How the absence of clear objectives has decreed the failure of the campaign against the Taliban

This article was published in Oasis 27. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2022-04-22 09:57:03

Unwinnable_copertina.jpgReview of Theo Farrell, Unwinnable: Britain’s war in Afghanistan 2001–2014 (Bodley Head, London, 2017).


With Unwinnable, Theo Farrell has published the “definitive” history (to borrow the words of the cover endorsement) of the United Kingdom’s war in Afghanistan from 2001 to 2014. One is immediately struck by the book’s text-to-notes ratio: a little over 400 pages of text to approximately 100 pages of notes. Such a significant notes section derives from the author’s methodological choice: an in-depth historical reconstruction of troop movements and political decisions, accompanied by fieldwork that led Farrell to interview “67 Taliban field commanders and 59 locals” thereby permitting him to “reconstruct the Taliban campaign in Helmand” (p. 6). Further added value is provided by his direct knowledge of both the realities involved: the Western power centres and the actors on the ground in Afghanistan. Whilst enjoying a markedly academic profile, Theo Farrell was not actually one of the conflict’s external spectators. As he himself reveals in his last chapter (p. 424), in 2013 he mediated between exponents of the Afghan government and Taliban leaders, bringing them to the same table in the attempt to reach an agreement promoting de-escalation in certain districts.


A double fil rouge runs through the volume: the first provides an accurate reconstruction of the facts, both from the Western point of view and, insofar as possible, from the Afghan one. As the historical reconstruction of events gradually proceeds – and this is the second thread – Farrell reveals the factors that prevented the Western coalition from achieving a lasting victory in Afghanistan. The first step is his explanation of the reasons that took the United States and Great Britain (plus a series of other nations) into Afghanistan: the Twin Towers attacks on 11 September and the link between Osama Bin Laden and the Taliban in power in Kabul provided the “just cause in going to war” (p. 417). Farrell maintains, moreover, that London’s participation was “necessary and proportionate” to the damage and threats suffered (p. 418). It was the attacks that directly defined the war’s initial strategic goal: bring down the Taliban regime and defeat al-Qaeda.


Farrell demonstrates, however, how the war commitment’s political and strategic sense of direction was lost as soon as the Taliban were ousted from power. Here lies the first of the reasons why the war has proved unwinnable: the lack of a clear strategy and precise goals. This is evident, for example, in the contrast between actions directed at winning the support of the population in the rural areas and the anti-narcotics operations that deprived the farmers of their only means of sustenance (opium cultivation) without offering any credible alternatives, with the sole result of pushing them to embrace the Taliban’s cause. According to Farrell, other negative factors attributable to the Western coalition have been the scanty knowledge of the local reality (with the exception of the limited periods when the ISAF forces could count on experts like Casper Malkasian and Michael Semple); the political leaders’ inability to read and guide situations, delegating this task to the soldiers on the ground, and the lack of adequate resources (helicopters, in particular). To that was added the invasion of Iraq in 2003. This became Whitehall’s principal concern, to Afghanistan’s detriment.


Naturally, not all the reasons for the Western initiative’s failure are to be imputed to Washington and London. The extreme level of corruption in the Afghan government (from Hamid Karzai’s onwards) nipped the nation-building initiatives in the bud. In the second place, the Taliban were able to play on tribal and sub-tribal divisions that the Westerners found it difficult to understand, successfully stirring up slumbering discontent. Finally, but perhaps this is the most important element of all, Farrell emphasises the support that the Afghan Taliban received from abroad: the Pakistani secret services (ISI), a part of the Islamabad army and the network of madrasas on the eastern side of the Durand Line. An ambiguity that the United Kingdom and the United States have never succeeded in getting to the bottom of.