Al Kamen
Al Kamen
In the Loop

A tribal U.S. vs. a tribal Afghanistan

“Little America,” our colleague Rajiv Chandra­sekaran’s stunning new book about this country’s efforts to defeat the Taliban, is not as much fun as his “Imperial Life in the Emerald City,” which recounted the rollicking early days of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad.

The ineffable stupidity in Iraq, the colossal miscalculations, the spectacular arrogance — all were so ridiculous, you laughed to keep from crying.

Al Kamen

Al Kamen, an award-winning columnist on the national staff of The Washington Post, created the “In the Loop” column in 1993. He began his reporting career at the Rocky Mountain News and joined The Post in 1980. He has covered local and federal courts, the Supreme Court and the State Department. Follow him on Twitter.

Archive

Gallery

“Little America” is a much grimmer recounting of how the U.S. effort in Afghanistan, 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, 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 to Afghanistan 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.

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.”

Similar follies 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 Agency for International Development 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?

44,000 followers, 0 tweets

Hillary Rodham Clinton has racked up plenty of accomplishments: a Senate seat, a diplomatic triumph or two as secretary of state — plus, she’s dealt a few good knocks to that glass ceiling.

But for the social-media-obsessed, here’s another: Clinton has amassed more than 44,000 Twitter followers to an account with the name @HRClinton. That’s a serious constituency. (Her spokesman says it’s not an official account, and Twitter tells us Clinton doesn’t have a “verified”account, but clearly, all the folks following @HRClinton are interested in what the secretary of state has to say . . . er, tweet.)

And she’s racked up all those followers without tapping out a single tweet. Not one lousy 140-character missive.

What is she waiting for? Teddy Roosevelt finally winning the presidents’ race at Nats Park?

With that kind of readership, we can understand that there’s some pressure involved. And so we thought we’d enlist Loop fans to generate ideas for what Clinton should tweet about in her maiden voyage, should she ever take it. What 140 characters should mark her entry into the twitterverse? To put it another way, WSHT? (What should Hillary tweet?)

The 10 best entries will win a coveted Loop T-shirt. Submit your suggestions to intheloop@washpost.com, and be sure to provide your name, profession, mailing address and T-shirt size (M, L or XL). You can enter “on background” if you like.)

The contest will end Friday, Aug. 3, so get those entries in!

Landing a blow

The House is expected to pass Sen. Jim Inhofe’s Pilot’s Bill of Rights as early as Monday evening, a measure that would make it easier for pilots facing disciplinary action by the Federal Aviation Administration to obtain the evidence against them.

The bill, dubbed by one wag as “The Inhofe Revenge Bill,” was sparked by an October 2010 incident in which the Oklahoma Republican, a private pilot, landed his Cessna 340 on a closed runway at a small South Texas airport — scaring the daylights out of workers doing maintenance.

A recorded call to the FAA from the crew’s supervisor said Inhofe “sky-hopped” over the men and trucks and really “scared . . . us.” You can listen to the call at wapo.st/
inhofefaa
 (hat tip to politics Web producer/guru Matt DeLong).

There were huge (60 feet long by 10 feet wide) yellow X’s on the runway showing that it was closed.

The FAA in January 2011 barely gave Inhofe a slap on the wrist — let alone a license suspension — and ordered what he called some “painless” remedial training in lieu of any enforcement action. He praised the FAA and said “I could not have been treated better” by the agency.

Even so, Inhofe told us this February that he would introduce a bill to give pilots greater rights. “If a person is going to be accused of something,” he said, “he has to know what he’s being accused of.” (The Senate has already passed the bill.)

“I was never appreciative of the feeling of desperation,” Inhofe said, “until it happened to me.”

Think how desperate those workers on the runway that day must have felt.

With Emily Heil

Alice Crites contributed to this column.

The blog: washingtonpost.com/
intheloop. Twitter: @InTheLoopWP.

 
Read what others are saying