Paul Jones arrived in a Chevy pickup, dust clouds billowing as he crossed the desert. He had set out soon after first light from his base in southern Afghanistan, an encampment that, thanks to his employer’s logistics savvy, had an ample supply of Pabst Blue Ribbon. Almost everything there had been sent by sea from California or Oregon, and then trucked up from Pakistan.
The 63-year-old, khaki-clad engineer came that February morning to observe a massive development project aimed at transforming the valley along the Helmand River into a modern society.
Irrigation canals would feed farms that would produce so much food that the country would export the surplus for profit. New schools, modern hospitals and recreation centers would rise from the sand. So, too, would factories, fed by electricity from a generator at a dam upriver. Jones had seen a similar transformation near his home on the outskirts of Sacramento, and he was certain it would materialize here, too. In the desert expanse, he saw “the beginning of a new civilization — a new way of life abounding in the riches of worthy endeavor.”
It was 1951.
Over the following decade, a legion of Americans hungry for adventure and hardship bonuses descended upon southern Afghanistan to join the vast, U.S.-funded nation-building project. Within a few years, they had built a model town from scratch. The streets were lined with trees. The white-stucco homes with green front lawns resembled subdivisions in the American Southwest. There was a co-ed high school and a community pool where boys and girls frolicked together. A clubhouse along the river featured nightly card games and a Filipino barkeeper who could mix a potent gin-and-tonic.
The Americans called the town Lashkar Gah. The Afghans called it Little America.
Sixty years later, the canals that Jones helped construct still irrigate small farms in communities whose names — Marja, Garmser, Nad-i-Ali, Nawa— are known mainly because of the U.S. Marines and British soldiers who have been killed and maimed there. But much of the rest of that grand development venture in the ’50s and ’60s failed. The valley never became Afghanistan’s breadbasket (although it did become the world’s largest grower of opium-producing poppies). There are no factories, co-ed schools or community centers. A concert in Lashkar Gah earlier this year featuring female singers without headscarves led to the firing of the deputy governor of Helmand province. And just last Sunday, a suicide bomber killed 10 police officers and a child outside the city’s police headquarters.
As the United States begins to reduce troop levels and transition responsibility for security to the Afghan government — Lashkar Gah was handed over last month — the legacy of Little America helps to explain why, despite the more than $20 billion spent on reconstruction, development and humanitarian aid over the past 10 years, the hopes of many in the Obama and Bush administrations of transforming Afghanistan from a terrorist haven to a reasonably stable society have not materialized.