An Intimate War

An Oral History of the Helmand Conflict

Part of the Conflict Classics series
November 2017 9781849048910 424pp


An Intimate War tells the story of the last thirty-four years of conflict in Helmand Province, Afghanistan as seen through the eyes of the Helmandis. In the West, this period is often defined through different lenses — the Soviet intervention, the civil war, the Taliban, and the post-2001 nation-building era. Yet, as experienced by local inhabitants, the Helmand conflict is a perennial one, involving the same individuals, families and groups, and driven by the same arguments over land, water and power.

This book — based on both military and research experience in Helmand and 150 interviews in Pashto — offers a very different view of Helmand from those in the media. It demonstrates how outsiders have most often misunderstood the ongoing struggle in Helmand and how, in doing so, they have exacerbated the conflict, perpetuated it and made it more violent — precisely the opposite of what was intended when their interventions were launched.

Mike Martin’s oral history of Helmand underscores the absolute imperative of understanding the highly local, personal, and non-ideological nature of internal conflict in much of the ‘third’ world.


‘Brilliant.’ — Rory Stewart, The Times Literary Supplement

‘An extraordinary book … An Intimate War is the work of a wise and patient scholar.’ — James Meek, London Review of Books

‘The first serious effort to make sense of the war in Helmand … An Intimate War is an uncompromising, deeply thought and important contribution.’ — Tom Coghlan, The Times

‘A brilliant book.’ — Prospect

‘This is the best book ever written on Afghanistan. Martin writes what I have been feeling since the 1980s, but have not expressed in such a clear way. It is a remarkable work of political anthropology.’ — Olivier Roy, Professor and Chair in Mediterranean Studies, European University Institute

‘Martin’s meticulous study, based on 150 interviews conducted over four years, and his own experience as a serving officer in Helmand, presents a view of the war that is radically different from the one the British public has been hearing ever since Tony Blair ordered British troops to deploy in Helmand in 2006. The picture that he paints is often jaw-dropping.’ — Matt Carr, The Huffington Post

‘Among the best books on the Afghan crisis I have come across… immensely detailed.’ — Robert Fox, Defence Editor of the Evening Standard, The World Today

‘A must-read for anyone interested in a detailed history of the British war in Helmand province or the counter-insurgency debate…provides useful insights in the social dynamics of the province before the start of the civil war.’ — International Affairs

An Intimate War is, quite simply, the book on Helmand. I sincerely wish it had been available to me when I was ISAF Commander in Afghanistan. Military, diplomatic and development professionals involved in Afghanistan — and elsewhere, for that matter — read this and take note.’ — General Sir David Richards GCB, CBE, DSO, ADC Gen; Commander of International Forces in Afghanistan, 2006-7 and UK Chief of the Defence Staff, 2010-13

‘This work lays the foundation for much future research, including similarly in-depth looks at the histories of, and counterinsurgencies in, other provinces in Afghanistan and Iraq. It also highlights the need for study into why institutions and militaries adopt mistaken initial premises, and more importantly why groups and individuals retain these flawed conceptions even as it becomes clear that they are failing to achieve their goals. Above all, Martin demonstrates the futility of trying to understand intrastate conflict, much less intervene in such conflicts, without grasping the implications of the local history, culture, politics and social dynamics.’—Jessica Jensen, Journal of Military and Strategic Studies, 2014

‘Essential reading for any serious student of Britain’s Fourth Afghan War. A deeply researched, clearly argued reminder of how the West’s road to Helmand was paved with good intentions, and that there, as elsewhere in Afghanistan, the West failed to understand the war it was fighting, causing them to coerce rather than to co-opt.’ — Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles KCMG LVO, UK Ambassador to Afghanistan 2007-9 and UK Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan 2009-10

‘The proverbial complexity of civil wars is typically discounted as irrelevant or misinterpreted through orientalising. Mike Martin begs to differ: in this rich and fascinating account of thirty-four years of war in Helmand, he explains how and why the private and local logics of the conflict interact with, and often subvert, the public, national, and international narratives. He exposes the failure of Western bureaucratic institutions to grasp this reality and dissects both the causes and consequences of their failure. This outstanding book is a must-read for those interested in understanding contemporary conflict.’ — Stathis Kalyvas, Arnold Wolfers Professor of Political Science, Yale University, and author of The Logic of Violence in Civil War

‘By far the most detailed account of Helmand province to date, offering both historical background and a chronicle of Helmandi politics in the post-2001 setup. The in-depth analysis of the local political dynamics provided by Martin makes this book a must-read for anybody trying to understand the post-2006 British and American interventions in Helmand.’ — Antonio Giustozzi, Visiting Professor in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London and editor of Decoding the New Taliban: Insights from the Afghan Field

‘It is impossible to do full justice in this review to the range and depth of Martin’s research, arguments, or account of the Helmand conflict.’ — Asian Affairs

‘A worthy critical evaluation of the military failure in Helmand . . . clearly demonstrates the need for a critical lessons learned approach to foster and promote deep cultural understanding in the military and above all resist the attempt to impose western values on societies in the pursuit of a western focussed outcome.’ —British Journal of Military History


Mike Martin is Senior Visiting Research Fellow in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, where he speaks and writes on conflict. His previous books, also published by Hurst, are An Intimate War; Crossing the Congo; and Why We Fight. He tweets about conflict and geopolitics as @ThreshedThought.

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