Emile Simpson's core observation on the Afghan war is that when war is simply violent politics, one shouldn't expect it to end, because politics doesn't end. As he writes in his book, "The outcomes of contemporary conflicts are often better understood as constant evolutions of how power is configured." (P. 2)
Once you see the conflict in Afghanistan as political at its core, then just talking about the enemy as a unitary force makes no sense. For example, when in 2005 Helmand's provincial governor was ousted from office and so could not pay his followers, he sent them to work for the Taliban, which was hiring. "Akhundzada and his men did not ‘change sides'; they remained on their own side." (P. 44)
Seeing military action through a political lens, as he advocates throughout the book, also puts coalition operations in a different light. Wresting control of Kandahar city from the Taliban might seem to make military sense if it is the enemy's center of gravity, he notes. But think of it instead as a political problem. "In political terms, to have identified Kandahar city as the decisive point was a bold move; however, for a political consultant in a US presidential election, it would be like the Democratic Party investing massive resources in trying to win Texas." (P. 100)
He also warns that it is easy for the Taliban's leaders to negotiate, because it gives them legitimacy, but hard for them to reach any agreements, because then they would have to enforce them, and they can't. "If the leadership were to negotiate a political settlement only to have it ignored by the groups it claims to control, it would lost all credibility." (P. 78)
He thinks that official corruption is "a significantly more relevant issue than the insurgency" in terms of the future stability of the Afghan state. (P. 152)
Nobody has yet written an overall history of the Afghan War. I nominate Emile Simpson. (Who, by the way, was a captain, not a lieutenant, as I mistakenly said my first post about the book, on Tuesday.)
Louie Palu/ZUMA Press/New America Foundation
Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.