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Review by Mark Dillen

Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Knopf: New York, 2012, ISDN-13: 978-0307957146, 384 pp., $27.96 (hardcover), $13.99 (Kindle edition).

In Obama’s Wars, Bob Woodward’s thorough account of Afghanistan decision-making during the first year of the Obama Presidency, Woodward notes an iron law of American politics — that wars and other costly undertakings must show forward progress within a President’s first term.  Woodward says, Obama was conscious of time constraints as he reviewed Afghanistan policy in the fall of 2009 and considered Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s request for a surge of 30,000 additional U.S. forces.  “I have two years with the public on this,” Woodward quotes Obama as saying.

Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s new book, Little America, is an extended commentary on what happened on the ground in Afghanistan in those two or so years as a consequence of this logic, but it begins its narrative a half-century earlier, during the U.S.’ first foreign aid project there, which came to be known as “Little America.”  That experiment, in the small town of Lashkar-Gah, was propelled by a 1950s American optimism that our know-how and modernity could transform an arid corner of Helmand province into a model American-style community.  Chandrasekaran, a senior correspondent and associate editor at The Washington Post, lets the irony and hubris sink in as he sets this stage, then jumps forward to the present day to paint a portrait of American involvement in Afghanistan that, while huge in scope and ambition, was somehow still not enough to meet the challenge.  “Obama should have gone long, not big,” Chandrasekaran concludes, making a grand indictment:

I kept hearing promises of how it all would be fixed…but none of it remedied the core problem:  Our government was incapable of meeting the challenge.  Our generals and diplomats were too ambitious and arrogant.  Our uniformed and civilian bureaucracies were rife with internal rivalries and go-it-alone agendas.  Our development experts were inept.  Our leaders were distracted…It wasn’t Obama’s war, and it wasn’t America’s war.” 

Before reaching this sweeping conclusion, Chandrasekaran sketches a few vivid portraits from the time he spent with McChrystal and the American military that populated the Helmand outposts of Nawa and Marja.  He moves smoothly between the field posts where he was an “embedded” journalist witnessing conversations first-hand, to the White House Situation Room meetings where his sources were present to later give him the descriptions that find their way into the book.

Chandrasekaran’s main criticism of the U.S. military’s execution is that it focused on sparsely populated Helmand instead of the critical population center of Kandahar:

“In deciding to send [Gen. Larry] Nicholson’s nearly 11,000-strong Marine brigade to Helmand in early 2009, U.S. commanders had failed to grasp the extent of Taliban activity in Kandahar city,” he writes, then later concludes:

[But] had Nicholson been allowed to take Marja in the summer of 2009, and had Marine commanders been willing to deploy some of their battalions outside Helmand, McChrystal could have had more firepower in Kandahar, and he could have had it sooner.  Instead, he felt compelled to finish what had been started in Helmand, and he could not ignore the Taliban’s metastasis in the north.  That left him with just one additional Army brigade for Kandahar.

But Chandrasekaran’s main target is civilian, particularly USAID, whose huge operation was the conduit for most of the U.S.’ non-military assistance to Afghanistan, and whose country budget reached almost $4 billion in FY10.  In chapters entitled “Deadwood” and “My Heart is Broken,” he singles out for criticism the administration of agricultural support programs and the efforts to expand the power output of the Kajaki Dam in the dangerous Helmand River Valley.

While his criticisms have some merit, he ignores the excellent accomplishments of the aid program in education and public health, among other fields.  Having worked at the USAID Mission in Kabul myself during part of this period, I know there is an untold story of numerous successes that are passed over by journalists in favor of more sensational reports.  At any given time, there were always a few disgruntled aid workers among the hundreds in country.  In addition, a half dozen U.S. government auditing operations (GAO, Inspectors General for the State Department and USAID, Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction – SIGAR, etc.)  produced a steady stream of public reports on weaknesses in the implementation of complex projects in dangerous environments governed by corrupt officials.  The press corps in Kabul did not have to look far for its next story on problem-ridden projects.

As for good news, it’s not, well, news.  When Chandrasekaran travels to Marja in May 2010 “to observe how the civilians there were performing,” he finds that of the two from USAID, “one…a young New Englander, was indeed a model of dynamism and creativity,” but then focuses his attention on the other one, who “seemed lost in the heat and dust.”  Chandrasekaran finds too much paperwork and bureaucracy in Kabul, too few staff sent to field operations, too much time needed to create new employment and repair critical infrastructure.  Yes, these were and are constant complaints, but they should not diminish the good work that was accomplished.

In this environment, there were daily uncertainties:  how much security was enough?  What was the relationship between economic and social development and security?  How much emphasis should be put on COIN — counter-insurgency — operations?  (Chandrasekaran asserts that the military “ignored” Obama’s directive to take a limited approach.)  Finally, how much did the long-term presence of foreign troops from distant countries and cultures actually inspire the resistance that we were trying to help quell?  By 2011, writes Chandrasekaran, “the presence of so many foreign troops was stoking frustration and anger” among the Afghan population.  Huge supply convoys and NATO bases left a large footprint, creating an impression of a foreign occupation to be exploited by Taliban propagandists.

However, before accepting this notion of a totally dysfunctional government — an incapable “Little America” — we are obliged to define what the challenge really was. The United States entered Afghanistan in November 2001 to destroy a non-Afghan terrorist network that had occupied a remote and inaccessible area of that country.  That network enjoyed very little indigenous support among Afghans. By mid-2011, most of that elusive international network had been destroyed and its two top leaders taken off the field.  No longer was there any sanctuary for al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.  From the standpoint of America’s national security, much had been accomplished, perhaps even enough to justify a disengagement from that country.  This was hardly a sign of incapacity.

However, even though a U.S.-led operation chased the radical Taliban government out of Kabul in just a few weeks in late 2001, we changed at the same time the balance of forces among Afghanistan’s disparate tribal and ethnic groups.  The Pashtun Taliban was still supported by Pakistan’s government, and so long as the U.S. regarded stability in Afghanistan as a prerequisite to America’s security, Colin Powell’s aphorism  — “You break it, you own it” — would still apply. Of course, we did not break, nor do we own, Afghanistan, but we do own the problem of defining when our military engagement can be brought to an end, and how much longer thereafter we should be responsible for the country’s economy.

Writing in The New Yorker, Dexter Filkins, another experienced chronicler of Afghanistan, simply declared, “objectives once deemed indispensable, such as nation-building and counter-insurgency, have been abandoned or downgraded, either because they haven’t worked or because there’s no longer enough time to achieve them.”  He predicts that civil war will follow the final withdrawal of U.S. forces, scheduled for 2014.  Neither Filkins nor Chandrasekaran have much interest or faith in the international community of donors, either: Secretary Clinton recently returned from a donors’ conference in Tokyo at which America and her partners pledged a total of $60 billion to the Afghan government over the coming decade. The journalistic community has already discounted such promises.

In the end, Chandrasekaran’s Little America is aptly referred to not by its title, but by its subtitle:  The War within the War for Afghanistan. The disputes over the war will continue long after the fighting by Americans stops. The debate over what we should achieve there, and how long we should try, is about to be replaced by a debate over what we did achieve and whether it was worth it. After recounting with a muckraker’s delight the foibles of American military and civilian-decision making during the advent of the military and civilian “surge”, Chandrasekaran doesn’t explain how a longer, surge-less American involvement could have maintained American political support back home.  Although Chandrasekaran says that the U.S. should have “gone long,” it was Obama who may have calculated correctly that his only option was to “go big” and see what could be achieved.End.

American Diplomacy is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to American Diplomacy

Mark Dillen is an international public affairs consultant. As a member of the Senior Foreign Service, he served as Political Minister Counselor at the US Embassy in Rome in 1999, when talks about a Loya Jirga were underway in Rome with Zahir Shah. Mark recently returned from Kabul, where for one year he was Communications Director for USAID and Executive Secretary for the USAID Mission.

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