In Afghanistan, the rise and fall of ‘Little America’

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.

While Europe dug out of World War II’s rubble, Afghanistan’s king, Mohammed Zahir Shah, basked in his windfall. His treasury had swelled during the early 1940s through the sale of food to British forces in Burma and taxes levied on the export of Persian fat-tailed sheep pelts, largely to the United States.

In 1946, seeking to modernize his nation, Zahir Shah hired the American engineering firm that built the Hoover Dam and the San Francisco Bay Bridge to construct a network of irrigation canals in the south and a dam on the Helmand River. He believed that harnessing the waters of the Hindu Kush would yield prosperity, transforming an arid valley into a fertile and thriving oasis.

The American firm, Morrison Knudsen,insisted that every piece of equipment be brought from the United States. And when the Afghan government dismissed the need for soil and drainage studies — a standard prerequisite for such projects — the company did not object. It believed the venture was simply too big to fail.

Two new farming communities — Marja and Nad-i-Ali — would be carved out of the desert. New villages would be constructed, with schools and health clinics. Nomads would be resettled. Families from different tribes would live next to each other. It was all part of a social-engineering experiment promoted by a cadre of modern-minded Afghans who had been sent, at great expense by the king, to attend American universities. These English-speaking, suit-wearing Afghans found in Jones and his ilk the ideal partners for the transformation of their nation.

But challenges appeared almost immediately. The soil in Marja and Nad-i-Ali is shallow, and it sits upon an almost impermeable layer of subsoil that prevents adequate drainage. When it is irrigated by Afghans, who have a tendency to flood their land, water pools on the surface and salts accumulate — all of which is very bad for agriculture.

Part of the problem was that the Afghans failed to keep their end of the bargain. They were supposed to construct ditches to drain the fields, but “the few Afghan engineers were constantly used as administrators, so the Afghans were never able to fulfill their engineering obligations,” the historian Louis Dupree wrote. Morrison Knudsen “moved along with its end of the project, at first not realizing that the Afghans could not complete their commitments, nor would their pride permit them to admit it.”

It was the first time — but not the last — that American efforts to partner with modernizing Afghans would struggle.

Although the Afghan government started to have doubts about the vast endeavor, Morrison Knudsen’s answer was to double down. It advocated completing the dam and storage reservoir upstream, in the district of Kajaki, and expanding development efforts along the river valley. It estimated the total cost at $63 million (almost $600 million in today’s dollars).

The Afghans already had paid $20 million to Morrison Knudsen. In a letter to the State Department in September 1949, the company admitted that “there should have been more . . . to show for this large expenditure.”

By then, the king’s treasury was running dry. So his government turned to Washington. U.S. officials were skeptical about the project, but they had bigger considerations. America’s reputation was at stake — the Afghans didn’t see a distinction between U.S. contractors and the U.S. government. The officials also feared that if Washington did not step in, Moscow would.

The United States Export-Import Bank gave Afghanistan a $21 million loan that year — the first chunk of more than $80 million it would receive from the United States over the next 15 years. The money was used to build the dam, finish the canals and construct Lashkar Gah.

Little America began as an oasis for Morrison Knudsen engineers and their U.S.-educated Afghan partners. But it also was supposed to serve as an example of a modern community, one that village dwellers would seek to replicate.

The residents had dinner parties and picnics. Children rode bicycles and gathered at friends’ homes to listen to records. They swam in the community pool (boys and girls could swim together) or swatted balls on the tennis court. Once a week they would watch movies at the nearby Morrison Knudsen camp.

“It was an enchanting time,” said Rebecca Pettys, who lived there for six years starting in 1958, when she was 12 years old. Her father, an Afghan who received a doctorate from the University of Chicago and married a Finnish American woman he met in Illinois, moved his family from Kabul to Helmand so he could participate in the development effort. “We had parties and danced,” Pettys said. “Everything about our lives was American.”

For the first few years, she was schooled in a neighbor’s home using the Calvert correspondence program from Baltimore. Her father taught geology, and the American wife of another Afghan official was responsible for English classes. After she finished ninth grade, the Helmand Valley Authority set up a public school in Lashkar Gah. Boys from villages across the south were housed in dormitories there, in an effort not just to educate them but also to introduce them to modern life.

Pettys and another Afghan American girl joined the boys as day students; their Afghan fathers felt strongly about the need for mixed-sex education.

“It was the urban power elite of Afghanistan trying to confront and reshape their own country. They wanted to modernize the rural, nomadic, pastoral, uneducated population,” said Pettys’s brother, Tamim Ansary, who wrote a book about his Afghan American childhood. “They saw themselves as part of an epic project to overcome the primitive barbarism of Afghan society,” he explained. “The people who wore suits looked down upon those who wore pantaloons and baggy shirts.”

In 1960, the historian Arnold Toynbee traveled to Lashkar Gah, where he observed that “American-mindedness is the characteristic mark of the whole band of Afghan technicians and administrators who are imposing Man’s will on the Helmand River. . . . Coming home to Afghanistan, they have brought America with them. The new world they are conjuring up out of the desert at the Helmand River’s expense is to be an America-in-Asia.”

But tensions were already rising. In 1959, rioters angered by government efforts to abolish the veil burned down a girls’ school in Kandahar, prompting the government to slow its modernization drive. And the lackluster results of the irrigation project became an even larger impediment to the social-engineering campaign. By 1960, the project’s focus shifted to salvaging the basic agricultural effort; coed schools would have to wait.

The Afghans beseeched the U.S. government to send engineers, and soon experts arrived from the Bureau of Reclamation and, later, the U.S. Agency for International Development. Although U.S. officials now portray that period as a halcyon time of American assistance, it really was an effort to remedy the mistakes of a profligate U.S. contractor and overly ambitious Afghan engineers.

Although that work helped turn hundreds of square miles into reasonably productive farms, it did not achieve the early goal of transforming the Helmand River valley into Afghanistan’s breadbasket. To do so would have required moving farmers off their land and bulldozing it to improve drainage. When those plans were described to the farmers, they threatened to meet the work crews with rifles.

The inability to create larger and more productive farms meant that the Afghan government did not generate the tax revenue to build the roads needed to get goods to market or the factories needed to turn produce into export-ready products. By the time the Soviets rolled into Afghanistan in 1979, most of the farmers in the Helmand Valley were engaged in subsistence agriculture, as they are to this day.

All of the principal challenges of the Little America project — the tension between modernists and traditionalists, the incompetence and venality of contractors, the inability of the Afghans to fulfill their end of the deal, the unrealistic expectations of American and Afghan officials — are the same reasons that today’s grand nation-building effort is so troubled.

The U.S. government has again sided with the country’s urban elite instead of seeking to empower local and tribal leaders. It did so in the name of good governance, but it has weakened the grass-roots leadership essential to building stability.

Many U.S. contractors remain more focused on spending their allotted funds, as Morrison Knudsen did, than on scaling back in the face of uninspiring results. “Maintaining the burn rate [of spending] defined how we approached the program,” said a former contractor who worked on a large agriculture assistance initiative in Helmand over the past two years.

In an effort to improve services in areas that have been cleared of insurgents by U.S. forces, USAID and the State Department have pushed the Afghan government to dispatch civil servants to those places by offering incentives such as bonus pay. But the government has moved so slowly — because of inertia, skepticism of U.S. motives and a lack of qualified personnel — that some U.S. officials now refer to the initiative, which is called the District Delivery Program, as the “District Disaster Program.”

Unreasonable dreams persist as well. When the U.S. government allocated $300 million in 2009 for a one-year agriculture project in Helmand and Kandahar provinces, American officials boasted about how it would transform farmers’ lives and lead to new factories and exports. The money was spent, but with few of the hoped-for benefits.

Not all of the effort from the Little America days proved wasted. The irrigation canals still carry water to thousands of farms, and the Kajaki Dam generates some electricity. Older residents remember school lessons taught by Peace Corps volunteers. But these results fall well below the expectations of the era: When Jones left Afghanistan in 1952, he believed that his work would eventually transform Afghanistan into a “star of Asia.”

What will be the legacy of America’s effort — this time so costly in blood as well as treasure — to transform Afghanistan over the past decade? Little America may provide one answer: a high-priced endeavor, with outsize goals, conceived in partnership with Afghans seeking rapid change, that leaves behind but a modest contribution.

Rajiv Chandrasekaran, an associate editor of The Washington Post, has spent the past 21 / 2 years covering the war in Afghanistan.

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