Book review: War Against The Taliban – Why It All Went Wrong In Afghanistan

Even a commentator as familiar with the Afghan disaster as Sandy Gall doesn’t have the answers, writes James Fergusson

DIP the colours and sound the salute. When Sandy Gall publishes a book, my whippersnapper generation of writers on Afghanistan must pay attention.

Gall, who turned 84 last year, knows the Afghans as well as anyone alive; and this book, his 11th, is also his first since 1989 that focuses on the country that came to define his long career as a foreign correspondent.

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He spent much of the 1980s reporting on the war against the Soviets, winning many awards for his intrepid behind-the-lines television documentaries on the Mujahideen. In 1986 he set up a foundation for mine victims, which has since provided over 20,000 people with artificial limbs and walking devices. Two of his daughters are still involved with the running of this charity, while a third, Carlotta, has been the New York Times correspondent in the region for a decade.

Naturally, Gall pere’s Afghan contacts book is without equal – and he uses it to good effect in War Against The Taliban, the product of over a hundred interviews.

Almost all the story’s principle characters are here, from British generals and ambassadors to retired ISI agents and ex-Mujahideen friends now in power in Kabul. He re-examines every major turning point in the war: the missed opportunities of Torah Borah in 2001, the breaking of the “Musa Qala deal” in Helmand in 2006, and the sacking for insubordination of the US general, Stan McChrystal, in 2010. The result is a thorough and workmanlike account of Nato’s Afghan misadventure, full of insight.

“Everyone is tired of war, longing for peace and a sense of security,” Gall writes from Kabul at the end of 2011. “There seems to be an exhaustion of the spirit, a sense of desperation caused by… a failure of government, a failure of the West and its forces, as well as a deep distrust and dislike of the barbarians waiting at the gate.”

Readers looking for a new explanation of “why it all went wrong”, however, are likely to be disappointed. “The reason”, he writes, “can be summed up in one word: Iraq.” It is received wisdom these days that the Taliban’s resurgence after 2002 would have been prevented if George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld had not taken their eye off the ball. “The allocation of resources in the widest sense – hardware, men, money and brainpower – between Iraq and Afghanistan, were worlds apart,” the first International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) commander, Gen Sir John McColl, tells Gall.

No doubt that was true, but there is no evidence that the West’s Afghan project failed solely because it was under-resourced. In Helmand, indeed, where Obama’s troop surge has led only to more violence and destruction, it arguably failed through over-resourcing. The West’s greater mistake was its failure to ensure that Afghanistan’s political reconstruction kept pace with the military effort. By trying to steal the presidential election of 2009, Hamid Karzai conclusively demonstrated that he was not a democrat but a kleptocrat. And yet he remains in power – and for as long as he does so, the whole complex edifice of peace will be built on sand.

Gall, to be fair, is strong on the subject of the new elite’s corruption. Old Afghan hands who worked with the Mujahideen in the 1980s are often biased in favour of the (anti-Taliban) Panjshiri Tajiks who now dominate politics in Kabul; it is good to read that this one is far too professional to fall into that trap. He is perceptive, too, on the root cause of the war, what he calls Pakistan’s Weltanschauung. Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) is paranoid about its old enemy India; its support for the Taliban is driven by a need for “strategic depth” in Afghanistan; the “jihad mentality” will persist until the international community addresses the border dispute between the two countries in Kashmir, the world’s longest-running war.

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Nevertheless, War Against The Taliban has its faults. Gall writes best when he is in the thick of it, as he was in his classic Travels With The Mujahideen, and too much of the analysis here is second-hand. An eight-page section entitled the “Taliban In Quetta,” for instance, is drawn entirely from an account of a visit by a journalist in 2007 – and that will not really do, even when the journalist in question is your daughter.

It is hard to escape a general impression that the book has been under-edited by Bloomsbury. Someone, surely, should have deleted the footnote explaining what a drone is. There is, conversely, a great deal of important but complicated material that feels undigested. The conclusion is also disappointingly weak: “So where does that leave the West – the Americans and the British?” he writes. “No one really knows.”

On the other hand, perhaps it says something about the intractability of the Afghan problem that not even Sandy Gall, with all his vast experience, can predict how the war against the Taliban will end.

• War Against The Taliban – Why It All Went Wrong In Afghanistan, by Sandy Gall, Bloomsbury £20. James Fergusson’s Taliban – The True Story of the World’s Most Feared Guerrilla Fighters is published by Corgi, price £8.99