An Afghan District’s Decades of War
A review of ‘War Comes to Garmser’
In 2009, U.S. Pres. Barack Obama sent thousands of additional troops and civilians to Afghanistan as part of the so-called “Afghan surge.” The then eight-year-old war had taken a losing turn for America; the administration hoped that the surge would replicate the apparently positive results of the similar surge in Iraq.
Among those dispatched to Afghanistan was Carter Malkasian, a political officer with the State Department. He found himself in Garmser district of Helmand province, scene of some of the fiercest fighting in the country.
Malkasian would live in Garmser for nearly two years. He worked on perfecting his Pashto, learning the culture and talking to people. Lots of talking. He met Afghans from all walks of life, from tribal elders, farmers, mullahs, police and soldiers to members of the insurgency he had been sent to help suppress.
Upon his return from Afghanistan in 2011, he began writing a book about Garmser district. War Comes to Garmser is the result. But this is not Malkasian’s story. This is a story about Afghans.
Though Afghanistan has always been a complex place, with a dizzying mosaic of ethnic, clan, tribal and regional differences, that doesn’t mean the country has always been as broken as it is today. Older Afghans Malkasian spoke to told him about the days before the Soviets invaded. In the 1960s, the country was developing at slow and steady pace, boosted by substantial foreign aid.
In those days tribal disputes, bitter as they could be, were still largely settled with words. Afghan police were unarmed. People were optimistic about their futures.
Malkasian learned from the Afghans how decades of war changed things. The Soviet invasion tore the country apart. Afghans were polarized by the Soviets. On the one hand they promised improved education, land reform and increased rights for women. But they also sidelined and disrespected religious leaders and institutions, showed contempt for Afghan traditions and rained death on the countryside with bombers and gunships.
The people of Garmser were split. While some joined the Communists, more backed the mujahideen and their resistance against the Soviet Union.
The book recounts the Afghan civil war that followed the Soviet withdrawal, the rise of the Taliban in the 1990s and the 2001 U.S.-led invasion that ended Taliban rule. A large portion of the tome is devoted to the period between 2001 and 2006, which Malkasian characterizes as a period of missed opportunities.
Little attention was paid to Garmser early in the war. The one thing that did happen is that the Karzai regime enacted policies that favored the more powerful tribes. Smaller, weaker groups that had migrated to Garmser over the course of decades now had their land and livelihoods threatened.
The Taliban, having licked its wounds in Pakistan, slipped back into Garmser along the tribal fault lines. They quickly seized control. This prompted the entry of British troops. The British held their ground, despite never having enough men or material.
But it wasn’t until the Afghan surge in 2009 that the balance of power truly tilted towards the U.S. and its allies. Malkasian describes how Afghan politicians, soldiers and police all labored to win the peace, with the backing of the U.S. Marines and State Department.
Though the book is essentially a micro-history, delving into just one small district in one province, it reveals a lot about Afghanistan. By showing us just how complicated Garmser is all by itself, Malkasian’s book helps us better appreciate how complicated the whole of the country is.
Malkasian focuses on the Afghans, humanizing the conflict in ways that few accounts to date have. But ultimately, the author admits he can’t make many concrete assessments, as the story of Garmser is still being written. War has not left Garmser—and likely won’t for some time.