Bradford on Malkasian, 'War Comes to Garmser: Thirty Years of Conflict on the Afghan Frontier'

Carter Malkasian
James Bradford

Carter Malkasian. War Comes to Garmser: Thirty Years of Conflict on the Afghan Frontier. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2016. 360 pp. $21.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-19-939001-4.

Reviewed by James Bradford (Babson College) Published on H-War (June, 2019) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

Printable Version:

After the United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001 and overthrew the rogue Taliban regime, American policymakers and military officials “set out to build a good, well-governed, just and orderly state” (p. xviii). However, after eighteen years of war, the situation in Afghanistan remains as tenuous as ever. Why the United States has been unable to successfully transform Afghanistan has been a vexing problem for policymakers, military officials, and scholars alike. However, as analyzed in Dr. Carter Malkasian’s book, War Comes to Garmser, it is not because of the lack of governance or religious sectarianism, tired tropes that seem to dominate much of our collective understanding of Afghanistan. Rather, it is precisely because of governance, and our misunderstanding of how it functions within localized contexts in Afghanistan, that the war rages on.

By writing a history of the southern district of Garmser, Malkasian aims to address two important historical narratives about the war. First, in exploring the history of Garmser, he seeks to explain whether American and British forces “were bound to be defeated in Afghanistan” (p. xxi). In connection, he also explores the history of why and how the Taliban regime succeeded and failed. In doing so, Malkasian presents a dynamic political landscape that focuses less on the ungovernable features of Afghanistan and Garmser, but more important, the gravity of local political decisions of the Taliban and Afghan governments and the impact on the people of Garmser.

Writing a history about the people of Garmser during a period of conflict is no easy task, and it is one at which War Comes to Garmser largely succeeds. Malkasian spent two years as a political officer for the US Department of State in Garmser, and collected a trove of interviews with Afghans, Americans, Brits, and others which documented the ebb and flow of power in the region. Similar to Jeffrey Race’s War Comes to Long An, what Malkasian created is part oral history, part anthropological survey, part autobiography, that presents a richly detailed and complex historical narrative that tries its best to “present the war that the Afghans fought” as “story about the Afghans” (p. xxiii).

The theme of governance, and the struggle to legitimize political control, permeates much of the book. As Malkasian notes, many blamed Afghanistan’s government and its people for their token ungovernability rather than thinking about the ways in which “America’s own decisions may have been at fault” (p. xxi). In this way, Malkasian tries to strip Afghanistan of futility and impossibility and instead explain why those within the state-building apparatus failed to fully conceptualize the possibilities that could have come with wiser, more nuanced perspectives and strategies.

Malkasian’s chronological narrative of the history of Garmser, from the jihad of the mujahideen to the civil war and finally to the rise, fall, and rebirth of the Taliban, presents a more complex picture of the ways in which political power was exerted and negotiated. The broader historical lens captures important features of the challenges of consolidating political power in this region of Afghanistan. For example, in the chapter “The Jihad,” Malkasian provides much-needed context about the struggles of the Afghan state to establish effective governance in the region, which in turn laid the foundation for the emergence of groups like the Taliban. During the reign of Noor Mohammad Taraki, communist reforms in education and land redistribution were somewhat successful in urban environments, whereas in Garmser, similar policies were seen as a threat to mullahs and more traditional forms of political and social organization. In this way, Malkasian sheds light on how various policies dictated by the communist Afghan government failed “to uplift marginalized elements of Garmser society” as promised, but rather “sowed the seeds of the jihad” (p. 19). The lessons in the early chapters are profound. The diverse mosaic of tribal leaders and residents of Garmser were united against the communist Taraki regime, prompting a golden period of cooperation and effective governance. Yet, “without that common enemy, it quickly fell apart” (p. 40).

Although literature about the Taliban is extensive, there is still a lot to learn about how the Taliban operate on a granular level. In this way, the chapters on the history of the civil war and the emergence of the Taliban are particularly valuable. Rather than presenting the Taliban in simplistic terms, Malkasian analyzes the reasons why the Taliban were effective as a governing body. Historically, leaders in Garmser were chosen by merit and stature, but under Mullah Omar and the Taliban, governance was strictly hierarchical and based predominantly on loyalty. The Taliban were able to consolidate power, and thus govern more effectively, by filling their ranks with landless poor migrants, while “disempowering the tribal elite” that historically served as the primary governing leadership (p. 63). Power was exerted from the top down, and justice was swift. Many of Malkasian’s interviews with local leaders reveal the most lurid and profound details of the issues of governance in Garmser. As stated by the local religious leader Maulawi Abdullah Jan, “the Taliban government was better than Karzai’s. It was better for Islam. It was better for human rights. It was better for the people” (p. 66).

Juxtaposing Taliban rule with that of the Afghan government years later further enhances our understanding of how dynamic and challenging governance was at the local level. For example, in the chapter “Winning the Peace,” Malkasian explores a four-year period of successful governance for the Afghan government and its American and British supporters in Garmser. For example, when local leaders appointed a judge who was a religious scholar educated in Saudi Arabia, the government was able to strip the Taliban of its claim to be the only Islamic judicial authority, in turn building credibility that it severely lacked (p. 224). Conversely, War Comes to Garmser also highlights the temporary nature of Malkasian’s and US involvement in Garmser. By 2012, after four years in Garmser, and seemingly considerable success in their counterinsurgency campaign, US troops began their withdrawal from the region. The problems of poor leadership and political feuding reemerged, threatening the delicate peace. As he left Garmser, Malkasian contemplated the success of his and the American counterinsurgency mission, noting that he “cannot be certain that the government will be able to stand on its own” (p. 261).

In the conclusion, Malkasian ponders whether “America’s decade-long effort in Afghanistan was worth it” (p.2 73). War Comes to Garmser offers no discernible answers to this question. However, for scholars of Afghanistan, US foreign policy, international relations, and counterinsurgency studies, the wealth of details about the Taliban, the Afghan government, and the intersection with counterinsurgency programs makes for an important, and ultimately, sobering read. However, there are a few lessons in this book that should be required reading for those in favor of American interventions. For Malkasian, the idealism of postintervention nation building is at odds with the reality that war and insurgencies “are likely to be troublesome, murky, messy, and grey” (p. 274). Ultimately, one cannot help but wonder if politicians in Washington will ever heed such lessons. As Malkasian notes, “Afghanistan surely will not be the last of America’s interventions in messy wars in developing states—our history is too full of them to think otherwise” (p. 274). Sobering indeed.


Citation: James Bradford. Review of Malkasian, Carter, War Comes to Garmser: Thirty Years of Conflict on the Afghan Frontier. H-War, H-Net Reviews. June, 2019. URL:

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.