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Book Review: Losing And Winning In Afghanistan

FILE: U.S. soldiers leave a truck inside an Afghan military base during fighting between Taliban militants and Afghan security forces in the northeastern city of Kunduz in 2015.
FILE: U.S. soldiers leave a truck inside an Afghan military base during fighting between Taliban militants and Afghan security forces in the northeastern city of Kunduz in 2015.

As the United States renews its commitment to Afghanistan this year, it is important to define failure and victory in a country afflicted by war for nearly four decades.

The international community appears to have entered a new era in the war in Afghanistan. After a long drawdown, Washington and its allies have recommitted themselves to remaining in the country for the foreseeable future. U.S. President Donald Trump’s promise of more involvement -- sending more troops, expanding conditions for engagement, increasing aerial attacks and CIA involvement, and expanding Afghan special forces -- could spell a welcome end to the deteriorating security situation.

The new tactics focus more on killing members of the Taliban and Islamic State militants than on building up Afghan state structures. There are also indications that the top U.S. command doesn’t really expect to win the war but rather just maintain low troop levels in an important strategic region.

In 2016, anthropologist Noah Coburn published Losing Afghanistan: An Obituary for the Intervention with Stanford University Press. The book was, of course, written before the current administration came to power, and so one might wonder if Coburn spoke too soon of the need for an obituary. The current plans are so different they might constitute a rebirth for the intervention, although I myself am pessimistic and believe not only will many of the same mistakes be repeated but new ones will also be made. But no matter the current changes afoot, such a book is important reading for anyone who wants to learn about, and hopefully avoid, the mistakes of intervention until now.

Coburn, an anthropologist, is well placed to write about the Afghan intervention. His initial research took place in a village north of Kabul, Istalif, which is renowned for its pottery. Coburn’s first book was an ethnography of the political maneuvering (more often marked by the decision to not overturn the status quo) of Istalif’s residents against the backdrop of foreign aid projects. He then spent a few years in Kabul working on various research projects for foundations, organizations, and aid groups, and clearly has the expertise to take on the monumental task of writing an ethnography of the intervention.

In many ways, Coburn’s book provides key insights into how intervention, in the sense of foreigners operating in Afghanistan in various capacities, took place. There is a lot of information in this book, gleaned largely from Coburn’s close relationship with four key informants he introduces: a former U.S. ambassador, a former Navy SEAL, an American who starts a development organization, and an Afghan businessman. The reader gains a deep understanding of how these individuals took part in in the intervention as well as insights from individuals who have extremely important points of reference but who are rarely accessible to scholars. The book is not, however, well grounded in the literature of humanitarianism, development, or militarization, which may or may not matter for the non-academic reader or even be a plus.

Coburn is very much the empiricist, and we learn well hashed out details about, for example, how the Afghan development industry shuttles grant money only to those competent in the language of this particular industry. We hear of Will Locke, a young development worker who, working together with a core group of Afghans, attempts to bring sustainable wind turbine energy to Afghanistan.

Will runs into multiple problems; in seeking funding he is pushed not to work on his own project but rather to write grants monitoring large-scale projects. His organization folds after a few years.

This is a clear example of how development funds to Afghanistan, in addition to facing problems of mismanagement, are not allotted projects that could have the most impact on the lives of ordinary Afghans. Will’s story brings to light some of the major problems faced by the development industry in general, such as the tendency for projects to be donor-driven, as well as those problems encountered in the conflict setting of Afghanistan and Iraq, whereby U.S. State Department and USAID officials were encouraged to spend large sums of money quickly, resulting in less accountability.

The book also addresses difficulties faced by the U.S. military in adapting to a changing combat role. We hear firsthand from Owen, a former Navy SEAL, who is frustrated that despite the traditional role of a SEAL to carry out short, intense, kinetic operations, he is now tasked with a long-term training mission for members of the Afghan National Army. This might be a training and preparation issue, as Coburn suggests, but I wonder if it is also a self-selection issue. Special Forces units should not be put into such a situation so contrary to their original purpose in any case, whereas other members of the military might benefit from more effective training on community relationships.

A reader looking for an easy-to-digest work tackling the difficulties and failures of the international community in Afghanistan will benefit from Coburn’s conclusions on development, military, business, and diplomacy in Afghanistan. And yet, this brings me to what I see as the book’s main weakness: The reader learns very little as to how the intervention affects Afghans.

While one of the four main informants is a young Afghan conducting business in the shadow of Bagram Air Base, the true focus is on the foreigners’ experience. The book claims to provide an understanding of the whole intervention, and yet those most affected -- the Afghans -- are largely missing.

In sum, this is an excellent book for anyone with an interest in Afghanistan. Its greatest strength lies in its description of the way the development industry works. The reader gains insights into how certain individuals that we do not often hear from in an ethnography -- namely a former ambassador and former Navy Seal -- experienced Afghanistan, and what they believe to be wrong. But if you are looking for a book more focused on Afghanistan and its people, you will be disappointed.

Melissa Kerr Chiovenda is a postdoctoral research fellow at Harvard Medical School's Department of Global Health and Social Medicine, and an affiliated faculty member at Emerson College. She completed 18 months of anthropological fieldwork for her doctoral dissertation in Bamyan and Kabul, Afghanistan. These views are the author's alone and do not represent those of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.