Friday, August 17, 2012

What's Wrong in Afghanistan - From the Grunt's Level

This book is about the reality of war in Afghanistan, as told by a British documentary journalist who spent a lot of time with the troops on the ground. If Rajiv Chandrasekaran, in his book Little America, tries to show how the higher level decision-makers have fought the war the wrong way, Ben Anderson in this book gives a neutral but ultimately damning picture on how we are not winning the war at the grunt level. To do so, his time there is spent entirely in Helmand province, first with a rifle company of the British Grenadier Guards in 2007, then with the 2nd Battalion of the 8th US Marines in 2009 and finally with the 1st Battalion of the 6th US Marines in 2010. In the most revealing episode, he lands in the heart of the Taliban stronghold of Marjah with the assaulting Marines in Operation Moshtarek, perhaps the biggest offensive that took place in Afghanistan, and stays with them as they consolidate their hold.

Anderson’s presence is at first just tolerated by the troops who are suspicious of any journalist watching over their shoulders as they try to face their daily challenges to keep alive, but they all come to accept him as he shares their dangers. In this sense, he is much like Sebastian Junger who spent all his time in a combat outpost in the Korengal Valley to write his book War, or like Canadian Legion correspondent Adam Day who lived in many Canadian army platoon outposts throughout Panjwayi District and wrote Witness to War. They belong to that rare breed of journalist who all seem to thrive on risking their lives in a combat zone, to bring readers a truer story than they could get from any other source

In writing the book, he uses the video tapes he liberally took of what he observed to present the exact words used by soldiers and by civilians. In doing so, he unfortunately shows too many times how troops, trained to eliminate the enemy by force, have at times a complete lack of empathy to the plight of local Afghans caught between the insurgents and the Western military. The result is a lot of death and destruction in the villages that the Western military is trying to clear and pacify, resulting in bitterness, resentment and immense sadness among innocent victims. There is also a feeling of futility when he writes about the Afghan National Army, giving many examples of how they lack discipline and any sense of responsibility: the British continue to try to mentor them but can’t help mocking them, while the Marines give up in frustration and carry out operations by themselves as much as possible.

Throughout the narrative, another constant theme that keeps coming up is the question of where is the Afghan government in all this? After major efforts are made by the British and American troops to clear areas during which they suffer too many killed and wounded, they find there is no Afghan presence to take over the newly-won territory. They question what they are fighting for but carry on because they are professionals trained to follow their orders.

This would be a good book to pair with Little America to try to understand how the war in Afghanistan is going wrong.

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