Rather Be


Afghanistan: How the West Lost Its Way

By: Tim Bird

Dr. Tim Bird lives in southern England and is a lecturer in the Defence Studies Department of King’s College London. Dr. Alex Marshall lives in Glasgow and is a lecturer in the History Department at Glasgow University.

Afghanistan Heads Down the Drain

By: Yasmin Jusefi

The ‘lead nation’ approach was notable from the very outset for its lack of coordination, and for the absence of an Afghan voice in decision-making.”1 Afghanistan had been invaded by the Taliban, initiating false hope, corruption, endless conflicts between Islamists and NATO, and incoherent strategies. In this timely book, Afghanistan: How The West Lost Its Way, Tim Bird and Alex Marshall discuss how the international community struggled to accomplish their goals in Afghanistan. The authors reveal the effectiveness of the military strategy, aid approach, counternarcotics program, Afghan government, and the differences among the Western forces involved in the intervention. The authors argue that the West has failed to solve Afghanistan’s complications, unable to turn military supremacy into strategical efficiency. Lives of current Afghan citizens have become dreadful rather than pleasing. Bird and Marshall show how the West lost its way in Afghanistan due to incoherence and ineffective strategic clarity.

The introduction of Afghanistan: How The West Lost Its Way states how this book “sheds light” on how the West lost control in Afghanistan. For instance, the Anglo-Afghan War (1838-1842) and the Soviet Intervention of 1979-1989 are conflicts that show Afghanistan’s reputation for challenging foreign intervention forces. Bird and Marshall make it clear that “Afghanistan’s formidable reputation rests not upon the difficulties presented to would-be invaders by its formal military capability, but upon its long political-economic record of profound ungovernability.”2 Amir Shah, also known as ‘Iron Amir’, wanted to modernize Afghanistan, but he displayed totalitarian ideals that led the British to remove his right of freedom in foreign policy. Another historical complication was the Durand Line, which created Afghan-Pakistani tension. However, Pakistani conflicts with India later lead to the long-term Pakistan and Afghan relationship. The Soviet-Afghan War also weakened the economic development in Afghanistan. As a result, Afghanistan started to rely on outside aid. Kabul’s population suffered due to Mujahidin, who fought against non-Muslim forces which, “became completely discredited in the eyes of many Afghans as worse than the Russians.”3 Afghanistan and Pakistan are the world’s largest heroin owners. Mujahidin leaders used heroin profits to help build power bases. The Mujahidin failures lead to the Taliban movement. The Taliban took control of Afghanistan, “campaigning in the north of the country against the Shi’ite Hazaras, Dostum’s Uzbeks and Massoud’s Tajiks altogether harder going.”4 They grew intolerant of Afghan minorities displaying their powers. Bird and Marshall mention how the Taliban’s control and power,” should have alerted Western forces to their adaptive capacities; that this did not happen was, as we shall see, a failure of both intelligence and imagination.”5 Chapter 2 discusses one of the world’s most infamous terrorist attacks, 9/11.”6 The Taliban resist turning in Osama Bin Laden. This leads to Americans entering Afghanistan in harmful earnest.

In Chapter 3, Bush’s demands are reviewed, “to release all foreign nationals; close all terrorist camps; and hand over every terrorist.”7 Air operations were sent out due to the Taliban’s failures to obey Bush’s demand. Furthermore, Bin Laden and his followers were trapped. A first major battle was Operation Anaconda by Lester W. Grau and Dodge Billingsley. In March, the Anaconda led to violent uprisings and attacks for seven days becoming the last major combat operation of the Afghan battle. June 2002 lead to optimism and false hope in post-Taliban Afghanistan. During 2002 to 2005, the ‘light footprint’ approach, US government lack of interest in nation-building, were political military approaches to Afghanistan. NATO was committed to the intervention. In Afghanistan, “the drug economy played an important role in the very brisk growth visible in Afghanistan during this period, with profits from the industry being reinvested...burdened Afghanistan with a primitive two-track economy, characterized, as ‘opulence amidst destitution’.”8 Aid was formed by Civil-Military Cooperation which involved growing deployment. Unfortunately, some projects invaded political neutrality delayed Afghanistan economic development. Disastrously, 2008 became Taliban’s revival year. Therefore, attacks in Afghanistan increased more than 300 percent. Then, President Karzai won a second term of 2009 election. Chapter 4 shows that the optimistic period 2002-2005 set a foundation for the Taliban revival of 2006-2007. Chapters 3 and 4 show how the West believed that Afghanistan was on the right path, however, more complications will come.

Chapter 5 starts to address how NATO focused more on what Afghanistan provided for them rather than NATO’s benefits. International Security Assistance Force, a NATO-led security mission was recognized as reconstruction rather than counterinsurgency and counterterrorism. West encouraged ‘effective states’ to control national territories. However, this is a contrary approach of the US, “given that arming and empowering militias appeared to be the centerpiece of American policy before and immediately after the fall of the Taliban.”9 Relations with Karzai started to decline along with the NATO deployment in the South. Karzai and Afghan government castigated coalition tactic. Then a collapse of Musa Qala deal, commander hostilities, and American opposition leads to suspicion against local agreements. Afghanistan was hysterical due to the paranoia of states, greedy media, and inability to coordinate their own activities. During 2007-2008, “a significant toll was taken on Taliban commanders through intelligence-led airstrikes and Special Forces operation.”10 ISAF officials during 2007-2008 claimed that the security situation was declining and there had been one-third increases in attacks on international and Afghan forces. Gradually, Afghanistan became known as the Forgotten War. Admiral Michael Mullen stated, “in Afghanistan we do what we can. In Iraq we do what we must.”11 Nevertheless, US refocused on Afghanistan in 2008. Taliban expanded and created a scene in Kabul. The Bush administration “stepped up diplomatic pressure on Pakistan and, in a dramatic step, the President formally authorized US military operations on Pakistan side of the border.”12 The West struggled to understand if Pakistan was an ally or an enemy. Pakistan has two fears, “internal fragmentation; the second is the looming presence of India—a fear not far short of paranoia.”13 American forces were dissatisfied with Pakistan’s cooperation with Afghanistan. United States supplied Pakistan with $6.6 billion in military aid to fight extremism; however, they purchased tools to obstruct India rather than battling the Taliban or Al Qaeda. In addition, US officials ignored how Pakistan spent their money. In 2009, the Obama strategy announced that Pakistan’s economic crises, government, and security were alarming. NATO’s strategic engagement in Afghanistan “became notable not only for reinforcing Pakistan’s traditional strategic mindset, but also for escalating violence and instability.”14

Chapter 7 mentions President Obama stated the US shall disrupt and defeat Al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan in 2009. Bird and Marshall argue that the pattern of subordination of policy and strategy to military concepts recurred. The counterinsurgency theory came about between 2009-2010. Karzai was elected president in his second term in 2009. The later half of 2010, “the initiative was widely acknowledged to have stalled, with the US having expended only $200,000, and other donors little or nothing at all, while the Taliban fighters who had actually defected stood at a few hundred at most.”15 Obama signed off troop increase in November, so 30,000 more troops were deployed. Later, US troops began to withdraw from Afghanistan in July 2011. Taliban started to establish their own government structures and tax system. Operation Hamkari cleared away Taliban infrastructure, Improvised Explosive Device factories, but strategic problems continued to be widely illustrated. Afghanistan remained one of the poorest countries. Regardless, there was good news of mineral wealth discovery in June 2010. One trillion dollar worth of untouched minerals was found. Bird and Marshall claim that the mineral breakthrough marks turning points, “repeated cycles of optimism and subsequent disappointment were, in fact, entailed the West never being able to correlate ways, ends and means in Afghanistan into a balance that looked either plausible or genuinely long term.”16 The conclusion summarized how the West had truly lost its way. The first theme of this book were the imbalance of dominant policies and events in Afghanistan. The second theme is the flawed implementation of the policies. The book ends with this quote, “only one actor had the capability to bring genuine coherence to the ends, ways and means calculations that should have informed the international effort. That actor was the US, and it failed to do so.”17

In the book Afghanistan: How The West Lost Its Way, authors Tim Bird and Alex Marshall’s thesis is that Western forces have unsuccessfully fought the War in Afghanistan, causing them to lose hope. They argue that the US is incoherent in helping Afghanistan due to lack of clarity and consistency. Ineffective strategies created false hope for the US and Afghanistan leading to negative incidents. The US has failed to achieve their objectives in Afghanistan. The authors mention, “without a coherent overall strategy, individual policy areas become disconnected from the whole.”18 Readers understand the West loses their way due to their overconfidence, inadequate methods, and unclear objectives.

The authors of this compelling book are Dr. Tim Bird and Dr. Alex Marshall. Dr. Tim Bird lives in southern England and is a lecturer in the Defence Studies Department of King’s College London, based at the Joint Services Command and Staff College (JSCSC) in Shrivenham. Bird is a specialist in counterinsurgency, US foreign and security policy, US and UK military doctrine, and Afghanistan. Dr. Alex Marshall lives in Glasgow and is a lecturer in the History Department at Glasgow University. He is the author of The Russian General Staff and Asia, 1800-1917, and The Caucasus under Soviet Rule. The book served as a launch pad for Bird and Marshall to show readers how an “attempt at nation-building went horribly wrong.”19

This book takes place during 2001-2011 of the War in Afghanistan. Many people during this time felt that the US made a mistake in sending military forces. There were arguments of an opposition of war and questioning the West’s objectives. People viewed this war as a failure rather than a success. Overall, Republicans supported the war more than Democrats. A poll was taken and, “66 percent said that considering its costs to the United States versus its benefits, it has not been worth fighting; 50 percent said they feel that way strongly.”20 This book discusses in an unbiased way the feelings of the supporters and opposers of the War of Afghanistan. This book’s purpose was to address exactly how the United States became distracted and lost their way in Afghanistan. Afghanistan: How The West Lost Its Way illustrates disappointment of Americans towards the War in Afghanistan.

Publishers Weekly states how Bird and Marshall focus on the lack of strategy. They summarize how the American government and its NATO allies, “had no clear idea of their goals in Afghanistan beyond skimping on soldiers and money.”21 Publishers Weekly mentions how the West relied too much on air strikes killing civilians regularly, and an insignificant usage of aid that does not fulfill Afghanistan’s basic needs. This review recaps how “a lazy policy of backing both a corrupt central government and despotic rural warlords; an unpopular counternarcotics program that has failed to stem the booming heroin economy; and a resurgent Taliban due to inept Western counterinsurgency initiatives not improved by Obama’s appointment of General McChrystal.”22 They mention how none of these criticisms are new, meaning many people agree with Bird and Marshall’s arguments and claim. However, the authors, “integrate them into a telling panorama of clueless policy making. (In one vignette, British development experts reach out to baffled desert tribesmen with a nature documentary on whales.)”23 Overall, the authors present, “a lucid, devastating critique of the road taken,”24 according to Publishers Weekly review. The second review was by Andrew M. Roe from the Military Review. Roe states how, “Afghanistan: How the West Lost Its Way provides a timely, plainspoken and much needed exploration of why the international community has found it so difficult in Afghanistan.”25 Roe describes how, “US counterinsurgency doctrine may be floundering (and could well be flawed), highlights strategy shortcomings and vacillation, and uncovers the unique challenges of the Afghan political landscape.”26 This book is,“not an original contribution to the understanding of the country and its people.”27 Nevertheless, the author’s aim is to prove and shed light on how ineffective the West is with their policies. Andrew M. Roe recommends this book for students studying Afghanistan. According to Roe, it is “challenging, thought provoking, and extremely well written, few will be disappointed.”28 Roe praises the book by mentioning how “this is just the sort of text that military planners and policy makers must read and reread during their tenure of responsibility.”29 Roe mentions that it “is one of the best books I have read on Afghanistan in a long time, and it is almost impossible to put down.”30

This book does fulfill its goal to prove how the West lost its Way. Bird and Marshall use factual evidence to earn credibility from their audience. They use emotional appeal as well in order to reach out to the audience to make them want to continue reading. This book gives an overall insight of the outcome and purposes of how and why the West became involved in the war of Afghanistan. They point out how unethical the US can be with their strategic ideas and plans. However, Bird and Marshall do not have a list of suggestions to better Afghanistan themselves. In short, if students and professors need more insight of the War in Afghanistan, they should consider reading this book. It covers every aspect of the US intentions, the outcome, and tragic events, and strategies on the War of Afghanistan. “Bird and Marshall illustrate the West’s response as dysfunctional and, hence, a failed attempt to achieve the international goal of capitol building, governance, and the development of the nation into a Westernized democracy because of a lack of clear communication and consistency from all involved parties.”31

This book discusses the events prior to the War in Afghanistan with the US. It begins to give insight on how Afghans declined the Soviet Union due to the Soviet-Afghan War. Thus, giving Afghanistan a reputation, “for severely challenging foreign intervention forces.”32 The main factor of going to War in Afghanistan was the fear of the rise of terrorism. Thus, the tragedy of 9/11 challenged the US. Bush and his administration decided to call for War, expecting Al Qaeda to turn in Osama Bin Laden. However, his wishes were not granted. In Afghanistan: How The West Lost Its Way, digital technology during the 1990s affected War in Afghanistan by the usage of media and visual representation. The war became known as The American ‘War on Terror’ was seen as a bizarre diversification from TV, radio, Youtube, and other social media networks.

Overall, Tim Bird and Alex Marshall in their book Afghanistan: How The West Lost Its Way legitimately explains how the United States struggled to achieve their aims in the War in Afghanistan. “Perhaps the most basic lesson of all is to think long and hard before embarking on attempting to reshape states and societies to make them conform to our whims.”33

[1] Bird and Marshall, Tim and Alex. Afghanistan How The West Lost Its Way.New Haven and London:Yale University,2011.11.
[2] Tim and Alex. 15.
[3] Tim and Alex. 18.
[4] Tim and Alex. 45.
[5] Tim and Alex. 48
[6] Tim and Alex. 48.
[7] Tim and Alex. 54.
[8] Tim and Alex. 102.
[9] Tim and Alex. 157.
[10] Tim and Alex. 169.
[11] Tim and Alex. 179
[12] Tim and Alex. 188.
[13] Tim and Alex. 192.
[14] Tim and Alex. 215
[15] Tim and Alex. 221.
[16] Tim and Alex. 246.
[17] Tim and Alex. 262.
[18] Tim and Alex. 46.
[19] Tim and Alex. 11.
[20] Sussman, Dalia. “How Americans View the Afghan War.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 27 May 2014. Web. 23 May 2017.
[21] “Afghanistan: How the West Lost Its Way.” Publishers Weekly, vol. 258, no. 17, 25 Apr. 2011, p. 132. EBSCOhost,
[22] “Afghanistan: How the West Lost Its Way.” p. 132.
[23] “Afghanistan: How the West Lost Its Way.” p. 132.
[24] “Afghanistan: How the West Lost Its Way.” p. 132.
[25] Roe, Andrew M. “AFGHANISTAN: How the West Lost Its Way.” Military Review, vol. 91, no. 6, Nov/Dec2011, p. 81. EBSCOhost.
[26] Roe, Andrew M. p. 81.
[27] Roe, Andrew M. p. 81.
[28] Roe, Andrew M. p. 81.
[29] Roe, Andrew M. p. 81.
[30] Roe, Andrew M. p. 81.
[31] Sadiq-Ali, Salwa. “Tim Bird and Alex Marshall. Afghanistan: How the West Lost It’s Way. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011. 303 Pages, Notes, Map, Bibliography, Index. Cloth US$30.00 ISBN 978-0-300-15457-3. | Review of Middle East Studies.” Cambridge Core. Cambridge University Press, 18 May 2016. Web. 23 May 2017.
[32] Tim and Alex. 21.
[33] Tim and Alex. 261.