Afghanistan: How The West Lost Its Way. By Tim Bird and Alexander Marshall

Written by Rebecca Robinson.

Professor Larry Goodson formed his opinion on Afghanistan’s endless war and suggested that he believed the ‘prospects for the future are dismal’. A decade later and the United States has spent an estimate of over $1.6 trillion dollars on the war in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan. Ten years on and authors, Tim Bird and Alex Marshall, have come to explain where it all went wrong:

Afghanistan: How The West Lost Its Way recounts, assesses and criticises the USA’s strategic understanding of attaining the end objective; the removal of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, alongside promising the aid to move Afghanistan to a democratic, secure and stable state. Tim Bird was part of the team working on the British Joint Operational Stabilisation Doctrine from 2008-2009. Alex Marshall was on the board for small wars and insurgencies, implying he also has a wide breadth of practical experience and knowledge in this field. The authors state at the outset of the book that it is fundamentally about the ‘policy and strategy’ used in the Afghanistan war. The authors’ contribution to historiography on the subject is significant, but arguably could be considered as one sided, as it writes primarily from the American point of view. Yet, Bird and Marshall’s intention is to provide an understanding of the events, policy and strategy.

This review will argue that Bird and Marshall have constructed a well thought out, daming conclusion about US policy making and strategy during the Afghanistan campaign, whilst also bringing light to factors policy makers may not have considered. The data used in support of this, by primary and secondary sources is reliable due to its range of academic articles, government documents and compilation of journal articles which confirm the authors arguments. The assumption and theories the authors draw on are that American policy and strategy were alone not enough to change a countries make-up and that due to ignorance and their own personal image were blindsided by themselves. Bird and Marshall write in a structure of history, evidence and analysis; by doing so, form a strong, informative argument. That said, they do also mention outside sources, yet not enough to create a stronger viewpoint of non American influence.

Before the authors dive into their arguments and discussion, they provide a background chapter which allows the reader to understand the historical context, thus enabling the reader to place the USA led intervention of Afghanistan in a broader framework.

To evidence this, the book’s accounts are displayed in chronological order, whilst ensuring bouts of theoretical contention that in turn adds to the quality of the narrative. Simultaneously, it ultimately cements the arguably unintelligible US policy attitude and lack of strategic consideration in dealing with a country such as Afghanistan which all lead from the ill-starred decisions of the G.W. Bush administration. The outcome of the book is a reasonable judgment on the history that has taken place, this is shown by the outcome of the Obama administration and Trumps, whereby it is seen that the Campaigns in the Middle East have only wasted US resources and left Afghanistan in no more of a secure state than which it stated.

Bird and Marshall draw on theories such as ‘the light foot approach’ and the ‘nation-building’ construct as evidence that the US were looking inwardly. They do successfully to support their argument that the US had a disjointed, incomprehensive and muddled understanding of the complexity of the conflict that was on-going in Afghanistan. Routinely, the authors hark back to the American policy of being ‘light-footed’, throughout the book, continuously cementing how the West lost.

US policy makers under the administration of G.W. Bush and Barack Obama would find the conclusions of this book hard hitting and it would lead to an uneasy read. The authors characterise the West’s continuous approach as being a sequence of optimism and ultimate disappointment and that the West would never be able to make “Afghanistan a balanced state ”. Ultimately, the authors argue that whilst every country is responsible to some extent, “Washington must bear the lion’s share” , and that there was only one country in which could conclude the war : the “US failed to do so” . One could argue this could be a biased statement due to its conclusive and singular outlook: American focused. Looking at the sources credited, the majority are either American or British based and whilst this only supports the arguments made by the authors, without a more global outlook, the reader is limited to a view based on one narrative.

There are some missing evaluations that open the book up to arguments and points for contention. For example, the authors’ work is focussed on US policy and strategy and does not lead on to non-American agents, some of which have also hindered the processes of building robust internal structures in Afghanistan. We can deduce that by it’s use of primarily American sources to support its argument; many of such were written between 2002-2009, and so do not offer a broader horizon to Afghanistan history.

The reader does not get a comprehensive understanding of the historical composition which makes up Afghanistan and whereby the many small societies, of which most have border links with Pakistan and India, that have ultimately led to Afghanistan becoming weak. As Afghanistan is a highly socially divided country, the authors believe that the alliance’s idea that a “democtratic and centralized state was a possible way to address the Afghan security predicament” was illogical and lacked understanding. Yet, perhaps the authors could have pointed out that this “centralized state” was in agreement with Karzai. Karzai was not willing to have another form of Government other than a presidential system. It was important for the Afghan leaders to be seen as independent from foreign influence and demonstrates that leaders were mostly concerned with their image of power, to ensure they maintained order.

Nevertheless, Afghanistan: How The West Lost Its Way provides a broad, well rounded analysis of US and NATO Western policy making and the strategic pitfalls in the campaign of Afghanistan. Bird and Marshall’s book enables readers to gain a greater understanding of the failures of the West and should be actively read by those associated in forging US political and military strategy.