'Little America' review: Rajiv Chandrasekaran's service and sacrifice

John Westwood, of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, negotiates the narrow John Westwood, of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, negotiates the narrow ledge of a guard tower after putting the finishing touches on the U.S.and Afghanistan flags. (December 1, 2009) Photo Credit: MCT

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REVIEW

LITTLE AMERICA: The War Within the War for Afghanistan, by Rajiv Chandrasekaran. Alfred A. Knopf, 368 pp., $27.95.

The war in Afghanistan has been a succession of missed opportunities, broken promises and wasted sacrifice. That is the inescapable message of "Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan," Rajiv Chandrasekaran's brilliant account of the period between President Barack Obama's inauguration in January 2009 and the drawdown in the summer of 2011.

Like many of the troops and some of the civilians whose experiences in Afghanistan he chronicles, Washington Post journalist Chandrasekaran spent time in Iraq. His 2006 book, "Imperial Life in the Emerald City," showed in devastating detail how coalition forces' isolation inside the bubble of Baghdad's Green Zone hampered postwar reconstruction efforts.

The U.S. military learned from the mistakes of Iraq, Chandrasekaran writes, and counterinsurgency strategy was adopted by the military establishment because it had been effective there. Troops were encouraged to leave their bases and vehicles. If U.S. forces could help deliver basic services, Afghans would see for themselves that the government could do more for them than the Taliban ever would.

The appeal of counterinsurgency is obvious, but it is fiendishly difficult to implement effectively. It requires a flexible military, effective civilian advisers and wise policy-makers. "Little America" shows those elements were not always present.

Soon after he took command in Afghanistan in 2009, Gen. Stanley McChrystal wondered why nearly 11,000 U.S. troops had been sent to sparsely populated Helmand province, while only 4,000 were headed to Kandahar, Afghanistan's second-largest city, which the Taliban regarded as an important strategic prize. He learned that Kandahar had been handed off to Canada during the Bush administration, and the United States didn't want to upset the Canadians by forcing them to cede territory. As Chandrasekaran reports, to some newly arrived officers, "it seemed that U.S. commanders thought that managing the NATO alliance was more important than winning the war." Still, there was little McChrystal could do to change the situation. The Marines in Helmand couldn't be relocated. Marines insist on operating independently, rather than being supported by Army helicopters and supply convoys, and they already had built bases there. Consequently, hundreds of U.S. troops were killed or injured defending ghost towns in Helmand.

Chandrasekaran's account of the contribution of civilian agencies like USAID is particularly damning. One of the most important civilian tasks was to encourage Afghans to grow crops other than poppies, which produce the opium that many believe provides the bulk of the Taliban's funding. Agricultural experts recommended cotton as the best replacement crop -- it grows well in the local soil and could be transported on the region's terrible roads more easily than the relatively delicate melons and pomegranates favored by USAID. The cotton advocates were repeatedly thwarted, however, in part because USAID's leaders didn't understand agricultural economics. Instead, the agency spent millions of dollars on ineffective projects. In a nation where more than 80 percent of working-age males are small-scale farmers, this was a massive and preventable failure.

In Washington, D.C., personal rivalries within the war cabinet sabotaged the best hope to end the war. Richard Holbrooke, President Obama's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, was determined to bring about a negotiated settlement among the Taliban, the Afghan government and the United States. Unfortunately, several key players took an intense dislike to Holbrooke's sometimes abrasive personality. They marginalized and excluded him whenever possible, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton publicly expressed a desire to negotiate with the Taliban only after Holbrooke's sudden death in December 2010.

"Little America" shows how small changes could have made a huge difference. If only the Army and the Marines had been able to cooperate more successfully. If only senior officers had truly committed to the stated mission of training Afghan forces. If only President Obama's advisers could have worked together more effectively. If only the domestic political climate had made it possible for the United States to commit fewer troops over a longer period. If only the civilians from the State Department and USAID had wasted less money on unnecessary administration and irrelevant projects.

This is a reporter's account of America's longest war, and only a journalist with Chandrasekaran's experience and skill could tell this extraordinarily complicated story with such depressing clarity. He describes with sincere appreciation the service and sacrifice of the hundreds of thousands of Americans, military and civilians, who volunteered to serve in Afghanistan, but he does not shy away from pointing out their shortcomings. Indeed, it is his meticulous evenhandedness throughout the book that makes the impassioned conclusion so undeniable: "For years, we dwelled on the limitations of the Afghans. We should have focused on ours."

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