Had they inquired, the president’s civilian advisers also could have learned that the initial 17,000 troops played only a minor role in the overall security effort for the Afghan election. In fact, the new troops protected polling sites in Helmand and Kandahar where Karzai supporters engaged in some of their most egregious ballot tampering.
After the meeting, Lute and his staff assembled a list of follow-up questions for McChrystal. Lute, a three-star general, asked McChrystal to provide more explanation of the location of the bubbles. At the war cabinet's next meeting, McChrystal talked briefly about the need to “demonstrate momentum” in Helmand. To Lute, the answer seemed unsatisfactory, but nobody around the table pressed McChrystal any further.
Excerpted from “Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan,” by Rajiv Chandrasekaran. Chandrasekaran, a Washington Post senior correspondent and associate editor, covered the Afghan war from February 2009 to July 2011. The book is based upon his reporting for the newspaper and more than 70 original interviews. Material in this excerpt is drawn from interviews with numerous U.S. government and military officials with direct involvement in Afghan war policy who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Copyright © 2012 by Rajiv Chandrasekaran. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
NATO alliance vs. winning war
Shortly after McChrystal was appointed the top commander in Afghanistan in 2009, Defense Secretary Gates had told him to take stock of the war effort within 60 days. The idea for the assessment had originated with national security adviser James L. Jones, who grew alarmed when McChrystal told the Senate Armed Services Committee, during his confirmation hearing, that he did not know whether the 17,000 troops Obama had approved that February would be enough. Jones believed the Pentagon was lobbying for more forces before the 17,000 had fully deployed — and after McChrystal’s bosses had all but told the president that they would not be asking for more that year. As a compromise, Jones suggested that McChrystal first conduct an assessment of the war. Then, if he determined that he required more troops, he could make a formal request.
McChrystal, the rangy former commander of the secretive Joint Special Operations Command, convened a group of outside experts from Washington’s prominent national security think tanks to travel to Kabul for a month to help him draft the assessment — and then sell the conclusion inside the Beltway by writing op-eds, giving speeches and talking it up at Washington cocktail parties.
Among them was Andrew Exum of the Center for a New American Security, the most influential cradle of counterinsurgency strategists in the capital. He was the youngest of the outside advisers, but he had served in Iraq and had led a platoon of elite Army Rangers in Afghanistan. Exum understood that Kandahar was of critical importance, but he had no idea how tenuous the situation was until the group met with Sarah Chayes.
Chayes was a former National Public Radio reporter who ran an agricultural cooperative in Kandahar. She had once been close to the Karzai family but had a falling-out with the president and his half-brother Ahmed Wali Karzai over their connections to warlords and, she alleged, their involvement in corruption. Frustrated by the failure of commanders and diplomats to grasp how graft was pushing Afghans toward the Taliban, she had accepted an offer to advise Gen. David McKiernan, McChrystal’s predecessor. She stuck around when McChrystal arrived, hoping to convince him and his staff that fighting corruption had to be a central element of their counterinsurgency campaign. She told them that Kandahar seemed to be slipping away. Ahmed Wali and his cronies had divided the spoils for themselves, and the have-nots were turning to the insurgency. She explained that the Taliban had taken control of the four districts that ring the city — Arghandab, Zhari, Dand and Panjwai — shutting down schools, seeding roads with bombs and forcing pro-government tribal leaders to flee.