Military Review English Edition September-October 2014 - Page 113

MR BOOK REVIEWS WAR COMES TO GARMSER: Thirty Years of Conflict on the Afghan Frontier Carter Malkasian, Oxford University Press, New York, 2013, 321 pages, $27.95 F FEATURED REVIEW orty years ago, Jeffrey Race published a book about the conflict in Vietnam called War Comes to Long An. Now considered a classic, the book offered a sophisticated microhistory of the Vietnam War from the perspective of a single district, one where Race had served as a district advisor. The strength of the book came from insights lost in the more macro and strategic accounts of that complex war. In his new book War Comes to Garmser, historian Carter Malkasian seeks the same kind of local analysis for one of the small places of the war in Afghanistan. He focuses on Garmser District, a slice of Helmand Province located close to the southern border with Pakistan. Malkasian bases his work on his own experience serving in Garmser as the political officer for a district reconstruction team from 2009 to 2011. What results is one of the most important books written on our long war in Afghanistan. Malkasian uses the perspective of a historian to seek the deep roots of conflict in Garmser and he finds them, among other places, in the well-intentioned and ambitious irrigation project launched by the United States in Helmand Province in the 1950s. The project opened large areas of land to agriculture and inspired the Afghan government to encourage small, landless tribes from outside the district to settle in Garmser. The larger tribes with a longer history in the region resented the newcomers and did what they could to MILITARY REVIEW  September-October 2014 marginalize them, creating an enduring rift in the social fabric of the district. In a classic example of unintended consequences, when the Taliban originally emerged in Garmser in the mid-90s, they found their earliest adherents among the immigrant tribes. The Taliban also worked hard to build support among a class of notables who, until then, had limited political power: the mullahs. Between the mullahs and the immigrant tribes, the Taliban built a base of support that outlasted their original overthrow in 2001. These same constituencies helped to restore Taliban rule to Garmser in 2006. In reviewing the 30 years of conflict in Garmser, Malkasian seeks to answer the question of whether U.S. efforts to build peace and effective governance in this strange and remote land—“the graveyard of empires”— were doomed from the start. He concludes they were not, and the last half of his book considers the U.S. Army surge in Afghanistan and the protracted campaign to take Garmser back from the Taliban. It is the story of missed opportunities and little victories that ultimately resulted in a hard-won and fragile success. Malkasian concludes with the key to success: “In war: resolution.” One possible criticism of the book is that Malkasian has largely written himself out of this story. In this, he has been too modest. Others judged him to be one of the most effective civilian advisors to serve in Afghanistan. In his book, Little America, Rajiv Chandrasekeran writes, “He won the trust of skeptical residents through countless meetings and roadside conversations, pressing them to reject the insurgency and support their government.” By mastering the Pashto language and immersing himself in the nuanced elements of tribal culture, Malkasian came to be referred by the natives of Garmser as sahib, an Urdu title of special respect. The local Marine Corps commander believed winning the war against the Taliban meant that every district needed someone with Malkasian’s skills. Sadly, Chandrasekaran found him to be the outlier among the U.S. civilians serving in Afghanistan. 111