Monday, 18 March 2013

From Kabul to Baghdad and Back - John R Ballard, David W. Lamm, John K. Wood

The information presented was written by Chris Buckham; however, it was published in Leatherneck Magazine. Therefore, the material is reproduced here by the author with the permission of the magazine. If you would like to republish this information or refer to excerpts please contact the Editor Leatherneck Magazine ( ). Website for the Magazine is:

Title: From Kabul to Baghdad and Back
Authors: John R. Ballard, David W. Lamm and John K. Wood
ISBN: 9781612510224
Pages: 384
Illustrations: 11 b/w
Publisher: Naval Institute Press

     Ballard, Lamb and Wood’s book: From Kabul to Baghdad and Back is a chronological synopsis of the concurrent conflicts that the United States undertook in Afghanistan and Iraq. Their thesis focuses on the challenges faced by the US regarding the effective execution of these operations from both a ‘command and control’ and a resource perspective. Initially evaluating the strategic decision-making at the political level, they identify challenges such as the convoluted command and control/decision-making processes that served to limit the effectiveness and timeliness of execution throughout the efforts. Additionally, they further expand upon the challenges and successes at both the strategic and operational level as Central Command attempted to prosecute concurrently a symmetric war in Iraq (that subsequently became asymmetric) and an asymmetric war in Afghanistan. Further enhancing the difficulty of this, the authors highlight the background of ongoing political efforts to maintain both focus and support as the wars progressed. Further exacerbating the efforts were the difficulties in the responsiveness and dynamism of the NATO command system in Afghanistan and the US command system in Iraq. The authors point out however, the improvements that were recognized as the decade unfolded. Certainly, they point out, lessons were learned and applied and they highlight the changes that were made in response to these lessons. The book concludes with a note of caution relating to future US operations involving multiple theatres of operations. This portion represents a real strength in the narrative as the authors provide a comprehensive synopsis of lessons learned, command challenges, an overall comparison of the phases of the two operations and also a highlight of those aspects of the wars that were and were not a success. They also have provided a recommended roadmap for the future and where emphasis needs to be placed in order to avoid some of the pitfalls in the future.

     The book covers a massive topic in terms of scope, depth and complexity. Given that fact, there is a great deal for the reader to absorb and comprehend. The linear dialogue that the authors utilize to trace the development of the two theatres (including a brief history leading up to the conflicts) is appropriate and effective in that it clearly structures the information for the readers. Of particular benefit is the breakdown of the story into manageable ‘bites’ identified by sub-titles within the paragraphs. Nonetheless, it is necessary to pay close attention as the narrative develops in order to maintain awareness of the storyline. Typical of Government/Military ‘speak’ is the prodigious use of acronyms throughout the text. The authors do a commendable job in addressing this issue through the use of a “Acronym and Abbreviation’ section. (the fact that it is nine pages long gives an indication of what the reader has in store).

     A central theme of both the thesis of the authors (that being the almost insurmountable challenges of concurrent duel conflicts) and the narrative itself is the complexity of the command structure. In Afghanistan, for example, American commanders were faced with coordinating policy and operations between a NATO command structure (which answered to both NATO and the individual national governments), NGO’s, the Government of Afghanistan itself (which carried with it a whole host of issues including corruption, effectiveness and the power structure of the tribes and warlords), domestic (US) limitations, US OGD’s (Other Government Departments), the spillover of the conflict into Pakistan and the command structure of the US military itself. Any one of these would be challenging in and of itself, but combined presented challenges daunting in any environment. The authors provide a striking analysis of the breadth of these problems within both the Afghan and Iraq theatres of operations. However, due to the scope of the book, there is left room for additional evaluation and analysis. For example within the structure of Central Command (the COCOM responsible for both Iraq and Afghanistan), the blurring of the delineation of authority between the operational and strategic levels is of note. Additionally, while the authors refer to the advent of technology and its impact upon operational capability throughout the narrative, I would have liked to have seen more discussion and analysis on the degree of stress put on the command structures through micromanagement resulting from the selfsame technology (so-called challenges of effective information management and execution).

     One of the clear lessons derived from the book is the fact that the US Administration and the Department of Defence did not fully grasp the difficulties relating to operations within an asymmetric conflict environment. Additionally, there was little initial thought given to the concept of nation building and who would be responsible for it. The authors do provide an excellent evaluation of the struggles within the various departments responsible for civilian and military administration within the conflict zones as the scope of the problems unfold before them. This books interpretation of the mean by which these issues were dealt with provides invaluable insight into the inner workings of the US senior planning staff and the limitations and challenges presented by the complexities of the conflicts to effective and timely decision making. 

     The authors are to be commended for taking on the challenge of evaluating the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and translating the vast store of knowledge surrounding the successes and failures within each into a format that enables readers to begin to grasp the true complexities of the actions undertaken by the United States. The selected bibliography and extensive footnoting are extremely valuable and ensure the reader excellent access to additional sources. 
Overall, this is a highly recommended book. The author’s assessments of the conflicts, the method by which they present their findings and the depth of evaluation that they undertake makes this a singular work for an overall understanding of the conflicts thus far.

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