Foreign Policy

A Masterful Account of America’s Doomed Afghanistan Mission

There are two types of war reporters. The first lands in the midst of a conflict with a map and a few contacts and immerses themselves in the local language, tradition, culture, and people. They may or may not attach themselves to rebel groups such as the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, or the Chechen fighters during their two wars against Russia in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

After 9/11, a new breed of war reporter emerged: the embedded journalist. They usually attach themselves to a unit or battalion—generally one from the journalist’s home country—and dig deep into the soldiers and their war. Placed directly with the military, the reporters have unprecedented access and often deliver spectacular scoops long before their colleagues. They can see the conflict firsthand and report it immediately.

Wesley Morgan’s magisterial The Hardest Place: The American Military Adrift in Afghanistan’s Pech Valley is embedded reporting at its finest. It is an important and vital read, deeply researched, spectacularly executed, and urgent now that the future of Afghanistan is so uncertain once again. Morgan was 22 years old when he landed in the Pech Valley in Afghanistan’s Kunar province—one of the most dangerous regions in the country—in 2010, the summer of then-U.S. President Barack Obama’s surge. He was still a college student, preparing to enter his final year as an undergraduate at Princeton University, and just starting his freelance reporting career.

One of Morgan’s first deployments was at Combat Outpost Michigan, a small U.S. military camp deep in the heart of Taliban country—and a magnet for attacks from the surrounding hills. The book pulls the reader into the life of an embedded reporter: thumps of explosions, chaos, bursts of machine-gun fire. Morgan describes his initiation into being attacked as “volleys of rocket-propelled grenades more like heavy rain.”

The Hardest Place: The American Military Adrift in Afghanistan’s Pech Valley, Wesley Morgan, Random House, 672 pp., , March 2021

The Hardest Place: The American Military Adrift in Afghanistan’s Pech Valley, Wesley Morgan, Random House, 672 pp., $35, March 2021

Morgan interviewed more than 200 soldiers for this book, pored over maps, and dug down deep into Afghan regional history, making this one of the most stunningly researched books on Afghanistan yet. He is fastidious with detail, and The Hardest Place should—and will—go down as the definitive account of what happened in this extremely rugged and difficult region of Afghanistan. At the same time, the book demonstrates a masterful ability to dive deeply into the soldiers’ world, showing us the microcosm of their misgivings, their fears, and their uncertainties.

Morgan’s book will have great appeal for those looking for blow-by-blow accounts of helicopter assault operations and special operations maneuvers that went fatally wrong. One chapter recounts the riveting tale of the ill-fated Operation Red Wings, a 2005 deployment to disrupt local Taliban activity. Red Wings is emblematic for battle disaster in Afghanistan: Three of the four participating Navy SEALs were killed, one helicopter went down, and the one survivor, Marcus Luttrell, was rescued. He went on to write Lone Survivor, which became a film starring Mark Wahlberg. While Morgan was not around for Red Wings—he didn’t get to Afghanistan until 2010—he seeks out those who were. Again, his detail is flawless.

But aside from the bang-bang, Morgan has also written the quintessential volume of the United States’ doomed involvement in Afghanistan by focusing on one small but treacherous region. In years to come, when people look to understand why the United States put so many resources into such a remote country, they will find the answers in Morgan’s detailed account of the Pech. That’s an astonishing accomplishment considering that Morgan was only in eighth grade when 9/11 occurred—the event that made Morgan become a self-confessed “military nerd” and ultimately took him to Afghanistan.

Morgan is able to illuminate the utter hopelessness of the war. He describes one Red Wings rescue worker ruminating as he searches for his comrades—and, with this description, reminds us that these aren’t just soldiers but also young men, scared and far from home. “The smell of the fire and the human remains in the hot sun made [him] think of a mass grave he had encountered during a deployment to Bosnia. When it started to overwhelm him, Hatch would look up at the beauty of the mountain; aside from the occasional hooting of monkeys, it reminded him of his native Utah,” Morgan writes.

The book is a tribute to the young men and women who fought a war that was doomed from the start: dependent on old Russian maps, fighting with far fewer resources than the United States allocated to the war in Iraq, and facing battles in a treacherous land of steep mountains and deep gorges that make classic terrain warfare impossible. Even trained mountaineers found it hard to get to some of the passes where they needed to go if they were to take out the Taliban fighters.

The Hardest Place is a classic example of embedded reporting, which tends to come with a number of pitfalls. Because it is written from the perspective of someone almost exclusively attached to a military unit, we see the conflict through a very narrow lens. In the book’s 600-plus pages, there are few Afghan voices other than a few local businessmen or some comical observations of war lords. Morgan describes Gulbuddin Hekmatyar—the Afghan politician, former mujahideen leader, and former prime minister whom every reporter in Afghanistan has come across at one point—hilariously: “[W]ith his long nose, severe brows, and drooping eyelids he bore a slight resemblance to the actor Christopher Lee.” I will never see Hekmatyar again without visualizing him as Saruman in The Hobbit.

Embedded with his Army unit, Morgan has little contact with the Afghan community or any Afghan friends other than translators. In a country where issues such as women’s schools, health care, and local governance are vital issues to tackle, the book focuses solely on the experiences of U.S. soldiers. This, again, is not Morgan’s fault—it is the nature of embedded reporting. When on patrol, other than the odd loya jirga where U.S. commanders meet with high-ranking community leaders or the occasional walk through a village, there is very little interaction other than firefights. Morgan would not have had the chance to meet with regular Afghans or form long-standing relationships as many other correspondents stationed in Kabul do, such as The Associated Press’s Kathy Gannon, regarded as the doyenne of Afghanistan reporters.

That kind of full immersion in a country would have produced a different story of the war. The classic of that genre is still Frances FitzGerald’s 1972 Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam. She sets out to describe the war through the eyes of the Vietnamese people—their land, their society. She details the conflicts between the communists and the anti-communists, the ancestor-worshipping villagers, the disruption caused by French colonialism, and how the U.S. intervention left behind an utterly destroyed country.

Focusing strictly on the U.S. side of the conflict, Morgan might have honed in on one or a few soldiers in greater depth. In his 1988 masterpiece, A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam, Neil Sheehan used one lieutenant colonel—Vann—to tell the entire story of how the United States entered and lost Vietnam. Along the way, we also see the moral undoing of a man who sets out to fight a “good war” but is doomed in his complicity. The book grabs the reader and plunges them into a compelling narrative that is essentially the story of one human being set against the backdrop of an impossible war.

While Morgan’s book is not focused on storytelling, some of his characters do stand out. One of them is Lt. Col. Christopher Cavoli, a graduate of Princeton and Yale who grew up climbing mountains in northern Italy. In one poignant scene in the Korengal Valley near the Pakistani border, Cavoli’s “unhappy Attack Company” just had its deployment extended from 12 months to 16. They had already spent months in punishing combat. Sixteen months in Afghanistan for soldiers who were “skinny and dirty, their uniforms tattered, a sunken look on many of their faces” was difficult for Cavoli to contemplate. Nowhere in the Korengal Valley was safe, and Cavoli had an enormous responsibility to keep his men alive, making life-or-death decisions about their deployment. As expected, things go wrong. When his troops are killed, we are told it is his strong Catholic faith that keeps him going. Reading that, a reader might wish for more depth of detail that would teach us what these soldiers endured and how they coped.

I would also have liked to have known more about young Morgan in this excellent book. He stands very much in the shadows—yet a reader might wonder, how did a just-out-of-his-teens journalist produce a work that is so important and so mature? What did he learn and gain? What did he feel going on patrol with these very young and very brave soldiers, always aware of the terror of roadside bombs and the Taliban sharpshooters who could take them out one by one?

Ultimately, however, Morgan’s book transcends the limits of the embedded reporting genre. The Hardest Place will stand out as one of the most important books to come out of the Afghanistan war. It describes in great detail and with great finesse the few triumphs and the massive failures. It should be read by policymakers, intelligence officers, and diplomats if only to understand what they are up against.

U.S. President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan this year—the modalities of which keep changing—will have huge implications in Afghanistan, throughout the region, and indeed in the world. The Hardest Place is an urgent book that will help us understand what might happen if these U.S. troops go.

Morgan deserves huge kudos for his firsthand account of the men and women who fought in an impossible place, their dedication, their perseverance, and their bravery. And for his own courage that led him there as a lone witness.

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