In Confronting the Chaos, Sean Maloney presents a documentation of the war in Afghanistan from 2004 to 2005. His first trip to the country led to Enduring the Freedom (2006), which covered the conflict from 2001 to 2003. Maloney makes it clear that he will be returning again to finish the trilogy, with Fighting for Afghanistan, an examination of the efforts of 2006. Despite the fact that this is the second book, readers will not feel lost if they have missed the first. Confronting the Chaos deals primarily with the reconstruction and stabilization phase of the war, the counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy of winning the hearts and minds of the local population. Maloney attempts to find out what exactly has been done on the humanitarian side of the war on terror.
Maloney is an associate professor of history at the Royal Military College in Canada, but his book is very journalistic. Despite being a historian, he provides little background on the war or Afghanistan itself. There is also very little comparison with his first trip with which to gauge how much progress, if any, had been made. Maloney makes evaluations on a case-by-case basis, in a serious effort to follow up on the last visit. He stresses the "rogue" in traveling to various parts of Afghanistan and talking very bluntly with Afghans and international personnel, particularly his fellow Canadians. Many memorable quotes and interactions are recorded in this straightforward and hard-hitting account. The grunt-soldier's view of the war is presented in a concise and unadulterated manner.
Traveling from Kabul to Kandahar and other locations, Maloney argues that the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) in Afghanistan are a critical part of the war effort. He stresses the humanitarian and socioeconomic aspects of Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF), particularly the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). Canada, Germany and other NATO countries are the primary members of ISAF, a UN-mandated operation filled mostly by Europeans. Maloney claims that the "PRT is a wholly new weapon in the counterinsurgency war against the Taliban and its supporters. It is a unit that combines the vital tasks of rural area assessment, reconstruction aid delivery, security sector reform, and government capacity building" (pp. xiii-xiv). He says that much of the war on terror throughout the world hinges on improving the socioeconomic conditions of people and that his fellow Canadians and other ISAF members are playing a major role in this effort.
An author of nine books, Maloney appears very engaged, giving the reader a firsthand account of his travels and interviews throughout Afghanistan. He provides many blunt transcripts that offer a very insightful and honest look into what is really happening on the ground and beyond the TV screens. Maloney's accounts demonstrate clearly the major disconnect between the ground forces and the policy makers at home. There are high morale and gung-ho attitudes, but few officers and troops on the ground seem to believe that they are winning or moving aggressively on the right path. Policy makers in Washington, Ottawa, London, Berlin and elsewhere may want to read this book. The military personnel interviewed seem to be overwhelmed by the massive tasks given to them and their very limited capabilities and funds. They want to be successful but, once again, they feel their hands are tied, even on the humanitarian side of the war on terror. The native population, at the same time, does not seem very enthusiastic.
Maloney offers very few interpretations or recommendations that might have given greater meaning to his experiences. He provides little statistical data regarding reconstruction, which is his primary focus. There is very little on the number of new businesses and jobs created, roads and bridges built, schools and hospitals established, agricultural production increased (aside from poppy/opium production), nevermind local, regional and national economic growth, trade and exports. The book is more about Maloney's personal adventures and less about the scholarly side of investigation and data collection and interpretation. If Maloney had examined more thoroughly the reconstruction aspects of his topic, this book could have been very beneficial to both the scholarly and national-security communities. But both scholars and government officials will have to make some effort to extract the overall meaning of Maloney's trip. Case studies give specific descriptions and circumstances, but the reader must put it all together and make sense of it. Maloney may have been holding some material back for his next book, but it would have been helpful to have had more interpretation and recommendations. Substantial details and observations are critical to the war and reconstruction efforts. Benchmarks and statistical figures should have been laid out and then analyzed to determine success, progress or failure. Maloney's argument that international forces and reconstruction are critical to the war effort is undermined by the lack of data.
Although he describes the situation in Afghanistan as "chaos," Maloney's frequent use of acronyms creates chaos throughout the book. This may also reflect the chaos within the international operations in Afghanistan. There seems to be far more effort to develop acronyms than to reconstruct Afghanistan (as in Iraq). Furthermore, Maloney spends far more time with Canadians in relative safe areas than with Americans in the really chaotic ones. It may be understandable to prefer to see fellow Canadians, and it may be easier to get governmental approval, but the Americans carry out the bulk of the operations and establish the key strategies and parameters.
Finally, Maloney spends very little time with the Afghan people themselves, who are living in real chaos. He probably should have gone rogue with his tour guides and bypassed most of the Westerners and controlled territories, gone off the grid to talk with ordinary Afghans in dangerous and less-traveled areas, places the international forces would not have wanted him to go. Had he gone rogue in this sense, he could have provided a much more insightful view of the Afghan side of the conflict and how they view the war and reconstruction efforts. Little was asked or said of them in Maloney's book. The author should have tried to obtain a much more objective and realistic assessment of reconstruction from the Afghan people and local leaders. Instead, the book focuses primarily on Westerners and their tribulations on the reconstruction front.
The reader is given much information about how complicated allied operations are and how much competition and political haggling is involved in each operation, program and service. There is political conflict, but there does not seem to be much leadership or long-term vision or goals on the ground. Given the short tours and high turnover rates of commanders, this is understandable but not really recognized by Maloney. He also jumps around from one location to the next, never seeing how things operate over the long term. Moreover, he spends a lot of time with reconstruction teams in stable areas. They have taken some casualties there, but they are minimal compared to those of U.S. forces. Maloney tries to play up the danger and sacrifice, but the numbers are small, and the reconstruction efforts appear to have very limited results.
This suggests that some major dissension may lie beneath the surface, as the bulk of American forces are in danger zones taking on most of the risks and casualties. It appears very unequal and unfair. The United States is taking the load on the military side, as in Iraq (although there were some significant numbers of British troops who participated in that occupation). Afghanistan demonstrates a major division of will and courage by many NATO members. Maloney never identifies the problem or asks the question.
Maloney does not address the endgame or specific details of what "success" or "victory" might mean. He captures the individual Canadian and Westerner in a strange land and emphasizes sensitivities over long-term progress. However, he never captures the big picture on any level. There is, moreover, rarely an economic focus, which is the heart of his reconstruction theme. Maloney would be wise to break free of the bureaucrats and go see real Afghan people on the ground who are not beholden to the government or corporate media. And he should present detailed opinions, recommendations and conclusions about the real chances of success in Afghanistan.