In the prologue to Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s book on the war in Afghanistan, a young Marine corporal approaches a State Department political adviser who is visiting his outpost. “Sir, I just hope this all adds up,” the corporal says, “All of my friends are getting hurt over here.” The corporal receives no answer, but by the conclusion of “Little America,” the reader does. The corporal’s friends will have been killed or wounded in vain.
Americans are a historyless people. We are constantly being told by wishfully thinking leaders that history does not apply to us, that we are its “exception.” Unfortunately, we are not, which is why it bears repeating that what the Obama administration is attempting to do in Afghanistan bears a striking resemblance to what the United States attempted in Vietnam. Nguyen Van Thieu, our man in Saigon, headed a coterie of fellow generals, politicians and their greedy wives who excelled at thievery and bequeathed us one of the fundamental lessons of the Vietnam War, that one cannot build upon the quicksand of corruption a sound government and army that will stand up to its opponent. When the moment of truth came in 1975, after the United States had pulled out its combat forces and the North Vietnamese army launched another offensive, the Saigon regime simply collapsed, its well-equipped troops abandoning their weapons and fleeing so fast that the opposition had difficulty catching up to them.
Now it is the turn of our man in Kabul, Hamid Karzai. To keep him there 2,020 Americans and more than 1,000 British and NATO service membershave died, and the cost of the war has exceeded $450 billion. Chandrasekaran, who is a senior correspondent and associate editor at The Washington Post, draws vivid sketches of how Karzai and his family and their allies operate as a gang of looters, frustrating every attempt to create an honest government that could confront their Taliban enemy.
Alexander the Great built stone fortresses in Afghanistan, but he did not tame the Afghans. No one ever has. They are a fractious people, as riven by ethnic and clan rivalries as their land is by its mountains, as renowned for bravery in battle as they are for treachery in their dealings with one another and outsiders. They have never known a genuine central government. Chandrasekaran writes that the authority of the last Afghan king, Mohammed Zahir Shah, who was overthrown in 1973, did not extend in any meaningful way much beyond the environs of Kabul. And across the border lies an equally treacherous Pakistan, which has accepted about $1.5 billion annually in U.S. military aid and reimbursements since 2002 while giving sanctuary to the Taliban and shelter to the late and unlamented Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders.
The one senior figure in the Obama administration who perceived the futility of attempting to prevail with military force in these circumstances, Chandrasekaran tells us, was the late Richard C. Holbrooke, who died of a torn aorta in December 2010. Holbrooke was the most talented and effective diplomat of his generation. His greatest accomplishment came in 1995, when he ended the bloodshed in Bosnia (where inter-communal strife had killed about 100,000 people) by browbeating Yugoslav strongman Slobodan Milosevic and his Croatian and Muslim rivals into accepting the Dayton Peace Agreement.
In Afghanistan, Holbrooke wanted to seriously attempt to negotiate a settlement with the Taliban, despite how slim the chance of achieving one might be. But he was never allowed to do so. President Obama, who favors force and the so-called counter-insurgency theory advocated by Gen. David H. Petraeus, took a personal dislike to Holbrooke. Vice President Biden found him an egotist. (Holbrooke was an insecure man, and his insecurity manifested itself in egotistical behavior, but those who appreciated his gifts learned to overlook it.) The generals — such as Petraeus, who derisively referred to Holbrooke as “my diplomatic wingman” — were interested in winning rather than settling. They ignored Holbrooke on the subject of negotiations. With his death went the man best qualified to extricate the United States from an Afghan quagmire.
Chandrasekaran’s book is valuable because it gathers the various strands of the war and provides new insight. A wealth of detail gives it authenticity and gravity. The author made more than a dozen trips to Afghanistan between 2009 and 2011 while a correspondent for The Post, spending much of his time in the field with the Marines in Helmand province in the south. Chandrasekaran devotes chapters and sections of the narrative to profiles of figures who are in the midst of the struggle. His primary technique is to present the reader with participants whose views and actions enhance the story. One of the most interesting of these is a Foreign Service officer named John Kael Weston, who served as a political adviser to the Marines. An extraordinarily frank critic of the American effort, the disillusioned Weston finally left the Foreign Service after seven years in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The reader also gets a keen sense of the chaos that reigns among the Americans and their allies. There is no central guidance from the top on how to wage the conflict. The Army fights one war, the Marines another, and the British a small and ineffective third. Civilian projects initiated by the U.S. Agency for International Development to win Afghan “hearts and minds” wither for lack of follow-through.
Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, who had a reputation as an aggressive, hands-on commander, was supposed to pull things together after he took over in early 2009 and Obama granted him a 33,000-troop “surge” at the end of that year. But then McChrystal managed to get himself fired six months later by mocking Biden and others in an interview with a reporter for Rolling Stone magazine. Petraeus filled in for a time until he left in 2011 to head the CIA.
Chandrasekaran takes the title of his book from the first American civilian project in Afghanistan. It serves as a kind of metaphor for the whole flawed endeavor. At the end of the World War II, the government of Zahir Shah hired the mammoth engineering and construction firm Morrison-Knudsen, which had overseen the erection of the Hoover Dam and the San Francisco Bay Bridge, to dam the Helmand River and turn its valley into an agricultural paradise through irrigation. To house its staff, Morrison-Knudsen created a small town of white stucco houses with lush front lawns. There was a clubhouse for evening card games and weekly square dances, a store that sold chilled cans of Coke, along with packaged American foods, blue jeans and toothpaste, and there was a clinic. The Afghans dubbed the place “Little America.”
The dam and irrigation works were duly finished in the 1950s, but there was a flaw that should have been detected at the outset. The subsoil in the Helmand River Valley was impermeable. The irrigation water would not leach through. Instead, it pooled on the surface and, as it dried up, deposited salt that ruined the fertility of the cultivable topsoil. The farmers complained that each year their crop yield shrank. The one plant that thrives in such salt-drenched soil is the opium poppy, which has helped transform Afghanistan into one of the world’s leading suppliers of its accursed derivative: heroin. And the Helmand River Valley has become a battleground watered by the blood of young American Marines and their Taliban enemies.
The War Within the War for Afghanistan
By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Knopf. 368 pp. $27.95