The Written Word

Lions of Kandahar: The Story of a Fight Against All Odds

Reviewed By: LTC Jan Novak, ACR

If you are looking for deep background information on the Afghan War, see my recommendations at the end of this review. If you are looking for a description of intense combat viewed through the eyes of a Special Forces captain—carry on.

The first rounds slammed into the windshield like a jackhammer. I winced, expecting the worst. Luckily, the bullet-resistant glass did its job; otherwise my brains would have been blown all over the truck. Rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) shot by just feet away, so close I could see the spring-loaded stabilizer fins that can easily shear off men's heads, arms, legs, and destroy a small vehicle with appalling quickness. We had just arrived at the battlefield.

Author Rusty Bradley is a former noncommissioned officer who, after earning his commission through Officer Candidate School, passed Special Forces selection and then successfully negotiated the SF Qualification course. In Lions of Kandahar: The Story of a Fight Against All Odds, Bradley describes events that happened during his third tour in Afghanistan in 2006. He and his Operational Detachment Alpha (ODA) 331 were dismayed to find the situation in-country much worse than when they had left eight months earlier.

The Canadian general in command of NATO coalition troops in southern Afghanistan, hoping to capitalize on recent successes, planned a major offensive operation that included Bradley's unit. The event, which had the name Operation Medusa, became the largest NATO-led offensive in Afghanistan. As happens so often in war, however, things did not go as planned. When enemy forces prevented two Canadian mechanized battle groups from advancing, the three American ODAs assigned a role in support of the leading Canadian units found themselves spearheading the the main effort of the operation. This book tells the story of how three dozen operators, assigned to take a single hill, gradually changed the dynamics of a major battle, and in coordination with coalition air assets, prevented likely failure. Over a few days of intense combat with hundreds of enemy reported killed, coalition forces retook control of the Taliban's stronghold in southern Afghanistan. Bradley also makes clear, however, that this operation became necessary only because vague coalition strategy and goals over the years following the initial invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 allowed the Talibs to regain strength in areas historically and strategically important to them.

Among the many books about current events in Afghanistan, this one stands out due to the author's vivid description of the battle itself. Bradley's writing style is fast-paced and engaging from the opening pages all the way to the end, and he draws the reader quickly into both book and battle. Unfortunately, this intensely personal style, in which the world seems to revolve around the author, also constitutes the book's major flaw. At the end, many readers finds themselves confused by the fact that the detailed account focuses almost entirely on Bradley's experiences, while mostly omitting the contributions of the other ODAs, not to mention the Canadian forces. Even given the fact that Lions of Kandahar is Major Bradley's personal memoir, he would be a more effective narrator if he were less narrowly focused. The other actors deserve more attention. The book would then have provided a more comprehensible and well-rounded picture of events. After all, the ODA is sometimes called the "A-Team," and the battle was a team effort, not a one-man show.

If you are looking for a fast-paced, gripping narrative about combat action down to the team and individual level, I recommend The Lions of Kandahar. If you want a book with more historical historical depth and high-quality background information, consider reading Steve Coll's Ghost Wars (New York: Penguin Press, 2004; 720 pages); Gary Berntsen and Ralph Pezzullo's Jawbreaker (New York: Crown Publishers, 2005; 352 pages); or Sean Naylor's Not a Good Day to Die (New York: Berkley Books, 2005; 320 pages).

Rusty Bradley and Kevin Maurer (2011)
New York: Random House.
ISBN-10: 0553807579
Hardcover: $26.00 USD
304 pages

A version of this review appeared in the journal On War/ On Peace (in Czech):

Pakistan on the Brink: The Future of America, Pakistan, and Afghanistan

Reviewed By: MAJ Marcus Foreman, USA

For nearly 11 years, the efficacy and influence of American foreign policy in Pakistan has risen and fallen with the tidal shifts of regional politics. Now, after more than a decade, the ship of American military and political expectations may have finally run aground on the cragged shoreline of reality in Pakistan. In his new book, Pakistan on the Brink: The Future of America, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, senior journalist Ahmed Rashid deftly navigates these waters in a way that is not only articulate and accessible, but even courageous thanks to his insistence on shining a bright light on the motives and failings of his country's political and military leaders.

Admitting that he has become decidedly more pessimistic in recent years, here Rashid follows his best-selling 2008 work, Descent into Chaos: The U.S. and the Disaster in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia (New York: Penguin; 560 pages) with a blend of primary source interviews and insightful analysis that is both credible and evenhanded. As a former guerilla from Baluchistan and now an expert on the region, Rashid begins by recounting his coersations in 2008 with President-elect Barack Obama, and his concern that although Obama had great respect for the scope and scale of the issues in Pakistan and Afghanistan, the president-elect was not well informed. This deficiency, combined with Afghan President Hamid Karzai's pervasive crises of confidence and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari's tumultuous political ascension, serves, in Rashid's account, as the starting point for Pakistan's accelerating slide toward the cliff's edge of instability.

Rashid does not hesitate to recommend ways to advance and improve Pakistan's relationships with both its proximate neighbors and members of the international community that have a vested interest in the stability of a nuclear-armed nation with geostrategic importance. The United States, he insists, must develop a strategy that looks far past the current 2014 horizon, when U.S. troops are scheduled to withdraw from Afghanistan. Rashid believes that, "A positive outcome for the region will depend on a deliberate, carefully considered Western withdrawal from Afghanistan, the existence of a political settlement with the Taliban, and Pakistan's willingness to rein in Islamic extremism and prevent a potential state meltdown."

He warns, however, that any willingness to rein in domestic extremism is too often subsumed by Pakistan's historical obsession with what it perceives to be India's drive for regional hegemony, a myopia that also allows Pakistan's leadership to ignore the potential dangers that underrepresented border tribes pose for national political decision making. Further, Rashid cautions that the "schizophrenia" of Pakistan's Afghanistan strategy, attempting to play all sides in the conflict against one another, may become a self-inflicted wound that bleeds away the credible and well-reasoned foreign policy the country so desperately needs to survive.

From an operator's perspective, Rashid provides the type of perceptive detail and insight that is critical to understanding the most prevalent issues for American foreign policy, at the tactical, operational, and strategic levels. Pakistan on the Brink offers more than just a primer on the complex and dynamic elements of the region, and will benefit anyone who might seek to influence them.

Ahmed Rashid (2012)
New York: Viking Press.
ISBN-10: 0670023469
Hardcover $26.95 USD
256 pages

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