Author and former Marine Elliot Ackerman on the 20-year American war in Afghanistan

In his latest book titled The Fifth Act: America’s End in Afghanistan, former US Marine and best-selling author Elliot Ackerman offers a ringside view of the war.

Elliot Ackerman had left the US military for over 10 years when he was sucked into the chaos that ensued following last year’s withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan. From 2003 to 2011, he had served on several tours to the war-ravaged nation, besides in Iraq, first as a Marine and later as a CIA officer. The Fifth Act: America’s End in Afghanistan (William Collins / Harper Collins India, INR 499) begins with Ackerman, the highly decorated officer who’s now a journalist and best-selling author, receiving calls while on holiday in Italy from friends and former associates to help evacuate Afghan nationals — several of whom he knew — five days after Kabul fell to the dreaded Taliban.

This book, which weaves in moments from his holiday with wife and two children and the tension-gripped efforts to exfil people, most of whom had worked with the Americans, reads like a thriller with loads of history and politics thrown in. The idea of writing this book, Ackerman says, occurred to him shortly after a friend asked him to write a 500-word piece on the 20 years of American war in Afghanistan that wound to a close last year with the Taliban recapturing power. As a participant in a war that began with the fall of the Taliban in 2001, Ackerman had seen the tragedy play out right in front of his eyes from a ringside seat. Which explains why he chose the format used by Shakespeare and other ancient writers of tragedy to pen this latest book of his in five acts, which according to him, also represent the presidencies of George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Donald Trump and Joe Biden, and the rule of the Taliban.

His view of 20 years of American occupation of Afghanistan is best summarised in one of the statements in the book, “Collapse is a good word. The past couple of weeks (as said in September 2021) have been not only a collapse of our country’s competence as we’ve unconditionally lost a twenty-year war, but also a collapse of time, space, and hierarchy.”

Ackerman was in a hotel room in Rome when he received the call to help ferry 109 people to Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport from the city’s Serena Hotel. He used his vast network in the American forces and settled on a former senior named Jack, then posted at the airport, to request a smooth passage for these people through an unnamed gate. Jack doesn’t commit anything and so suspense grows as he stops picking up Ackerman’s calls. But finally, the people make their way in, thanks to Jack, who, as Ackerman’s senior in the military, had disapproved of the latter leaving the forces. Jack thought it was unwise on the part of Ackerman, who had won the Silver Star, the Bronze Star for Valor and the Purple Heart for his service, to quit. The author later took a brief plunge into politics, then became a White House Fellow and later a writer. He has written five novels and a memoir titled Places and Names: On War, Revolution, and Returning.

Throughout this book, the author keeps hopping from one location to another at a fast pace as he narrates the story of the 20-year-old war. He takes the reader deftly from the present to the past and back. The scenes, for instance, shift from his hotel room in Rome or Venice or some other location in Italy to the war zone in Afghanistan and military offices or bases in the US.

Similarly, he also goes with ease from a base in Khost in 2011 to the Colosseum in Rome in 2021 and then from Washington DC in 2021 where he meets with the Afghan ambassador to the US, Roya Rahmani, to Paktika Province in 2010. The Second Act takes us to Shewan in Farah Province in 2008. It then melds into a train from Rome to Venice in 2021 August. Ackerman steers that transition with the much-envied skill of a matador tackling a fiery bull.

We also get to know war at close quarters with Ackerman occasionally describing dangerous missions to eliminate Taliban threats during the occupation. The reader gets a glimpse into the life inside the Humvees, the mine-resistant ambush protected family of vehicles called RG33s, dialect used by soldiers, close encounters with terrorists and deaths of comrades-in-arms.

Ackerman is blunt about the war he had fought. He writes, “Carl von Clausewitz, the great nineteenth-century military theorist, famously said, ‘War is the continuation of politics by other means.’ President Biden’s announcement of a complete US withdrawal from Afghanistan set off a crisis of confidence among Afghans, one that precipitated a political collapse and, subsequently, a military collapse.”

He also takes to task various presidents, including Obama, for timing the withdrawal from Iraq or the surge of troops in Afghanistan with US elections in mind to appease both the hawks and the doves.

In between describing war and the outcomes of a war, the author transports us to places as remote as Torcello where he travels with his uncomplaining family who clearly understood the significance of what he was doing. Conversations between him and his wife and children contribute to the book’s take on wars and their consequences, especially those of the American kind.

Referring to the mistrust that ordinary Afghans as well as those in the forces in that country have of Americans, Ackerman writes, “The end of our war in Afghanistan represents the end of twenty years of promises: to local leaders who allied themselves with us at great personal risk, to women who’d taken steps toward equality, to Afghan soldiers like Shah who’d fought to keep their country from falling apart, and to the government of Afghanistan itself.”

But he adds that this isn’t one-sided, confirming that the lack of trust is mutual. “Years of Afghan corruption and double-dealing with US adversaries such as Iran and Pakistan strained our relations with the Afghan government under both presidents Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani. In war, the Afghans were not always reliable partners. They siphoned off billions of dollars in aid. They participated in the opium trade. Incompetence in their high command bordered on negligence. The betrayals—and there have been plenty—certainly run both ways. The peace deal negotiated by the Trump administration with the Taliban was one of these betrayals.”

He adds that the strategy resembled the flawed American negotiations during the Vietnam War, which led to the 1973 Paris Peace Accords, in which National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger cut out the government of South Vietnam.

“To end that war, we negotiated directly with North Vietnam and presented final terms to South Vietnam’s president Nguyễn Văn Thiệu as a fait accompli. He had days to accept them, or America threatened to cut off aid to the South, whose government Washington had long treated with little regard. Those terms were, ultimately, accepted, which further undermined the legitimacy of Thiệu’s already fragile government and paved the way for the fall of Saigon only two years later. In Doha, American negotiators treated Kabul the same way. The Trump administration’s agreement with the Taliban, signed February 29, 2020, fatally delegitimised President Ghani and his central government.”

The book familiarises the reader with Afghans and their perseverance through anecdotes and local maxims. For instance, Ackerman says, “In Afghanistan, there is a saying: ‘The Americans have the watches, but the Taliban have the time.’”

The author meanwhile dwells on the dreadful prospects of the politicisation of the US military in recent years. He says, with a touch of irony, that instead of Full Metal Jack or Black Hawk Down as movies to watch to experience what resembles a military combat, of late he suggests a particular video of the January 6, 2021 Capitol Hill attack, which, according to him, brings out the heat of a military action.

He also fears for what is in store for American democracy, “If contested elections become the norm, then mass protests around elections become the norm, and if mass protests become the norm, then police and military responses to those protests will surely follow.”

This book is not only Ackerman’s unique perspective about the machine gun-swept streets of Afghanistan and the negotiating tables of global leaders, but it is also a warning for the world.

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