Book Review: Boots on the Ground: The Fight to Liberate Afghanistan from Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, 2001-2002 by Dick Camp

The book doesn’t quite live up to its subtitle. The first third of the book is a history of Afghanistan from 1979-2001. The history here is fine, but it is essentially just a compilation from a number of other, better secondary sources (e.g., Steve Coll’s GHOST WARS). Like all too many on the works on the US operations in Afghanistan, Camp is happy to stop his narrative with Operation ANACONDA in March 2002. This means the book really only covers from September 2001-March 2002 in detail. I was hoping for much more. It has been a decade, as of this writing, and I hope that future authors begin to expand their coverage of US operations in Afghanistan beyond early 2002. This is well-trod ground at this point, and we are all ready to advance the narrative beyond the first six months of the conflict.

The book is a work of popular, rather than academic, history, which may make it more accessible for readers, but that does mean that it relies on almost no primary sources, and there are no citations. There are a number of maps included, some very useful, some less so, as well as a host of call-out boxes and sidebars. I tended to find these call-out boxes more distracting than useful; this information could have been either integrated into the main body of the text or covered in substantive footnotes, had the author cared to use them.

I will say that the book is generally engagingly written, though the lengthy and frequent quotations cribbed from other secondary sources and call-out boxes do tend to break up the text a good bit. Some of the included maps are useful, though I must quibble with some of the cartography, which seems to obfuscate as much as it clarifies.

I can only recommend this to those who are interested in a reading a single volume of popular history on the first six months of the conflict, with no deeper or broader interests. The level of detail is probably more than those readers would prefer, while being entirely insufficient for those readers who want more detail and broader contextualization. There is no deep analysis here, and no real sense of debates or controversies. Camp is happy to report what his secondary sources have to say about operations in Afghanistan without seriously evaluating them. I must also criticize an author who is only willing to cover the first six months of the war in a book published in 2012. If the first 90 pages on Soviet involvement in Afghanistan had been cut, surely camp could have used that space to advance his narrative through at least 204 or so. Ideally, we’d have a good, single-volume history of the US war in Afghanistan through 2008 or so, but that’s not BOOTS ON THE GROUND. A bit disappointing.

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Review copyright 2012 J. Andrew Byers

Book review: Interrogation of Morals by Jason Meszaros

This is the war memoir of a captain in the Army Reserves recalled to active duty in 2004. He served for eight months in Afghanistan in 2004 as part of an interagency task force interrogating captured members of al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

I would have liked to have had the author’s task force’s mission spelled out more clearly, along with his exact duties, and a discussion of what a typical day/week was for him. As is, the reader is left to puzzle much of this out, as it is never explicitly spelled out in one place at a sufficient level of detail. Much of the book is written as a series of anecdotes. Additional connective tissue would have helped. As far as I can tell, the task force had an unusual intelligence/legal function: it interrogated and exploited Taliban and Al Qaeda detainees, but with more of an eye toward building later legal cases against the men. The author had some training as an interrogator (as well as psychological operations), and participated in many detainee interrogations. He also accompanied a number of special operations and other units in the field to collect additional materials that could be exploited later, either in support of criminal cases to be brought against the detainees or to aid in follow-on operations.

The author’s voice is very informal, which makes the book a very easy read, but it may not be to every reader’s taste. Additionally, it’s an intensely personalized account dealing only with what the author experienced and the people with whom he interacted. His personal convictions, beliefs, and opinions (along with his biases; e.g., the word “media” is seldom used without having the adjective “liberal” appended to it and he explicitly states that he is a conservative Republican) are clearly stated, which I appreciated. A lengthy afterword includes his ruminations on US domestic politics, as Meszaros became increasingly interested in politics on his return. I think the stronger parts of the book are those where the author does not draw a political connection, simply recounting his experiences, but I don’t mind when an author wears his sympathies on his sleeve. It is far worse, I think, when an author creates a façade of objectivity while actually pursuing a particular political agenda (of any stripe).

The book is pretty engagingly written, and even contains some downright funny anecdotes. Some are relatively lengthy descriptions of a particular mission (such as a raid on a high-value target’s compound); it is these that are most interesting because they show much of the tactical processes involved in capturing an important suspect and dealing with the aftermath of the mission.

I should note that the book was apparently self-published via Lulu (a print-on-demand venue for self-publishers and small presses who choose not to use traditional printers). I normally don’t pick up self-published works, but this one was a gift. Physical quality of the book (a hardcover) was good; I am impressed with Lulu’s work. The text itself is better than might be expected of many self-published works. A professional editor could have improved the flow of the text, but it was well copy-edited.

I give this one 3 stars out of 5. I recommend it to those particularly interested in the topic, and probably to those who have served in some capacity in Afghanistan themselves. As long as you’re comfortable with the idea that you really are reading one man’s story (and that of a relatively junior officer), and understand his goals for the work going into the experience, you may find the book interesting. It provides yet another piece of the puzzle in how counter-terrorist operations have been conducted in Afghanistan.

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Review copyright 2011 J. Andrew Byers

Book review: Inside CentCom: The Unvarnished Truth About the Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq by Michael DeLong

This is the memoir of retired Marine Lieutenant General Michael DeLong, who served as Tommy Franks’ deputy at CENTCOM from 2000-03, the period covering the attack against the USS COLE, 9-11, and the invasions of Afganistan and Iraq.

I think it’s important to note that the book was published in 2004, soon after DeLong’s retirement, and it’s extremely short: the book is 140 pages long, and is padded out with 70 pages of appendices of other documents not penned by DeLong that don’t add much (the national security strategy of the United States from 2002, some maps, etc.) Honestly, the book needed another level of detail added to it (and probably another 100 pages) for it to be truly worthwhile.

DeLong is at times very candid, noting when he disagreed with someone or didn’t get along with them, as well as when he disagreed with a particular policy. For instance, he is brutally honest that enlisting the aid of Iraqi expatriates was not helpful, and that Chalabi was not an honest broker or looking out for the United States’ best interests. At other times, he is reticent to criticize others’ or his own mistakes, or policies and processes that clearly didn’t work. As one example, I would cite his lack of criticism for the heavy involvement of lawyers in determining the rules of engagement (he specifically mentioned an occasion when Tenet called Franks and wanted to strike a particular SUV convoy because Mullah Omar was likely inside; they couldn’t be certain, so the lawyers nixed the strike) and his noting on several occasions that the Joint Chiefs of Staff were very critical of Franks’ plans for Afghanistan and Iraq. Franks told them to go fly a kite both times. It doesn’t matter who was right or wrong in these instances, I note this only to point out a potentially serious problem in how authority is divided between the JCS and combatant commanders. Some Pentagon watchers have called for a new set of Goldwater-Nichols-style legislation to revisit the issue, since the status quo appears in need of revisiting. Should the role of the JCS be strengthened? Weakened still further or eliminated altogether? I’m not sure myself, but DeLong never takes his discussion a step further to weigh in on this or many other issues. DeLong notes that he greatly preferred Bremer over Garner. Why? DeLong really doesn’t say, other than that Garner wasn’t enough of a diplomat. The book is long on brief anecdotes and short on detailed descriptions and analysis. His details, when they are provided at all, are often incorrect or so general in nature that they don’t provide much value added. I’ve recently been reading a good bit about Operation ANACONDA and the battle at Roberts Ridge in particular, and I can explicitly state that DeLong’s discussion there is riddled with inaccuracies. This is definitely not the book to go to for a detailed military history of Afghanistan or Iraq.

I give this one 2.5 stars out of 5. All in all, this is a book of some interest for those interested in the recent history of CENTCOM, but sadly, as with Franks’ American Soldier, the definitive history of CENTCOM’s planning and operations during this period still has not been published. If the topic is of great interest, I suggest reading this one, but otherwise, there are more engaging and detailed histories available.

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Review copyright 2011 J. Andrew Byers

Book review: Roberts Ridge: A Story of Courage and Sacrifice on Takur Ghar Mountain, Afghanistan by Malcolm MacPherson

This is an account of the events that took place on “Roberts Ridge” as part of Operation ANACONDA in Afghanistan in March 2002. An extremely brief summary follows:

The battle began with a failed attempt to land a small SEAL team on a mountaintop, who would then call in fires on Al Qaeda elements in the valley below as a supporting part of the broader campaign. Due to some initially minor mishaps, the SEALs had to be inserted directly onto the mountaintop via helicopter as dawn was breaking. Unfortunately, the landing zone had not been properly surveilled and a dozen or two Chechens had a small bunker complex right there. The helicopter was ambushed as it was landing, one SEAL fell off the back ramp and was left behind, while the shot-up helicopter limped away. The remnants of the SEAL team went back to rescue the fallen SEAL and were promptly trapped there as well. The SEALs took heavy casualties and the survivors started limping down the mountainside. A Ranger quick reaction force was sent to the same landing zone with virtually no information, and became pinned there with heavy casualties. Eventually more Rangers were sent to relieve the first batch and helped fight off a brief counterattack, but then none of them could be extracted until nightfall. It was a horrendously bad operation from start to finish.

It would probably be both unproductive and inappropriate to “Monday Morning Quarterback” the decisions made throughout the operation, so I won’t do that here, but I will say that the operation can provide insights into some of the problems experienced in modern combat. For example:

* The relentlessly “can-do” attitude adopted by most US soldiers and officers can have disastrous consequences — commanders must afford subordinates the ability to say “sorry, sir, it can’t be done given my resources and constraints;”
* Overly complicated command, control, and communications arrangements can also cause serious problems;
* Murphy’s Law (call it Clausewitzian “friction” at the tactical level if you must) is alive and well, and still fully capable of wreaking havoc on the advanced technologies used by US troops;
* The effects of this friction can be at least partially mitigated by proper intelligence preparation of the battlespace (which did not occur in this instance);
* Technology is wonderful when it works, and disastrous when it doesn’t (but then again, any computer user has already learned that lesson many times over).

So are these problems unavoidable? Are they simply an inevitable consequence of the “American way of war” (if such a thing exists)? I’m not sure, and Roberts Ridge provides no real set of lessons learned, just a cautionary tale of what happens when things go very badly. It is also a tale of unimaginable bravery on the part of most of the US combatants, and, I think, a tale of moral cowardice by some of their military commanders, who failed the men on that mountaintop very badly.

So: it’s a good book. It’s not without its flaws though. I would have liked to have a better sense of the operational context for the events described in Roberts Ridge. Here I am thinking something along the lines of how Mark Bowden began Black Hawk Down: a brief description of the overall campaign, followed by a narrative that provides an overview of Operation ANACONDA. Readers will have to find that elsewhere, as the book plunges into the action as the first helicopter loaded with SEALs is about to take off. While that immediate jump into the action provides an engaging way to start the book, as the various rescue operations unfold, it rapidly becomes clear that the reader needs a better sense of what else was going on simultaneously and why the resources that were allocated to rescue and relief operations were so constrained. Without this information, the reader can only ask why were the combatants so ill-prepared, and why were they allowed to suffer for so long before there were exfiltrated. Better maps would also have helped, as would a list of the individuals and callsigns involved in the operation. The author has provided a brief annotated bibliography that is useful.

The official DoD “executive summary” account of the battle is reprinted as an appendix in the book, but is also available online.

I give his one 3.5 stars out of 5. The book was a quick-read, no real analysis, just a factual account of a small operation that went very, very badly, interspersed with characterizations and backgrounds of many of the key players. Recommended if you are interested in accounts of recent combat operations in Afghanistan.

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Review copyright 2011 J. Andrew Byers

Book review: Jawbreaker: The Attack on Bin Laden and Al Qaeda: A Personal Account by the CIA’s Key Field Commander by Gary Berntsen

This first person narrative by the CIA officer who led the CIA’s efforts in Afghanistan in November and December 2001 is an engaging read that chronicles the mission to assist in the overthrow of the Taliban, the creation of a new Afghani government, and the hunt for Bin Laden and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan.

The book has been heavily redacted by CIA censors, and the author and publisher printed the book with black lines indicating redaction. While making some of the book’s passages more difficult to read, I appreciated this (and wish more publishers of CIA memoirs would take this approach), as it helped me fill in some of the gaps with knowledge based on other sources. Most of the redaction involves exact resources provided to various warlords; some discussion of overall campaign planning; the details of some operations of secondary importance; the involvement of various allied countries’ intelligence services and special operations units; and, oddly, the introduction of CIA and special forces teams hunting Al Qaeda weapons of mass destruction. These teams’ presence is confirmed by multiple other unclassified sources, so the omission is somewhat silly. Berntsen had to sue the CIA twice to get his book released at all, but the effort was well worth it.

Berntsen resigned from CIA soon after he returned from this assignment, and while he never states this directly in the text, it is clear that Berntsen’s aggressive and single-minded approach in Afghanistan displeased some of the more politically-minded CIA leaders back in Washington (Tenet and Pavitt most particularly), and it is no surprise to me that he left the Agency. Berntsen was tasked with operating semi-autonomously and aggressively, and he took a number of risks that paid off. I have worked with men like Berntsen, and while the experience may not always be pleasant, it is clear to me that Berntsen was the right man for the job. His approach also highlights the need for extremely close, fluid operations between CIA paramilitary units and special operations forces. This cooperation worked extremely well under Berntsen’s leadership.

Berntsen’s account is generally positive toward those with whom he worked, and US efforts in Afghanistan, with one major exception: Berntsen’s narrative, if credible, is damning of CENTCOM (and Tommy Franks in particular) with regard to decisions made in the wake of Tora Bora. There, according to Berntsen, Bin Laden was allowed to slip away and retreat into Pakistan. Berntsen’s deputy heading the effort at Tora Bora wanted CENTCOM to immediately deploy a Ranger unit into the mountains to cut ff the retreat.

Now, the reader should understand that a rapid deployment of 800 Rangers into the mountains surrounding Tora Bora is no small matter logistically, and I understand why Franks would have been reluctant to make such a major revision to his campaign plan based on the uncorroborated reports that Berntsen’s team (JULIET FORWARD) provided stating that Bin Laden, Zawahiri, and one of Bin Laden’s sons were present. In hindsight, I suspect that Bin Laden and probably Zawahiri were present, and subsequently escaped because they were not pursued with sufficient vigor. Franks’ decision was also based in large part on the (mostly political) decision to increasingly rely on allied southern Afghani warlords. We now know that many of these guys had accepted US funds to become allies, then accepted additional funds from Bin Laden to let them slip through the Afghanis’ fingers and escape into Pakistan through the White Mountains. Such is the Afghani way; the British and Soviets experienced similar betrayals countless times. Afghanis can be bought, but they cannot stay bought, particularly when their co-religionists are doing the bribing. Franks, in subsequent op-ed pieces, emphasizes the inconclusiveness of the available intelligence about Bin Laden’s whereabouts. Interestingly, in Franks’ memoir American Soldier, he also noted that he received a phone call from Rumsfeld on November 27, 2001 asking him to begin updating the OPLAN for the invasion of Iraq, which also served to divert Franks’ attention.

I would suggest reading Gary Schroen’s First In prior to Jawbreaker, as First In details what happens to the first post-9-11 CIA team sent into Afghanistan. Gary Schroen led that team, then was relieved by Gary Berntsen. Neither of these books provides any substantial background on the various Afghani warlords interacted with post-9-11, nor do they provide any real background on previous CIA efforts in Afghanistan. For that, I suggest reading Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars, which provides a great deal of information on US activities related to Afghanistan in the two decades prior to 9-11.

I give this one 4 stars out of 5. Berntsen is not a deep thinker, and provides little in the way of analysis; he leaves that to the reader, providing a straight-forward chronology of the actions of his team. Nevertheless,
Jawbreaker is an important addition to the canon of books on US post-9-11 military and intelligence operations in Afghanistan and I highly recommend it.

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Review copyright 2011 J. Andrew Byers

Book review: The Hunt for Bin Laden: Task Force Dagger by Robin Moore

Robin Moore is the author of the classic The Green Berets. He’s also the only civilian I know of to complete Special Forces qualifications and has spent decades befriending and palling around with members of the SF community. As such, it’s only natural for the reader to expect an unapologetically triumphalist narrative of SF exploits in Afghanistan, and that’s more or less exactly what we get here. With a book like this, we have to take the bad (unabashedly pro-SF bias, tone, lack of citations) with the good: unfettered access to SF operators and a clear, exciting, eminently readable account.

The book is organized in roughly chronological fashion, from soon after September 11 through September 2002. Each chapter is composed of a series of sub-sections that are really more like a set of vignettes. The book would have been stronger, I think, had these vignettes been woven into a coherent, flowing narrative. As it is, the work comes off as being relatively choppy and disjointed, and seems almost hastily constructed, with much of the connective tissue the reader would expect missing.

The book’s greatest strength (and perhaps its greatest weakness) is the narrow – at times extremely parochial – focus on SF operations in Afghanistan in 2001-2002 through Tora Bora and Operation ANACONDA. In the rush to get the book out roughly a year after September 11, the chronological focus of the book is necessarily compressed. Sadly, as of this writing (May 2011), the US is still in Afghanistan, and while the “hunt for Bin Laden” has only recently proven successful, the last eight years of SF and other operations in Afghanistan are not chronicled here. This is not by any means the definitive history of SF operations in Afghanistan, or even the definitive history of the first year of those operations (e.g., while Moore devotes a few pages to the Battle of Roberts Ridge, that battle is detailed exhaustively in Malcolm MacPherson’s Roberts Ridge: A Story of Courage and Sacrifice on Takur Ghar Mountain, Afghanistan). This work is a snapshot in time, and an early one at that, so it has to be taken on its own merits. It does include a number of details on particular operations that I have not seen elsewhere. For example, Moore includes an account of the Battle of Qala-i-Jangi (the prison uprising where CIA officer Mike Spann was killed and where John Walker Lindh was captured) that is at odds – dramatically so – with other accounts, so Moore’s work is useful for these kinds of details as well.

The book suffers from a lack of attention to detail on what CIA paramilitary forces were doing in Afghanistan (Schroen’s First In and Berntsen’s Jawbreaker will help fill in this gap) – what little Moore does say about the CIA is almost unrelentingly negative or dismissive – nor does it say much about what other SOF teams were doing. It is simply a highly-focused account of what the SF A-Teams were doing, no more, no less. Moore is clearly channeling the frustration of many SF operators with conventional forces and US military leaders without SOF experience (Franks, for example). That’s fine, I share that bias to some degree, and these frustrations are visible in a variety of sources, but readers should be aware of Moore’s (and his subjects’) positions and biases.

The book is exciting, interesting, and generally well-written, though its organization needs work, and I wish that Moore had taken another year to polish and expand the book before publishing. I give it 3 stars out of 5, but would very much have liked to have seen Moore do an expanded second edition of the book (sadly, Moore died in 2008).

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Review copyright 2011 J. Andrew Byers

Topical bibliography: books about Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda

The New York Times has compiled a decent list of books on Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. I certainly haven’t read all of them, so I can’t blindly endorse the list in totality, but it certainly looks like a good starting point for further research. Of the works on this list I have read, I heartily endorse Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars — it provides terrific background information on bin Laden and U.S. operations in Afghanistan in the two decades leading up to September 11.

While I normally use this blog just for posting book-related news and reviews of various kinds of fiction — and always strive to remain absolutely apolitical here — I also review a good many works of non-fiction as well (I just don’t post them here). I think this week I’ll post a handful of reviews of books on counterterrorism and military operations in Afghanistan (I am a military historian by training and prior to returning to grad school I worked in defense for a decade, so these topics are near and dear to my heart).