.How we screwed up Afghanistan: a review of Little America

In 1946, the United States hired the construction firm Morrison-Knudsen to transform a neglected valley alongside Afghanistan’s Helmand river into a modern agricultural society.  Morrison-Knudsen built dams and irrigation canals.  Taught farmers new methods and provided seed and fertilizer for new crops.  Homes were built, American tract houses.  Western-style schools, hospitals and recreation centers opened. Four spanking new villages were built.  The area had been called Lashkar Gah.  Afghans began to call it Little America.

That’s where Rajiv Chandrasekaran begins his book, Little America, The War Within the War For Afghanistan.  Chandrasekaran’s earlier book, Imperial Life in the Emerald City remains, in my view, the finest book I read on the Iraq war; a scathing, at times darkly hilarious account of the CPA, the Coalition Provisional Authority, the interim government established to administer Iraq after Saddam Hussein’s fall. Now, with Little America, Chandrasekaran tackles the war in Afghanistan.  It’s an altogether darker account, brilliantly researched and written, a book that honors the sacrifice of those of our soldiers killed and wounded in that war, while painstakingly pointing out the mistakes and blunders and internal conflicts that made fighting it such a nightmare.

Really, seriously, if you want to understand Afghanistan, read this book.  If you want to understand how bureaucratic inertia and infighting can get in the way of sensible policy, read this book.  If you want to read inspiring stories of thoughtful and intelligent and passionate military men desperate to find creative solutions to a war bogged down in quagmire, purchase and read this book.

For one thing, you’ll read about Larry Nicholson, top marine commander, and as tough and bright a guy as you’ll ever encounter.  Nicholson went out of his way to work with his Afghan counterparts, both politically and militarily.  He bought in completely to the idea that the Marines best chance was to train up the Afghan fighting forces, let them take the main responsibility for battling the Taliban.  But the corrupt and hopelessly inefficient Afghan government of Hamid Karzai blocked him at every turn.

Nicholson’s right hand man was a State Department officer named Kael Weston.  Nicholson and Weston would seem to make for an odd couple; the hard driving buttoned-down Marine commander and the tousled, casually dressed liberal Democrat from State.  But Weston’s experience in-country, his fluency in Pashto, and his knowledge of the local culture, as well as his personal courage, made him invaluable.  A lot of the book deals with COIN, with the implementation of a Counter-Insurgent strategy, the kind of thing General David Petraeus was so successful with in Iraq.  Some military commanders in Afghanistan thought COIN could be the answer in Afghanistan too.  But reading Chandrasekaran’s book, it’s clear that if anyone could have made COIN work, it would have been the Nicholson/Weston team.  And they did make a difference in the Helmand Valley, where anyway at least some locals remembered Little America–and the irrigation canals they still use–with some fondness.

But that’s the tough thing about Afghanistan; if you pacify one region, the insurgents just move to another one and entrench there.  Even if the US were able to pacify the entire country, they just melt into Pakistan, a nation with which we maintain the most uneasy of alliances.

And, as Chandrasekaran points out, Pakistan has no motivation to support US policy in Afghanistan.  A largely peaceful, mostly Taliban-free Afghanistan–the most plausible possible ‘victory’ scenario–would undoubtedly try to ally itself with India; certainly, it would trade with India.  And such an alliance is not in Pakistan’s interest.  So the Taliban can treat Baluchistan (the Northern Pakistani province) as its safe haven.  And Osama bin Laden could comfortably hide in an Islamabad suburb.

The book introduces us to a number of remarkable Americans, each of which could possibly have made a difference if anyone had listened to them or taken their ideas with the seriousness they deserved.  One is a guy named Wes Harris, who Larry Nicholson recruited to come as an agricultural advisor.  A life-long farmer from Georgia, Harris did an analysis of the soil and water and climate in Helmand, to try to figure out what an alternative cash crop might be to opium poppies.  (Although the CIA disputes this, it’s possible that much of the Taliban’s funding comes from heroin, and certainly it’s in our interest to find other crops Afghan farmers might be able to bring to market.)  Harris’ analysis suggested that cotton would make for a great Afghan cash crop. And cotton is a crop Afghanis know how to grow. They already have cotton gins, though they’ve been badly neglected.  (Afghan soil isn’t great, but 80% of the country’s men are farmers, and they once grew a huge variety of cash crops, including pomegranates, watermelon, and other fruits).  Nicholson and Weston jumped on it, and applied to USAID (the State Department entity responsible for rebuilding efforts) for money for cotton seed. And ran into massive political hassles.

Why?  Turns out, in the US, the cotton-growing lobby is very strong, and fiercely opposed to the US giving money to foreign competitors.  And eventually, Wes Harris got tired of banging his head against USAID’s bureaucratic walls, and went home.  Another opportunity lost, because growing cotton was actually an idea a lot of Afghani farmers were kind of enthusiastic about.

We also read about Summer Coish. She went to Afghanistan as part of Richard Holbrooke’s team, after essentially ambushing him in a hotel room and handing him a copy of a magazine, Steppe, she wrote and published about Central Asia. Bright, fluent in several languages, and with many many personal contacts in and around Kabul, she was the perfect State Department recruit.  Except, Catch 22, she had so many friends in the region, vetting her for a security clearance took months.  She spent a year in Kabul, shuffling papers, and accomplishing nothing, before finally heading home in frustration.

In Kandahar district, we read about Carter Malkasian.  Called by the Afghans Carter Sahib, he was the State Department representative in Garmser, tasked with providing political advice to military commanders.  But he not just fluent in Pashtun, he so immersed himself in Pashtun culture, and was so utterly fearless, he became completely indispensable to a succession of battalion commanders.  He was also so completely unwilling to abide by the State Department’s security regs, he was eventually fired and sent home.

We also read about Rick Centanni, a lance corporal from Yorba Linda California, a nineteen-year old who enlisted out of reasons of just pure, sheer patriotism.  Great kid, who wanted post-war to join his father as a California state trooper.  And who was killed by an IED.

Little America also takes us inside the Obama administration and the Hillary Clinton State Department, to show us the political intrigue that infected nearly every strategic decision.  Secretary Clinton trusted Richard Holbrooke, the veteran diplomat responsible for brokering the Bosnia/Serbia/Croatia peace accords.  Holbrooke, however, was a controversial figure, organizationally inept, florid in his manner, uninterested in bureaucratic protocols.  Stylistically, he was also a poor fit for the Obama administration, where cool rationality ruled the day.  Holbrooke was too flamboyant to fit in, and such State luminaries as Doug Lute and Afghan ambassador Karl Eikenberry detested him.  Their infighting destroyed any possibility of a negotiated peace, even if one had been possible.

When you read this book, however, you don’t think, ‘well, it was impossible, there’s no way a peaceful solution could have been achieved.’  You see instead wasted opportunities.  It’s not that President Obama ignored the advice of his military commanders, it’s that he had many commanders, each with different ideas about what might be achieved, and how.  It’s not that the State Department didn’t have dedicated and thoughtful people pursuing diplomatic solutions; it’s that the solutions each proposed were incompatible with all the other solutions other people were trying.  No one agency is at fault, but no agency exactly covered itself with glory.

This is a splendid book, sad and tragic and deeply affecting.  We went into Afghanistan with a significant cassus belli, capable forces, and with idealistic motives.  What we’ll leave behind is a huge mess.  Sadly, that’ll be nothing new for that sad and mismanaged land.



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