The final days of Canada’s combat role in Afghanistan have brought a slew of books attempting to chronicle the history of Canada’s engagement in the country. What sets Sean Maloney’s Fighting for Afghanistan: A Rogue Historian at War apart is that Maloney is the Canadian army’s official historian. The third in the Rogue Historian series, Fighting for Afghanistan is a micro-history of events in the summer of 2006 that Maloney experienced first-hand.

As such, the first thing that must be said is that Maloney provides a play-by-play of operations that makes the book almost unreadable to those without an understanding of military doctrine and the operational planning process. Dense with military speak about who was where and who commanded them, it is more for the generals than for a general audience. However, the detail is also what makes the book invaluable to those involved in the study of war.

It is clear that Maloney had unprecedented access. Among other insights, he discusses “enemy atmospherics” at length, including specific names of Taliban targets, how they communicate with each other, operations to catch them and whether they succeeded in their aims. At the strategic and tactical levels, he relays the events surrounding any troops in contact (or “tics”) and, notably, the details surrounding soldiers’ deaths — something surely families would appreciate. He also offers insights into the rarely discussed special forces doctrine and the concerns about a lack of coordination between special forces and conventional forces, which created fissures over the sharing of intelligence.

Indeed, he isn’t shy to offer blunt assessments, and his lengthy detours into tactical language, while laborious at times, correct the record on some commonly held assumptions. He debates the concept of “outside the wire,” a term used by the media to mean the only, or any real measure of danger or sacrifice. By describing the capriciousness of the danger (including some of his own close calls), he shows that being in Afghanistan is akin to Russian roulette, and the first time out can kill you. Further, the limitations of the outside-the-wire concept as a measure of sacrifice is obvious in his poignant examples of the psychological aftermath suffered by those who never had cause to use their weapon — as in the case of Mortuary Affairs, the service within the armed forces that is responsible for the recovery, identification and management of human remains.

Not surprisingly, Maloney struggles throughout the book to communicate the facts and step aside cleanly as historians typically are expected to do. There are occasional flashes of bravado. However, as anyone who has spent time in Afghanistan will attest, a defining moment invariably arrives when it becomes personal. For Maloney these defining moments come as a result of someone close to him being injured, and also a fascinating discussion with a captured Taliban recovering in a hospital at Kandahar Airfield. Throughout the book, Maloney repeatedly speaks of “information operations” or IO activity that influences the perceptions of the Afghan and international communities. As he states, “Perceptions could lose the war and nearly did in the fall of 2006.” Readers who are unfamiliar with the concept will find it irksome to see development assistance described as a “nonkinetic tool to influence the population” rather than an end in itself. However, as a cornerstone of the Western counter-insurgency approach, the effects of influence are undeniable. He puts a fine point on what this means for the average Afghan by describing the dilemma in which communities are caught. “If they supported the Taliban, they wouldn’t get government support. If they supported the government, the Taliban would kill them.”

Indeed, Maloney demonstrates that all politics is local, and he describes in detail the moral complexities of local power players. He shows the layers of tribal, cultural and political relationships in which some characters would rather cause chaos to further their own agendas than not have any hand at all in a more stable Afghanistan.

Maloney demonstrates that all politics is local, and he describes in detail the moral complexities of local power players. He shows the layers of tribal, cultural and political
relationships in which some characters would rather cause chaos to further their own agendas than not have any hand at all in a more stable Afghanistan.

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For their part, the Taliban have understood only too well the effect of influencing the population and have executed a campaign of retribution and fear to undermine the will of not just the Afghanistan people but also of the international community. Through Maloney’s lens we see Canadians not only as witnesses to the war but also as part of the information battleground of the war.

Nevertheless, he ends optimistically, saying that the insurgency was put back on its heels by the operations he describes (I suspect that was not a spoiler), and that “the enemy failed to generate levels of dissent in Canada that would have interfered with Canadian operations in Afghanistan, or resulted in an outright pull-out.”

Maloney speaks to the obstacles that will remain the staples of debate in this and future conflicts and says that “only human reasoning, trust and communication can overcome such obstacles.” This book will invariably educate that debate.

A review of Sean M. Maloney. Fighting for Afghanistan: A Rogue Historian at War. Annapolis, Maryland: US Naval Institute Press, 2011.

Photo: Shutterstock

Renée Filiatrault worked with Task Force Kandahar in southern Afghanistan and served two ministers of national defence and a minister of Indian affairs and northern development. She is a professor at the Algonquin College School of Media, Ottawa.

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