In This Review

The American War in Afghanistan: A History
The American War in Afghanistan: A History
By Carter Malkasian
Oxford University Press, 2021, 576 pp.
The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War
The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War
By Craig Whitlock
Simon & Schuster, 2021, 368 pp.

Malkasian provides a full and authoritative account of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan from President Jimmy Carter’s decision to back the mujahideen after the Soviet Union invaded in December 1979 to President Joe Biden’s decision earlier this year to pull U.S. troops out. Malkasian combines meticulous scholarship with a practitioner’s eye. It helps that he knows the country well, speaks Pashto, can navigate his way through the complex tribal structures that shape local politics, and has a good grasp of the Taliban’s attitudes and operations. The story he tells is a painful one. Successive U.S. administrations were unwilling to deal diplomatically with the Taliban because the militant group was either too weak or too strong, and Washington failed to put the effort and resources into building up the new Afghan government and army after 2001. The Bush administration’s focus in the early days of the post-9/11 invasion was on catching terrorists, which led to operations that killed civilians, resulting in a loss of support from the local population. In the end, despite their harsh ideology and brutal misogyny, the Taliban were able to sell themselves as authentically Afghan and resisting foreign occupation, whereas the government forces lacked conviction.

Whitlock covers the same ground using materials he obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests, including interviews conducted by the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, U.S. Army oral histories, and former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s memos. The disparate sources make for a disjointed narrative, and although there are many quotes from U.S. officials, there is a marked absence of Afghan voices. Whitlock’s approach has the advantage, however, of showing participants expressing themselves in revealing, colorful language, as they talk about the futility of spending billions of dollars trying to turn Afghanistan into a modern country, complain about the incompetence in the Afghan security forces and corruption in the government, and note how U.S. attempts to deal with the Afghan drug trade failed to take into account the importance of the poppies to the local economy. The most depressing aspect of the book is the gap it reveals between insiders’ official optimism and their private pessimism. In public, progress was always being made and corners being turned. Behind closed doors, there were far more doubts.