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Description and the Anatomy of War

America in Afghanistan: Foreign Policy and Decision Making from Bush to Obama to Trump

By Sharifullah Dorani
I.B. Tauris, 328 pp, January 2019

In the winter of 1940, the philosopher Simone Weil published her essay “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force.” In it, she argues that from the violence of war “springs the idea of destiny before which executioner and victim stand equally innocent, before which conquered and conqueror are brothers in the same distress.” Weil captures how from the misfortune of war is born a shared destiny. Her argument describes war elegantly, if perhaps too abstractly. She does not sufficiently acknowledge the imbalance of power that often exists between foes. Unlike Homeric warriors, those conquered in history are compelled to think about the condition of their conquerors in ways that conquerors often do not.

Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, © circa 1630-1635.
Peter Paul Rubens’s Achilles Slays Hector

Sharifullah Dorani’s history of the war in Afghanistan documents this complex imbalance. His book is a descriptive anatomy of the decision-making processes that made the war in Afghanistan possible and so long-lasting. He reports this anatomy with such detail that one can’t but conclude that the violence of war is a problem that rightfully belongs as much to the anthropology of bureaucracy as it does to that of military policy and statecraft. He demonstrates why deep understanding of the enemy may mean the difference between victory and defeat. Understanding, as it turns out, is an art that demands empathy and meticulous description. It is as much a task for historians as it is for strategists.

Writing with a restrained and highly disciplined style, Dorani examines six key turning points in the war beginning in the weeks immediately after the 9/11 attacks through the first year and a half of the Trump administration. These layout the architecture of the book: first, the Bush administration’s development of the Global War on Terror policy, with its first intervention planned in Afghanistan; second, toppling the Taliban and the implementation of a counterterrorism strategy; third, President Obama’s decision in 2009 to endorse the deployment of 30,000 additional troops; fourth, Obama’s decision to withdraw the 30,000 troops by the end of 2012; fifth, Obama’s mid-2016 decision to delay America’s exit; sixth, President Trump’s aggressive posture against “Radical Islamic Terrorism” and his general strategy for South Asia. He reconstructs each of these six key decisions through four phases of analysis: initiation, formulation, implementation, and evaluation.

Dorani’s reconstruction draws from newspapers, public documents, and scholarship. His writing is perennially clear, succinct, and free of jargon. Avoiding the academic and the journalistic, he tells the story of the war with a sense of distance that feels ethnographic. Rhetorically, this allows him to consider the shifting cultural milieu as well as the intellectual and political background of relevant players without seeming biased. Although biases eventually become clear. Despite the impressive degree of expert knowledge, he refuses to draw grand or final conclusions. His is the art of synthesis: of letting the known, verifiable facts speak for themselves.

Dorani focuses his chapters primarily on the American actors. These read like a rigorous anthropology of state power. The clinical coldness of the state is conveyed without explicit judgment. Despite the anthropological gaze, American politicians sometimes resemble characters in an ironized drama: involved in world historical events, rather than being subjects to larger and grander historical forces alone, they often fall victim to their own pettiness, self-interests, and ignorance. Consequently, the Americans are humanized through their flaws rather than their virtues. The personal, however, never overshadows the technocratic nature of the political.

The Obama administration, for example, remains divided into camps of thought so nuanced that this reader found the deliberations nearly anxiety provoking. At no point did Obama compel Pakistan to bring the Taliban to the negotiation table. America’s unwillingness to more forcefully intervene in Pakistan’s support of the insurgents destabilizing Afghanistan is the one point of analysis argued explicitly and consistently. It is also one of the rare places where Dorani’s detached method and discipline slips. His history could have benefited from more extensively contextualizing the Pakistani perspective. The Americans, for all their hubris and blundering, are represented as complex, if self-interested. The Pakistanis are not caricatured. Their villainy lacks the analytical depth he grants the Americans. Dorani misses the occasion to critique Pakistan from a richer historical counterpoint.

The book is most powerful precisely when the anthropological distance is set aside and Dorani allows everyday Afghans to speak. The sense of loss that permeates every page comes to the fore in their hopeful, intimate, harsh, and hopeless words. Dorani’s inability to hide his affection for his fellow compatriots is understandable. Although a bias, it provides his narrative with a cathartic structure. Their voice gives the book a human scale. It shows concretely what are the actual stakes of statecraft. Far from the glory of treaties and the machinery of drones lives the enfleshed voice of human suffering.

Fluent in Pashto and Dari, Dorani spent ten years holding casual conversations, formally interviewing, and taking notes on broadcasts of Afghan opinions on the war. Whereafter, he categorized their needs, requirements, and beliefs regarding American decisions. From this research he shows us small scenes where Afghans speak with exquisite sincerity. They share in Dorani’s sense that America’s goals did not sufficiently incorporate the support Afghanistan needed to rebuild its infrastructure and establish an efficient centralized government, though doing so would have been in America’s long-term interests.

Dorani argues in his conclusion that never in the history of Afghanistan has so much good been achieved by the Afghan people in such a brief period. A reminder that peace, like war, is a complex artifact of human decision-making. Unfortunately, the book’s narrative ends prior the current peace talks. One can only wonder if Dorani sees them as partaking of that larger good. No matter the errors and missed opportunities of the past, the future between these two states now beckons a shared destiny of peace.

America in Afghanistan documents forensically how the incapacity or unwillingness of the powerful to imagine the conditions of the conquered can prove devastating to the imbalances of geopolitical power. As a strategy of war, the only thing this unwillingness may guarantee once war has been declared is delaying peace.


Ronmel Navas

Ronmel is trained as a literary critic. His specializations are in modernist literature and Western cultural history. He is invested in historicizing the politics and aesthetics of representation under late modernity. He lives in Washington, DC.

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