Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
2018-060
19 July 2018
Review by William J. Astore, Pennsylvania College of Technology
Our Latest Longest War: Losing Hearts and Minds in Afghanistan
Ed. Aaron B. O'Connell
Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2017. Pp. 378. ISBN 978–0–226–26565–0.
Descriptors: Volume 2018, 21st Century, Afghan War Print Version

In this grimly insightful book, Marine Lt. Col. Aaron O'Connell gathers nine essays on America's war in Afghanistan, together with his introduction and conclusion. The United States has spent a trillion dollars over fifteen years in Afghanistan without achieving its stated goals. Among the many reasons for this failure, O'Connell stresses the cultural differences that have complicated US efforts to build a stable Afghan government with its own reliable security forces. He wryly suggests that Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan might better be named Enduring Friction.


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The contributors to Our Latest Longest War include, apart from one Afghan voice and a former US ambassador to Afghanistan, mainly mid-level officers from all four American military branches; most have, like O'Connell himself, served in Afghanistan. In short, the book concentrates on the American experience of the war in Afghanistan; a common thread in the essays is frustration at the lack of progress there, despite the expenditure of so much blood, sweat, and treasure. Not addressed are larger geopolitical issues like the advisability of the United States going to war to begin with or the role of Pakistan in harboring the Taliban (mentioned only in passing).

In chapter 1, "Washington Goes to War," Ronald E. Neumann, the US Ambassador to Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007, critiques the "Washington way of war"—the confused chains of command, inconsistent funding, stubborn indifference to Afghan culture, progress metrics "that rarely reflected reality on the ground," and schedules reflecting Washington's political agendas rather than the exigencies of the fight in Afghanistan. The US government often "had no idea how its actions were received" (66) in Afghanistan, a fact that caused Afghan officials to distrust an ally that could be so clueless.

In chapter 2, "US Strategy in Afghanistan," Army Lt. Col. Colin Jackson discusses American strategy in Afghanistan as a tragedy in five acts, plagued by a "seesaw" shifting of goals from "minimalist visions of state construction" to ambitious counterinsurgency campaigns like the "surge" orchestrated by generals Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus under the Obama administration. Drawing parallels to the Vietnam War, he concludes that the United States "consistently did the minimum necessary not to lose even as its leaders understood that such a path was unlikely to end in success" (108).

Chapter 3, "In Our Own Image," by historian Martin Loicano (director of the Institute for the Study of War and Democracy) and Navy Capt. Craig Felker, details the training of Afghan national security forces. The authors argue that US and Coalition training efforts were rushed, riddled by corruption, insensitive to Afghan culture, and driven by Western imperatives. The training "was undertaken by numerous countries, following different strategies, and balancing competing military and political priorities …. The various Westerners working on army and police training did not only have problems communicating with the Afghans—they could barely communicate with each other." The result was a "take-charge" US-led approach that "literally cut the Afghans out of the process of building ostensibly Afghan institutions" (128).

In chapter 4, "The Impact of Culture on Policing in Afghanistan," Afghan National Police Capt. Pashtoon Atif criticizes American police training methods that "relied primarily on contractors who advocated a culture of militarization rather than civilian policing." Competing cultures and patronage networks made the Afghan police force a corrupt "hodgepodge of various entities and organizations, none of which are very effective" (133). Atif quotes a Kabul businessman: "Our police don't know how to deal with their citizens and how to treat a criminal. They only know how to fight and they love abusing people, as if they were confronting a notorious enemy…. [The Americans] ended up producing soldiers wearing police uniforms rather than proper police" (147, 151).

Chapter 5, "Building and Undermining Legitimacy," by Lt. Cdr. Jamie Lynn De Coster, concerns the failure of reconstruction efforts to make lasting and sustainable gains. De Coster notes that, from 2001 to 2014, $113 billion of US funds earmarked for reconstruction and development went mostly to Afghan security forces and other Department of Defense initiatives. Less than 5 percent went to health, education, gender programs, and humanitarian relief operations. And progress, when it came, was incommensurate with effort: for example, despite investments in the electrical power grid, only 18 percent of Afghans are connected to it. Meanwhile, initially successful efforts to pave roads proved unsustainable in the long term because the Afghan Ministry of Public Works failed to maintain them. By 2013, 85 percent of these roads were judged "unsuitable for motor vehicle traffic," according to the World Bank (166).

In chapter 6, "Rule of Law and Governance in Afghanistan," Army colonels Abigail Linnington and Rebecca Patterson show that the rule of law, like other aspects of US-led reconstruction, was overly militarized and Westernized. "From the beginning, international rule of law experts imported their own cultural ideas about law and justice and disregarded the region's history …. The experts failed to incorporate Afghan ideas into international strategies and actions, resulting in numerous unsustainable initiatives" (191). Heavy reliance on US contractors and high-technology "solutions," combined with overlapping efforts and interagency disputes, led to Afghans' distrust of their justice system. The result has been "a continuation of the system that has operated in Afghanistan for centuries: an unreliable and often corrupt formal rule of law system in the cities with limited reach, and informal traditional systems in the rural areas where people pay little mind to Kabul as long as it leaves them alone" (210).

Chapter 7, "Liberalism Does Its Thing," is the most ambitious in this fine collection. Marine Capt. Aaron MacLean explores the effects of applying Western liberal politics to an "illiberal" land. Westerners approached Afghanistan "with a set of assumptions about people, communities, and governments that did not really describe the actual human beings they were trying to persuade, or control, or cooperate with" (226). Specifically, he contends that most Afghans dislike centralized governments and favor strong links between religion and politics; they see order and peace as prerogatives of the strong or the rich.

MacLean, who served in ground combat in Afghanistan against the Taliban during the surge, notes that the agricultural town of Marjah in Helmand Province was (temporarily) pacified "only by sidelining the Kabul government and strengthening the patronage networks that included both ordinary Afghans and the [Taliban] insurgents themselves" (239). Violence in Marjah ended only because "there was money to be made" by not fighting, not because US forces won hearts and minds. When the Americans and their money departed, fighting promptly resumed. By 2016, "Marjah District was again effectively under Taliban control." The West in Afghanistan, MacLean concludes, "was blinded by [its own] unexamined political and cultural assumptions," leading to "a massive and avoidable waste of time, lives, and resources" (241). Alternatively,

The reestablishment of a limited state [at Kabul], perhaps rooted in a Barakzai monarchy, with more accommodation of illiberal actors, acceptance of the control of vast areas of the country by tribal and ethnic networks whose practices are objectionable to the Western conscience, combined with solicitude toward the conservative beliefs of rural Pashtuns and a recognition that Pakistan, facing the threat of India to its east, has no natural interest in a prosperous state capable of conducting its own independent foreign policy to its west: that could have succeeded. (243)

In chapter 8, "Organizing like the Enemy," Lt. Cdr. Daniel Green suggests a different approach, centered on special operations forces (SOF) partnering with locals at the village level. "Instead of viewing security as something that was done to the local population," SOF learned to adapt "to the Afghan cultural context and saw security as something that was done with it" (246), effectively emulating the "micropolitics" practiced so shrewdly by the Taliban. Unfortunately, Green admits, in their culturally driven efforts to build trust locally, SOF "could not fully divorce themselves from their own institutional culture of measuring success in a traditional military manner" (269).

In the ninth and final chapter, "Leaving Afghanistan," Air Force Lt. Col. Benjamin Jones addresses the withdrawal of combat forces that marked the end of Operation Enduring Freedom in December 2014. What was supposed to be a "conditions-based" process became calendar-driven, notes Jones. And the timetable was set not by generals and security experts but coteries of political players around presidents Hamid Karzai and Barack Obama. Jones notes that one American officer felt that the process became little more than "a political fig leaf to allow the war effort to politically transition to Afghan control" (294). Jones aptly cites the common droll observation that "in Afghanistan, the West has the watches, but the Afghan people have the time." This dovetails with O'Connell's overall conclusion that "any reasoned analysis of Operation Enduring Freedom must conclude that, thus far, America's longest war has been an extremely costly half success at best, or at worst, a failure" (306).

The reasons for this failure include tangled bureaucracies, erratic resourcing, over-reliance on technology to solve non-technical problems, ill-conceived progress metrics, discontinuity of command, Westerners' sidelining of Afghans, contempt for or misunderstanding of their culture and mores, and addiction to militarizing everything. Add to these strategic incoherence, fluctuating interest from a Washington distracted by the Iraq War, and you have a recipe for the "half success" O'Connell sees as the best-case scenario for America's trillion-dollar effort in Afghanistan.

Many of the volume's contributors cite parallels to America's Vietnam experience. In both conflicts, US and Coalition forces could certainly kill the enemy but not forge a quasi-liberal democracy with a stable central government supported by capable security forces. In each case, a frustrated United States blamed its ally for alleged corruption, undependability, and ingratitude.

Our Latest Longest War deserves close reading and careful reflection by anyone (in particular, US government officials with a role in national defense) wishing to learn about the Afghan War and the American way of war. Aaron O'Connell and his coauthors are to be congratulated for clarifying so powerfully the hubris and limits of American and Western power in Afghanistan.

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