Book Reviews

Book Cover – The Valley’s Edge

Book Cover – The Valley’s Edge

The Valley's Edge. A Year with the Pashtuns in the Heartland of the Taliban

by Daniel R. Green
Sterling, VA: Potomac Books, Inc., 2011
288 pages, $29.95 HC. 

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Reviewed by Emily Spencer

The Valley’s Edge is a personal memoir by Daniel R. Green from when he served as the US Department of State political advisor to the Tarin Kowt Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Uruzgan Province, Afghanistan, 2005-2006, and as a naval reservist filling the position of liaison officer to the Interagency Provincial Affairs office at the US embassy in Kabul, 2009-2010.

The book is a very gripping and frank account of the American efforts to combat insurgency and to remove the Taliban from the remote and desolate province of Uruzgan in the south of Afghanistan. The writing is crisp, clear, and rich in description. Not surprisingly, the narrative moves quickly. 

The Valley’s Edge highlights the efforts and challenges of the PRT concept, an American experiment initiated in 2002 in Afghanistan. The reason for the PRT experiment was the American realization that after years of conflict in Afghanistan, there no longer existed functioning Afghan government structures, or a trained, competent Afghan public service. Organizationally, PRTs comprise a US Civil Military Affairs team, a military force protection element, police mentors, a development advisor, and a diplomat. These teams were designed to provide such advice and services as access to developmental expertise and money, technical knowledge, diplomatic skills, political skills and expertise, and the mentoring of government institutions and leaders, to name but a few. Notably, this initiative also heralded a dramatic change for the US diplomatic corps.  It required them to leave the relative safety of the embassy and the normal sphere of diplomacy to travel into the interior, with all the dangers and hazards that that entailed. 

The field deployment of political advisors was the lure for the author, who volunteered for the assignments. His account is exceptionally enlightening, starting with his hire into the public service as a political appointee as a reward for working on the 2000 George Bush presidential campaign. He covers his initial employment at the Pentagon where he was sent, pending his ‘permanent’ assignment.  Of importance here is his description of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attack on the Pentagon. Although this is brief, he does provide an interesting window on the tragedy and its impact.

Green then quickly turns to his Afghanistan tour. He is a talented writer, and his description of people, places, and events is revealing. Herein, he provides that rare balance between too little and too much detail, allowing his reader to feel satisfied with regard to content, but not to get bogged down by minutia.
The fact that the work is a personal memoir resonates throughout. Nonetheless, it provides a clear, detailed explanation of the personalities, important locations, and key events that all illuminate the context and background to the US efforts and challenges in 2005-2006 in Uruzgan Province. It is a brilliant snapshot of the area in question during the period under examination. Green nicely lays out the US government’s intentions and actions, the host nation (HN) realities, particularly the complex power relationships and rivalries, as well as the overall operating climate. He does a commendable job of shedding light on Afghan character, customs, and practices, especially with respect to political intrigue and corruption. Of great interest is his explanation of how provincial governments work and their funding mechanisms, given the absence of any central cash infusions.

Although specific to a narrow spectrum of time and a focused geographical area, Green’s insight is informative and extremely interesting. The author clearly provides a vivid picture of the complexity of Afghan politics, tribal relations, culture, and the challenges of Westerners working within this reality, particularly in light of their superficial comprehension of Afghans, and their holding of many unrealistic expectations. Not surprisingly, however, as is normally the case with personal memoirs, his biases are clearly evident.

Following this first account, Green’s narrative jumps to his return to the country in 2009. The author reveals that although many improvements had been made since his departure three years prior, many of the same problems he had experienced remained.  While this deployment represents a short portion of the book, it is also extremely interesting.
The book itself is a handsome production that exudes quality. The inside covers provide a map of Uruzgan Province and the country of Afghanistan, which make it easy for the reader to flip either to the front or the back to situate themselves geographically within the narrative. A total of 34 quality black-and-white photographs lend visual support to the text. Key players, locations, terrain, and general conditions leap from the photos to help place the story in perspective. A detailed index, a chronological timeline for Uruzgan Province, and a guide for abbreviations and acronyms further assist the reader in navigating through the story.
Overall, I strongly recommend The Valley's Edge to anyone who is interested in Afghanistan and counter-insurgency. It is an excellent account of the difficulties of operating in Afghanistan, with its complex cultural, tribal, and political make-up. Its insight and lessons, although focused mainly on Uruzgan in 2005 and 2006, spill over the geographic and time constraints and offer a wider understanding of the region, its people, and its challenges to Westerners.               

Emily Spencer, PhD, is a Research Associate with the Canadian Special Operations Forces Battle Laboratory. She is also an Adjunct Assistant Professor at the Royal Military College of Canada.