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From Kabul to Baghdad and Back: The U.S. at War in Afghanistan and Iraq

From Kabul to Baghdad and Back; The U.S. at War in Afghanistan and Iraq by John R. Ballard, David W. Lamm, and John K. Wood. Naval Institute Press, 2012, 367 pp.

The market is currently awash with books about Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom by journalists with varying degrees of impartiality; they usually emphasize the negative. Others are by veterans, often written in dramatic terms emphasizing the miseries and heroics of war. The former tend toward the political and strategic levels; the latter mostly focus on the tactical or operational aspects of the wars. Some are based on personal observation—necessarily limited views. Others lean heavily on published sources and sometimes interviews. None is yet definitive, but From Kabul to Baghdad and Back does do a good job of relating military operations to the politics of war—the main message being that fighting two wars at once is difficult and risky.

One would be hard pressed to find a trio of authors with better experience and academic credentials for writing such a book. All three have ample military experience and graduate education to support their work. They are all currently associated with the National Defense University and have substantial military service including both combat and command. The tome is well-written and understandable to the nonspecialist.

From Kabul to Baghdad is not “drum and trumpet” history though. It gives enough on military operations to support the strategic and political aspects of the struggles. It does cover the battles of Fallujah in 2004 in a summary way but does not dwell on every combat. The tale uses a chronological pattern in general, starting with 9/11 and then OEF. It agrees with the usual interpretation that the Afghanistan operation went exceedingly well notwithstanding the tactical disappointments of Tora Bora and Anaconda. It also agrees with a substantial part of current literature on the wars to the effect that the fruits of the victories of 2001–02 were lost when the strategic focus shifted from Afghanistan to Iraq in 2003. To some extent, the losses were salvaged by the surges in both places, but the final outcomes are yet to be known.

After the experiences of Kaiser Wilhelm and Adolph Hitler in the last century, and that of Napoleon before, it is remarkable scholars find it necessary to warn us of the difficulties in fighting two conflicts at once. But the scale of things then was so different from the current world situation that many would counter with the “history does not repeat itself” argument, also citing past cases where dual wars were won. But Kabul to Baghdad does recognize that the world has changed and is changing in unpredictable ways. The Westphalia system founded in the seventeenth century, wherein the state was the determinant of outcomes, was still operationally dominant in Napoleon’s and Hitler’s days. But now, these authors agree, it is changing because of technology, the Internet, and globalization. Now nonstate actors are becoming increasingly important, and the dominance of the state is diminishing. One consequence is that though conventional forces remain important and need to be sustained, irregular warfare is and will remain on the rise, and a different capability to face that problem must also be supported.

From Kabul to Baghdad and Back is a first-class work. If the military professionals have time to read but one book this year, they would be well advised to make this the one.

David R. Mets, PhD

Niceville, Florida

"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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