politics

Book Review "War Comes to Garmsir"

"War Comes to Garmsir" (by Carter Malkasian, Oxford University Press, 2013 ISBN # 9780199973750) demonstrates that to win - or succeed - in irregular wars like those in Iraq and Afghanistan takes building relations with the locals, and "The War Comes to Garmsir" explains why understanding the locals is so important,

Understanding the locals is the key

Winning - or succeeding - in irregular wars like those in Iraq and Afghanistan takes building good relations with the locals, and as the Marine Corps proved in Anbar Province, and RC Southwest, convincing them to "choose us" is the key to success against the Taliban or al-Qaeda.

But building a good relationship with the locals requires more than an ability to smile and say "sta nuum" as one walks through an Afghan village. Carter Malkasian's book "War Comes to Garmsir" explains how difficult it is to build those relationships in a region where tribal affiliation, blood ties, and an opportunity to settle old feuds are more important than working together for mutual benefit.

A political officer for the State Department, Malkasian was based in Garmsir for two years (2009-2011), during the period Helmand Province transitioned from RC-South's undermanned European contingents into RC-Southwest's robust Marine-led presence. Unlike the many marginally-interested State Department employees who 'saw' Afghanistan from the comfort of the American embassy in Kabul, Malkasian had worked previously with the Marines in Anbar Province and requested the opportunity to go out into the field with them again.

Garmsir is a typical farming district in Afghanistan. Its 150,000 people live on a fertile strip along the Helmand River that's three miles wide by 75 miles long. Sitting approximately midway between Pakistan and Kandahar (the birthplace of the Taliban), the Talibs were firmly in control in May 2008 when 24th MEU arrived and defeated the Talibs in a 3-week fight. But as was symptomatic of US strategy at the time; the Marines were soon withdrawn; there were not sufficient British troops to back-fill, and to the locals dismay, the Taliban quickly returned.

Not surprisingly, the locals were wary of cooperating with the Marines when BG Larry Nicholson led 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade in Helmand Province in early 2009. Similar to the Marines mission, Malkasian was to teach the people how to stand up to the Taliban; as Political Officer, he mentored the District Governor, negotiated with tribal elders, and learned how Islam and the Mullahs affected the social structure. Malkasian describes how as the number of Marines increased and spread like oil spots into the villages to protect the local population, he flowed into the villages with them. Learning Pashto and listening to the locals, he learned Garmsir's history and that of the tribes and families who governed it.

"War Comes to Garmsir" is a rare book in that it that examines the war from the viewpoint of the locals. A fine writer, Malkasian opens a window into Afghanistan's mystifying tribal world as he describes how land-ownership, jobs, mullah's and weapons stockpiles are negotiation points for leadership and control as the Barakzai, Alizai, and Noorzai tribes vie for power with and against the Taliban - clearly the term "all politics is local" was coined in Garmsir.

When the Marines arrived, they needed to interact with a local citizenry that basically just wanted to be left alone by both the Marines and the Talibs. Malkasian and the villagers watched how hard the Marines fought for every town and canal they liberated from the Taliban, along with building the ANA into a credible fighting force.

Where the book is weakest, unfortunately, is how Malkasian interacted with the Marines. He mentions working with five battalion commanders but offers no insight as to how he and they interacted. Was it a collaborative effort? Did Malkasian pass his invaluable information on the tribes and individuals to them in order to direct CERP projects and other funding to maximum benefit, or did he and was ignored?

Malkasian discusses multiple missed opportunities in Garmsir since 2008 such as land reform, religious outreach, and formalizing the relationships and lines of authority between the District Governor, ANA, and ANP that he thinks would have improved the situation against the Taliban.

On a larger strategic scale he is correct, but land reform is hardly the mission of a battalion or even an RCT commander. While one should argue that these are issues for the central government, if COIN doctrine now includes these non-military issues and Kabul is unable to address them, then the Political Officer, Civil Affairs, and the Bn commander should be working together in order to collectively resolve them. This does not appear to have happened in Garmsir between Malkasian and the battalion commanders.

But these are issues that Malkasian could address in a follow-on book. "War Comes to Garmsir" deserves credit for being what it is: the first in-depth view of an Afghan area from the local view. This is should be 'the' book battalion commanders use as a template for whether or not their Civil Affair and Intel shops are dealing with the correct people; Malkasian's shura-level view of the intricacies of a tribal society is eye-opening.

"War Comes to Garmsir" deserves credit for being what it is: the first in-depth view of an Afghan area from the local view. This is should be 'the' book battalion commanders use as a template for whether or not their Civil Affair and Intel shops are dealing with the correct people; Malkasian's shura-level view of the intricacies of a tribal society is eye-opening.

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