How We Won & Lost the War in Afghanistan

How We Won & Lost the War in Afghanistan: Two Years in the Pashtun Heartland by Douglas Grindle. Potomac Books, 2017.


Douglas Grindle’s new memoir, How We Won & Lost the War in Afghanistan: Two Years in the Pashtun Homeland, is the latest in a long line of memoirs from civilians who worked in southern Afghanistan alongside the United States military. Although it is not as historically minded or as well researched as Carter Malkasian’s War Comes to Garmser: Thirty Years of Conflict on the Afghan Frontier, it is still an excellent memoir that shines a light on governance struggles in Afghanistan. Grindle presents a compelling narrative on the difficulties civilian aid and development personnel faced in advising Afghan district government (county) officials. The former freelance journalist, who spent six years covering Afghanistan, chronicles his two years on a Department of State/US Agency for International Development district support team in two districts in Kandahar province.

The problem with Grindle’s book is with his thesis. He argues that the United States had essentially won the war in Afghanistan during Obama’s “surge” only to lose the momentum in 2012 due to the Afghan government’s inability to properly support its district level government officials. Grindle is not wrong about this issue. Afghan district officials are not able to raise their own revenue and are at the mercy of the provincial government. The provincial government obtains its budget from Kabul and then allocates resources to the various districts to implement projects, run schools, and operate medical clinics. However, most of this aid comes from the United States and the international community. Thus, how could the Afghan government ever sustain the level of economic development needed to provide basic services to its constituents? Even if the districts were better connected with their provincial and national government brethren, the Afghan government is incapable of sustaining its own armed forces, let alone a robust, Western-oriented government that provides protection and basic services in return for a monopoly of violence. A Rousseau-like social contract in Afghanistan was always a stretch.

Grindle does not properly analyze the feasibility of his ultimate objective. He was fortunate enough to work in Dand district, close to Kandahar City and Kandahar Airfield. However, despite these advantages, the Afghan government could not properly support Dand. How could the government ever properly support other districts that are more geographically separated from major population centers? Truthfully, the Afghan government has never been connected to its villages and many Afghans view Kabul as a foreign entity. It is difficult for a foreign actor to create a government in an impoverished country, especially after four decades of war. In short, the United States has struggled because it designed a government in its own image in a country that has never been able to extend its control to the periphery.

Despite this issue, Grindle’s book is still worthwhile. He provides the reader an intimate look at life as a governance advisor. Previous memoirs, like Malkasian’s, focused on fierce fighting that often consumed efforts to connect Afghans with their government. Grindle, however, rarely delves into security issues. He focuses primarily on his time in Dand, where he worked and lived on a small base that also housed the Dand district center (county office). As the United States and international community began to retrograde in late 2011, Grindle and his comrades attempted to create a glide path to soften the blow for a government that had grown accustomed to the international community’s largesse. Unfortunately, Grindle’s efforts were not successful as the United States and its allies were far too focused on consolidating bases and turning off the spigot in 2012.

In Dand, Grindle was fortunate to have a competent district governor who had solid connections to influential Afghans, like former Kandahar provincial governor Gul Agha Serzai. However, Grindle was not as fortunate in Maiwand. The security in Maiwand was porous and thus development aid could not lure skeptical Afghans to support the government. The Maiwand district governor was also far less competent and well connected than his Dand counterpart. Accordingly, the Afghans struggled to replace their better equipped allies in the Pashtun heartland and the Taliban has reversed many of the coalition’s gains throughout Helmand and Kandahar.

Grindle’s book shines in highlighting the bureaucratic maze advisors often struggled to navigate. He repeatedly shows how experienced aid and development experts incompetently enacted projects that did not match the realities or needs on the ground. Nearly all war memoirs complain about higher headquarters being grossly incompetent, but those usually deal with fatal mistakes in combat. However, Grindle aptly shows how the United States squandered millions of dollars in poorly designed and implemented projects that litter the Afghan countryside.

The book provides readers with a ringside seat in the international community’s efforts to build an effective government in the Pashtun heartland. Although Grindle fails to analyze the feasibility of such an effort, the memoir provides readers with an accurate portrayal of America’s pacification efforts in Afghanistan. This book should provide a healthy dose of skepticism for military member and foreign policy practitioners on the feasibility of nation building, especially as the United States, yet again, reengages in Afghanistan.

Maj William B. Selber, USAF

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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