• Book Review of The Valley’s Edge: A Year with the Pashtuns in the Heartland of the Taliban

    December 13, 2011

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Afghanistan, Embassy/State, Military



    Dan Green’s new book, The Valley’s Edgetells two stories: his time as a State Department political reporter assigned to a rural Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Afghanistan, and his later stint at the American Embassy in Kabul. The two tales– and the contrast between his early sense of accomplishment in the field and his later disgust at the bureaucracy in the Embassy– serve as bookends not only to his volume, but also to the seemingly endless war itself.

    Green spends about two thirds of his book on his work at the PRT, deep in Pashtun territory, nestled among the Taliban, 2005-2006. Violence is at angry but workable levels, allowing Green and his military team to develop projects and report on the messy, corrupt and complex local politics in his province. The stories give the reader a detailed look at the day-to-day work of counterinsurgency, literally, from the ground. A lot of work is done on the fly, in the spirit of positive improvisation, as the men and women try to find ways to affect change and build stability among the Afghans. While in hindsight the team accomplished relatively little of any lasting strategic value (no one else did either), the tone is positive and upbeat, more of a sense of trying alternatives than beating one’s head against a mud brick wall.

    The final portion of the book covers Green’s time in the real belly of the beast, the massive American Embassy in Kabul, 2009-2011. Here the whole tone of the book changes. Gone is the easy camaraderie of the PRT, the expeditionary spirit that might have a chance at yielding results, the inter-agency cooperation essential to a counterinsurgency fight. Replacing these things, Green finds, is a bloated State Department bureaucracy, much more concerned with creating memorandums of understanding and carving out bureaucratic territory than seeking any real solutions. Green departs Afghanistan somewhat bitter, and his writing successfully allows this to work its way through his otherwise objective prose.

    As many know, I wrote my own book on PRT work, albeit in Iraq, so some comparisons are in order. Between the two countries, at least during the time Green and I overlapped without knowing each other, Iraq’s reconstruction was run entirely by State, or at least State liked to believe that to be true. Though the military outspent us 10:1 on projects, the whole affair had a stuffy, State feel to it with no memory of anything better having preceded it. Neither reconstruction effort accomplished much, with the work in Iraq shut down arbitrarily as the US planned to withdraw while the PRTs in Afghanistan continue to plod ahead. My experience, as well as my book, was more personal, with my emotions well on display, and humor used in place of what some call a lack of historical detail. Green set out to write a proper history, and fills his volume with names, dates and places. His work is thus more valuable to a serious reader or a historian, perhaps at times at the expense of some readability.

    The sad, almost amazing thing is that despite the radical difference in approaches and writing styles, Green and I come to roughly the same conclusion: it didn’t work. Weighed down by bureaucracy, limited thinking, sloppy staffing and inter-agency fussing, neither Iraq nor Afghanistan are safe, stable places despite our spending $63 billion and $70 billion on PRT efforts, respectively. Lives were lost, decent Americans trying to do well, and many chances to do better were thrown away. Green’s book leaves you wondering what the final story of Afghanistan will look like when some future historian (or PRT officer) writes it, but it does not look good.

    As America continues its nation-building, counter-terror wars around the world, it is imperative that we all learn more about how they are waged on the “hearts and minds” civilian side. Dan Green’s The Valley’s Edgewill contribute well to your continuing education.



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