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.