The American War in Afghanistan: A History

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Release Date: 
July 1, 2021
Oxford University Press
Reviewed by: 

“Malkasian is a masterful writer, expertly blending history with strategic and cultural analysis to craft what will be the benchmark history of this conflict.”

The conflict in Afghanistan was America’s longest war and one of its most controversial. How could a conflict that began with such a decisive victory in 2001 end in an ignominious defeat 20 years later, evoking memories of another American humiliation in Vietnam from a half century ago? In this volume, an update with two additional chapters added to the 2021 printing, author Carter Malkasian, who has both practical and academic experience with the conflict, provides what will no doubt be the standard one-volume history of this conflict.

Malkasian devotes several chapters to understanding the background to America’s military involvement in the country, providing a masterful overview of the religious, tribal, and ethnic makeup that provides the complicated politics of the country, which the U.S. never really mastered. The nearly unbendable rules of tribal social mores and customs is also explained, which also provides crucial context for the chapters that follow.

When the U.S. began its 20-year conflict in Afghanistan, it seemed to be a new way of warfare—U.S. airpower melded with Special Forces to give friendly allies the ability to topple hostile governments. The slow start of the conflict soon gave way to an avalanche of victory leading to the driving of the Taliban out of power by the end of 2001.

Unfortunately, the U.S. missed two major opportunities early in the conflict that would drive the course of the war for the next decade. First, the U.S. placed too much reliance on the Northern Alliance tribal forces to take advantage of the opportunity to capture or kill Osama bin Laden in the Tora Bora region, allowing him to escape to Pakistan.

Second, when the Taliban offered to enter into negotiations for a coalition government when the U.S. and its Afghan allies were ascendant in the country, the Bush Administration, rapidly turning its attention to Iraq, rebuffed them. Malkasian highlights the tragedy of these two opportunities that could have significantly improved both the American position and the long-term prospects of a friendly Afghan government.

The next decade brought additional missed opportunities as the new Afghan government struggled for legitimacy and stability even as the U.S. tried to hand off a significant part of the nascent nation-building effort over to our NATO allies. As Malkasian notes, this was an extremely challenging process as the NATO allies had differing visions of what their effort would involve, especially related to combat operations, and as the U.S. devoted more resources and attention to a rapidly worsening Iraq situation, Afghanistan quickly became an “economy of effort” conflict in which the Taliban forces were able to use sanctuary in friendly parts of the country and the often treacherous environment of Pakistan to begin rebuilding.

His analysis of the 2006 Taliban offensive, focusing on Kandahar and Helmand Provinces makes a convincing case these were more strategic victories for the Taliban than considered at the time. These regions had always been Taliban-leaning and the inability of pro-government forces to decisively defeat the Taliban left them in virtual control of a large portion of the countryside in these and other remote provinces.

As the Bush Administration gave way to the Obama Administration, the incoming president, who campaigned on Iraq as the bad war and Afghanistan as the good war, was now trapped by his own rhetoric and had to make difficult decisions on how to proceed. As the author notes, the U.S., now drawing down in Iraq and devoting more attention to Afghanistan, tried to replicate the success of the Iraq Surge, sending thousands of troops back to Kandahar and Helmand Provinces as well as the highly contentious Kunar Province in the eastern part of the country. These efforts were only partly successful, as the Administration set a hard deadline to begin drawing down U.S. troops to begin an eventual withdrawal of American forces and a turnover of security and stability strictly to the Afghan government.

The remainder of the volume chronicles the efforts of both the Obama and Trump Administrations to reach a point of stability to allow the U.S. to end its longest conflict. While the Obama Administration began tenuous negotiations with the Taliban, the Trump Administration quickly ramped up these efforts while continuing to use U.S. airpower and Special Forces in much the same manner they had been used in 2001.

 As the U.S. wearied of the effort, the Taliban began what would be their final offensive in 2015 and 2016, gradually expanding control of remote provinces while gradually working their way to the major cities that controlled access to road networks, particularly the strategic “ring road” that provides the only major highway in the country. This updated volume closes with a chapter on the Biden Administration’s eventual withdrawal and the complete and supposedly unexpected collapse of the Afghan government in 2021.

Malkasian is a masterful writer, expertly blending history with strategic and cultural analysis to craft what will be the benchmark history of this conflict. If a reader is looking for a one-volume history of this conflict—this is it.