The South Asia Channel

Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan

"If we lose, it's going to be because of the civilians."

This pre-emptive attempt to define the epitaph of the Afghanistan war (made by a U.S. official at NATO) could almost be the one-line summary of Rajiv Chandrasekaran's Little America. The author himself spreads the blame even wider. "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... Our development experts were inept. Our leaders were distracted."

Little America is a well-researched, clearly-written exposé of the debates, disputes and political skullduggery between those involved in the Afghanistan "surge" in 2009. I found it easy to read: it mixes together comedy, tragedy, suspense and political analysis.

It is inevitably influenced by the people who talked to the author, who include (to judge from the endnotes) a large number of people in or close to the U.S. military; military perspectives predominate. And the losers in the book are more numerous than the winners.

Loser: Little America. It turns out that this project, intended to revitalize Afghanistan's agriculture in Helmand in the 1950s, essentially failed. The story of its failure -- over-ambitious, overfunded projects unsuited to Afghan realities -- is eerily prescient.

Loser: The Afghan Army, which comes across as badly-led and inept. "It's better for us," an Afghan soldier tells Chandrasekaran, "to let the Americans chase the Taliban."

Loser: The civilian surge. The image of drunken party-goers urinating against the outer wall of the U.S. Embassy's political section is hard to forget. But there is a lot of truth in the broader, more serious point. Security rules stopped civilians from engaging with Afghans, making the civilians' presence in Afghanistan in the first place a very expensive exercise in futility.

Loser: USAID. Chandrasekaran describes its bizarre war against the sensible, if short-term, idea of combating drugs production by subsidising alternative crops. "Their thinking is all about free trade," a USAID official is quoted saying about the agency's management. "But what about the goal of keeping people from shooting at our troops?"

Loser: The Brits and the Canadians. I thought this was going to happen as soon as I read the sentence "British commanders planned to show the Americans... how the pros executed counterinsurgency". As ever, pride came before a fall. By the end of the book, the British are suffering casualties at a higher proportion than the Americans, and are not too proud to ask the Marines for help. The Canadians, who preferred to run Kandahar with far fewer troops than the British and without Marine help, also come in for criticism. (As Chandrasekaran hints, the underlying problem was the original decision that provinces of Afghanistan should each be farmed out to separate NATO allies. Surely, the reader might think, there could have been a better way for NATO allies to work together than this.)

Loser: The chain of command. A U.S. company commander was transferred to a desk job as a punishment. His crime? Posting up remarks made by General Stanley McChrystal, the commander of U.S. Forces Afghanistan. This was apparently an unwise move in a brigade whose commander disagreed with McChrystal's approach. And that wasn't the only time that McChrystal was thwarted by technically more junior staff. The Marines were largely outside his control, thanks to a deal they had made with the Pentagon prior to their deployment to Afghanistan (they reported to a separate, three-star general at US Central Command). McChrystal, despite nominally being the most senior military officer in Afghanistan, wasn't even able to shut down fast-food restaurants at the Kandahar Airfield, which he felt were distractions in a warzone.

Loser: President Obama, whose decision to surge and withdraw comes across as the worst of all worlds - not giving Afghans any reassurance that the Taliban would not come back in a few years' time, while meantime costing tens of billions of dollars and reducing pressure on the Afghan Army to do its job properly. "To many Afghans...more troops meant more insecurity," Chandrasekaran suggests. The book also makes the case that the President was ill-served by bickering among his senior staff.

Winner: The warlords and their militias - presented by Chandrasekaran as brutal and exploitative, but also as effective fighters against the Taliban. Take Spin Boldak police chief Abdul Razziq's militia: "Unlike Afghan army units, many of which needed to be prodded and led into battle, Razziq's troops charged right in."

Winner: Joe Biden, whose proposal of "counterterrorism-plus" in Afghanistan looks to have been dead on. Raids against Taliban commanders could still have continued without pinning down tens of thousands of U.S. troops in the field day after day. 

Turning the pages of this book, I felt that I was reading the obituary of muscular nation-building. Chandrasekaran's conclusion suggests not only that America has failed in Afghanistan, but that it was bound to fail. "It wasn't America's war," he concludes.

Given the reduction in the Pentagon's budget and a shift to East Asia - where the United States is less likely to get directly involved in combat - Afghanistan-style interventions may indeed be things of the past. And it's hard to feel sorry about it after reading this sentence:

"The United States was spending more each year to keep Marine battalions in Nawa and Garmser than it was providing the entire nation of Egypt in military and development assistance."

Nawa and Garmser: population, 160,000; remote agricultural communities; few from the area have ever travelled outside it. Egypt: population, 85 million; highly urbanised and connected by direct flights to the USA; birthplace of modern Islamic militancy and of the leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

We need not stop at Nawa and Garmser. The whole operation in Afghanistan departed far from its original objectives, which were to deal a blow to al-Qaeda and reduce its chances of attacking America again. The United States could surely have dealt al-Qaeda a greater blow with the half a trillion dollars that it has spent in Afghanistan, if it had spent a large part of that money elsewhere (Egypt, Somalia, Yemen, Mali...). As this book implies, it would have done a better job in Afghanistan, too, if it had spent less money and been more focused on its original goal.

That is what makes me just a little bit more optimistic about Afghanistan than Chandrasekaran. He is giving the war in Afghanistan a fail grade: it was winnable, he says, but the West lost it -- and maybe was bound to lose it, because we just aren't configured to conduct and win such campaigns.

This may be premature. Public discontent with the war and President Obama's determination to pull back combat troops will likely now force a move to a new kind of U.S. presence in Afghanistan -- one that is small-scale, out of the faces of Afghan civilians, and long-term. It may or may not be enough to save Afghanistan from a renewed plunge into civil war; it will almost certainly set a limit on Taliban ambitions and make them keep their distance from al-Qaeda. It makes a great deal more sense than the Sisyphean labors that the United States has set itself for the last six years or so. 

Gerard Russell headed the U.K. Government's outreach efforts to Muslim audiences worldwide after September 11, 2001. He subsequently worked as a diplomat in Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, where he headed the U.K. Government's political team. He was a Research Fellow at Harvard 2009-10 and is writing a book on religious minorities in the Middle East, to be published by Basic Books in 2013/14. He is fluent in Dari and Arabic.

DAVID FURST/AFP/Getty Images

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