One evening in September 2009, I squeezed into a room packed with American Marines and British military officers at Camp Leatherneck, the desert base that served as headquarters for the 10,000 Marines who made up the first wave of President
The room was hot and the PowerPoint interminable. But forAfghanistan'stop Marine commander, Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, the routine briefing was a welcome respite. When a Marine flashed a slide of Camp Leatherneck's intake lot, where dozens of supply-laden trucks lined up every day, Nicholson joked, "It looks like Marja!" The lines dividing the truck lanes bore a passing resemblance to irrigation canals American engineers had dug 50 years earlier in Marja, a tiny farming community in Helmand province that Nicholson and his Marines now planned to invade. The network of waterways had been etched into the general's brain by hours of staring at images of the town, and the canals had become a source of obsessive frustration. Big, heavy military vehicles couldn't drive into Marja because of them. Insurgents would festoon the bridges with bombs.
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The canals were the result of an ambitious post-
This irony — one of many in a war that saw theU.S. militaryand its coalition partners targeting the Taliban even as it paid off insurgents to secure supply shipments and killing thousands of suspected militants at night while pushing reconciliation by day — underlies Rajiv Chandrasekaran's thorough, fast-paced account of the United States' latest ill-fated adventure in Afghanistan.
"Little America" takes its title from the nickname Afghans gave the Western-oriented planned community the Americans built in Helmand in the 1950s. Postwar optimism and Cold War dread led the U.S. to invest millions in an expansive irrigation and social engineering project that was hastily abandoned in the months before the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979. But the book's title does impressive double duty by suggesting how paltry the instruments of American military and diplomatic power turned out to be in the latter years of the current war, when close observers were whipsawed by the speed with which grand plans gave way to dismal realities, and most everyone else tuned out.
Chandrasekaran, a veteran
Readers meet a retired USAID staffer with Afghan experience dating back to the 1970s who fights mightily to convince his former employer to help Afghans grow cotton as a viable alternative to opium poppy. They get to know a smart, dedicated foreign service officer who tries tirelessly to convince Nicholson that he should concentrate his Marines in areas where Afghans live instead of sending them to out of the way swaths of largely uninhabited desert. They spend time with American Army officers who believe, inexplicably, that they can transform Afghans, whose life experience has taught them that graft and violence are the only sure ways to survive.
These men are some of the book's heroes, and things do not go well for them. As Robert Komer, who led America's pacification program in Vietnam, noted 40 years ago, bureaucracy does its thing; personal ambition, civil-military rivalries and political infighting do the rest.
In the interest of full disclosure, I know Chandrasekaran glancingly; we have both spent a lot of time in Helmand and Kandahar provinces in recent years, and we interviewed many of the same people. I read his book with the keen interest of someone who has witnessed much of what it describes, and I found it both accurate and illuminating, if occasionally limited by the author's American-centric perspective.
In addition to providing a wide-angle view ofU.S. militaryand civilian efforts across southern Afghanistan as Obama's surge played out between 2009 and 2011, Chandrasekaran — a Washington insider — brings readers into secret meetings as Obama and his advisers grappled with a war that had spun out of control.
"The president cut him off," Chandrasekaran writes. "'Richard,' Obama said, 'do people really talk like that?'" Holbrooke apparently did, but the veteran diplomat must have been experiencing an acute form of deja vu.
Nearly 50 years earlier, "Kennedy had instructed
A friend who worked for USAID in Afghanistan during this period and agrees with many of Chandrasekaran's critiques told me that the author's apparent glee in pointing out American failures disturbed him. This isn't a happy story, after all. TheU.S. militarycan rout and kill, but lacks the political wherewithal to know when less is more. America's civilian diplomatic and development corps, reduced by decades of budget cuts, ties up its smartest people and best initiatives in miles of bureaucratic red tape.
But I was more bothered by Chandrasekaran's unwavering — and perhaps unquestioned — penchant for viewing Afghanistan through the lens of American interests. In 2005, he writes, Afghan President
It is indeed astonishing that Karzai turned out not to be the philosopher king the United States claimed he was when it elevated him to power in 2001, but only to those who know nothing about Afghan or American history. That Karzai has pursued his own political and strategic interests even when they conflicted with American goals should shock no one.
Chandrasekaran writes of a "sadistic" Afghan insurgent known for his "bloodlust," and dismisses most Afghan officials as "Karzai cronies who … sat in their lavish homes and brokered personally enriching deals." One wonders how the war looked to them, but we never find out. While Americans are shown to be complex, if flawed, Afghanistan's "hardscrabble farmers" and "snowy-bearded grandfathers" remain distant and vague. I finished the book unsure if Chandrasekaran had done any of his Afghan reporting outside the military and diplomatic bubble.
Nevertheless, "Little America" makes valuable reading for anyone who wants to understand what the United States has been doing in Afghanistan these last few years. Many Americans do not realize how spectacularly we defeated ourselves there, and by what prosaic means.
Chandrasekaran brings this home with admirable clarity: "I kept hearing promises of how it would all be fixed," he writes. "But none of it remedied the core problem: Our government was incapable of meeting the challenge. … For years we dwelled on the limitations of Afghans. We should have focused on ours."
Vanessa M. Gezari is writing a book aboutU.S. militaryefforts to understand Afghan culture. She will be the 2012-13 Howard R. Marsh Visiting Professor of Journalism at the University of Michigan.
By Rajiv Chandrasekaran