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How the West Lost Its Way

by Tim Bird and Alex Marshall

Pub Date: June 28th, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-300-15457-3
Publisher: Yale Univ.

Books explaining America’s botched war in Afghanistan are catching up with those doing the same for Iraq; this lucid account by two British military historians will keep readers gnashing their teeth throughout.

Bird (Defense Studies/King’s College, London) and Marshall (History and War Studies/Univ. of Glasgow) stress that righteous anger drove the American invasion in October 2001, and the U.S. military followed a clear strategy—remove the Taliban, destroy al-Qaeda and eliminate Afghanistan as a base for international terrorism. After an apparently easy victory, clarity vanished. By early 2002, troops were departing for Iraq, leaving free Afghans to build a modern society which was assumed to mean a strong central government and free elections. This was disastrously naive because traditional Afghan tribal networks treat government as a winner-take-all arena in which those in power enrich themselves and their tribe to the exclusion of others. Preoccupied in Iraq, five years passed before the U.S. administration noticed that a revived Taliban was thrashing the incompetent Afghan army, predatory police and kleptocratic local warlords. A corrupt, ineffectual central government relied on foreign assistance and the flourishing drug trade, which now supplies nearly 90 percent of the world’s heroin; taxes provide less than 10 percent of Afghanistan’s budget. Always conscious that its major ally, Pakistan, supported the Taliban, the American government grew uncomfortably aware that billions in aid had not bought its loyalty. Despite revived efforts, the authors conclude that competent central government and victory over the insurgents remains unattainable. Despite the Obama administration’s optimistic rhetoric, it is likely that most of its energy is aimed at a politically acceptable exit strategy.

A gloomily convincing portrait of American misadventures in Afghanistan.