When the War Came
Reexamining a Classic Account of the Afghan Wars
By Benjamin Van Horrick
What can a small place tell us about a big war? Carter Malkasian’s 2013 work War Comes to Garmser dissects a single district in southern Afghanistan, offering readers a penetrating account of the war Afghans fought and how America affected that war on the margins. Malkasian foretells the difficulties both nations would experience when America withdrew its support. The 2021 rapid collapse of the Afghan government and return of the Taliban regime requires a reappraisal of Malkasian’s work. Released following the withdrawal of surge forces from Afghanistan, War Comes to Garmser provided a cogent analysis of an Afghan district, how Afghans made decisions under the near-constant threat of violence, and how the United States could have better affected outcomes in Afghanistan. All politics remained local in Garmser. decisions based on historical relationships, the redressing of grievances, and self-interest. The study of a small place offers theorists and practitioners of conflict valuable insights.
Malkasian released War Comes to Garmser following his two-year deployment in Garmser. The level of detail and research Malkasian provides about an Afghan district is unsurpassed. Rather than launching the district’s story following the American invasion in 2001, Malkasian offers the reader the required historical context of the district and why the conflict has persisted for so long. In 1946, for example, the Afghan government directed an ambitious damming project that altered the fortunes of Garmser. The decades-long project brought Garmser irrigation canals, fertile soil, and later, immigrants searching for prosperity.
In 1979, the Soviet invasion halted the district’s upward trajectory. In response, tribes, religious leaders, and immigrants put aside their differences and united against the common Soviet enemy. Following the Soviet withdrawal, however, cohesion within Garmser collapsed, thrusting the district into unrest. When the Taliban came to power in Garmser in 1995, they exploited the grievances of disaffected immigrants and elevated the status of religious leaders, providing a measure of stability for Garmser. The U.S. invasion in 2001 dispatched the Taliban, but internal infighting subsumed Garmser again, opening the door for the reemergence of the Taliban in 2006.
Malkasian supplies meticulous detail of Garmser from 1979 to 2006, setting the stage for later chapters and adding needed depth to the reader’s understanding of the competing tribes and interests. The narrative casts Afghan leaders—tribal, religious and Taliban—into the central role, showing how they attempted to advance the district. Grasping the complexity of the district’s layered history and the war the Afghans fought would prove daunting for any outsider. Nevertheless, historian and diplomat Malkasian skillfully navigates the maze of challenges, factions, and allegiances in the district.
Arriving to the Garmser District in September 2009, Malkasian became the State Department’s representative to the district. He remained there for two years, but Malkasian’s tenure coincided with the military and civilian surge into Afghanistan to implement a population-centric counterinsurgency. Few, if any, of the tens of thousands of soldiers that comprised the surge matched Malkasian’s contributions. Two years in Garmser allowed Malkasian to teach himself Pashto through a daily study regimen. The mastery of language allowed Malkasian to conduct extensive interviews with local power brokers on both sides of the conflict, providing his narrative with added depth and needed context. Locals conferred the Urdu salutation Carter Sahib, a sign of endearment and respect. As then Maj. Gen. Lawrence Nicholson stated, “we need a Carter Malkasian in every district of Afghanistan.” Malkasian’s contributions did not end when he left Garmser. He later served as an advisor to then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford and part of the American delegation in Doha responsible for negotiating the Afghan peace agreement.
Many perceive Afghanistan as existing in a constant state of conflict. This is a misconception that Malkasian debunks. Garmser was not intractable. The example of Garmser challenges the often-repeated false assertion that Afghanistan was ungovernable and unstable. Another falsehood that colors America’s perception of its war in Afghanistan was the belief that Afghans were unwilling and uninterested in defending their country. Since 1979, Garmser showed a willingness of Afghans to protect their district. However, lingering infighting and external actors have sought to undermine Garmser’s stability.
War Comes to Garmser invites military officers to examine what decisions could have led to a better outcome for the district and Afghanistan. Malkasian proves Afghans within Garmser were not “recalcitrant and unwilling” to defend their district. Local leaders showed remarkable resolve, and some continued to work after being wounded or enduring repeated threats against their families.
Malkasian’s writing does not merely offer lessons on development and counterinsurgency but also on leadership. In January 2011, a Special Forces team conducted a raid within Garmser without the knowledge or consent of the Marines in the district. The raid drew the ire of residents, who grew tired of raids in the district. The situation in Garmser soon began boiling. In the days following the raid, residents approached a Marine company commander, reporting that a Koran was stabbed during the raid—a spurious story spread by the Taliban. News of the desecrated Koran spread through the district, prompting riots. Marine leadership and Malkasian rushed to quell the riots, which threatened the hard-fought gains within Garmser. Due mainly to Malkasian’s efforts, Garmser stabilized within days, preventing further bloodshed.
Although Marine leadership commended Malkasian for his work in the wake of the riots, he took a different tack in his book. He writes, “the riots should not have been a surprise. The signs were there in the anger of religious leaders, the disaffection of the landless immigrants, and the neutrality of the tribal leaders and village elders.”. Even with factors outside of his control, Malkasian responded by risking his safety and the relationships he forged within Garmser. However, reflecting on the situation, Malkasian laments underestimating the speed with which the situation spiraled.
Many works in the swelling Global War on Terror canon leave little room for civilian engagement concerning the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And many accounts, memoirs, and movies about the Global War on Terror highlight exceptional leaders and detail heroic acts. But the media entertains, rather than invites, discussion with fellow citizens about war—a public act. Malkasian’s work serves as an entry point for civilians concerned with global and domestic instability. The case study of Garmser includes a thoughtful discussion of migration patterns, economic marginalization, radicalization, and social mobility. All these challenges occurred while violence persisted. Malkasian’s account of Garmser and its dimensions stimulates those who serve, in and out of uniform, to consider its lessons when preventing violence and undue suffering.
The overriding emotion Malkasian conveys in his writing is an enduring admiration for the Garmser residents. Afghan citizens are the main charterers, not bit players. The residents of Garmser did not thrive but endured for decades under the communists, the Taliban, the Afghan government, and the resurgent Taliban. Malkasian’s knowledge of Pashto and commitment to Garmser’s future endeared him to its residents. Armed with the knowledge of their native language and a genuine concern for their well-being, Malkasian recorded insights of leading figures in Garmser, revealing their lives while working on behalf of their district. Coupled with historical context, Malkasian transforms the Garmser principals into dynamic, heroic characters, chronicling their experiences as they navigated tribal dynamics, the Soviets, and the Taliban. Malkasian’s words do not invoke the reader’s sympathy but inspire admiration of the Afghan people.
The study of Garmser has grown in importance following the U.S. withdrawal. Malkasian’s work now serves as a lens to view the impossible calculus each Afghan citizen, village, district, and province undertook when America announced its withdrawal in 2021. The supposed final act of the withdrawal was the chaotic airlift from Kabul. That story continues playing out in districts such as Garmser as allegiances and fortunes shifted, often indistinguishably from outsiders. The United States provided a measure of stability for two decades, but risks accumulated, metastasized, and then actuated. For many Afghans, war came and never left. All politics remained local for Afghans, with debts collected, scores settled, and disputes resolved, often in brutal fashion. The United States extracted itself from the war at its chosen time—a luxury not afforded to Afghans.
A character in Phil Klay’s recent Missionaries states, “We affect things on the margins …But hey, these are lives in those margins.” War Comes to Garmser is a story of playing in those margins. Malkasian, his Afghan partners, and coalition forces came together for a brief period, sharing collective risk as the effects of their decisions played out in near real-time. When coalition forces left, Afghans returned to administering, negotiating, and fighting for their district. The book, in retrospect, offered a prescient warning about the risks associated with extricating American forces from Afghanistan and the costs Afghans would bear. A close reading of Malkasian’s work can guide future action when war comes again.
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