“Soft power,” not firepower, can deliver an American victory in Afghanistan, according to this debut treatise on military-civilian relations.
Marie, the president of the nonprofit Civil Visions International, spent two years as a U.S. Air Force officer in Afghanistan, an experience that gave her pronounced opinions on the conduct of the war effort. Her first premise is that the real enemy is Pakistan’s military intelligence agency, which, she argues, sponsors the Taliban as a proxy to control Afghanistan. Second, she insists that calls for an American pullout are but “enemy talking points”; the U.S. must “move forward, never give up and achieve a resounding victory,” lest Afghanistan revert to “the world’s largest salt-lick for Islamic nut-jobs.” But that goal, she contends, requires a more subtle, psychological approach to the war—one that enlists the allegiance of Afghans by “wooing” them with “gentleness, respect and even…love.” The bulk of the book is a primer on social mores and manners; the author highlights the importance of learning at least a few phrases in the local languages, mastering the complex rituals of greeting “like an Afghan,” and understanding the centrality of modesty and honor in Afghan society. She recommends that American women get used to head scarves, and that American men get used to holding hands with Afghan men. Above all, she urges Americans to leave their armored SUVs and fortified compounds to mingle with Afghans face-to-face, and to win “hearts and minds” by forging close relationships and taking civilian concerns seriously. Marie illustrates these lessons with her own real-life stories of navigating Afghan streets with her unit and defusing tensions with deft translation, cultural sensitivity and personal contact. (In fact, her direst confrontations were with clueless American brass, who reprimanded and investigated her for breaking bread with Afghans.) Marie offers a lucid, cogent analysis of social psychology and group dynamics, aimed at a military that seems tone-deaf to such factors, but her focus on deportment and etiquette provides a rather limited perspective; she writes little about the poverty, corruption, warlord-ism and ethnic animosities that make nation-building so challenging. Readers may wonder whether even the most heartfelt personal bonds can surmount these systemic obstacles to American success in Afghanistan.
A perceptive but narrow analysis of the human side of the Afghan conflict.