to decide their future and how they want to run their country.”

No one thought then that by mid-August the Taliban would be in Kabul. For Malkasian, however, the war was already lost long ago. Having travelled the country in 2009, Malkasian saw that in “battle after battle, numerically superior and better-supplied soldiers and police were being defeated by poorly resourced and unexceptionally led Taliban.” That America could not have done much more, writes Malkasian, than “muddle along for years in the face of a relentless enemy is the unsatisfying, sometimes frustrating coda to our longest war.”

A Taliban religious scholar told Malkasian “The Taliban fight for belief, for janat (heaven) and ghazi (killing infidels). … The army and police fight for money…The Taliban are willing to lose their head to fight. … How can the army and police compete.” Besides, writes Malkasian, “the police and soldiers did not want to put their lives on the line for a government that was corrupt and prone to neglect them.” Even the better-trained Afghan special forces, “still had great difficulty fighting without U.S. air support and advisers.” So, while the world was shocked at the suddenness of the Afghan forces’ retreat, that they folded was not a surprise.

The Taliban’s ability to link their cause to the very meaning of being Afghan, writes Malkasian, was a crucial factor in America’s defeat. For Afghans, jihad, better translated as “resistance” or “struggle”, has historically been a means of defense against oppression by outsiders, part of their endurance against invader after invader since the time of Alexander the Great. In more recent times, they have first exhausted, then repelled the British, the Soviets and now the Americans.

Malkasian writes as a scholar having done his doctorate at Oxford in military history and then taught. He is also a practitioner, having served as a civilian advisor in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Later he was the senior advisor to General Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, from 2015 to 2019.

The American War in Afghanistan is Malkasian’s third book. It builds on his War Comes to Garmser: Thirty Years of Conflict on the Afghan Frontier (2013), and Illusions of Victory: The Anbar Awakening and the Rise of the Islamic State (2017). As source material for this big book, Malkasian draws from the documents collected by the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. He also interviewed Taliban leadership and digested Taliban texts in Pashto.

Afghanistan has spawned a cottage industry of narratives and memoirs and Malkasian’s book deserves a place alongside the Sarah Chayes classic The Punishment of Virtue (2006), Dexter Filkins’ The Forever War (2008), Sebastian Junger’s War (2010) and General Stanley McCrystal’s My Share of the Task (2013).

Malkasian begins his story in a rural village surrounded by mounds of gray rocks each planted with a flag — “a strip of cloth tied to a long bamboo pole.” It is illustrative of Malkasian’s fluidly readable prose, essential because the book, like the war itself, is long: 21 chapters at 577 pages. It begins with a sketch of Afghanistan geography and demography, culture and society, then moves to the US invasion and the early years of Hamid Karzai and the Bush administration. Then comes the fighting, including the Canadian experience in Kandahar (2007-9), followed by the surge (2009-11) and the height of the American military experience. The latter third looks at the American efforts at drawdown and the on-again, off- again negotiations with the rotating Taliban and Afghan leadership, and the unity government of 2014. It concludes with the Trump administration, why the US failed, what opportunities existed for a better ending, and why America “never just got out.”

Afghanistan, as President Biden put it recently, has earned the sobriquet ‘the graveyard of empires’, sadly proving ‘that no amount of military force would ever deliver a stable, united, and secure Afghanistan’.

Some good, Malkasian acknowledges, came from the American occupation: better infrastructure, women’s rights and freedom of the press. How much of that will endure? The last time the Taliban ruled, extremism spread, the Islamic State appeared and, writes Malkasian, “Sacrifice, suicide, revenge, and killing ascended as values. Violence begat violence… Worst of all, the war twisted the Afghan people.”

In 1990, as the Soviets were pulling out of Afghanistan, I travelled up the Khyber Pass with a friend serving at our Embassy in Islamabad. Our escort in the jeep that took us through the mountainous pass was a member of the Khyber Rifles, whose fame dated back to Kipling’s time. He wore running shoes and carried a Lee-Enfield rifle but his talisman against harm and our real protection was his Khyber Rifles beret that could easily be seen by those in the Pass. It was a hot, bleak and happily uneventful trip with the only distraction the crests of British regiments that had once served on the frontier. We got to Landi Kotal and then Michni, close to the Afghan border. In the distance, what I thought were clouds was the smoke from the Mujahadeen shelling the retreating Soviets. We stopped at a refugee camp and watched a buzkashi game — a kind of polo but played with a goat’s head or when played across the border, as I was told by one participant, with the head of a Soviet “invader”. We bought tribal prayer rugs decorated with Kalashnikovs and the spiked grenades that the Afghans hated because they had maimed too many of their children.

Afghanistan, as President Biden put it recently, has earned the sobriquet ‘the graveyard of empires’, sadly proving “that no amount of military force would ever deliver a stable, united, and secure Afghanistan.”

The ‘forever war’ for Americans was also a long war for Canadians. Nick Burns, then the US ambassador to NATO (and now President Biden’s nominee to go to Beijing) told me on several occasions that the NATO decision to invoke, for the first time, the collective security provisions of Article Five — that an attack on one is an attack on all — was the initiative of our then-NATO ambassador David Wright. That decision launched the US-led NATO intervention that is only now concluding.

More than 40,000 Canadians served in Afghanistan with 158 killed between 2001 and 2014, including my foreign service colleague Glyn Berry (2006). More came home injured or psychologically wounded, and the Canadian Armed Forces report that 191 veterans have taken their own lives since 2011.

John Manley captured the dilemma for Canadians in the Independent Panel on Canada’s Future Role in Afghanistan report (2008) prepared for then-prime minister Stephen Harper. Manley wrote, “If I learned one thing from this enquiry, it is that there is no obvious answer to the question of Canada’s future role in Afghanistan. But our presence in that distant land does matter… because it concerns global and Canadian security, Canada’s international reputation, and the well-being of some of the world’s most impoverished and vulnerable people.” Our commitment is important, continued Manley, “because it has already involved the sacrifice of Canadian lives.” The report concluded with a prescient warning: “The war in Afghanistan is complicated. The future there is dangerous and can frustrate the most confident plan or prediction.”

Stephen Harper concluded that to suggest victory was the complete defeat of the insurgency and the replacement of a failed state in Afghanistan with a modern liberal democracy was not realistic: “I think what we should be aiming for in Afghanistan is a viable state that respects…some democratic norms, but I think ultimately the insurgency will last a long time. Afghanistan, through most of its history, has been an untamed country…the idea we’re going to wipe out an insurgency is completely unrealistic.”

For Canada, the Maple Leaf in Kandahar came down in 2011.

In a recent CGAI essay on the lessons of Afghanistan, longtime World Bank official and former North-Institute President Joe Ingram concludes that international support going forward needs to help “internal actors build a core set of governance institutions and systems that would be able to mobilize and effectively spend state revenue in accordance with accountability systems and transparency requirements, thereby reducing corruption and state capture while diminishing the state’s reliance on foreign aid.”

The Afghan experience is a cautionary tale for future international interventions. The defeat has created a palpable fatigue with nation-building. How will this square with Joe Biden’s determination to promote and support democracy, especially as the divide between open and closed systems widens?

The US is the one nation with the capacity and capability to truly make a difference. No American ally can take comfort in what happened in Afghanistan. American presidents and their Congress will be chary about any sort of security assistance, especially when it requires boots on the ground. The US will also expect more of the allies. Even then, when push comes to shove, can the allies depend on the US?

The western experience in Afghanistan obliges policy-makers to think hard about future interventions. “We believed things were possible in Afghanistan” observes Malkasian, “defeat of the Taliban or enabling the Afghan government to stand on its own — that probably were not.” Without an appreciation of the history, culture, geography and local politics, we may win battles but we lose the war.