What is state failure? See my conceptualisation of state failure on the right flank below.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The G-chief and ODA-574: how it all began

I am reading this recently published book by Eric Blehm, about U.S. special forces' infiltration into Uruzgan in the company of Hamed Karzai, back in 2001. They went there to organise an uprising against the Taliban, with Karzai's local allies, in provincial capital Tarin Kowt.

"The Only Thing Worth Dying for:" the book has a good title, I think, but when I first heard about it I whined about its subtitle a little. I thought "How Eleven Green Berets Forged a New Afghanistan" was overstating what they did, even if those concerned are all fine people, given the abundant air support they had. I also thought this sort of subtitle may reflect a kind of hubris, along the "save Afghanistan" line of reasoning eloquently discussed by Christian Bleuer in the past. But I really wanted to read the book, in any case, since I paid attention to developments in Uruzgan province for a long time on this blog. And, as documented in the book, Uruzgan was indeed where Hamed Karzai's road to climbing to the top of Afghan politics began, working together with ODA-574 of the 5th Special Forces Group (apart from a previous round of contact-building by Karzai himself which almost ended badly). Now that I have started reading the book, my preliminary complaints are gone. See the reasons below, after the book cover which I am adding here.
There are three reasons:

1) The book is a well-written, focused but also sufficiently contextualised, account of a crucial chapter of Afghanistan's recent history. Stories of SF ops as such are usually sexy for a topic, whatever their historical significance or lack thereof. Even so, often authors try to make too much of them, overly trying to sell whatever they managed to lay their hands on. That is not the case with Eric Blehm who actually did have the chance to work on golden raw material, did a good job while at it, and does not so far - towards page 80 - seem to have been tempted to sensationalise his narrative. With his work, he also offers an important addition to assessing Karzai's character (often portrayed very simplistically nowadays, over nine years down the road; I just had this argument the other day with someone who called Karzai an "incompetent nit wit," for example).

2) The second argument ties back to the previous point. The topic is really a formative moment of Afghanistan's history. Diving into the largely unknown, the Green Berets and others involved in this operation did go out there to forge a new Afghanistan. Doing their no small part in shaping the bigger picture. Internalising their perspective doesn't do injustice in any sense, to anyone.

They were working on futures. Just like those, with very different motivations, who got the late Pashtun mujahid commander Abdul Haq killed in October 2001, tipping off the Taliban about his movements. Those people were also out there to forge an Afghanistan very different from the one we have today - and they might have had Karzai get the same fate that Abdul Haq did, had it not been for his U.S. special forces escort.

Moreover, ODA-574 (and the likes of them operating elsewhere, with other objectives) also forged an Afghanistan different from the one the U.S. Air Force would have been able to "shape" (into shapelessness) on its own, in the "target-scarce" environment of Taliban country. These arguments are all directly relevant to my initial ill feelings over the subtitle.

3) Finally, the book is important in a military-strategic sense, because of what should not be thought of as conceivable on the basis of it, and for reasons that should be clear from the book's narrative itself. Namely, that while some think special forces with "tribal" allies plus over-the-horizon assets could take care of the challenges an abandoned Afghanistan could represent for U.S. national security,* in fact this would not really work so easily, given how differently the Taliban of today would behave compared to the Taliban of 2001 - compared to the fighters eagerly rushing off to kill "G-chief" Karzai and his American-Afghan escort that was building up around him, back then.

Having listed these considerations, I can't resist taking a quote from the book out of context; discover the actual page number belonging to it yourself. "For the first time, (Captain) Amerine fully understood the magnitude of his mission: There was no master plan for Afghanistan." They were forging the future of "the south" themselves; thus they were indirectly also forging Afghanistan's future themselves.

* No strawman set up here. For example, M. Chris Mason advocated an SF/tribal ally combination most recently, with RC-S' area in mind.


Dean said...

thanks for this...I was suspicious of the subtitle as well. I'll give it a second look.

Anonymous said...

this was a great book detailing the inner-workings of and ODA team. I was a little surprised at the disfunction of the SF staff officers. I would imagine they wouldn't have the traditional issues that regular army units have, but after reading the book, it appears they do. Great book about some heroic Americans.