Coalition Challenges in Afghanistan: The Politics of Alliance

  • Published


Coalition Challenges in Afghanistan: The Politics of Alliance ed. Gale Mattox and Stephen Greiner. Stanford University Press, 2015, 334 pp.  


The steady publication of academic and popular books on Afghanistan commonly presents an American-centric view of the last 16 years in the Hindu Kush. Rarely do these books focus on the Afghans’ view of the war. Moreover, seldom do books tackle our allies’ challenges in Afghanistan. Gale Mattox and Stephen Greiner’s edited book, Coalition Challenges in Afghanistan: The Politics of Alliance, does a masterful job of analyzing nearly all our allies’ motivations for participating in Operation Enduring Freedom and pulls no punches in evaluating their performances. Many of the same critiques leveled at America’s strategy in Afghanistan are found in our allies’ approach too. Although there are a few glaring omissions, this book is a quality addition to the growing literature on America’s latest, longest war.  

This book is organized into five sections: Afghan government and nonstate actors, Western Hemisphere allies, European allies, Middle East and Asian allies, and regional actors. The book’s 23 authors do an excellent job of neatly summarizing their countries’ motivations and performances into short, crisp chapters that allow the reader to effortlessly digest a variety of information without getting lost in the weeds. Throughout these essays, readers will learn that our allies’ motivations for sending troops and resources varied as widely as the languages they spoke. The United Kingdom, France, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and the Czech Republic sent troops in solidarity with the United States and to burgeon its credibility inside NATO. Other countries, like Canada, the Netherlands, and Japan, lent manpower and resources to rehabilitate their tarnished credibility after military and diplomatic missteps in the 1990s. Still others participated for purely domestic political reason. For example, El Salvador’s Leftist government sent troops to shore up its relationship with its military that sought to enhance its capabilities in Afghanistan. Of all the chapters, Timothy Hoyt’s section on Pakistan, "Pakistan: A Tale of Two Allies," is by far one of the best. The Naval War College professor succinctly untangles Pakistan’s strategy in Afghanistan. Hoyt convincingly argues that Pakistan has used a carefully calibrated strategy of exhaustion that methodically adjusted its support to insurgent groups to ensure that it never received the full ire of its American ally.  

These essays also deftly analyze our allies’ performances. Hubris, it turns out, is not only an American disease. The United Kingdom, Australia, and the Netherlands, according to their respective authors, all believed that their countries’ experience with counterinsurgency would boost their forces’ effectiveness, especially in comparison with their American allies. This, however, was not the case, as the level of issues these countries faced in Southern Afghanistan quickly surpassed their capacities. Domestic politics constrained other countries’ effectiveness. For example, Germany, which long led Regional Command-North in Mazari-Sharif and still leads Train, Advise, Assist Command–North (TAAC-N), was incapable of tamping down a burgeoning Pashtun insurgency in northern Kunduz because the Bundeswehr was heavily restricted in its rules of engagement after a deadly airstrike in 2009 killed 24 civilians in Kunduz. Nearly all of America’s allies struggled to develop a coherent strategy that everyone could implement. This resulted in a kaleidoscope array of approaches that focused on kinetics in some areas and stabilization in others. Further, like their American counterparts, all of our allies suffered the ill effects of short rotations (usually six months) that drained force effectiveness in a counterinsurgency fight where cultural acumen is almost as important as fighting prowess. 

Despite the book’s excellence, there were a few missteps. First, the omission of Turkey and Italy is puzzling. Turkey has played a critical role in Afghanistan, especially in TAAC-Capital (TAAC-C), formerly known as Regional Command Capital. In fact, a Turkish general currently leads these efforts. As one of the leading Muslim nations, a chapter analyzing its motivation for joining the alliance, especially in light of its current authoritarian bent, would have been valuable. Similarly, omitting Italy, which has long led efforts in western Afghanistan from its base in Herat, deprives readers of learning about one of the alliance’s longest-serving and most significant members, who continues to advise and assist Afghan forces and leads TAAC-West (TAAC-W). Furthermore, a more robust section on Afghanistan should have been added. Although the book devotes two chapters to the most vital coalition member, more content should have been devoted to exploring the problems outside Kabul. For example, a chapter analyzing the problems at the provincial level between provincial governors, who were appointed by the Afghan president, and the elected provincial councils, would have added more breadth. Last, the concluding chapter, “Going Forward: Lessons Learned,” is detached from the book. Although these lessons are worth highlighting and have merit, they were not underscored throughout the book by other authors, diminishing the last chapter’s effectiveness. 

Despite these minor problems, this collection of essays is excellent and seriously needed. It should be required reading for all service members who are slated to deploy to Afghanistan to reinforce our allies’ valuable and costly contributions made during the last 16 years. European policymakers would do well to remember this especially in light of some of the heated rhetoric over Europe’s inability to contribute to its own defense.  

Maj William Selber, USAF 

Osan Air Base

"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."