Afghanistan: The Perfect Failure by John L. Cook. Xlibris Corporation (http://www.xlibris.com), 1663 Liberty Drive, Suite 200, Bloomington, Indiana 47403, 2012, 223 pages, $19.99 (softcover), ISBN 978-1479720705.
John Cook, a retired Army lieutenant colonel, chose his book’s oxymoronic subtitle for good reason: it foreshadows the many ironies that he illustrates in his exposé of the Afghanistan war. Cook pours his depth of knowledge of Afghanistan into this enlightening work, which occupies a place somewhere between memoir and manifesto. In fact, his understanding gleaned from spending four years in Kabul (2008 to 2012) would rival any Westerner’s firsthand knowledge of this landlocked Central Asian country. Cook writes entertainingly in an illuminating and engaging style, occasionally making pop-culture references (e.g., to Dances with Wolves or the Sopranos) to illustrate a metaphor when needed. Never dull or pedantic, he is enjoyable and informative. A cursory glance at the title and introduction would lead some readers to consider him a pessimist writing for therapy. In truth, he writes objectively as he defends his claims.
Cook comes out punching in the first round, presenting his thesis in the foreword; specifically, he declares that the coalition’s efforts to win the Afghan war are failing miserably. The main points that support the thesis include the unchecked poppy harvesting and opium production in Afghanistan, the corruption of Hamid Karzai’s regime, the lack of a coalition strategy to “win,” the lack of Afghan nationalism, and the unyielding grip of Islam on the Afghans’ lives.
The author sprinkles the ironies found in Afghanistan throughout the book. For example, Afghan interpreters typically represent the most educated individuals in the country, yet, as an incentive to serve the coalition, they are offered a special visa program to emigrate from Afghanistan to the United States. Clearly, they are precisely the people who should stay in the country to rebuild and lead it. Cook also calls out bureaucratic blunders when he sees them. In Afghanistan “it’s very likely that a fire truck, costing $500,000, will be dispatched twenty miles, over very rough terrain, to put out a fire in a $50 building. If this sounds bizarre, remember this is Afghanistan and this is how things are done” (p. 73). Numerous ironies such as these appear throughout the book.
In the closing pages, Cook presents institutional groupthink and the Abilene Paradox (a collective decision to act in a way that opposes the interests of the individuals who made the decision) as possible factors that contribute to the coalition’s strategic missteps in Afghanistan. He then makes a final plea to national decision makers to (1) destroy the poppies, (2) have Karzai enact a national draft, (3) get more serious with Pakistan, and (4) loosen up the rules of engagement that are causing American and coalition deaths.
The book’s individual chapters, whether about Afghan women, poppies, or the Taliban, can stand on their own as informative essays. Naturally, they do build upon each another as Cook acquaints readers with personalities like Karzai and Mullah Mohammed Omar as well as Afghan legends such as Ahmad Shah Massoud. He introduces complex topics (e.g., the structure of the Afghan National Police) in a palatable way that actually makes sense. The author has the ability to connect with readers on any level—those new to Afghanistan or those with multiple combat tours during Operation Enduring Freedom.
The fact that the book does not qualify as a scholarly work (it has no bibliography, endnotes, or appendices) does not detract from its credibility. In fact, I find the lack of documentation refreshing because it helps the book read like a fast-paced novel. Additionally, I genuinely appreciate its timeliness. Having gone to press just before the 2012 US presidential election, it refers to events that happened well into that year. Although readers will value this work in years to come as a historical commentary, I imagine that Cook rushed it into print for one simple reason: this story needs to be heard by the American people and our nation’s political and military decision makers now. Consequently, I recommend Afghanistan: The Perfect Failure to anyone in the US military—especially its leaders. Hopefully, some individuals with the power to enact some of its recommendations will do so before the Afghan war is in the history books. If not, I’m sure Cook will not be offended because, after all, this is Afghanistan we are talking about, and one more irony wouldn’t change a thing.
Capt Robert M. Whitney, USAF
Creech AFB, Nevada
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"The views expressed in this book review are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."