/ Published January 16, 2018
The Dust of Kandahar: A Diplomat among Warriors in Afghanistan by Jonathan Addleton. Naval Institute Press, 2017, 272 pp.
Afghanistan and Iraq memoirs are a common commodity at any bookstore. Although the stories often revolve around Special Operations forces, there is a smattering from conventional units from nearly all of the services. Memoirs of these conflicts from interagency personnel, however, are not as common. Jonathan Addleton’s book The Dust of Kandahar: A Diplomat among Warriors in Afghanistan is a solid entry into this thin historiographical category. Addleton, who is a native of northern Pakistan and was the senior civilian representative (SCR) in southern Afghanistan from 2012 to 2013, provides readers an intimate look at the human toll of war from an outsider’s perspective. His book is also one of the first to describe the problems the United States faced in transitioning to full Afghan sovereignty in 2012. The five-time USAID mission director gives a firsthand account of the difficulties in withdrawing troops while still advising and assisting host nation security forces in the midst of a raging insurgency. However, since the book is a publication of Addleton’s daily journal entries during his tour, it can be tedious to read. The reader will be tempted to skip entire weeks of entries that described staff meetings, dining halls, and encounters with random Afghans. Regardless, this book’s benefits outweigh its structural issues overall.
Addleton’s book will mitigate the dubious idea that the Department of Defense is the only agency truly engaged in Afghanistan. He takes the reader along for a ride as he visits nearly every province in what was formerly Regional Command South (RC-South) in an attempt to synchronize civilian endeavors with those of his partner Gen Robert Abrams, former commanding general of the 3rd Infantry Division and RC-South. Kandahar veterans will likely recognize many of the more famous Afghans interlocutors, like Gen Abdul Razziq and Gen Abdul Hamid. Moreover, Addleton, in moving prose, details the suicide bomber attack in April 2013 on the Zabul Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) that claimed the lives of six people, including a State Department official. After this horrifying event, Addleton is left to make sense of the tragedy. For those who have borne similar losses, his struggle with survivor’s guilt will ring true.
Addleton’s journal entries progress from wonderment of the overall mission to a stark realization of the problems at hand. As the reader progresses through his journal entries, it often seems that senior US officials grasp at any news to bolster their spirits. For example, high-ranking American officers frequently boast of the once-heralded Panjwai uprising against the Taliban. However, this uprising, like many others throughout the last 16 years, was not the start of a larger Pashtun movement against the insurgency. In fact, it further underscores the granular nature of the Afghan battlefield, where grievances change from valley to valley and, thus, are largely opaque to the West’s eyes. Along Addleton’s one-year tour in southern Afghanistan, the reader will find disgruntled Afghans trying to find a plausible path forward, while the international community accelerates its withdrawal. By the end of his tour, Addleton is convinced that it is time to leave Afghanistan, though he’s dismissive of the artificial timelines that are driving the endeavor.
The structure of Addleton’s book, however, is difficult to overcome. There is no overarching argument, and critiques on America’ strategy in the region are absent. Addleton pulls his punches on the military culture he is immersed in. This is unfortunate, considering his outsider’s view. Moreover, his affinity for atmospheric reports makes the book laborious. In fact, the reader will be excused if he simply skips over pages of these reports to more relevant sections. It is puzzling why the editor did not delete these pages, considering Addleton had unprecedented access to thousands of Afghans, ranging from the Kandahar provincial governor to tribal elders. Further, considering Addleton’s expertise in the region, a more analytical approach to America’s strategy would have been refreshing. Were America’s goals in changing Pakistan’s behavior logical or a fool’s errand? How well did the military synchronize its efforts with other agencies? When the military says “whole of government” does it just mean whole of DOD? These questions, unfortunately, are not addressed—but Addleton had the experience to do so. Although the structure of the book will introduce the “Groundhog day” aspect of such deployments to civilians, this benefit does not outweigh the analytical insights Addleton could have provided by simply restructuring the book.
Addleton’s book is not the best Afghan war memoir. In fact, there are better books on southern Afghanistan, like Graeme Smith’s The Dogs are Eating Them Now: Our War in Afghanistan or Carter Malkasain’s War Comes to Garmser: Thirty Years of Conflict on the Afghan Frontier. However, Addleton’s volume will mitigate the gripe that other agencies did not share the burden in Afghanistan, and it provides a firsthand account of the problems with withdrawing American forces in the midst of a raging insurgency.
Maj William 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."