The title of this book suggests yet another polemic on the Western failure to appreciate just how difficult it would be to defeat the Afghan Taliban. Yet Coburn writes more in sorrow than in anger, focusing less on the military side of the NATO intervention in Afghanistan than on the developmental side. As an anthropologist working in Kabul during and after the “surge” of U.S. forces that began in 2009, he tried to figure out why efforts to improve the lives of ordinary Afghans fell far short. His book reveals an intervention that developed its own culture and ways of doing business, neither of which was well suited to the task. One unfamiliar but alarming problem he identifies is the role played by professional grant writers, who were employed by large nongovernmental organizations and contractors because they knew the precise terminology to use when seeking funds from the NATO bureaucracy, which allowed their clients to sweep up money, often at the expense of smaller and more modest groups that might have done more good.
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