In October 21, NATO forces invaded Afghanistan. Their initial aim, to topple the Taliban regime and replace it with a more democratic government aligned to Western interests, was swiftly achieved. However, stabilizing the country in the ensuing years has proven much more difficult. Despite billions of dollars in aid and military expenditure, Afghanistan remains a nation riddled with warlords, the world's major heroin producer, and the site of a seemingly endless conflict between Islamist militants and NATO forces.
In this timely and important book, Tim Bird and Alex Marshall offer a panoramic view of international involvement in Afghanistan from 21 to 211. Tackling the subject matter as a whole, Bird and Marshall weave together analysis of military strategy, regional context, aid policy, the Afghan government, and the many disagreements between and within the Western powers involved in the intervention. Given the complicating factors of the heroin trade, unwelcoming terrain, and precarious relations with Pakistan, the authors acknowledge the ways in which Afghanistan has presented unique challenges for its foreign invaders. Ultimately, however, they argue that the international community has failed in its self-imposed effort to solve Afghanistan's problems and that there are broader lessons to be learned from their struggle, particularly in terms of counterinsurgency and the ever-complicated work of "nation-building." The overarching feature of the intervention, they argue, has been an absence of strategic clarity and coherence.
Feckless nation building snatched defeat from the jaws of a resounding military victory, argues this mordant retrospective of the 10-year conflict in Afghanistan. War historians Bird (King's College, London) and Marshall (University of Glasgow) focus on a lack of strategy: from the start of the invasion in 2001, the American government and its NATO allies had no clear idea of their goals in Afghanistan beyond skimping on soldiers and money. The result, the authors note, is a chronically undermanned occupation force unable to secure the countryside and overreliant on airstrikes that regularly kill civilians; trifling aid packages that leave Afghanistan's basic needs unmet; a lazy policy of backing both a corrupt central government and despotic rural warlords; an unpopular counternarcotics program that has failed to stem the booming heroin economy; and a resurgent Taliban due to inept Western counterinsurgency initiatives not improved by Obama's appointment of General McChrystal. None of these criticisms are new, but the authors integrate them into a telling panorama of clueless policy making. (In one vignette, British development experts reach out to baffled desert tribesmen with a nature documentary on whales.) Although they don't quite pinpoint the right strategy for Afghanistan, the authors present a lucid, devastating critique of the road taken. Photos.