- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.
By R.B. Works
Best Defense book review department
Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Little America offers a critical perspective on the massive American effort in Afghanistan since the surge of civilian and military advisors in 2009. Following a brief history lesson on Afghanistan, Chandrasekaran depicts the decades-long development project started in the 40’s by the United States from which he took the title "Little America." However, this model town, which quickly fizzled out from fraud, waste, and lofty dreams, serves as a small lesson from the past that the United States has failed to learn from.
Utilizing several years of interviews and discussions with members across the U.S. government, State Department, and with U.S. Marines, Chandrasekaran reveals not only the fighting within the White House, but the futility of the American efforts on the ground, citing our collective failure to develop and implement a comprehensive national strategy for Afghanistan.
Chandrasekaran spreads criticism far and wide, especially at the decision to send U.S. Marines away from the strategic city of Kandahar and deploy them into Helmand province. As a U.S. Marine who served in Helmand in 2008, I found Chandrasekaran’s disapproval intriguing as he offers several reasons for this decision, including senior Marine leaders citing the level of violence in Helmand, faulty reports regarding poppy revenue, and disagreements with our Canadian allies over the security situation in Kandahar city. U.S. Marine leadership played their hand with care to frame their employment according to their own doctrine and plans, convinced that the key to peace in Afghanistan was through Helmand.
It seemed as if Marine leadership wanted an opportunity to generate success in Pashtun-land of Helmand province much like the "Sunni Death Triangle" in Iraq — and take credit for it. At my level, we were never briefed on how securing the Helmand province tied into the broader national strategy for Afghanistan or the provincial security of Kandahar. We were not alone. As the author notes, "Even General McChrystal, head of the International Security Assistance Force and U.S. Forces in Afghanistan, did not know why the Marines were being sent into Helmand."
Yet this is only the start of the many problems Chandrasekaran highlights in Little America. After more than a decade of war, interagency cooperation still was not working effectively. It seemed that almost every participating agency at every level was disagreeing on how to fight or end the war in Afghanistan. Disagreements and fighting even occurred between the National Security Council and Richard Holbrooke, the senior diplomat tasked with brokering a peace deal. Hundreds of millions of dollars were being wasted on unsustainable projects that the Afghans did not need and could not sustain.
Throughout Little America, Chandrasekaran shows how the bureaucracy and utter breakdown in civil-military operations limited the few effective leaders in both the State Department and the military. Yet these few leaders who saw the futility of the misguided American efforts in Afghanistan were unable to change very little outside their own Afghan districts. Washington was too slow to adapt and the internal rivalries handicapped a cohesive whole-of-government approach.
Chandrasekaran advocates that if U.S. Marines had been sent into Kandahar originally, a year of the surge could have been salvaged and additional troops could have been focused elsewhere. He suggests that there was no need to double the American footprint if U.S. and NATO troops had concentrated on the important regions of Afghanistan, empowered local tribal leaders, and embraced the Afghan National Security Force training mission. Yet, he fails to test that logic, and fails to assess how politically feasible this would be to the American public. Nor does Chandrasekaran address the security dilemma, COIN fatigue, American strategic culture ,and lack of patience. The fact still remained that by 2008 the Taliban insurgency had grown and additional troops were needed because NATO was becoming overwhelmed with attacks, momentum was tipping towards the Taliban, and the Afghan presidential election and fledgling democracy were in jeopardy.
Chandrasekaran’s thrust — empowering local tribal elders and maintaining the traditional balance of power in Afghanistan — begs the overriding question of the last decade: "Is the United States willing to invade a country and topple its existing government to re-create a non-democratic political system?" He fails to account for the multiple ethnicities, tribes, and neighboring powers all vying for political influence inside Afghanistan. The question we should be asking ourselves is actually "Is Western-style nation building realistic in a place like Afghanistan?"
Secondly, Afghan security forces are questionable at best. Having worked alongside Afghan National Army (ANA) in 2008, I can attest to the corruption and drug abuse that ran rampant through the ANA ranks, not to mention the willingness or ability of Afghan leadership to control it. One of Chandrasekaran’s biggest points was the failure of the United States to wholeheartedly accept the Afghan security force training mission, yet he never addresses the widespread doubts among Afghans about the level of corruption among Afghan police and army. Nor does Chandrasekaran mention the lingering doubts as to the ANA or Afghan police’s combat effectiveness when not advised by Americans, the Afghan government’s inability to sustain the current level of Afghan forces, or the increase of "Green on Blue" attacks (The ANA or Afghan Police attacks against U.S. and NATO allies). When my Marine contingent departed Afghanistan in late 2008, I cannot honestly say I felt the Afghan people were in safe hands.
Our mismanagement of the war in Afghanistan is not just an American bureaucracy problem; it is a long-standing cultural idea that Americans have a unique insight and ability to fix complex issues like stability and governance in places like Afghanistan. We are problem solvers, but we also apply templates regardless of socio-political context and tend to mirror image. In addition, we still believe in the idea of quick wars and "strategic battles" (big decisive battles, or campaigns that we have historically been good at winning which determine conflict outcomes).
Little America presents a frustrating look at the failure of U.S. and NATO efforts to achieve a lasting, peaceful solution in Afghanistan. Although it will make the reader uncomfortable, if not pessimistic about future success, it is strongly recommended to all students of contemporary conflict. The "war within the war" offers insights that will undoubtedly not be unique to Afghanistan. Before we turn our backs on Afghanistan or walk away from future challenges with stability operations, we should recognize our own failings. Lessons from Helmand, a dismal bureaucratic and interagency track record, will be useful only if our leaders are willing to acknowledge identified shortcomings and work to make positive changes that address these problems. Some will ask if we are capable of learning lessons at all. The answer will be dependent on the willingness of our politicians, senior military and diplomatic leaders to make reforms faster than the American people are able to forget about Iraq and Afghanistan. The only people doomed to repeat the past are those unwilling to understand how the present can inform the future.
R.B. Works served as a Marine in the Reconnaissance Platoon, 24th MEU, in Afghanistan in 2008. He is currently a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and a research associate at the Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University. This posting represents his own views and does not reflect the positions of the Department of Defense, the Joint Staff or National Defense University.