Honest, visceral and immediate; The Ledger is an important book about the West’s 20-year campaign in Afghanistan and one which deserves to be read and studied by all in the Australian Defence Community.
Written by David Kilcullen and Greg Mills, two true experts on both the military and political aspects of the war in Afghanistan, The Ledger doesn’t pull any punches. It is not a book that seeks to justify our actions over the 20 years of the Afghanistan campaign. It provides scant praise for the ‘good intentions’ of the West or even for our many tactical successes. Rather this book looks at the big picture and the reasons for the West’s failure in Afghanistan in what the authors term the ‘…most egregiously incompetent self – inflicted debacles in modern military history.’
Comments such as these will likely sting to the many veterans who have been intimately involved in Afghanistan over the past two decades. But the authors are very clear that the failures in Afghanistan were primarily political, partially on the Afghan side, but critically on the coalition and in particular the West’s failure to have an overarching campaign plan. While noting the spectacular successes of a ‘light touch’ military campaign to eject the Taliban from Afghanistan in 2001, the authors claim that we squandered our best hope for long-term peace by failing to engage with the Taliban when we were at our absolute strongest. From that ‘original sin’ the Taliban were able to merely wait for the time when we would inevitably depart Afghanistan, as we frequently and emphatically said that we would.
A large part of the book looks at the failure of politics, both Afghan and international, the corrosive nature of corruption and the failure to create an environment in which a local economy could thrive. The role of regional players, in particular Pakistan, is examined and criticism is levelled at the highest levels of the Afghan political class – with special criticism directed to President Ghani and his decision to cut and run when the going got tough. As soon as he did that, the game was up and there was no longer any point for the Afghan Army to continue the fight.
Insufficient local ownership is a reoccurring theme in this book, as is the failure to meet the actual needs of Afghans rather than the pet projects or political hobby horses favoured by the international community. The authors are also particularly scathing about the international aid effort in which they say unprecedented amounts of money was apparently squandered, much of it coming back to the aid community itself as salaries or consultancy fees.
While the majority of the book focusses on politics and economics, the analysis of why the Afghan military collapsed so rapidly and so spectacularly in 2021 will be of particular interest to the Australian Army. In the authors’ view, the collapse was largely inevitable since the West had built an Afghan army ‘in our own image’ rather than a locally appropriate force. While the Afghan army looked large on paper and possessed a range of modern weaponry – including air assets – they were simply not appropriate or sustainable, and this became clear the minute that Western maintenance and support was withdrawn.
The role of special forces also gets a particular mention in the book and an argument is made that the overemphasis on developing and using special forces would in the end become counterproductive. The authors describe what they call the ‘selection destruction cycle’ where the best and most talented soldiers are siphoned from regular units into selection for special forces units. This had the effect of robbing regular forces of talented and committed soldiers and leaders, which in turn reduced their effectiveness and willingness to fight. As the regular units become less effective, the government often turned to special forces units in times of crisis and they would be regularly pitched into the most difficult of circumstances, acting as ‘fire brigades’, and fighting in conventional roles. While often tactically successful, the special forces often paid the price in terms of high numbers of casualties resulting in a waste of highly trained, specialised, and expensive soldiers.
The Ledger will not be the last word on Afghanistan. As the dust settles and time allows for mature reflection, there will undoubtably be better written, more polished and more reasoned accounts of the campaign and the reasons why we lost. But for raw honesty, immediacy, and piercingly insightful analysis untrammelled by any considerations of political correctness, The Ledger will likely stand the test of time. It is certainly worth reading now. The hope is that it will be re-read again, by both the military and politicians, before we embark on any future attempts at nation building in foreign countries.