“Little America,” our colleague Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s stunning new book on this country’s efforts to defeat the Taliban, is not as fun as his “Imperial Life in the Emerald City,” which re-counted the rollicking early days of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad.
The ineffable stupidity in Iraq, the colossal miscalculations, the spectacular arrogance, were all so ridiculous you laughed to keep from crying.
“Little America” is a much grimmer recounting of how the U.S. Afghan effort, difficult enough in a “country” plagued by endemic corruption, was undermined: by vicious infighting among administration officials, by “the stubbornness and incompetence at the State Department and the Agency for International Development,” by the “tribal” Pentagon, and by the scarcity of officials who actually spoke the languages and knew anything about Afghanistan.
And when two-thirds of the supposed nation-building civilians are camped out in Kabul and not out in the field, one shouldn’t expect much.
Despite all the supposed lessons learned from Iraq, the Afghan effort, Chandrasekaran concludes in his superbly reported book, was “almost as embarrassing as the first year in Iraq.”
The disheartening chaos within the administration over what to do, with the military, the National Security Council and the State Department waging their own wars, hugely compounds the problems.
Still, there are some laugh-out-loud moments — if you’re into black humor — based on the author’s 15 multi-week trips there since early 2009.
For example, 11 Bolivian engineers were brought in to show how a U.S.-backed program there to build cobblestone roads could be repeated in Afghanistan.
A short demonstration stretch was built. But the Afghans objected. They wanted gravel and asphalt. The cobblestones, they claimed, hurt their camels’ hooves.
Huge amounts of money were dumped into one district to employ lots of day laborers at good wages. Then the schools “suddenly closed,” Chandrasekaran writes. Seems the “teachers had become day laborers because the pay was better.”
Then there was the State Department official who had worked anti-narcotics in Bogota. He brought in two Colombian women for a 12-day visit to talk about their country’s reintegration of FARC rebels.
“But they spoke no English,” Chandrasekaran writes, “and no Marine battalion wanted to host them.”
So they were dispatched to meet with Afghan officials. A senior official listened to them talk through an interpreter for an hour.
“’Our problems are very different,’ he said as he got up to leave.’But I love to hear the sound of Spanish.’”
Similar follies — and bizarre things like AID’s intense hatred of cotton farming -- highlight the destabilizing and unintended — even opposite — consequences of throwing money at poor countries.
“For years, we dwelled on the limitations of the Afghans,” Chandrasekaran writes. “We should have focused on ours.”
This book should be required reading for any diplomat or AID official going to work in any developing country.
We hear that the book has sparked a scramble in the Kabul embassy compound to compile “success stories” for publication to counter the book’s analysis.
Please. Haven’t we wasted enough money already?