Small Wars Journal

Book Review: The Ledger: Accounting for Failure in Afghanistan 

Thu, 02/24/2022 - 4:14pm

The Ledger: Accounting for Failure in Afghanistan by David Kilcullen and Greg Mills     

352pp. plus foreword by Rory Stewart  

Published 2021 by Hurst


Review by Andrew Gibbons



This book, written after the American exit from Afghanistan in August 2021, recounts the US-led campaign in that country from the year 2001 and explains not just why it failed, but why it could not possibly have succeeded.


The authors have extensive experience of ISAF’s campaign and other conflicts.  David Kilcullen is a well-known writer on counterinsurgency topics and was an adviser to US Gen David Petraeus in Afghanistan.


The book was notionally written in the months between the fall of the Afghan government in mid-August 2021 and publication in December of that year, but its creation must have been in the minds and notebooks of the authors for years if not decades.  Their first-hand knowledge of the war and the country make them uniquely able to chronicle the multiple missteps of those two decades.


Opening with a discussion of parallels with the Vietnam conflict, the narrative then shifts to an excoriating attack on the Biden administration’s botched termination of the Afghan campaign.


There is comprehensive criticism of all aspects of the campaign.  Well written and full of quotable gems, the book combines immediacy and analytical depth in military, institutional and geopolitical issues, and spells out many lessons to be learned.  It explains the evolution of involvement, from the initial aim of destroying Al Qaeda and excluding the Taliban, and the dawning recognition that this required a broader-than-military effort to create internal stability in Afghanistan.  But “The absence of a strategy, and the failure to develop a cogent linkage between military outcomes and a political solution internally and regionally...” created problems which were ultimately insurmountable.


The single most important need for any international mission, say the authors, is to have a long-term political strategy.  The war in Afghanistan was striking “in its absence of strategic, as opposed to operational, art”.  Failure was down to “a weakness in leadership and political direction of epic proportions among the people who were responsible for making the decisions”.  “The West started a war in Afghanistan which it did not know how to define and implement and, consequently, which it had no clear idea how to finish.”


The Taliban were a key part of Afghan society, and the cardinal mistake was to exclude them from deliberations about the future of the country in 2001 when their regime was toppled after having repelled the Soviet invasion.  They were misunderstood as “exporters of extremism” whereas in fact they had a domestic nationalist and traditionalist agenda and would have been vital actors in a reconciliation process.  By unnecessarily casting them as the enemy, that is what they became.  The authors call this “the mother of all errors”.


As well as the absence of a strategy, a further contributory factor to the defeat was “the failure to develop a cogent linkage between military outcomes and a political solution internally and regionally”.  There was no linkage between defeating the insurgency and providing development and better governance, and thus no route for how this could “ensure sufficiently enduring stability to allow the military to leave”.


It should be apparent that anyone who felt uneasy about the rationale and conduct of the war in Afghanistan will find this book crammed full of vindication for their doubts.


A ledger typically has debit and credit entries, so the book’s title might be thought to presage a balancing of positive and negative judgements.  In fact, the tally is almost entirely unfavourable to the elements which opposed the Taliban.  Almost no-one emerges with any credit from this painful analysis apart from brief praise for the impressive personal qualities of military staff.  The authors say that no-one could fail to be struck by “the extraordinary commitment and competence of [ISAF] military commanders... but the missions these mostly very capable, brave and selfless men and women were sent on, within the resource and timeframe parameters they were given, were often unachievable”.


Several useful checklists are provided.  These include the main sources of failure, and five common lessons about countering insurgency which can be drawn from the Soviet and ISAF experiences.  There were four specific failures:  politics (especially finding a political solution to the insurgency), policy towards Pakistan, corruption, and failed development initiatives, and then eleven things that could have been done differently.


There are bound to be contradictions in an encyclopedic work of this nature.  At one point the authors claim that “the task in Afghanistan was absolutely achievable, the war eminently winnable”, whereas almost the entire book is devoted to a detailed analysis of how and why “we failed to achieve the mission, screwed up the effort from start to finish, and we have now been defeated”. 


This was partly because “It [...] proved extremely difficult to implement much of the elegant, but often impractical, theorising of COIN specialists (including ourselves) on the ground, under conditions of constant chaos, tight resource constraints and truncated timelines”.  And “...we were neither properly organised, nor adequately equipped, nor suitably trained, nor sufficiently numerous, nor knowledgeable enough about Afghan society to pull it off”.


The rout of 2021 is dissected in detail, including why the Afghan military collapsed:  they were unable to sustain losses after the withdrawal of ISAF combat forces in 2015, and were left without air cover and logistical support after the US withdrawal in May 2021.  Unsurprisingly, the Afghan civil government collapsed as military control of provinces was progressively lost.


The book sits within the context of newly assertive Russia and China, both of which want a new world order based on spheres of influence, non-western values and a consequent end to America’s global primacy.  The authors accept that the chaotic US departure from Afghanistan may hasten the creation of that new order, as well as encouraging further insurgencies particularly in Africa.


The authors quote the late Colin Powell’s comment that had Presidents Kennedy or Johnson been able to spend a weekend reading Bernard Fall’s perceptive book Street Without Joy on the French experience in Indochina, they would have “immediately started to figure out a way to extricate ourselves from the quicksand of Vietnam”.  The Ledger is just the book to forewarn another leader, albeit sadly too late, for the mission in Afghanistan.

About the Author(s)

Andrew Gibbons was previously an economist with the UK Ministry of Defence.



Thu, 01/19/2023 - 4:37am

This book gives a comprehensive and insightful look at the failure of accounting in Afghanistan. It covers a wide range of topics, from international aid and corruption to the lack of economic development in the country. It is an important read for anyone interested in understanding the complexities of Afghanistan's struggles.

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Wed, 07/20/2022 - 8:49am

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