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America in Afghanistan

A review by Brian Cunningham

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

(Bloomsbury – I.B. Tauris Publishers, 2019, ISBN: 9781784539986, 328 pp., $90.12, hb.)

The book makes an effort to answer some critical questions, which are worth quoting in their entirety:

‘(1) What were US motives in Afghanistan?

(2) If they were to establish a secure and peaceful Afghanistan, why did it fail?

(3) If ineffective governance was to blame for the failure, as most US politicians told the Afghans, why did the US support policies that visibly bolstered bad governance and pushed Afghanistan towards instability?

(4) If the Pakistani Army’s support for the insurgency was to blame for the failure, as most US politicians gave it as an excuse, why did the US with all its extraordinary capabilities not decisively deal with Pakistan’s state-sponsored terrorism?

(5) If Afghanistan’s ‘inherent characteristics’ were to blame, as many US policymakers implied, why was there peace and security during the 40-year era of King Zahir Shah? (6) Why did ‘bewildering’ changes take place in American Afghan policy over the course of 16 and a half years?’

To provide answers to the above crucial questions, Dorani divides the book into three parts: part one focuses on decision-making in the George W. Bush administration; part two covers policy-making within the Barack Obama administration; part three deals with decision-making within the Donald Trump administration. Each part, in turn, has several chapters. The book, therefore, proceeds chronologically, providing a clear and accessible narrative of US foreign policy making analysis towards Afghanistan.

The ‘initiation’ and ‘formulation’ stages of the Global War on Terror (GWOT) — that is, what initiated the GWOT and how it was made — which led to the decision to intervene in Afghanistan in late-2001, are the subject of chapters One and Two, respectively. Chapter Two also analyses how and why the Bush administration made its  Counterterrorism Strategy.

Chapter Three provides ‘an insider’s insight into’ Bush’s War Cabinet by explaining individual policymakers views and how (and why) these views impacted decision-making towards Afghanistan.  Chapters Four and Five examine the GWOT strategy, and its derivative, the Counterterrorism Strategy, at the ‘implementation’ and ‘evaluation’ stages between 2003 and 2008 in both Afghanistan and Washington, DC. Put differently, the chapters explain what happened when the GWOT met reality in Afghanistan. Here, Dorani draws on the Afghan perspectives, as well as the role Pakistan, India and Iran played in Bush’s GWOT strategy in Afghanistan.

With Obama becoming the President in 2009, the book directs its attention to decision making during the Obama Administration. While Chapters Six and Eight focus on the analysis of Obama’s ‘surge decision’ in late-2009 to deploy 30,000 US troops to Afghanistan as part of his Af-Pak policy at the ‘initiation’ and ‘formulation’ phases, respectively, Chapter Seven offers a thorough analysis of the pulling and hauling (over the Afghanistan War) within the Obama’s War Cabinet.  These chapters provide a detailed account of contrasting views of US bureaucracies regarding Afghanistan, especially those of the military and the Vice President  Joe ‘Biden camp’.

Chapter Nine covers Obama’s Af-Pak strategy at the implementation phase in 2010–11 in both Afghanistan and Washington, DC. This chapter explains why President Hamid Karzai disagreed with Presidents Obama and Bush. It also details the contrasting policies Afghanistan’s neighbours, Pakistan in particular, followed.  Chapter Ten examines the Af-Pak strategy at the evaluation phase, as well as studying the formulation of the withdrawal decision Obama made in 2011.

Chapter 11 analyses the withdrawal decision at the implementation phase in Afghanistan in 2011–16 as well as studying Obama’s final policy alternations in mid-2016. This chapter further examines President Ashraf Ghani’s policies and the obstacles they met. Trump’s controversial viewpoints and his South Asia Strategy that included the Afghanistan War in 2017–18 are examined in great detail in chapters 12 and 13, respectively.

I found America in Afghanistan very interesting, informative, thoughtful and well-documented. It manages to offer deep insights into what has happened in Afghanistan in the last nearly two decades and a great insight into the way America’s foreign policy has been formed under three different American Presidents mentioned above. The book is very well written so that even a complex subject matter is easy to follow. As someone who has worked with Refugees, it was a great eye opener as to how these international situations can arise and the way world leaders react. I hope that the book will also appear in Pashto and Dari so that the ordinary Afghans might benefit from it too.

The strongest aspect of the book is its demonstration of the consistent American difficulties in understanding that regional powers, Pakistan in particular, being central to the problem – powers that are equally central to any sustainable solution. Their conflicting interests are shown as ‘the mother of the problems’ in the continuation of the war. The book is equally essential in a sense it offers a penetrating and thoughtful analysis of American presidential decision making toward Afghanistan from 9/11 to Donald Trump. It can be an excellent source for understanding the decision-making process and the factors that impact it. It can, therefore, be a vital book for FPA and IR courses.

The book is likewise relevant to what has been happening in Great Britain: It reminds us of how British policymakers had limited knowledge of the consequences of a Brexit; how detailed knowledge would have helped them to prepare a better exit plan once the British public voted to withdraw from Europe; and how important it was for policymakers to consult experts to check the accuracy or otherwise of the assumptions their contrasting arguments were based on.

By Brian Cunningham MSc JP the Coordinator of BRASS

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