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The Other War: Winning and Losing in Afghanistan

The Other War: Winning and Losing in Afghanistan by Ronald E. Neumann. Potomac Books, 2009, 256 pp.

Amb. Ronald E. Neumann is articulate and a good writer. Although The Other War was published before the death of Osama bin Laden, it might serve as a summary of current reading on Operation Enduring Freedom.

Ambassador Neumann served in Kabul from 2005 through the spring of 2007. His extensive experience in the US Foreign Service includes a tour in Baghdad, and even before that, he lived in Afghanistan as a child while his father was ambassador there. He also served as an Army lieutenant during the Vietnam War.

The book’s title implies that after 2003, the Iraq War caused inattention to the fight in Afghanistan and led to a retrogression in the mission there. And that mission was a tough one because, as he notes, the Afghans have a long tradition of primary allegiance to one’s tribe, and they never have had a strong central government. Yet, Neumann seems to favor the effort to build a powerful central administration in Kabul, which would include reducing the US reliance on the help of the Northern Alliance. The members of the latter are a strong influence in the direction of decentralization. The Pashtuns are the largest group, but neither they nor the Uzbeks, Tajiks, nor Hazaras ever feel that they are fairly treated. But the author also argues that none is seeking a separate state.

Neumann seems to have reservations about the impartiality of the press. The ambassador is retired now but remains persuaded that the cause in Afghanistan is just and that it is also essential to national security that the United States stay the course there. Good governance reforms are necessary, as is a reduction in the level of corruption and cronyism. Physical security and education are vital, but there are huge barriers to both. The NATO partners have various objectives in the fight, and getting their enthusiastic participation is a problem. Neumann agrees that the employment of contractors is useful, but knows that the solution will not come from them—notwithstanding his high regard for the Blackwater contractors who provided his security.

Ambassador Neumann understands the dilemma faced by Pakistan, which must hedge its bets because if the West abandons the fight, the Pakistanis will be left with perceived enemies on both east and west borders. The United States must do what it can to win Pakistan’s cooperation, because a Taliban victory in Afghanistan would be pernicious to US security for its own sake but also a huge propaganda victory for radical Islam everywhere.

David R. Mets, PhD

"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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