Anyone seeking to understand Afghanistan in general, the flaws in the United States' effort there, or life on the ground as a political advisor in the midst of a counterinsurgency, should read The Valley's Edge by Daniel Green.
The book is a detailed, first-hand account of how a team of U.S. soldiers and civilians, focused on improving governance and development, operated in the midst of a worsening insurgency in one of the most remote provinces in Afghanistan. In the popular media and in academic articles, those who have followed the war over the past decade have been inundated with terms such as "Jirga," free and fair elections, pervasive corruption, and the nature of the Taliban insurgency. The Valley's Edge gives life to these expressions as the reader experiences through Green a meeting with disgruntled elders, seating a provincial council for the first time, a patrol to inspect development projects, the deaths of friends, and the inside stories behind how local government officials actually conducted their corrupt activities.
I first met Dan Green during his second tour as a State Department political advisor to the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Uruzgan Province, one of the world's most remote locales, while serving there as a Special Forces officer in 2006. My distinct memory after sitting down with Green for the first time was that he was the first person that I had come across who seriously dedicated himself to understanding the complicated tribal and interpersonal political dynamics at play in every corner of Afghanistan. His work made me realize how superficial our knowledge of Afghan society and the insurgency was at the time (and still is to a large degree), and how those dynamics were critical to understanding popular support for the insurgency. In 2005 and 2006 the U.S. and coalition effort was taking a very black and white approach to the growing insurgency - those in government positions were good and deserved our support, while those labeled as "Taliban" were targeted.
Green's efforts, as described in The Valley's Edge, helped me realize how much we had to learn and how long it was going to take. As shown in the book, after sustained efforts to engage a cross section of Afghan leaders, it took Green the better part of a year to even begin understanding the complex and decades-old rivalries, feuds, and competing tribal groups that were interwoven into the fabric of a fledgling government, an under-resourced coalition effort, and a resurgent Taliban.
The Uruzgan described in The Valleys Edge is a microcosm of issues that have plagued the war effort in the past decade. For example, Green highlights the dichotomy that exists between maintaining security and improving governance. Security in Afghanistan was often established and sometimes brutally maintained by warlords cum government officials. In the case of Uruzgan, one of Afghanistan's most notorious warlords, Governor Jan Mohammed Khan, ruthlessly repressed the Taliban's attempts to reassert their influence in the province. However, his efforts were often at the expense of his tribal rivals, from whom he would withhold government positions and development aide. Green slowly peels back the onion on Jan Mohammed's network of supporters and rivals, and describes how the disaffected tribes viewed the United States as complicit in the repression because we often took the default position of supporting the "legitimate Afghan government".
Green aptly describes how Jan Mohammed's removal as governor ushered in a more democratic and legitimate official, but, in turn, also created a vacuum of significant tribal support for the government. This vacuum opened the door to the resurgence of the Taliban backed by the tribes that were forcefully repressed during Jan Mohammed's rule. The result was a significant spike in violence by the summer of 2006 that lessoned the ability of the PRT and NGOs to conduct development programs. Thus, though governance improved in Uruzgan, the removal of the province's most powerful strongman and his allies, coupled with the transition from the U.S. to the Dutch military in 2006 was a recipe for disaster.
Throughout The Valley's Edge, the reader is able to witness the evolution in the Taliban's tactics, from an uncoordinated and sporadic hit-and-run campaign to classic insurgent techniques of intimidating and assassinating government supporters. Green describes how by his second tour in 2006, the first suicide bomber, car bombs and a huge increase in IEDs were taking a toll on the populace, the efforts of the PRT, and him personally.
The reader also experiences the inadequacies of NATO. Green gets a firsthand look at the Dutch replacement of the U.S. presence in Uruzgan, and again it proves to be a microcosm of the broader flaws associated with NATO taking the lead for security in Afghanistan. He aptly describes how the Dutch found themselves dealing with a very hostile insurgency by the time they took charge of the province in the fall of 2006, which was far removed from the peacekeeping-like effort the Dutch government had signed up for in 2004-2005. In hindsight, this proved true of the entire NATO effort, as evidenced by the myriad of national caveats imposed on the various NATO forces by their governments intended to limit their exposure to the insurgency. The caveats imposed various limitations on what each nations' forces could and could not do, such as engaging in offensive operations or imposing geographical limitations on where units could patrol. Ironically these caveats over time prevented NATO from dealing with many of the sources of instability driving the insurgency, and severely hampered the flexibility of the NATO-ISAF commander. Green describes first-hand what he noticed during his third tour in Afghanistan as a military officer: the lack of will and capability in our NATO allies to prosecute a fully resourced, comprehensive counterinsurgency campaign. Voicing frustration, he also describes the lack of planning behind, and relative ineffectiveness of, the U.S. civilian surge in the fall of 2009.
The strength of The Valley's Edge is that it gives the reader perspective on the war's progression over time, while remaining focused on one geographical location. Green's multiple tours span six years and allow the reader to experience the digression in security, the transition to NATO, and our evolution in dealing with the Afghans. The Valley's Edge is certainly a recommended read, and one that historians will reference generations from now as they recount the history of the war in Afghanistan.
Michael Waltz is a Senior National Security Fellow at the New America Foundation and a former advisor on South Asia to Vice President Cheney.
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