THE AMBASSADORS: AMERICAN DIPLOMATS ON THE FRONT LINES by Paul Richter

Image result for photo of robert ford and ryan crocker(American Ambassador to Libya Christopher Steven)

The past two weeks the American people witnessed the professionalism and commitment to American national security on the part of diplomatic personnel before the House Intelligence Committee.  Career diplomats like acting Ambassador to the Ukraine, William B. Taylor, Jr., Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent, Fiona Hill, a former official at the U.S. National Security Council specializing in Russian and European affairs, and Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch who was fired as ambassador to the Ukraine by President Trump, along with a number of others displayed their honesty and integrity as they were confronted by conspiracy theories and lies developed to defend administration attempts to coerce and bribe Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to encourage him to launch investigations into former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter.  The preciseness of their presentations left no doubt as to their credibility and points to the importance of having experienced professionals advising and carrying out American foreign policy.

In our current political climate it is very difficult to conduct foreign policy in a more traditional manner when you have a president who makes decisions from his “gut,” or spur of the moment as he did when he recently allowed Turkey to expand into Syria and crush the Kurds.  It is interesting to compare how “normal” foreign policy should be conducted and how important these diplomats are.  The publication of Paul Richter’s new book, THE AMBASSADORS: AMERICAN DIPLOMATS ON THE FRONT LINES  is important because it supports the kind of work that was performed by the witnesses before the House Impeachment Inquiry and reflects the antithesis of the Trump administration’s approach to foreign policy.

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(American Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford)

Richter has chosen to explore the careers of four American ambassadors who since 9/11 contributed to what insiders’ term “expeditionary diplomats” who have served in battle zones in the Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt, Pakistan, and Libya.  Because of the nature of these conflicts these career professionals have been involved with traditional diplomacy in addition to helping generals and spy chiefs decide how to wage war, as well as try to end them.  When Washington found itself with a country on the edge with no real plan it was these diplomats who helped improvise and make policy decisions.

Ryan Crocker emerges as America’s most knowledgeable source on Iraq throughout his career having served there when Saddam Hussein came to power in 1980 and in 1998, yet he was left out of planning sessions dealing with the run up to the invasion of Iraq.  Richter reviews Bush administration ignorance and agendas that are all too familiar, but Crocker’s warnings about an invasion all came to fruition; sectarian warfare, violence and looting, and the emergence of Iran as the region’s dominant player.  Crocker left Iraq in August 2003 and served as ambassador to Pakistan for almost three years.  He would return to Iraq and worked well with General David Petraeus replacing Robert Ford as ambassador as they oversaw the somewhat successful surge between 2007 and 2009.    Ford another exceptional diplomat, whose experiences reinforce the arrogance and outright stupidity of Donald Rumsfeld, Douglas Feith and numerous others in the Bush administration.  The reduced role of Colin Powell and the State Department is plain to see, and Crocker and Ford did their best to overcome America’s mistakes.

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(American Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker)

Richter successfully highlights the importance of the diplomats as they tried to keep a lid on the violence in Iraq and nudge the government toward democracy.  Their contact within the Iraqi government, outside militias, and other groups is evident, and their role was extremely important  when compared to personnel in Washington who at times seemed to have no clue.  Crocker’s success rested on the respect that the Iraqis including President Maliki had for him.  He thought nothing of traveling to meet all elements in the Iraqi ethnic puzzle as a means of trying to keep the fractured country together. According to Emma Sky, a British Middle East expert, Crocker “had provided the strategic direction and guidance the military so craved from civilian leaders, and so rarely received.”  It is not surprising that once Crocker left Iraq in February 2009 the situation deteriorated according to Richter because of the changes in approach implemented by his replacement, Christopher Hill, and the overall policy pursued by the Obama administration.

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(Syrian President Bashir Assad)

By 2011, Crocker shifted his focus to Afghanistan and returned to government service after being chosen by President Obama to try and work out agreements for a strategic partnership. Obama’s goal was to reduce US troop levels from 150,000 to 15,000 and turn the fighting over to Afghan troops as much as possible.  Crocker’s relationship with Karzai was tested as the Afghanistan president reaffirmed old grudges against Washington as he tried to maneuver among militias, the Taliban and his administration’s corruption.  Once again Crocker did give it his best under extremely trying conditions.

Perhaps America’s most important ally in the war on terror was Pakistan, a country that could never be relied upon with its own agenda visa vie the Taliban, al-Qaeda, India, and numerous militias.  Richter is correct when he describes the Pakistani-American relationship as a bad marriage with both partners cheating but had no choice but to stay together.  Anne Patterson entered this quagmire in 2007 and served as ambassador to Pakistan for three years.  Her main goal was preventative.  She needed to help keep the country’s politics from becoming so chaotic or dangerous that the army, Pakistan’s most powerful institution, would feel the need to install new leaders to restore order.  During her term as ambassador she successfully played the role of political counselor, military advisor, banker, and sometimes psychotherapist.  Richter takes the reader through all the crisis attendant to the United States-Pakistani relationship dealing with the duplicitous Parvez Musharraf, the assassination of Benazir Bhutto and her husband’s attempts to succeed her as President, the Mumbai attacks and numerous others.  She did her best to keep the lid on and for the most part did an admirable job.  For the latest work that deals with the topic in full see Steven Coll’s THE DIRECTORATE: THE CIA AND AMERICA’S SECRET WARS IN AFGHANISTAN AND PAKISTAN.

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(American Ambassador to Pakistan and Egypt Anne Patterson)

Patterson would be sent to Egypt with the onset of the Arab Spring.  Once the country politically imploded and Hosni Mubarak was overthrown, she moved from the conflagration in Islamabad and found herself amidst another crisis situation.  Egypt was the cornerstone of US security strategy for the Middle East by maintaining peace with Israel, fighting counterterrorism, and keeping sea lanes open for the transport of oil.  The fall of Mubarak caught the Obama administration by surprise.  After the revolution, Washington continued to be blindsided by developments in Egypt.  Patterson would arrive when the Egyptian military and civilians were furious at the Obama administration whom they felt had abandoned their country.  She was plain speaking and knowledgeable and with a reputation in the State Department that one colleague described as “bad ass” and she was eventually able to earn respect from Egyptian military and intelligence leaders.  Further she had to diffuse the Egyptian belief that the US was involved in a conspiracy to push democratic reform.  Further she was confronted with the harassment and intimidation by Egyptian authorities against American backed reform NGOs and Embassy staff which she worked to deflate so she could try and influence Egyptian government actions even as Washington seemed to dither.

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(Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi)

Following the Moslem Brotherhood victory with the election of Mohamed Morsi as President, Patterson met with the new Egyptian leader and tried to pin him down as to his views on Israel, human rights, etc.  She did her best to work with Morsi and even gave him a certain leeway, all for naught as Morsi had an overstated view of his own importance.  His major error was to appoint the ruthless General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as Defense Minister.  As Morsi became more authoritarian, she tried to curb his lack of political skill and quest for more and more power to no vail.  With the Arab Emirates and Saudis working with the Egyptian military Morsi was arrested and a coup brought Sisi to power.  The entire episode was not the Obama administrations finest hour.  Granted they had little leeway with Morsi, but they did not do enough to try and steer him toward a more democratic approach.  The problem as Patterson pointed out was not that Morsi was an Islamist extremist, “but that he simply didn’t know what he was doing.”  Patterson was vilified by reform groups, foreign leaders and certain members of Congress as having assisted in bringing Morsi to power, criticism that is unwarranted but reflected that Patterson was damned no matter what course she chose.

Image result for photo of obama with anne patterson(Egyptian demonstrations against American Ambassador Anne Patterson)

Perhaps the most unsolvable problem facing American diplomats discussed in Richter’s narrative is Syria.  Robert Ford was placed in the breach as the Arab Spring left its mark on the country and civil war ensued due to the forty-year repressive and murderous reign of the Assad family.  Obama came to the presidency naively hoping to engage the Syrian and Iranian regimes. Ford was the first American ambassador to Damascus since 2006.  Ford had a working relationship with the Syrian opposition, and he advised them to focus on reform not regime change.  In his heart of hearts, Ford realized that Assad would never give up power.  Ford’s secondary role was to educate Washington concerning events in Syria, but the Obama administration policy was faulty as it called for Assad to resign, publicized a “red line” as a response to the use of chemical weapons, and opening the door for Russia.  Ford did his best, risking his life repeatedly confronting Assad and developing relationships with the opposition, but by December 2011 he would return to Washington where he worked to try and merge the different opposition groups.  This task was impossible because at the same time jihadist opposition began to infiltrate into eastern Syria enabling them to seize control of the uprising from more moderate Syrians. Ford argued to no avail that Obama administration needed to arm more moderate elements or Jihadists in eastern Syria would join those in western Iraq.  Obama refused to supply weapons for more moderate elements and with Iranian and Russian aid the moderates had nowhere to turn to but Islamists for help.  For Ford, the lack of weapons aid made a radical take over a self-fulfilling prophecy.  When Obama did little about Assad chemical attacks it further fueled opposition by moderates and members of Congress.  Richter describes Ford as a pinata as he was bashed by everyone for the lack of US aid including Senate Foreign Relations Committee members.   Finally, in total frustration he left the Foreign Service in 2014.

 

The diplomat most familiar to the American people was J. Christopher Stevens who was killed in a jihadist raid in Benghazi in 2012 fostering a partisan uproar in Washington as Republicans used his death as a political vehicle against Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.  According to Richter the details of how Stevens died and who is responsible remains open to conjecture, but one thing is certain, there is plenty of blame to go around.  When Stevens accepted the assignment, he knew what he was getting into, but his career long love of the Libyan people clouded his vision.  Stevens had to start from scratch to carve out his own rules for working with the Libyan opposition who he met with frequently earning their trust even though they did not always follow his advice.  The problem was the inability of the opposition to control the varied militias who had access to weaponry left over from the Qaddafi regime.  At the time, according to Jake Sullivan, a Clinton foreign policy advisor; “post-conflict stabilization in Libya, while clearly a worthy undertaking at the right level of investment, cannot be counted on as one of our highest priorities.”  Stevens concern that the administration wasn’t paying enough attention to what was going on in Benghazi in the eastern region around it would result in his death.  In discussing Stevens, as with Crocker, Ford, and Patterson, Richter provides a nice balance of historical detail, Washington policy and his own insights and analysis which are dead on.

If one wants to gain an understanding of the problems the United States faced in the Middle East and Afghanistan after 9/11 in a succinct and compact approach, then Richter’s monograph should be consulted.  At a time when American decision makers made what proved to be disastrous decisions that we are still confronting today, it is refreshing to explore the careers and work of four individuals who devoted their lives to unravel and try and rectify these mistakes, and one who gave his life believing in the importance of his work and having the ability to the tell truth to power.

The late U.S. ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, left, shakes hands with a Libyan man in Tripoli, Libya, in a photo posted on the U.S. Embassy Tripoli Facebook page on Aug. 27. | AP Photo
(American Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and a Libyan citizen)

 

THE FIRST STONE by Carsten Jensen

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(Helmand Province, Afghanistan)

After eighteen years of combat in Afghanistan the war grinds on.  The Taliban has reemerged, and it appears that a negotiated solution with some sort of governmental power sharing is far in the future, if ever.  The war has produced a number of important novels like Elliot Ackerman’s GREEN ON BLUE, John Renehan’s THE VALLEY, and Nadeem Aslam’s THE BLIND MAN’S GARDEN.  The latest entry into this genre recently translated from Danish is Carsten Jensen’s THE FIRST STONE.  The book is exceptional, and it presents the Danish perspective on the war when most books on Afghanistan tend to focus on American soldiers.  Jensen is able to show that there is a universality when to comes to combat in Afghanistan dealing with numerous warlords and the Taliban that knows no delineation between the nationalities of NATO members who conduct the fighting.

At the outset Jensen, who has visited Afghanistan since the 1980s and the Soviet occupation numerous times, focuses on the camaraderie that exists among members of Third Platoon.  Each character is introduced and the interplay between them reflects how they believe in and support each other.  There are a number of important individuals that emerge; Andreas, a.k.a. “side kick” a filmographer who carries his camera everywhere creating a video record of the war.  Rasmus Schroder, the platoon leader, a former video gamer with a strange approach to warfare and life in general will become a major actor in Jensen’s plot.  Lukas Moller, the chaplain leads his men through the daily crisis of war shifting his beliefs from situation to situation.  Hannah, the only woman in the platoon appears to be ensconced in an emotional straight jacket.  Colonel Ove Steffenson, the Platoon Commander will make some poor decisions that affect everyone, and Naib Atmar, an Afghan warlord who for a time worked well with Steffenson.  Another major character is Sara, a former medical student from Kabul whose family is wiped out by the Taliban.  She is forced to marry a warlord and gives birth to a son which along with the war traumatized her and will lead her to a mystical self that impact all around her.  Lastly, Khaiber, a Danish-Afghani who is a member of the Danish Secret Service who is tasked to investigate the platoon when everything seems to go wrong.  His task becomes increasingly complex when his father, a mujahedeen enters the picture.

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Jensen leads the reader on a fascinating journey of men in combat.  First, he explores the special relationship among the soldiers.  Second, he places the platoon in a combat situation when two members are killed and how the platoon deals with their loss.  Third, the linkage between the war they engage in each day, and the developing violence at home.  It appears they are now fighting terrorists in theater as well as in Denmark.  Lastly, the ambush that kills thirteen members and what it does to the remainder of the unit.  It seems that a traitor may have been involved and what should be done about it dominates a large part of the story.  Steffensen as commander faces numerous crises; the deaths of the local mayor, his interpreter, civilians, and his own men creates questions of leadership and how to rectify a bad situation.

Jensen seems to cover every angle of the war. The relationship between violence at home and in Afghanistan dominates.  He explores why someone might become a traitor and what that individual hopes to gain from it.   Soldiers receive a great deal of training, but they cannot be trained to deal with every situation – how do platoon members react and cope?  How does one quantify leadership, effectiveness and failure?  What is the difference between a Taliban member setting off an IED with a cell phone and a drone dropping bombs seemingly out of nowhere?  The author develops the role of DarkSky, a Blackwater type company led by Mr. Timothy who has contracts with the US military.  The role of outsourcing the war is an important aspect of the novel.  Further, Jensen zeroes in on certain characters and pays particular attention to Hannah whose love obsession will be replaced by hatred and the need for vengeance and what it does to her and her compatriots.  Hannah is transformed from being emotionally involved with someone and being a subservient soldier to a woman with “blood lust,” which is very disconcerting as these feelings spread throughout the platoon.

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(Danish soldiers in Afghanistan)

The author pinpoints the evolution of the Danish platoon from a more “humane” approach to war to a more negative attitude towards the Afghans, particularly when they return home from Christmas leave after confronting accidents and deaths at home.  This can be seen in the tone of Chaplain Moller’s sermons as he has moved on from books and science fiction to domestic killing and the need to protect Denmark from terrorists.  The result is attendance at sermons skyrockets as he tries to equate the 1525 German Peasants Revolt/Thirty Years War to 9/11 and the period that followed.  The novels strength is that it zeroes in on the crisis of conscience that soldiers experience in Afghanistan and how it affects them emotionally on a daily basis.  Each character has to learn to mourn, accept the unacceptable, and learn to move on and carry out their duties, which at times makes them behave rather erratically.

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(Carsten Jensen, author)

The crisis of confidence is evident early on when Girishk Mayor Ali Shar, a purist who believes in the common people and democracy refuses to make deals with the Danes.  Steffensen will come to agreements with warlords, but he cannot develop a relationship with the Mayor who will be assassinated, probably by the local police commissioner.  The corruption of Afghanistan abounds, the results of an American bomb going astray killing numerous Afghan civilians whose relatives are paid for their lives, the horrors of war as seen through the eyes of Simon, the medical assistant, and the Taliban tribunal whose sentences seem barbaric to foreigners, but justice to Afghanis brings the novel a high degree of tension throughout.   These situations are all present for the reader to digest raising the question; why are we still there?

According to Tobias Grey in his September 1, 2019 New York Times book review;

Jensen likes to give his fiction an epic sweep. This worked well in his 2006 novel, WHY WE DROWNED which has, according to his publisher, sold more than a half million copies worldwide in 20 languages. But unlike that novel, which kept skillful control of its seafaring narrative, “The First Stone” is sabotaged by too many baggy subplots. It’s also stomach-churningly violent. The biblical heft of Jensen’s title suggests what he’s searching for, but far too often the narrative devolves into a gruesome parade of suffering.

The savagery of ordinary Afghans toward their enemies appears to know no bounds. Mutilated victims are scattered everywhere: “The villagers have flayed the skin loose from the middle of the forehead and rolled it down to the chin; it resembles a rubber mask pulled halfway down by an exhausted carnival worker.” Truth or fiction? Whatever the answer, Jensen’s novel coldly depicts a region that remains stubbornly cast in Rudyard Kipling’s mold.

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(Helmand Province, Afghanistan)

OUR MAN: RICHARD HOLBROOKE AND THE END OF THE AMERICAN CENTURY by George Packer

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(Richard Holbrooke)

Perhaps the most colorful and able diplomat in American history has been Richard Holbrooke.  The possessor of an irascible personality who was not the most popular individual with colleagues and presidents that he served but was a highly effective strategic thinker and negotiator with a number of important accomplishments to his credit.  The success that stands out the most is his work that produced the Dayton Accords in 1995 that brought closure somewhat to the civil war that raged in the former Yugoslavia throughout the 1990s.  But he should also be given credit for his work as Ambassador to the United Nations, Assistant Secretary for East Asian Affairs, and his last position as Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan for which he gave his life.

Holbrooke exhibited a powerful ego that did not always play well with others be they friend or foe, but in the end,  he was at the center of American strategic thinking throughout a career that spanned the beginning of US involvement in Vietnam through our continuing imbroglio in Afghanistan.  A self-promotor who saw his work and ideas as the key to American success, Holbrooke was a dominating presence in the American foreign policy establishment for decades and is the subject of George Packer’s important new study, OUR MAN: RICHARD HOLBROOKE AND THE END OF THE AMERICAN CENTURY.

Holbrooke owned many personality flaws for which he paid dearly.  His drive would in part destroy two marriages and his closest friendships.  His character defects would cost him any chance of being chosen Secretary of State, a position he craved,  for which he was eminently qualified.  If he had the capacity of introspection and a dose of self-restraint, he could have accomplished anything.  However, if he was able to tone himself down, he would not have been true to himself which is the core of why he was successful.

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(Anthony Lake)

For George Packer, Holbrooke was the embodiment of the American Century (or half century!) which encompassed Holbrooke’s life.  He was part of the belief that the US could accomplish anything, be it the Marshall Plan, remake Vietnam, bring peace to Bosnia, or make something out of the quagmire that is Afghanistan.  For Holbrooke to be part of great events and decisions was his life blood and that is why it is important to tell his story.

In many ways Packer’s narrative is a conversation with the reader as he imparts practically all aspects of Holbrooke’s private and public life.  He takes us inside his subject’s marriages and family life, his intellectual development, travels throughout the world and the important individuals who were his compatriots or enemies, and his obsession to create a foreign policy that would embody the liberal internationalism that was so effective following World War II.  Packer makes assumptions about how conversant the reader is with post-war history as it relates to Holbrooke’s career and to his credit, he offers a great deal of background information to make the reader’s task easier.  Packer prepares character sketches of all the major personages that Holbrooke shared the stage with; be it Edward Lansdale, the CIA psy-ops guru; Averill Harriman, a mentor and benefactor; David Halberstam, the New York Times reporter; Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Hillary Clinton, presidents Carter, Clinton, and Obama among many others.

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(Sarajevo, 1995)

Perhaps the most poignant relationship that Packer describes is that of Anthony Lake who was a close friend of Holbrooke in the early 1960s as they both entered the Foreign Service and served in Vietnam.  Packer follows their relationship and competition over the next five decades, they’re ups and downs on a personal level, policy disagreements all of which would ruin their friendship and turn them into bureaucratic enemies.  At times it feels like Packer has inserted Lake’s autobiography amidst the narrative as a means of comparing the two and providing insights into steps and positions Holbrooke might have taken which may have altered his career path.

Holbrooke’s Vietnam experience would stay with him throughout his career.  The military self-deception of Vietnam and the role of the national security establishment created doubts and reinforced the idea that Holbrooke himself knew what was best and would usually consider himself to be the smartest person in the room.  This is evident in Holbrooke’s writings which critique US policy as he integrates his personal life into the narrative.  Packer does an excellent job culling Holbrooke’s thoughts as he incorporates segments of his notebooks into his story.  When it came to Vietnam, Holbrooke was very astute as he saw the failure of the Strategic Hamlet program early on and that fighting the Viet Cong only from the air could only result in failure.  For Holbrooke the watershed date for the war was February, 1965 as the Pentagon issued an “evacuation order” for non-essential personnel and families as it brought an end “to the pretty colonial town of Saigon” and “was the beginning of sprawling US bases and B-52s and black market Marlboros and industrial scale-prostitution.”

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(Henry Kissinger)

Packer’s discussion of Kissinger and Brzezinski are fascinating.  Both men despised Holbrooke and the feelings were mutual.  When three egos as large as theirs the result had to be intellectual and verbal fireworks.  For what it is worth, Holbrooke felt Kissinger was a liar, amoral and a deeply cynical man with an overblown reputation who had contributed to the culture of Watergate and the events that followed.  Kissinger described Holbrooke as possessing minimal intelligence and “the most viperous character I know around town,” which was something coming from Kissinger.  Holbrooke saw Brzezinski as another Kissinger type who would destroy Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and seize control of President Carter’s foreign policy through his role as National Security Advisor.  Brzezinski’s hard line view of the Cold War was born out with Russia, but “he did help destroy the last pieces of any postwar consensus, bringing viciousness and deception into the heart of the government.”  Both men loved the spectacle of power and wielded it for its own sake, bringing Vance to tell Holbrooke, “I still cannot understand how the president was so taken with Zbig.  He is evil, a liar, and dangerous.”

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(Zbigniew Brzezinski)

Holbrooke’s greatest accomplishment was his work bringing a pseudo peace to Bosnia.  Packer delves into the Yugoslav civil war in great detail providing character studies of the major players and/or psychopaths from Slobodan Milosevic, the president of Serbia, Fanjo Tudjman, the president of Croatia, Alija Izetegovic, president of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Radovan Karadzic, president of Republic Srpska, among many other “interesting individuals.”  Packer’s details of the Dayton negotiations are priceless and reflect Holbrooke’s doggedness and highlights the difficulties that he faced dealing with such diverse characters steeped in their own ethnic, religious, and nationalistic hatreds.  Packer describes Holbrooke’s negotiating tactics, ranging from bombasity, reasonable proposals, and Bismarckian type threats to achieve his goals.  In so doing he believed he was rectifying Bill Clinton’s disinterest, ignorance, or lack of gumption in dealing with the Balkans.  With the slaughter of Srebrenica and the siege of Sarajevo, Holbrooke was able to rally Clinton, foster NATO action by our European allies, who had done nothing to that point to bomb and coerce the participants to the negotiating table and foster a diplomatic agreement.

Holbrook always believed he should be Secretary of State, but his personality and poor judgement would turn off Presidents Carter, Clinton, and Obama in addition to his colleagues in the diplomatic arena whether it was Cy Vance, Madeline Albright, Susan Rice and a host of others. The bureaucratic battles behind the scenes and some in public are present for all to see, many of which Holbrooke won, but many of which he lost.  It was only Hillary Clinton who saw the positives in using Holbrooke’s talents as she made him the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan which Packer discusses in great detail as Holbrooke worked to try and bring about negotiations with the Taliban and gain Pakistani cooperation.

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(Kati Marton, Holbrooke’s third wife)

Packer delves into the personal side of Holbrooke particularly his marriages which resulted in two divorces and a decades long marriage to Kati Marton, who was more than a match for Holbrook in terms of ego, self-centeredness, and their own special type of charm.  Holbrooke’s feelings are explored when he failed to achieve the positions he desired and Packer provides numerous insights into policy and personal decision-making that affected himself, his family, and the professionals around him.

Packer’s effort is to be applauded as he seems to have captured Holbrooke, warts and all in conducting research that included over 250 interviews, the liberal use of Holbrooke’s notebooks, and a strong knowledge of American post-World War II foreign policy.  But one must remember that Packer and Holbrook were friends who strongly believed in a liberal-internationalist approach to foreign policy that encompassed a strong humanitarian component.  The importance of the book cannot be in doubt as it rests on the major impact that Holbrooke had on the conduct of US foreign policy over four decades.

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THE FIGHTERS: AMERICANS IN COMBAT IN AFGHANISTAN AND IRAQ by C.J. Chivers

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(US soldiers fighting in Afghanistan)

Recently, C. J. Chivers appeared on Book TV/C-SPAN and describes how he went about writing his new book, THE FIGHTERS: AMERICANS IN COMBAT IN AFGHANISTAN AND IRAQ.  After 9/11 the US military mission was to root out and defeat the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.  Chivers, a New York Times investigative correspondent argues that the mission was accomplished in a few weeks, but after seventeen years, we as a nation still find ourselves supporting the governments in Kabul and Baghdad with thousands of troops.  During those seventeen years over 2.7 million soldiers fought in Afghanistan and Iraq with over 3,000 deaths and 10,000 wounded.  Based on our present circumstances in both countries it is important to understand the experiences of American forces and gain insights into their lives before, during, and after their service.  Chivers engages this task and the result is a powerful book that should be the standard in trying to explain what has happened to the American military and their soldiers during the last seventeen years.

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(author, C.J. Chivers)

Chivers’ approach is broad based.  He relies on interviews of the combatants and narrows it down to six to eight individuals.  They were chosen to represent as many areas as possible; he has chosen soldiers from different phases of the wars discussed; he focuses on the different enemies the US was confronted with; he explores different regions in the combat areas; the characters represent career soldiers from before 9/11, and those who joined because of the attack at the World Trade Center.  Further, he explores the individual MOS of each character, how each soldier readjusted to civilian life, and their views about the wars before, during, and after their involvement.  By using this approach Chivers can dig down and engage the human emotions involved, how combat affected his characters, and how the wars affected their families.

Chivers’ research rests on numerous interviews conducted over a six-year period, diaries maintained by the participants, newspaper accounts, and other primary materials that were available.  The author concludes that the men and women who fought represent only 1% of our country.  The American people do not know that 1%, and most do not know anyone that knows them.  This is important because that being the case the war does not touch most of us, therefore when decisions were made to fight the public debate was minimal.  Perhaps if we had a draft and more people had “skin in the game” the public would be more involved, and it would not be so easy to engage in warfare.  Chivers’ goal is an effort to remedy this situation “in part through demystification.”  In doing so he rejects the views of senior officers.  “It channels those who did the bulk of the fighting with an unapologetic belief that the voices of combatants of the lower and middle rank are more valuable, and more likely to be candid and rooted in battlefield experience, than those of the generals and admirals who order them to action—and often try to speak for them too.”  Chivers is correct when he states that the history of warfare can be summed up with “too much general and not enough sergeant.”

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Chivers offers a critical indictment of American decision making and policies that led to war in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as the errors that have ensued during the wars themselves.  The lies, political machinations, career enhancing decisions, and general stupidity of what has occurred over the last seventeen years is on full display.  The author presents six major characters, across numerous military fields in making his arguments.  Chivers begins with Lieutenant Layne McDowell, a combat pilot; he goes on to include Sergeant First Class Leo Kryzewski, a Special Forces team navigator; Hospital Corpsman Dustin E. Kirby; Chief Warrant Officer Michael Sebonic, a helicopter commander; Specialist Robert Soto, an eighteen year old radio operator in an infantry unit; and Lieutenant Jarrod Neff, an infantry unit commander.  Chivers allows the reader to get to know each character in a personal way, that when things go wrong they feel the pain that each soldier experiences.  Chivers describes numerous ambushes, mortar attacks, IED explosions, rocket attacks, remote explosions, suicide bombs, and how soldiers tried to cope, especially the after effects.  In effect, Chivers describes the “rawness of combat” and war itself and the difficulties endured by those who served.

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(Hospital Corpsman Dustin E. Kirby after the war)

Perhaps the most poignant description in the book is when Petty Officer Dustin “Doc” Kirby spoke with the father of a soldier whose life he had saved, Chivers writes “The voice on the other end was breaking.  Bob Smith was talking through tears.  He pushed on.  ‘My son would not be alive if not for you…. And if I am breathing, you will have a father in Ohio.’  Kirby’s guilt began to lift.”

The military bureaucracy, “chicken shit” attitudes by higher ups, and poor decision-making where things that soldiers had to deal with daily to survive.  For those in combat it came down to the battlefield’s baseline mentality: “They looked after themselves, platoon by platoon, squad by squad, truck crew by truck crew, each marine having the others back, and staying wide of the higher ups.”  If one theme dominants Chivers’ narrative it is that each soldier saw his fellow soldier as a brother to be treated and cared for as they would wish to be treated and cared for themselves.

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(President George W. Bush)

All of these points are encapsulated in the description of Operation Mostar in one of the most dangerous areas of Helmand province as part of the 2010 troop surge in  Afghanistan.  Lt. Jarrod Neff must prove himself as a unit commander to his Marines having been transferred from an intelligence unit.  Neff’s experiences point out the number of important issues related to the war.  After spending billions on training an Afghan National Army, at the time of the surge they remained poorly trained, not trustworthy to the point many were suspected of being Taliban spies, and though they were to take the lead in certain operations, the Marines refused to allow it.  Chivers description of Marine training, readiness and peoperational planning provides a human element in contemplating the violence and death American soldiers were about to deal with.  As Chivers takes the reader through the assault on Marja one can only imagine how our troops can cope with what is happening around them.  The most devastating aspect of the fighting was an errant American bomb that blew up a civilian house resulting in numerous casualties with body parts strewn all around.  What made it worse is that the house contained women and children.  It would fall to Neff’s men to clean up and complete a “body death assessment.”  Chivers points out, that to this day the military has refused to release the investigative report about the incident.

Chivers has written a masterful work that describes the atmosphere that exists in combat and what life was like for those soldiers who returned home.  After reading this book the reader will become angry because of government policies, incompetence, and blindness when it came to American involvement in carrying out these two wars.  The book should now be considered the standard for anyone who wants to vicariously live the life of an American soldier today and understand where US policy went wrong.

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(US soldiers fighting in Afghanistan)

DIRECTORATE S: THE CIA AND AMERICA’S WARS IN AFGHANISTAN AND PAKISTAN, 2001-2016 by Steve Coll

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(Bagram US Air Force Base, Afghanistan)

In 2004 Steve Coll earned his second Pulitzer Prize for GHOST WARS: THE SECRET HISTORY OF THE CIA, AFGHANISTAN AND BIN LADEN, FROM THE SOVIET INVASION TO SEPTEMBER 10, 2001.  The book provided a reliable analytical approach as it explained what led to al-Qaeda’s rise amidst Afghanistan’s civil war which culminated with the attack on September 11th.  Coll’s new book DIRECTORATE S: THE CIA AND AMERICA’S SECRET WARS IN AFGHANISTAN AND PAKISTAN, 2001-2016 picks up where GHOST WARS leaves off and attempts to deal with a number of important questions pertaining to a war that caused the death of over 2400 soldiers and contractors with more than 20,000 wounded, many of which suffered life altering injuries.

In his latest volume Coll effectively explains how the American invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 fostered a revival of al-Qaeda and the eventually the Taliban, allied terrorist networks, and branches of ISIS.  Further, he examines the connection between American, Afghan, and Pakistani policies, and the failure to eliminate jihadi terrorism.  Coll concentrates on the CIA, ISI, and Afghan intelligence services in developing his analysis and narrative.  Coll interviewed over 500 people for the book, made numerous trips to the region, and has excellent command of the research provided by scores of journalists and scholars who have also written on aspects of the Afghan War, the roles of Pakistan, and the United States government.

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(Hamid Karzai, President, Afghanistan 2004-2014)

Coll’s harshest criticism rests with the Pakistani government and its duplicitous intelligence service that was obsessed with India.  The ISI (Inter Service Intelligence) was responsible for the creation of the Taliban going back to the 1990s.  Coll explains the relationship between the Taliban and ISI, the different agendas of each, and the most important personalities involved, from Mullah Omar, the head of the Taliban, to Ashfaq Kayani, the head of the ISI, to Amrullah Saleh, the head of the Afghani N.D.S.  The ISI is broken down into different directorates and Coll concentrates on Directorate S which was the locus of Pakistan’s covert operation to aid the Taliban in Afghanistan, aid Kashmiri guerillas against India, and other violent Islamist radicals.  For Pakistan, the Taliban was their ace in the whole because from President Parvez Musharraf on down they believed that the US did not have the staying power to remain in Afghanistan. They needed to have a major player in the Afghanistan game, particularly after 2006 when the Taliban’s resurgence began and affect daily life in Kabul and other major Afghani cities.

Coll is also very critical of the United States.  These observations rest in a number of areas.  First, the refusal to commit the necessary ground forces to capture Osama Bin-Laden in December, 2001 when he was trapped in Tora Bora.  The CIA pleaded for 2-3,000 troops to help close off escape routes to Pakistan.  Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld would not be moved and with President George W. Bush’s backing refused to “put boots on the ground.”  Second, it seemed almost immediately the US turned its attention to Iraq and its commitment and aid to the Kabul government receded, and reaffirmed that it did not want to get involved in nation-building in Afghanistan.  With no concrete plan for Afghanistan once the Taliban was removed, only a weak, corrupt government under Hamid Karzai would evolve.  Third, American intelligence failed in its lack of comprehension of Pakistani fears and motivations.  The US used economic and military aid to Pakistan as a means of gaining cooperation, but never really held the Islamabad government with their feet to the fire.  There was always a rationalization to back off; fear of the Islamist generals in the ISI, and reasoning that if the Pakistani army went after Taliban and other Islamists in North Waziristan full force, it would backfire on the regime.  Fourth, the US was caught off guard with the rise of ISIS in Afghanistan.  Fifth, the strategy pursued and willingness to accept collateral damage could only alienate Afghani citizens, and the treatment of jihadi prisoners just exacerbated existing tensions.  Many authors have pointed out these mistakes, but Coll offers a strong synthesis and explanation of these and other policy decisions made by Washington that others do not.

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(Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad of Iraq and envoy to President Karzai)

Coll’s approach is comprehensive and he integrates all the major characters into his narrative.  He provides background for each individual and their historical context.  The major players include CIA operatives, Station Chiefs, and agents present throughout the book.  Further, we are introduced to the various Taliban leaders and tacticians, those of al-Qaeda, and ISIS.  The American military’s planning, or lack of it, from General Tommy Franks to Donald Rumsfeld is presented.  The Pakistani leadership under Musharraf and a number of ISI generals are explored in detail and the reader is given an accurate picture of Pakistani goals, particularly those that did not line up with the United States.  Perhaps one of the most interesting characters introduced is Zalmay Khalilzad, who grew up in Afghanistan and knew Karzai from his early career.  He was multi-lingual and was able to work with the Afghani president.  He opposed American occupation plans for Iraq and his role was to “mentor” Karzai after he was elected in 2004.  Since the United States did not have an Afghan policy, Khalilzad had to make one up as he went along.  Bush would appoint Khalilzad as ambassador to Iraq in May, 2005, a time when the Taliban was reconstituting, a major error.

One of the major themes of the narrative was the lack of trust between Washington and Kabul.  The longer we remained the harder it became to bend the Afghans to our will.  As the United States went behind his back to cut deals to get things done, the more the somewhat paranoid Karzai would turn against us.  Karzai’s regime was corrupt and elections were questionable, but he was the only game in town for a long period of time.  Another major theme was the relationship between Washington and the Pakistani Army, which dominated all policy decisions.  As Andrew Bacevitch has pointed out; “pacifying Afghanistan was always going to pose a challenge.  Absent full-throated Pakistani collaboration, it would become next to impossible.”* The Pakistani military believed that Afghanistan was vital to its national security and would not do things that they felt would compromise that position, i.e.; close off its borders and not allow sanctuary to jihadists (when those jihadists could be used against India in Kashmir).  The US would provide aid and knew it was being had, but there was little they could do about it.

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(President Parvez Musharraf, Pakistan)

Coll makes a very important observations in dealing with Pakistan throughout the period. It was very difficult to interpret their policy goals because they seemed to shift often as Directorate S engaged a number of militant groups “for different purposes at different times.”  Decisions made to affect the tribal areas with radicals were made for defensive and tactical reasons to stop attacks on themselves or resupply areas.  Other times, the I.S.I. made deals for strategic reasons to influence Afghanistan or attack Indian targets.  This inability to understand what motivated Pakistan reflects Coll’s attempt to explain and present an objective view in dealing with their actions that seemed to be opposed to American interests.

America’s relationship with Pakistan went through a number of phases during this period.  Coll is correct as he describes each phase.  A case in point is 2008 as the Bush administration grew tired of what it perceived as ISI and Pakistani military duplicity.  As more attacks emanated from the Frontier regions, i.e.; truck bomb at the Danish Embassy in Kabul, the US decided to step up targeted assassinations, drone surveillance, and troops in North Waziristan.  The Pakistani’s were not happy, but they remained quiet; however, no reform of the ISI would be forthcoming.  The Pakistani government explained there were “good Taliban” and “bad Taliban” but could not differentiate between the two.  Pakistan as always had its own agenda, and if they did cooperate with the US, jihadists would attack, i.e., the bombing of the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad.  For the ISI, Taliban radicals were still useful in destabilizing Afghanistan and providing recruits for Kashmir so there was no clear motivation to change.

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(General Ashfaq Kayani, Head of the ISI)

The next major phase that Coll discusses is how the new Obama administration grappled with Afghanistan and Pakistan.   From the outset a three pronged strategy was employed.  One, counterinsurgency based on the principle of clear-hold-transfer performed by ground troops.  Two, CIA run independent drone war against al-Qaeda and the Taliban hold up in Waziristan.  Three, a diplomatic strategy designed to talk with Mullah Omar’s lieutenants about peace.  The problem was very little of this was synchronized.  Coll is correct in that the dominant problem faced by the Obama administration in trying to achieve any progress with the war is best described as “triangular distrust.”  Karzai was afraid the US would make a deal with Pakistan behind his back – the Pakistanis, obsessed with India believed that Karzai was to close with New Dehli – Washington had little faith in Karzai’s corrupt regime, the ISI, and the Taliban.  Secretary of State Clinton was frustrated with Obama because the US did not have an “end of state vision” or a real Pakistan strategy or reconciliation strategy, just words and process, particularly after the failed bombing by a Pakistani trained terrorist in Times Square.  After Obama agreed to a surge of 30,000 troops, he also announced they would be withdrawn within 18 months which caused confusion as to US policy.  Coll describes it as “going in – while going out,” a policy designed for domestic consumption, but did not sit well with the Pentagon and US allies.  According to Coll Obama’s policy was “a system of parallel policies and priorities running on diverse premises.” (433)

Perhaps the most disturbing chapters dealt with the ”insider killing spree” by Afghan soldiers against Americans, be they soldiers, contractors, or civilians.  US authorities seemed at a loss to explain its constant increase because there was no precedent for this type of behavior in the history of modern counterinsurgency.  The Pentagon and State Department conducted a number of studies and investigations, but it became obvious that the US had overstayed its welcome as we were not only fighting the Taliban, seeking out al-Qaeda, but also fighting Karzai’s soldiers.  Studies finally concluded it was not cultural incompatibility that caused the killings, but defections to the Taliban who instructed defectors to kill NATO soldiers as proof of their sincerity as they switched sides.

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(Ambassador Richard Holbrooke and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton)

Overall “America failed to achieve its aims in Afghanistan for many reasons: underinvestment in development and security immediately after the Taliban’s fall; the drains on resources and the provocations caused by the US-led invasion of Iraq; corruption fed by NATO contracting and CIA deal making with strongmen; and military hubris at the highest levels of the Pentagon.”(667)  The end result there are about 9,000 US troops remain in Afghanistan with the increasing possibility that more will join them.

In 2001 President Bush announced Operation Enduring Freedom and vowed the United States would remain in Afghanistan until it finished the job, but 17 years later Vice-President Pence stated, “We’re here to stay….until freedom wins.”* If we examine the result of our blood, sweat, and tears, what we see is opium production on the rise in Taliban held areas, increasing corruption, a lack of effectiveness on the part of the government, and instability in Kabul.  Coll has written an excellent analysis of what went wrong with US policy, by mostly concentrating on the role of intelligence agencies operating in the region, many times at cross purposes.  Will this book impact American strategy, it seems not, based on President Trump’s commitment to send more troops.  If you would like a greater understanding of what went wrong consult Coll, but do so knowing what he states should make you angry.

*Andrew Bacevitch, “The Never-Ending War,” New York Times, February 18, 2018

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(Bagram US Air Force Base, Afghanistan)

Netflix film: WAR MACHINE directed by David Michod and starring Brad Pitt

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The Netflix film “War Machine” has drawn a series of negative reviews criticizing Brad Pitt’s portrayal of General Glen McMahon, I guess a stand in for what appears to be the real subject, General Stanley McChrystal who was fired by President Obama in 2010.  Though the movie has not been well received by critics I believe it has a number of redeeming traits.  It is obviously a satire of America’s approach to war in Afghanistan, a war which we are not winning and have no business committing more troops to as President Trump has strongly hinted he is considering.  As a member of the German parliament offers in one fascinating scene in the film as she deconstructs America’s position and strategy; she states, what should be considered the ultimate reality of our position in Afghanistan after sixteen years of fighting, “Please leave now!”

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The film was inspired by Michael Hastings book, THE OPERATORS an incisive and somewhat funny look behind the scenes of American military commanders and how they conducted the war in Afghanistan.  Director David Michod has created a commentary on General Stanley McChrystal who was placed in charge of the war in 2009 and because of comments in an interview with Hastings for “Rolling Stone” magazine was relieved of his command.  The McMahon character is the epitome of the macho military figure who has the loyalty of his men and is treated as hero by all as they defer to him.  Despite his limitations, McMahon does project a degree of empathy toward the Afghani people, but in the end for him it is about winning, a dogmatic attachment to some pretty dubious ideas, and like many of his type, he knows how to succeed where many have failed before.  McMahon is chasing a victory that it seems has passed the American military and politicians by long ago.

Other characters in the film are a bit over the top in terms of their comments and actions.  However, two in particular, Hamid Karzai, portrayed by Ben Kingsley, fits the “over the top” description, but it also reflects the corruption, egoism, and incompetence of the former Afghani president.  According to A.O. Scott in his New York Times review of the film, the second individual, General Michael T. Flynn, portrayed by Anthony Michael Hall may provide insight into the man President Trump appointed, fired, and now misses as his National Security Advisor.

Overall, the film is funny in spots but the reality of what it represents is maddening.  I agree with the flaws that other reviewers have pointed out, but I am still glad I spent the two hours and two minutes watching it.

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FAREWELL TO KABUL: FROM AFGHANISTAN TO A MORE DANGEROUS WORLD by Christina Lamb

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(author, Christina Lamb in Afghanistan)

Christina Lamb begins her heartfelt memoir of 27 years of reporting from Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Washington in FAREWELL KABUL: FROM AFGHANISTAN TO A MORE DANGEROUS WORLD by describing the British withdrawal ceremony in Helmand province, Afghanistan that for her symbolized the transfer of power to the Afghan army.  It might have been a happy occasion, but for Lamb it reminded her of the numerous errors in British policy in the region, the 453 British soldiers who were killed, the hundreds who had lost limbs to roadside bombs, and those psychologically scarred for life.  Lamb also points to the tens of thousands of Afghans who had lost relatives, homes, and who had become refugees.  By October, 2014 England was ending its 4th war in Afghanistan dating back to the 19th century, but this was their longest and leadership was determined to remove all evidence that they were ever there.  What remained was a war that continues today, and it seems as if it has come full circle as there are current reports that the Russian government is supplying weapons to the Taliban, an organization who as mujahedeen had defeated the Soviet Union in the 1980s.

Lamb presents an excellent history of a period of Anglo-American foreign policy that is wrought with mistakes, ignorance, and doing too little too late.  In so doing, Lamb discusses an exceptional amount of information and analysis interspersed with her personal observations of her tenure in southwest Asia.  She follows the story from the Soviet invasion of 1979, their ultimate defeat, the failure of the United States to maintain interest in the area, the rise of the Taliban, the American invasion, the tragedy of Iraq, the resurgence of the Taliban, the Mumbai attack, the killing of Bin-Laden, and the final withdrawal of American and NATO troops by 2014.  What is amazing is that Lamb seems to be everywhere that major events are transpiring.  Further, her “army” of contacts and sources make her writing indispensable to understand the history of the region.

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One of her most telling comments among many throughout her narrative is that the United States had spent more money in Afghanistan than it had on the Marshall Plan that helped rebuild Europe after World War II.  Lamb watched events in Afghanistan for over 13 years and wondered how a war could be fought when there was no real border with Pakistan, which provided the enemy with safe haven.  Further, she was incredulous when the United States fought a war on the “cheap,” committing few troops and soon becoming distracted by a new war in Iraq of its own making based on false information.  In addition, the US turned a blind eye to its “supposed” ally, Pakistan whose intelligence service, the ISI had created the Taliban and provided an escape route for Osama Bin-Laden when American Special Forces had him cornered in Tora Bora in December, 2001.  The entire operation and decision making can be summed up in one term, and I apologize if it insults some – a “cluster-fuck.”  Much of Lamb’s analysis reminds me of Francis Fitzgerald’s FIRE IN THE LAKE, as the United States seemed purposefully ignorant of the culture that they were up against and did little to rectify it until it was too late.

Throughout her memoir Lamb describes the beautiful landscapes that she experienced, be it the Hindu Kush or the flowers and beautiful kites of Kabul.  Despite all the tragedies that she witnessed she always seems to return to the joys that mother-nature afforded.  It seems to me the major tragedy was how the Bush administration brushed off all warnings concerning a possible al-Qaeda attack from CIA Director George Tenet, Richard Clarke, Clinton’s terror advisor, members of the Northern Alliance, and even from Russian President Vladimir Putin.  Bush advisors saw this as sour grapes since the Russians had been defeated in Afghanistan by Bin-Laden and Company and the result was 9/11.

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(Pakistani President Parvis Musharraf)

Lamb describes numerous characters who are germane to her story.  The first, is indicative of the myriad of types she ran across.  Wais Faizi, who managed the Mustafa Hotel and had lived in the United States, was known as “the Fonz of Kabul,” and drove around in a 1968 Chevy Camaro convertible.  More significant was her relationship with Hamid Karzai who at the outset warned that the ISI was funneling American aid money to the Taliban.  Lamb follows Karzai’s political career and his tenuous relationship with the United States and Pakistan throughout his presidency.  James Dobbins, the United States Special Negotiator for Afghanistan is introduced with his requests from Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld for 25,000 American troops to stabilize Afghanistan once the Taliban were on the run.  His response sets the theme for US policy – they were already planning for Iraq by December, 2001 and stated that “we don’t do police work.”  CIA operative Gary Bersten is another character that is symbolic of American negligence in response to 9/11.  Bersten was with a small group of special operatives working with Afghan tribal forces trying to root out al-Qaeda and Bin-Laden from Tora Bora.  He requested troops to seal the Afghani-Pakistan border to block their escape.  Rumsfeld and the Bush administration refused as General Tommy Franks was already gaming the coming war in Iraq.  A 2009 Senate report reinforced Bersten’s view that the United States had passed on killing Bin-Laden – we can only conjecture how history might have been altered had we not done so.

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(Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai)

Of course Lamb describes the duplicity of General Parvis Musharraf, the Pakistani leader who the US tried to convince to turn against the Taliban.  But he had his own difficulties with the Islamized leadership of his military and the ISI’s relationship with the Taliban.  Musharraf did his best to squeeze the United States and in the end both sides gained what it wanted.  Lamb’s explanations are clear, succinct, and easily understood with vignettes that are priceless, i.e., according to Undersecretary of Defense Richard Armitage on the topic of whether the Pakistanis could be trusted, “with Pakistan you get part of the story, never the whole story….How do you know when the Pakistanis are lying?  Their lips are moving.”

Lamb’s discussion of the ISI-Taliban relationship goes back to 1979 and is developed through the Taliban’s victory in 1994.  In a chapter entitled “Meeting Colonel Imam” Lamb lays out the history of the Russian invasion of Afghanistan and the development and training of the Taliban under the leadership of Amir Sultan Tamar, a Brigadier General in the Pakistani army who had trained with American Special Forces in 1974.  Tamar reviewed the history of ISI control of the Afghan war against the Soviets and how they trained and armed the Islamic resistance.  The ISI pulled the wool over American eyes as they controlled weapon distribution and strategy against the Soviets until they forced them out in 1989.  The American role and naïveté is plain for all to see.  Once the Soviets left, and the US turned away from Afghanistan, the ISI and its Taliban allies would achieve power in Kabul.  Lamb’s analysis and depth of knowledge contribute to an understanding of how the US was duped by the Pakistanis in the 1980s, a process that would continue for decades.

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(Kabul, Afghanistan)

In reading Lamb’s memoir one can only become frustrated and angry.  She castigated British policy makers as on a number of occasions they placed their soldiers in untenable situations without the proper equipment.  Her discussion of Sangin, the world’s largest narco state, is unnerving and resulted in numerous deaths that could have been prevented.  Her comments at times are sarcastic and acerbic as she describes what was supposed to be the “post-Taliban world.”  Her access to Karzai allows her to pinpoint the problem that is Afghanistan; corruption, tribal rivalry, the lack of border control, and his relationship with Pakistani President Musharraf.  Lamb confronts Karzai repeatedly and receives the same tired answers dealing with security and trying to balance the different tribal interests.  The greatest problems seem to center on Islamic infiltration of the Pakistani military, and the radicalization of South Waziristan on the Pakistani border.  This created sanctuary and infiltration routes for the Taliban to return to Afghanistan.  By 2007 they had returned in full creating a renewed Afghani civil war.

Lamb zeroes in on the British role in Helmand province and the problem created by the drug trade. Helmand produces 95% of the opium smuggled into Europe.  Further, since the opium poppies grown by Afghani farmers are their only source of income it becomes almost impossible to make positive inroads because there is no substitute to support their families.  Lamb’s discussion of the interrelationship between the drug trade, the warlords, government corruption, the Taliban, and plight of the farmers is excellent.

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(Taliban fighter, Helmand Province)

One of the most poignant and aggravating chapters in the book deals with the murder of a young female poet, Nadia Anjuman by her husband.  Lamb uses her life story as a vehicle to describe the lives of women under the Taliban and Karzai regimes.  Using the Herat Literary Society to focus on the treatment of women, Lamb describes the lives of women from the lowliest wife, to a woman who created a factory to produce jam, to the only female prosecutor in Afghanistan, to an outspoken female member of parliament, all who lived in fear for their lives.  On paper it may have appeared that the plight of women improved once the Taliban was defeated, but today the reality is the opposite.

Lamb takes the reader through Afghan history since the 19th century by presenting an “assassination tour,” describing the deaths of most Afghani kings and presidents.  It is no wonder that Karzai is called the “mayor of Kabul.”  Violence in Afghanistan increased in 2006 as the Taliban began to adopt Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s tactics from Iraq – ieds, suicide bombers etc.  Lamb also provides repeated examples of Pakistani duplicity by allowing rocket attacks from its territory, supplying weapons and safe haven for the Taliban, and the two-faced approach of President Musharraf, despite receiving $100 million in aid per month.  The end result is 2.6 million Afghani refugees in Pakistan.  Dealing with Musharraf was surreal, almost an alternate reality as the US tried to influence his actions.  For the Pakistani president it was more important to keep his border with Afghanistan calm so he could concentrate on Kashmir and India.  The assassination of Benazir Bhutto fit the pattern of violence that was growing worse within Pakistan under Musharraf.  Her return in 2007 angered the Pakistani military who saw her as a political and economic threat, ultimately causing her death.  The military denied complicity, but all the evidence seems to lead to their leadership.

According to British General Martin Carlton-Smith, by 2008 the goal of ending the insurgency in Helmand was giving way to reducing it sufficiently in order for the Afghan army to take control in some manageable way.  London realized that the only solution was by negotiating with the Taliban.  A political settlement was the only way to bring peace as it had done in Northern Ireland.  For Lamb it was the first time higher ups had admitted the war could not be won militarily.  When these comments went public, taken in association with British withdrawal from Basra in Iraq in September, 2007, and major disagreements between the US and British commands, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates saw it as defeatism.

However, by 2008 the Taliban controlled two-thirds of Afghanistan and grew increasingly daring as they set their sights on Kabul with a series of devastating suicide bombings and assassinations.  Evidence emerged that attacks on the Indian embassy and the Kabul Serena Hotel were directed by Pakistani handlers.  A CIA investigation led to the Haqqani network in North Waziristan, a group with strong ties to the ISI.  With the attacks the US could no longer ignore what their Pakistani ally was perpetrating.  For Washington it served as a wake up for the reality that was Pakistan.

By 2009 Lamb was transferred to Washington as she was fascinated by the new Obama administration.  What followed was the disjointed policy of a president who wanted to end America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Obama was a conflicted president who had no desire to continue fighting.  He distrusted his military leadership and the feelings were reciprocated.  Lamb presents Generals Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus and their larger than life personalities and strategies.  But the overriding concern was Obama’s view of wars that he had little interest in continuing.  In addition, Lamb is correct that the problem was not military but political, especially in Afghanistan where the government was the fifth most corrupt regime in the world and the people had no faith in “Karzai Incorporated.”  Petraeus knew early on that for counter-insurgency to work you needed local partners.  Instead he had Karzai and Musharraf’s successor, Asif Zardari, Benazir Bhutto’s widower.  Lamb concludes that Obama and Joe Biden, his Vice President were out of their league and despite agreeing to a surge of 30,000 troops he set a deadline for their return – telegraphing to the Taliban to hang on for two more years.  After accompanying Biden to Islamabad, US Senator Lindsay Graham summed it up best, “the whole fucking place is burning down here, pal!”

There is a sadness to Lamb’s account in that so many errors were made and so much duplicity existed as she encounters the myriad of factions that existed in the region.  By 2014 when her story ends things have grown increasingly worse, more so than they might have been before 9/11.  For Lamb, the region is like a magnet whose pull she could not escape.  Even when all seemed lost she is drawn to one final visit.  There have been many books written about events in Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, but Lamb‘s account must be placed very close to the top of the list, particularly because of her values and journalistic expertise.

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(author, Christina Lamb in Afghanistan)

ACT OF WAR by Jack Cheevers

(The USS Pueblo in January, 1968)

Recent events between the United States and North Korea cast a long shadow over relations between these countries.  The “supposed” computer hacking of Sony pictures by North Korea, the disagreement over North Korean attempts to develop nuclear weapons, and a host of other issues like North Korean attacks against South Korean ships makes the appearance of Jack Cheevers’ ACT OF WAR rather timely.  Cheevers, a former political reporter for the Los Angeles Times presents a comprehensive study of the North Korean seizure of the USS Pueblo, an American spy ship trolling international waters in January, 1968.  Today we worry about North Korean threats to South Korea and Japan, but in the 1960s the United States was in the midst of the Cold War and only a decade out from the end of the Korean War.  Embroiled in Vietnam, the United States continued to spy on the Soviet Union, Communist China, and North Korea throughout the period.  One might wonder why the North Koreans would seize an American ship at that time.  The answer probably rests with North Korean dictator, Kim Il-Sung’s hatred for the United States, and when presented an opportunity to give Washington a “black eye,” Kim could not resist, especially with the United States caught up in the quagmire of Vietnam.

According to Cheevers, American loses while spying in the region were not uncommon before the Pueblo was seized.  Between 1950 and 1956, seven American reconnaissance aircraft were shot down over the Sea of Japan or near Siberia, resulting in the loss of forty-six US airmen, with another sixteen lost to a typhoon. (2)  The Pueblo was part of a top secret Navy program to pack refurbished US freighters with advanced electronics to keep tabs on the Soviet Union’s expanding Pacific and Mediterranean fleets.  The program called for seventy ships, but only three were built, one of which was the Pueblo.  The loss of the ship with its sophisticated surveillance gear, code machines, and documents was one of the worst intelligence debacles in American history.  Subsequent congressional and naval investigations revealed “appalling complacency and short sightedness in the planning and execution of the Pueblo mission.” (3)  The goal was to determine how much of a threat existed for South Korea, since North Korea’s Stalinist leaders were committed to unifying the peninsula, an area were 55,000 American troops stood in the way of a possible invasion.  This book is important as we continue to unleash covert operations worldwide, as it shows what can happen when things do not proceed as planned.

(Capt. Loyd Bucher and his crew seized by North Korea in January, 1968)

Cheevers offers a detailed description of the planning of the mission and what emerges is that Captain Lloyd Bucher was given command of a ship that was not in the best condition and was overloaded with top secret documents, many of which were not needed for the mission.  A full description of the seizure of the ship, the incarceration of the crew, their torture and interrogation, their final release, and the Naval and Congressional investigations that’s followed are presented.  The ship was supposedly conducting “oceanic research,” and many of the crew were not fully cognizant of the Pueblo’s spy mission.  What separates Cheevers’ work from previous books on the subject is his access to new documentation, particularly those of the Soviet Union, and American naval archives.  Further, he was able to interview a large number of the Pueblo’s original crew.  This leads to a narrative that at times reads like a transcript or movie script of many important scenes, particularly the North Korean seizure of the ship, the interactions of the crew during their imprisonment, and the Navy Court of Inquiry which was formed to determine if Capt. Bucher and his crew had conducted themselves appropriately.

The first surprising aspect of the book is the lack of training the crew experienced, and how they should respond if attacked.  Bucher was told by naval officials not to worry because he would always remain in international waters beyond the twelve mile limit the North Koreans claimed.  Further, Bucher was not given the appropriate equipment to destroy sensitive documents and equipment, even though he requested it.  In addition, the two linguists assigned to the mission hadn’t spoken Korean in a few years and confessed that they needed dictionaries to translate radio intercepts or documents, and in addition, the overall crew was very inexperienced.  The bottom line is that there was no real contingency plan to assist the Pueblo should North Korea become a problem.  It was clear no naval assistance would be forthcoming in the event of an attack, and Bucher would be on his own.  Once the attack occurred it appears Bucher did his best, knowing the United States would not entertain a rescue operation.

(The Pueblo crew in captivity)

The seizure of the ship compounded problems for the Johnson administration.  The Tet offensive was a few weeks away, the Marine fire base at Ke Sanh was isolated, the anti-war movement in the United States was growing, and the South Korean President, Park Chung Hee wanted to use the situation to launch an attack on North Korea.  Cheevers reviews the mindset of the American government as well as the public’s reaction to the seizure and accurately describes President Johnson’s reluctance to take military action.  The United States did deploy battle groups to the Sea of Japan as a show of force, but with no plan to use it, it was a hollow gesture.  A far bigger problem was reigning in President Park, whose palace was almost breached by North Korean commandos shortly before the Pueblo was seized.  Cheevers’ dialogue between Cyrus Vance, Johnson’s emissary and Park is eye opening as was the meeting between Johnson and Park later in the crisis.  If Park could not gain American acquiescence for a military response, he requested hundreds of millions of dollars of military hardware instead.  There were 30,000 South Korean troops fighting in Vietnam, and Park had promised another 11,000, and Johnson wanted to make sure that Park did not renege on his commitment.  Cheevers does a commendable job always placing the Pueblo crisis in the context of the war raging in Southeast Asia.

Cheevers’ absorbing description of how the Americans were treated in captivity is largely based on interviews of the crew.  The brutality of their treatment and the psychological games their captures subjected Bucher and his crew was unconscionable.  The beatings, outright torture, lack of hygiene and malnutrition the crew suffered through are catalogued in detail.  The pressure on the Johnson administration domestically increased throughout the incarceration until a deal was finally reached.  The issue revolved around the North Korean demand of an apology which was finally papered over by a convoluted strategy that produced a US admission of spying at the same time they offered a strong denial.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the book is Cheevers’ coverage of the hero’s welcome Bucher and his crew received and how the Navy investigated who was to blame for the ship’s seizure.  The fact that Bucher surrendered his ship without a fight to save his crew did not sit well with naval history purists.  For the Navy, the men were expendable, but the intelligence equipment and documents were not.  The details of the Naval Court of Inquiry headed by five career admirals, three of which had commanded destroyers during World War II and the Korean War concluded that Bucher should be court-martialed, but were overruled because of public opinion.  The questions and answers from the trial reflect how difficult a task it was to investigate the seizure and find a scapegoat for the Navy.  Throughout, Bucher never lost the respect of his crew and his leadership allowed his men to bond, which in large part is responsible for their survival.

Cheevers should be commended for his approach to the crisis, the important questions he raises, and the reconstruction of testimony both Naval and Congressional.  ACT OF WAR seems to me the definitive account of the seizure of the Pueblo and its ramifications for the Navy, the intelligence community, and politicians.  It is an excellent historical narrative that reads like a novel in sections of the book.  It is a great read and a superb work of investigative reporting.

NO GOOD MEN AMONG THE LIVING by Anand Gopal

(Kandahar Air Base, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan-American Air Base)

As we approach the “supposed” end of the American presence in Afghanistan it is useful to examine what might have been had the United States followed a somewhat different path.  How did the war in Afghanistan go so terribly wrong?  After a promising beginning with progress on Afghani infrastructure and some democratic improvements it has become a “Potemkin country” whereby health and educational improvements touted by the government are a sham.  President Obama has promised that American troops would exit the Afghani Theater completely; however based on events in Iraq and the performance of Iraqi forces against ISIS (the Islamic State) the Pentagon is now going to leave a residual force of about 13,000 troops in Afghanistan.  Based on the current situation on the ground Anand Gopal’s book, No Good Men among the Living is a timely reevaluation of the American mission to Afghanistan, and what is important about the book is that it tries to examine what seems to have gone wrong through Afghani eyes.

It is generally accepted that the first major error the United States made in Afghanistan was taking our eyes off our mission and redeploying American forces for the invasion of Iraq in 2003.  An invasion that resulted in the removal of Saddam Hussein, but little else, based on the current plight of that country.  Had the United States not turned away from Afghanistan and devoted its resources and talents to that country it is possible the situation we face today, the fear that once we withdraw the Taliban will continue its war on the Kabul government and eventually replace it might be different.  As 2014 comes to a close the Taliban has resurrected itself in the south and it seems that only Kabul is under government control.  Did events have to evolve as they have, perhaps not, as Gopal suggests.

(Former Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai)

Anand Gopal, a journalist who has covered Afghanistan, Egypt and Syria for a number of important newspapers, and other news outlets attempts to explain what has gone wrong by following three people; a Taliban commander, an American supported warlord, and a village housewife who tries to remain neutral.  By pursuing this approach Gopal provides the reader unique perspectives from which they can discern what the truth is concerning America’s attempt at nation building in Afghanistan.  Gopal provides a brief history of Afghanistan dating back to 1972.  He jumps to the Soviet invasion and summarizes the war conducted by the mujahedeen against Soviet troops.  Gopal continues with greater depth in confronting events as the United States ignored the emerging civil war that took place between 1992 and 1996 and turned away from Afghanistan to pursue other interests.  Gopal’s discussion of the Taliban’s refusal to turn over Osama Bin-Laden after 9/11 receives detailed treatment as does the American invasion and the evolution of the war in Afghanistan through 2013.  Gopal’s historical treatment is insightful on its own, but what separates his approach from others is his concentration on the indigenous perspective.

The first individual we meet is Mullah Cable, whose real name is Akbar Gul, a Taliban disciplinarian before 9/11 who fought against the Northern Alliance.  Gopal asks how such a person declared war against the United States.  He goes on to say that “in his tale I found a history of America’s war on terror itself…a glimpse of how he and thousands like him came to…become our enemy.” (9-10) Gul witnessed the excesses of the Taliban and turned away from its leader Mullah Omar.  He also witnessed the power of American air strikes and the devastation they caused.  Unsure of what to do he would escape to Karachi, Pakistan.  The second character Gopal concentrates on is Jan Muhammad who was imprisoned and beaten by the Taliban for over a year.  A former mujahedeen commander against the Soviet Union, he emerged as the governor of Uruzgam province after the American invasion.  He befriended Hamid Karzai and eventually grew to be a powerful war lord and ally of the United States.  The third character, Heela, is perhaps the most important of Gopal’s choices.  A woman who faced Taliban extremism, the murder of her husband, maintained her dignity throughout a tumultuous period and emerges as a member of the Afghani Senate in 2011.  All three provide a different perspective that is integrated throughout the narrative as Gopal discusses events in a non-chronological fashion, and how they might have been different had the United States pursued a more enlightened policy.

(The author)

Gopal’s central argument is very simple.  American officials believed that jihadi terrorism could be defeated through the military occupation.  In the wake of 9/11 that seemed feasible.  But when one traveled through the southern Afghani countryside a different interpretation emerges.  The contradiction is embodied in the sprawling jumble of what was Kandahar Airfield, the home of Burger King, barbed wire, and internment cages.  It was the nerve center of American operations in southern Afghanistan.  Gopal points out that “a military base in a country like Afghanistan is also a web of relationships, a hub for the local economy, and a key player in the political ecosystem.” (107)  The US developed relationships with warlords throughout the region and began relying on them for intelligence.  These were mostly the same warlords who were responsible for the atrocities during the 1990s.  The problem emerged that these warlords cared more about their own power as it related to other warlords so they provided intelligence designed to get rid of their own enemies, not intelligence that would effective against the Taliban.  What repeatedly occurred was that individuals and villages that were anti-Taliban and pro-American were arrested and bombed by the Americans.  The internment cages and resulting torture that ensued resulted in little intelligence and at times the release of those individuals by the Americans with a slight apology.  Instead of building relationship that could foster confidence, in the end the US and its allies drove people into the arms of the Taliban.  A good example is Jan Muhammad, who used the United States to settle scores with tribal enemies and enrich himself and secure his own power by feeding the US false intelligence.  The US would kill, arrest, torture Muhammad’s enemies, in a sense doing his dirty work, and as long as he was loyal he could carry on under the auspices of the United States. The US conducted raids against anyone it understood to have been remotely connected to the previous Taliban regime, even after they had put down their weapons and gone home.

(Afghani refugees outside Kabul)

Gopal describes in detail the American justice and prison system developed at the Kandahar and Bagram air bases, and how they were linked to Guantanamo.  Interrogators made little attempt to reconcile existing intelligence with any fresh information that was obtained.  If you entered this system your jailers became further and further removed from the battlefield as you would be taken from place to place.  Some of the charges bordered on the absurd, i.e., being accused of supporting the Northern Alliance, an American ally.  Poor intelligence, poor coordination between different commands, and basic bureaucratic incompetence plagued American administration of the region.  This was exacerbated by being manipulated by certain “warlord types” resulting in the arrest, torture, and imprisonment of many who were actually pro-American and working for the Karzai government.  It was no wonder that by 2005 the Taliban experienced resurgence as the American presence was seen as an occupation and the Karzai government, a venal and vicious puppet of Washington.

By 2007 the United Nations “estimated that the Taliban had reclaimed control of more than half of rural Pashtun territory countrywide.  By year’s end, officials had logged more than five thousand security incidents-roadside bombings, kidnappings, assassinations, ambushes.” (207)  As we approached 2009, following his election, President Obama launched a mini-surge that was somewhat effective, but as we approach the end of the American commitment we must ask was it worth it.   For years we have known that the Karzai government was extremely corrupt and a road block for our mission, even though as we have seen, American patronage was ultimately responsible for the mess.  Gopal finds that we are repeating our errors as we try and circumvent the central government “and deal with local power brokers, unwittingly cultivating a new generation of strongmen,” who have their own agendas. (274)  By 2013 there were roughly 60-80,000 armed private security employees in the country, “almost all of them working for Afghan strongmen.  Add to this 135,000 Afghan army soldiers, 110,000 police, and tens of thousands of private militiamen working for the Afghan government, the US Special Forces, or the CIA, and you have more than 300,000 armed Afghan men all depending on US patronage.  You can’t help but wonder:  What happens when the troops leave, the bases close, and the money dries up?” (276)  You should also ask:  What would have happened had the US understood the provincial culture of the Afghan countryside better and made different decisions?

The major criticisms of Gopal’s book do not take away from its overall importance.  He spends little time on the role of Pakistan and ISI, its intelligence service that fostered Taliban terror as it pursued its own agenda in Afghanistan, while at the same time publicly supporting its ally, the United States.  The recent Taliban massacre of the school house in Peshawar shows that their double game can often bite them.  Next, the Taliban, at times comes across as a virtuous movement of oppressed ethnic Pashtuns, who are fighting a just cause against a corrupt government and an invading force.  As Kim Barker points out in her New York Times review of the book on April 25, 2014, “the sole serious Taliban massacre comes nearly three-quarters of the way through, in an account of how Talibs slaughtered a busload of Afghans on their way to find work in Iran.”

You may not agree with all of Gopal’s findings and analysis, however he presents a unique approach to his research and is well worth a read for those still trying to figure out what went wrong, and what the future of Afghanistan might be.