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3 January 2014, Gateway House

Book review: The American quagmire of war in Afghanistan

In 'Little America: The War within the War for Afghanistan', Rajiv Chandrasekaran examines the U.S.’s Afghanistan policy and the murky realities on the ground to narrate a story of discordant missteps

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Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s earlier book, Imperial Life in Emerald City, was a critical look at American missteps in Iraq. In Little America he examines American policy, strategy, and tactics in Afghanistan, using the same critical lens.

The author’s primary quest was to determine if the U.S. could “wage a good war.” His answer is a resounding “no” although there was no dearth of good intentions, some remarkable people, huge expenses, and great sacrifices.

Chandrasekaran’s meticulous reporting and engaging style take the reader through the multiple woes that have plagued America’s ill-conceived venture. The ostensibly noble ambition of suppressing the Taliban insurgency and bringing stability to Afghanistan is thwarted by various factors – a dysfunctional bureaucracy; a lack of vision at the highest levels in Washington; infighting among the armed forces; President Barack Obama’s fundamental reluctance to make any long-term commitment to Afghanistan, the inexplicable decisions of the United States Agency for International Development’s (USAID); and the fecklessness of Afghans and Americans alike.

The book takes its title from an effort made in the 1950s by the Afghan king who, with the help of American money, set out to bring prosperity to the rural heartland. He engaged Morrison Knudsen, a large U.S.-based construction firm, to dam the Helmand River and turn its valley into an agricultural paradise through irrigation. An enclave which came to be known as “little America” was built for American engineers, workers and their families, complete with swimming pool and other facilities. But the project failed abysmally. A series of mistakes caused the salinity of the soil to rise, destroying any hope for crops. Tragically, the opium poppy thrives in saline soil and today Afghanistan has been turned into a leading supplier of heroin to the world.

Fifty years later the same mistakes are being made, among the most egregious of which is the refusal by the USAID to support an Afghan programme to revive cotton gins on the grounds that it would not be a free market endeavour. USAID seems to have forgotten that the cotton industry in the U.S. would not survive without government subsidies.

Chandrasekaran takes us into the dissonance-filled world of policy-makers: the Pentagon wanted a broad counterinsurgency program; Obama merely wanted to prevent Al Qaeda from gaining a wider foothold while the late Richard Holbrooke, Obama’s special representative for AfPak affairs, tried to negotiate an end to the Taliban insurgency. Unable to execute a coherent and unified strategy, each competing centre of power diluted America’s ability to “wage a good war.”

The author also takes us into the chaotic world of a discordant armed forces in Washington, where the Army fights one war and the Marines, another. Douglas Lute, Obama’s chief advisor on Afghanistan and Pakistan, together with Karl Eikenberry, retired army lieutenant general and former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, fought endlessly with Holbrooke. They would have got him fired if not for the intervention of Holbrooke’s boss, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Holbrooke, whose reputation as a serious diplomat was built on ending the bloodshed in Bosnia, wanted to negotiate a settlement with the Taliban. But his attempts were thwarted by Obama, who disliked Holbrooke and was, in any case, persuaded by the counter-insurgency theory.

Chandrasekaran provides a wealth of detail gathered during the many battlefield trips he made as a correspondent for The Washington Post. The book is littered with profiles of figures caught in the quagmire of the war. However, while the reporting of the facts and events is impeccable, the book is short on historical context.  For example, it fails to probe the ethnic and tribal rivalries traditionally dividing the country and their sad history, in which the Afghans became as well-known for valour as for treachery among the tribes.

If we are appalled today that Hamid Karzai’s influence does not extend beyond Kabul, it is a well-known fact the authority of the last Afghan king, Mohammed Zahir Shah, was confined to the capital. In these circumstances, could any military intervention of an outside power have succeeded? William Dalrymple, in his book on the first Afghan war, The Return of the King, gave us an excellent account of the frustrations felt by the then superpower, Great Britain, and how its effort to subjugate this confounding nation became an unmitigated disaster. Chandrasekaran’s book would have gained perspective had factors other than America’s well-acknowledged mistakes been included.

After witnessing the war in Iraq the author wonders if “we could get Afghanistan right. Had we learned from our failures? Would more troops, civilian advisers, and reconstruction funds resuscitate a flatlining war? Would a protect-a-population counterinsurgency strategy work in Afghanistan? Would the Pakistanis crack down on Taliban sanctuaries in their country, and would Karzai work in good faith with the United States?”

Today’s conventional wisdom states that if the U.S. had not become distracted by the Iraq war, the problems in Afghanistan could have been fixed. An alternative perspective says there was nothing inevitable about the U.S. attacking Afghanistan after 9/11. Should the U.S. have aimed for a resolution of the conflict through peace negotiations with the Taliban? It is interesting to consider that alternative today because the most likely intermediary would have been Iran and the outcomes in the context of current negotiations with Iran might have been very different.

However, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are now possibly a part of the past and Little America, while brilliantly reported, could have added to our fund of wisdom regarding the future if the last chapter contained possibilities, not just complaints. The concluding chapter of the book lacks critical observations about Obama’s policy – was it totally unworkable? Could it have worked with some modifications? Could another path have been taken?

The current debate on Afghanistan would have been greatly enhanced had the author also considered the possibility of America’s success post-2014, even on a limited basis. After all, an acceptable outcome in Afghanistan cannot be ruled out should the U.S. remain committed after 2014.

‘Little America: The War within the War for Afghanistan’ by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, by Bloomsbury Publishing, 2012

Meera Kumar is a New York-based public relations professional. She has worked with the Asian Development Bank, the State University of New York, New York University, and several Fortune 20 companies. She started her career as a journalist writing for various media outlets in Southeast Asia, including the ‘Bangkok Post’ and ‘The Nation.’

This review was exclusively written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read more exclusive content here.

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