Into the Viper's Nest by Stephen Grey

Similar to Iraq, I am not sure where our country is headed in Afghanistan. The country seems to be composed of tribes that shift their allegiances depending on the circumstances. Our efforts (going on ten years) sometimes seem to be working, but then at other times, we seem to be running in circles. We have a few successes that are marred by a few defeats (political and military) – the country’s progress is one big blob of mediocrity. Stephen Grey writes about the Battle of Musa Qala in his book entitled Into the Viper’s Nest: The First Pivotal Battle of the Afghan War. The December 2007 battle could be considered a microcosm of the whole conflict.

Musa Qala is a village located in one of Afghanistan’s more contentious provinces – Helmand. This province is key to the opium trade – its fields represent a significant percentage of the world’s opium production. As a result, it is an agricultural gold mine for whoever controls it – even the Taliban with their hard stance against drugs (they use the proceeds from the opium sales to fund their operations). The Afghan government does not openly support the growing of poppies, but corrupt government officials allow it in exchange for kickbacks.

Grey divides the book into several parts: The Rebellion; The Population is the Prize; The Taliban Strikes Back; The Plan; The Battle; and The Aftermath. The book is 308 pages, including an appendix listing the names of all those killed in Helmand Province from September 17, 2007 to March 31, 2008. Grey also includes seventeen black and white photographs (I think these were added to give the reader some visual context because most of them are not of the fighting during the time period covered in the book and I do not think any of them are of the combatants mentioned in the text).I like Grey’s background on the situation in Helmand – how the Taliban were beaten, but then allowed to creep back in because various missteps by NATO and the Afghan government. Grey paints a pretty bleak picture of the Afghan government led by President Hamid Karzai. Many of the officials in the province are corrupt and put their interests before the interests of the people. In addition, many of the NATO forces have blundered by obliterating civilians’ homes without a care. It also took NATO officers long time to embrace the ink blot strategy of counterinsurgency warfare rather than moving from location to location fighting the Taliban.

I think that Grey could have expanded the part on the battle – it is about 120 pages of the 308 pages. Because there were a number of different British and American units involved in the battle, it gets a little confusing trying to remember each of the unit’s objectives and the personnel who belong to each respective unit. The confusion may have been mitigated by placing the maps amongst the text rather than at the end of the book.

Despite some of the confusion in the text, I think this is an excellent book describing the situation in Afghanistan from the macro and the micro level.

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