Book Review: “What Went Wrong in Afghanistan?”

Reviewed by: Millie Radovic

Gurcan, Metin. What Went Wrong in Afghanistan?: Understanding Counter-Insurgency Efforts in Tribalized Rural and Muslim Environments. Helion and Company, 2016. ISBN: 978-1-911096-00-9.


The term ‘Counter-Insurgency’, also known as COIN, has in the post-9/11 era become synonymous with Afghanistan. Nearing its sixteenth year, the NATO-led campaign to defeat the Taliban insurgency that followed the US invasion in 2001, is not short of critical literature. In Metin Gurcan’s What Went Wrong in Afghanistan?, the author tackles several questions: Why have so many efforts in Afghanistan been futile? Why has this been such a persistent conflict? And, what are we missing in our current understandings of the Afghan state and society? His answer to all these is Tribal Rural and Muslim Environments (TRMEs) and it is their characteristics that he goes on to analyze.

As a seasoned veteran in the practice and theory of Western military interventions, Gurcan uses his personal experiences of growing up in a rural Muslim environment in Turkey and working in Afghanistan as a military consultant between 2000 and 2008 to introduce a new perspective on COIN strategy – the primacy of tribalism. In other words, he argues that TRMEs are the defining feature of Afghanistan[1]. While conventional literature deems these ‘ungoverned’[2], he contends that they very much are regulated by their own norms, rules, and structures. In the first chapter, Gurcan defines TRMEs and outlines their key characteristics in relation to the state, family, Islam, justice, and violence. Thereafter, he uses this framework to examine modern Afghan history, and finally outlines the implications that TRMEs have on the nature and success rates of NATO-led COIN efforts in Afghanistan.

Gurcan’s key contribution to the current modern literature on Afghanistan is his emphasis on the importance of tribal order, a unique prevalence of Islam, and a rural landscape. Tribal order, as he defines it, “is a particular form of socio-economic and political control that completely rejects other belief systems introduced by the outsiders into the traditional way of life.”[3] He highlights that tribal orders are not resistant to adaptation and change, but that any transformation must be on their terms and that the very core tenets of their modus operandi do not change. Therefore, “any political solution disregarding the fact of territorial identities of the tribes or violating them may be confronted by strong reactions from the tribes.”[4] Gurcan’s well-defined framework of the Afghan tribal order and its relationship with society lends a perspective into Afghan society that is often undermined or ignored in COIN literature, and implies that our failures in COIN have been fashioned by our misunderstanding of the local environment. For example, Gurcan observes that state borders are meaningless for tribes[5], how in TRMEs “authority not reasoning comes to the conclusion about correct action”[6], yet that also “battles between tribes are never fought so fierce that one side attempts to annihilate the other completely”[7]. His observations challenge common value-based perceptions of what the social structure of a state ought to be.

Another highlight of Gurcan’s book is his poignant use of anecdotes and hypotheticals. He immerses the reader in the milieu of a local Afghan in the middle of the insurgency. His continual use of hypotheticals to explain the mentality of tribal leaders, or to explain the dilemmas of ISAF commanders, and show the importance of interpreters offer a candid picture of the Afghan environment.

The niche theme suggests that the target audience is not broad, but aims at a readership that has already in some way engaged with COIN and Afghanistan before. If this indeed is the case, many of components of the book are arguably redundant and unnecessary. For example, the second chapter spends much unnecessary time on outlining the geography, demography and modern history of Afghanistan. If an informed audience is assumed, then the section itself is excessive. It gathers commonly known facts into a chapter to conclude that these factors have had four commonly known impacts on rural Afghanistan. Such impacts are the removal of tribal structures from governance, the emergence of new networks of political Islamists under the Taliban’s flag, the development of violence as a ‘norm’ in settling socio-political and economic issues, and the destruction of traditional economic structures making room for warlordism.[8] Meanwhile, in the final chapter, Gurcan states that he will address ‘generally unknown’ issues of COIN strategies in Afghanistan. However, much of it reads like a compilation of existing work on counterinsurgency theories – those of David Galula, David Kilcullen, and John Nagl – together with contemporary literature on Afghanistan and the Taliban. However, Gurcan’s first-person insight into Afghan society makes this book authentic.

Finally, all of Gurcan’s arguments on how we have misunderstood Afghanistan are convincing, yet his angle of analysis is so narrow that he straps himself into a policymaking straightjacket. By stressing local level understanding as the sole most important component of COIN efforts, Gurcan avoids broader overarching factors. His understandings of corruption, even norms, and security and justice appear solely defined by his experience of Afghanistan. This eliminates any value-based judgment of the issues and – as he admits himself – setting this book up for a problem-structuring, but not problem-solving narrative. As such, in order to yield results, this book must be accompanied by multiple other readings on the issues he refers to and a thorough knowledge of the COIN campaign in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, with vast tactical implications, What Went Wrong in Afghanistan is an essential contribution to the literature on COIN in Afghanistan. It is yet another reminder that as books like Gurcan’s improve our understanding of Afghanistan, our efforts must begin capitalizing on them.

Millie Radovic (@millie_radovic) is a final-year British student reading for a BA in International Relations at the Department of War Studies in King’s College London.


[1] Gurcan, Metin. What Went Wrong in Afghanistan?: Understanding Counter-insurgency Efforts in Tribalized Rural and Muslim Environments. Helion and Company, 2016. p.15

[2] See Mills, Greg. “Calibrating Ink Spots: Filling Afghanistan’s Ungoverned Spaces.” The RUSI Journal 151, no. 4 (2006): 16-25; Rabasa, Angel. Ungoverned territories: Understanding and reducing terrorism risks. Vol. 561. Rand Corporation, 2007; Schetter, Conrad. “7 Ungoverned territories.” The Spatial Dimension of Risk: How Geography Shapes the Emergence of Riskscapes 27 (2012): 97.

[3] Metin, What Went Wrong in Afghanistan? (2016). p.33

[4] Ibid. p.35

[5] Ibid. p.52

[6] Ibid. p.39

[7] Ibid. p.50

[8] Ibid. p.91

Feature image credit: Tomas Munita for The New York Times at

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