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War Comes to Garmser: Thirty Years of Conflict on the Afghan Frontier

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If you want to understand Afghanistan, writes Carter Malkasian, you need to understand what has happened on the ground, in the villages and countryside that were on the frontline. These small places are the heart of the war.

Modeled on the classic Vietnam War book, War Comes to Long An, Malkasian's War Comes to Garmser promises to be a landmark account of the war in Afghanistan. The author, who spent nearly two years in Garmser, a community in war-torn Helmand province, tells the story of this one small place through the jihad, the rise and fall of Taliban regimes, and American and British surge. Based on his conversations with hundreds of Afghans, including government officials, tribal leaders, religious leaders, and over forty Taliban, and drawing on extensive primary source material, Malkasian takes readers into the world of the Afghans. Through their feuds, grievances, beliefs, and way of life, Malkasian shows how the people of Garmser have struggled for three decades through brutal wars and short-lived regimes. Beginning with the victorious but destabilizing jihad against the Soviets and the ensuing civil war, he explains how the Taliban movement formed; how, after being routed in 2001, they returned stronger than ever in 2006; and how Afghans, British, and Americans fought with them thereafter. Above all, he describes the lives of Afghans who endured and tried to build some kind of order out of war. While Americans and British came and went, Afghans carried on, year after year.

Afghanistan started out as the good war, the war we fought for the right reasons. Now for many it seems a futile military endeavor, costly and unwinnable. War Comes to Garmser offers a fresh, original perspective on this war, one that will redefine how we look at Afghanistan and at modern war in general.

352 pages, Hardcover

First published December 1, 2012

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About the author

Carter Malkasian

12 books28 followers
Dr. Carter Malkasian leads the Stability and Development Program at the Center for Naval Analyses (CNA). In late 2007 and again in early 2008, he led a team that advised Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRT) in eastern Afghanistan. Previously assigned to the I Marine Expeditionary Force (I MEF) as an advisor on counterinsurgency, he deployed for the war in Iraq from February to May 2003, February 2004 to February 2005, and February 2006 to August 2006. Most of that time was spent in Al Anbar province. Dr. Malkasian’s most recent publication is a co-edited book (with Daniel Marston of Royal Military Academy Sandhurst), Counterinsurgency in Modern Warfare. His other books include: A History of Modern Wars of Attrition (2002) and The Korean War, 1950-1953 (2001). His journal publications include: “Did the Coalition Need More Forces in Iraq? Evidence from Al Anbar,” Joint Force Quarterly; “A Thin Blue Line in the Sand,” Democracy: A Journal of Ideas; “Signaling Resolve, Democratization, and the First Battle of Fallujah,” Journal of Strategic Studies; “The Role of Perceptions and Political Reform in Counterinsurgency,” Small Wars & Insurgencies; and “Toward a Better Understanding of Attrition,” Journal of Military History. Dr. Malkasian holds a doctorate in the history of war from Oxford University.

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5 stars
27 (32%)
4 stars
29 (34%)
3 stars
24 (28%)
2 stars
2 (2%)
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Displaying 1 - 15 of 15 reviews
Profile Image for Ben Anderson.
31 reviews5 followers
November 12, 2014
It's full of facts, but I was disappointed by how little I learned from reading it.
Profile Image for Roger Burk.
428 reviews29 followers
June 15, 2019
It's said that counterinsurgency is primarily political and only secondarily military. This is basically the memoir of a US State Department political officer assigned to a district in southern Afghanistan in 2009-11, prefaced with a detailed history of the district since the fall of the Afghan monarchy in 1978 (half the book!). The dizzying parade of warlords, tribal chiefs, imams, mullahs, and Taliban is impossible to follow. They fight, make peace, ally, and fight again, changing sides for reasons good and bad, scoot off to Pakistan across the southern border if things get too hot. Tribe battles tribe. The are a few good guys, a lot of bad guys, and a lot of guys looking out for themselves. If maneuvering through this is what it takes to win a counterinsurgency, no wonder it's so hard. The author records successes and failures, and ends with the US withdrawal and the ability of the Karzai government to maintain control in some doubt. His lesson learned is that we should have been firmer in directing the Afghans how to run their government, getting rid of incompetent and self-interested leaders even when they have important tribal or personal connections. It's easy for me to imagine that such interference with Afghan internal affairs would have made things even worse.
Profile Image for Alex Linschoten.
Author 12 books139 followers
February 20, 2014

Maybe my expectations were too high, but I didn't enjoy this as much as I thought I would. It's a solid book, just with less of the details that I was hoping for (esp for the pre-2001 period). Recommended as serious scholarship, but not the best best best book that some have suggested.
3 reviews
August 28, 2021
Gloriously detailed and full of insights that came from being in the heart of a really complex time / space in the history of the region. Focusing on a region and showcasing the dynamics in it as a way to shed light to the larger psyche that was prevailing throughout the region/country was truly informative.

In the end, a rueful summary of the author's time in the region and a sad resignation that not much was accomplished, even though it was feasible / could have been done, with the right will/desire.
Profile Image for Hunter Marston.
339 reviews11 followers
August 2, 2022
A truly impressive study of governance in Afghanistan at the most granular level of detail. At times this was very evocative, but it was a dense book to wade through.
Profile Image for Colin.
228 reviews626 followers
November 28, 2016
5 stars for detailed local history, 3 stars for broader generalizability. A close study of the past three decades of war in Afghanistan in a southern Helmand border district, drawing particularly on the author’s time as Foreign Service Officer during the peak surge years. There’s quite a bit of operational-level detail on the various political and military campaigns to take control of the district, so I imagine it will be interesting for a military history audience. The author identifies three primary factors in the Taliban’s ability to challenge the district’s fairly entrenched tribal power structures - the local tribes’ divisions and rivalries when compared to the Taliban’s relatively hierarchical structure (a factor also noted by Sinno and others); the Taliban’s ability to shelter and regroup across the border in Pakistan (militarily significant but somewhat underplayed in most of the text); and the introduction of successive waves of immigrants to the district, beginning in the 1960s, who lacked secure land tenure and could be mobilized by the Taliban against the existing tribal elites.

This latter issue in particular, together with the politicization of local Islamic clerical networks, forms a recurring core issue in the conflict. Although some periods were more peaceful than others, the local balance of political and economic power in Garmser fundamentally shifted with the introduction of the canal built by USAID in the 1960s and the subsequent social changes. None of the various regimes that followed were able to come up with a political system that was sufficiently inclusive and sufficiently non-zero-sum so as to make participation the more preferable course whenever violent opposition was an opportunity.

While significant infusions of U.S. military manpower and resources brought a tenuous level of government control through the waning years of the surge, the author concludes that to decisively challenge the insurgency, the U.S. should have been more proactive at intervening into the Afghan political system, pushing a more hierarchical chain of command between governors, army, and police officials, and deemphasizing anti-corruption concerns in favor of prioritizing “a government that could fight” - a point that is in tension with another recommendation to “focus on building a government able to bond Afghanistan’s disparate groups together and mend their various fractures”.

While a number of Afghan commanders have successfully set themselves up with U.S. backing in this manner since 2001, I think the former recommendation may understate the risk that by picking winners and losers more aggressively, and funneling more state resources through them, the U.S. could have alienated even more Garmser factions, provoking more conflict at least in the short term. While the author provides very eloquent analysis of the impact that the decisions that were made had at the tactical level, the book does not really attempt to fully engage with policy and strategic-level consequences of these recommendations, or why they were not in fact pursued. The book is great as a campaign diary, but I would echo the author’s own cautions not to extrapolate too broadly from the experiences there to the rest of Afghanistan without further reading.
Profile Image for Quentin Stewart.
222 reviews5 followers
May 17, 2013
Garmser is a small district in the Helmand Province of Afghanistan close to the frontier with Pakistan. Malkasian gives the reader a history of the district from the incursion of the Soviets and the Jihad that was called by the religious leaders to drive them out to the coming of the Taliban and their two attempts to control Garmser and the entry of the area by British and American troops up to 2012 when the US began the withdrawal of its troops and when Malkasian’s tour ended there. Malkasian led a team that advised Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRT) in eastern Afghanistan. In this position he was able to learn the history of Garmser and the leading tribes and families of the district.

The book goes into how two different views of society can clash and create a lack of understanding between the two. US officers and advisers learned that in some cases it was best to step back and allow the Afghans to “do it their way” instead of trying to follow American procedures. The Taliban were very successful in ruling Garmser, but that was primarily because of their totalitarian way of ruling and their harsh justice system. The Taliban also relied heavily on the Mullahs and other religious leaders to give themselves legitimacy. When the United States moved in and wanted to establish a democratic form of government the two societies clash and there had to be some give and take on both sides. Eventually a majority of the people of Garmser began to support the new government and prosperity was returning to the district. But then 2011 game along and the drawdown of American troops began and Malkasian wonders if the new fledging government can withstand an onslaught from the Taliban whom have been biding their time in Pakistan. As 2012 rolled around it appeared that Garmser might withstand new attacks with the American military advisers that have been left behind. Only time will tell.

Malkasian’s book is very thought provoking and a very interesting read for anyone interested in Afghanistan. As he states near the end of the book that this probably will not be the last time that the US will become involved in a conflict in a developing country. There are lessons to be learned here and I believe Malkasian lays out the facts in hopes that the lessons will be taken to heart and the Untied States and do a better job the next time. We can only hope that the little time that was used to set up the government in Garmser will be enough for it to stand up against all outsiders. A very excellent read and study of the Afghanistan conflict.
Profile Image for Chris.
1,351 reviews32 followers
July 6, 2014
Thorough and comprehensive this is a thought provoking book about one district in one province (Helmand) in Afghanistan that leaves you wondering if it was all for naught. We have achieved an incomplete victory of sorts. Malkasian was intimately involved in this district but writes with a certain almost academic detachment. His passion for these people with whom he has fought and lived for several years has been supplanted by cool objectivity as he gets into history, political science, and geo-politics. So if you wanted a memoir this is not the book for you. There are some real heroes in this book, Afghan heroes, and are proof of that old adage that one man can make a difference. The Taliban clearly have the upper hand in political organization and discipline over the Karzai government. One wonders if their leader, Mullah Omar, were taken out if that discipline would survive. He's had a price on his head since 2001 and lives safely in Pakistan governing the Taliban from his safe haven. Land reform and corruption are issues that still confront Garmser. The competition within the government among officials for resources and no clear unified or centralized command is just a prescription for disaster- competent people being fired and replaced by relatives or folks with money who won't work or take risks. Plus once the Marines pulled out many elders were all but predicting the resurgence of the Taliban. It doesn't look like it will take much to ignite the disaffection that can simmer under the surface. All it takes is one bad official taking bribes and abusing his office for the Taliban to get a foothold and grow-that's been the pattern. Looking at Iraq one wonders if that's what's in store for Afghanistan with the Taliban surging out of their safe haven in Pakistan in another year or two.
113 reviews1 follower
June 4, 2013
Malkasian takes a look at the war in Afghanistan through looking at the past, present, and future of Garmser, one district in Afghanistan. The book is very informative and shows how structural problems within Afghanistan and problems from decision makers in the US and UK have both contributed to how drawn out the war has been. Malkasian concludes that success in Afghanistan would have been possible much sooner with better decision making, and that the Taliban's successful rule proves that Afghanistan in governable.

The biggest issue that I had with the book is that Malkasian's chapter on conclusions makes him come across as a fence-sitter. He mentions different decisions that could have been made and lays out the strengths and weaknesses of each but often stops short of making a definite decision on what the best course of action would be. Furthermore, he points out that part of the problem in Afghanistan is the the Taliban has had a safe-haven in Pakistan, but he does not adequately discuss what can be done to mitigate that safe haven.

Overall, I liked the book and found it to be a good exposition on the war, but I would have liked to have seen Malkasian take more of a stand about what he believes could have been done differently. It is one thing to say that mistakes have been made. It is quite another to supply definite solutions. Perhaps other historians will build on his work take a look at those issues. Malkasian has provided a step towards better understanding of this conflict even if he hasn't provided the final step.
Profile Image for Gordon.
636 reviews
June 5, 2016
Well worth the read. Carter Malkasian provides an insightful and well researched history of conflict in one district of southern Helmand to explain the cultural, tribal, and political factors that have led to alternating periods of stability and instability. Albeit a microcosm of the country, Carter's study of this district demonstrates that peace is possible in modern Afghanistan. Strong, effective tribal leaders both prior to the Taliban and after, in conjunction with government representatives, were able to establish and enforce a semblance of order and peace. This occurred during the Taliban as well, but with historically different groups of tribes in the lead. The seeds of dissent and conflict have oriented around land and water rights, the narcotics trade, and the level of integration of historically marginalized tribes (many who arrived in the past century). Somewhat different from other districts in Helmand, Americans who served here did so with relative success (albeit hard won) in dealing with tribal leaders and establishing security with fairly effective Afghan Army and Police. In the end the factors critical for success - strong, effective, fair leaders who sought and obtained inclusiveness, and were prepared to stand and fight the Taliban - proved difficult to maintain. Carter finishes his book by remarking on the messiness of the American intervention in Afghanistan and suggests that such conflicts and future ones are likely to continue to be "troublesome, murky, messy, and grey".
1 review
September 30, 2014
While I was assigned to read this for a class and ended up procrastinating the read, in which I had to scramble to finish this book within a few days, it was still very informative. It helped me grasp better concepts of what we were learning in class such as counterinsurgency, counterintelligence, realist and liberalist theories, ect- just basic IR concepts. I also got a much better grasp of the two Taliban Regime's throughout Garmser. This is not a book about Afghanistan as a whole. I recommend the read for someone who has a desire to further expand their knowledge of the Taliban Regimes.
30 reviews
September 22, 2015
I was excited to see this book, having read about Carter Malkasian's work as a State Department advisor to the Marines in Helmand in several other books on Afghanistan. While the book provides a good snapshot of how decades of conflict played out in a single Afghan district, I found it a little hard to follow the numerous Afghan names and places.
Profile Image for John.
42 reviews
December 31, 2015
An excellent example of well executed counter-insurgency. Note the alignment and partnership of civilian, military, and host nation forces to achieve a goal. Also note the resourcing required.
Profile Image for Abdul Qadir  Popal.
16 reviews1 follower
March 19, 2018
جنګ ګرمسیر ته راغلی کتاب : د دریش کلنی جګړی تاریخ دې . هغه تاریخ چی په سلهاو قربانی لری او ناویل سوی قومی کیسی او شخړی لری
یاد کتاب امریکا په مشری جګړی چی ګرمسیر ته غزیدلی تاریخی ریښی څیړی او یادی جګړی ښکیل لورو قمندانانو او قومی مشرانو تیرو ته ژوره کتنه کوی
د کتاب لیکول غواړی چی د قومندانو او قومی مشرانو په تاریخ ، یاده جګړه سبب د قوم او مځکنی
ښخړی وښی.
د یو افغان په نظر او د داسی کس چی په یادو سیمو کی وسیدلی ، تر ډیره یا کتاب خبری ناسیمی بولم خو دا هم ویل غواړم چی یا موضوعات هم پر جګړیز ډګر خپل اثرات درلودل او شاهد په راروان کی یی هم ولری .لیکن یاد موضوعات د یو تپل ښوی جګړی سبب بلل غلط بولم
ګرمیسر یو د هغو ولسوالو څخه دی چی په ستراتجک ډول مهم دی او د امریکا په مشری جګړی د شروع بیا تر اوس په پوره ډول تر دولت ولکی نه ده راغلی نو جګړه هلته وه او دو نوری ولسوالی چی خاص پر سرحد پرتی دی هغه په مکمل ډول هغه وخت چی کتاب لیکوال په ګرمسیر کی وو هم د مخالفینو سره وی او دم ګړی هم د هغو تر ولکی لاندی دی

په هر صورت یاد کتاب یو کتاب دی چی د افغانستان په اړه د خارجیانو نظریات ښی او یو شه تبلغاتی وسیله ده چی خپل جګړه ته مشریت ور وبخشی
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