Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan

Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 2012.  384 pages. US$28.

Reviewed by Brian M Downing

In the 1950s and 60s, US engineers and aid workers encamped in a complex known as Little America in southern Afghanistan and built a series of irrigation canals.  It was a large, well intentioned program, the sort of thing that the US prided itself on in the decades after World War Two when it was thought a little foreign aid would place nations on the path to economic and political development.  Its success was limited, however.  Fields were over-watered, leading to salt deposits rising to the surface.  Washington Post reporter Rajiv Chandrasekaran sees present-day US efforts in southern Afghanistan as built upon and only somewhat more successful than earlier ones.  In his excellent assessment of the political and military situation in Afghanistan, he sees the effort since President Barack Obama came into office in 2009 as gravely damaged by incoherence in civilian and military bureaucracies.  There are a few optimistic dynamics, but they are rather paradoxical ones.

The new president convened a war council to determine a new course for the failing war and was presented with three paths.  First, counterinsurgency (COIN) was advocated by several high-ranking officers as a program, presumably tested and proven in Iraq, to reduce support for the insurgents by delivering goods and services to the people.  Second, counterterrorism (CT) was supported by Vice President Joseph Biden, Ambassador (and retired Lieutenant General) Karl Eikenberry, and White House aides Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod.  CT presented a simpler, less costly method based on targeting insurgent leaders and building up the Afghan army without expending resources on taking on the bulk of insurgent forces.  CT was supported by some military figures, but they remained quiet in the war council or were not present.  Third, special envoy Richard Holbrooke pushed for continuing the war essentially as is which would drive the weakening Taliban to the peace table.

The president opted for COIN combined with a modest troop increase, much less than what the generals wanted, and with a stipulation that the troops would begin to leave in mid-2011.  Implementation of COIN proved difficult.  Holbrooke and Eikenberry bickered endlessly, with the former’s renowned egotism and micromanagement making numerous enemies in Kabul and Washington.

Aid programs in Helmand province distributed tons of seeds and hundreds of tractors and irrigation machines, but large portions of the largesse were sold in thriving bazaars across the border in Pakistan.  Crop yields did rise but there was no way to bring them to market.  Aid distribution exacerbated longstanding clan antagonisms which in turn affected the politics of the war.  Cash payment to laborers undermined village customs and social controls over the young.  From afar, the programs seemed to be working well and administrators proudly noted the rising amount of money they were spending as though wining the war were somehow directly correlated.

When the Saudis conveyed Taliban peace feelers to Washington, Holbrooke was eager to pursue.  Other parts of the administration, however, opposed him – and personal animosities might well have figured here.  General David Petraeus saw the Taliban as an enemy to be defeated and his COIN program was the principal means to reach that end.  Others in the military and intelligence worlds opposed negotiations too, though parts later supported negotiation as long as Holbrooke did not lead the effort.  The Saudi initiative went nowhere.

Corruption remained deeply entrenched in Afghanistan and many US officials opposed COIN because they felt that Karzai and his officialdom were incorrigibly venal.  Many of Karzai’s local officials were former mujahideen leaders who had filled the power vacuum left by the Russian war and built networks of favoritism, crime, and armed bands.  Karzai rebuffed pressure to reform, demanding proof that few officials were so artless as to provide.  As the US realized that ousting one corrupt official often led to an equally corrupt yet less competent official, the problem of corruption was quietly put aside. There were instances of corrupt figures having armed bands that fought the Taliban quite well, which was more than most units in the Afghan army would do.

Many US military commanders had been issued the COIN manual and nodded at training sessions, but they nonetheless saw COIN as a fad or worse, as a facade that the generals had come up with in order to appease civilians back home.  Accordingly, they used the discretion allotted them and continued to rely on massive firepower.  One colonel boasted that after his brigade had finished its tour, the chastened locals would be praying to Mecca ten times a day.  One can almost visualize a t-shirt.

Paradoxically, however, Chandrasekaran admits that heavy use of force has had at least some effect on wearing down the Taliban.  In one Helmand district, tribal elders saw the US inflicting egregious casualties on the levies they allocated to the Taliban.  Elders broke with the Taliban and switched support to Kabul – with a good deal of aid tossed in to the arrangement, of course.  (The Russians were able to effect a few similar responses through their likely even heavier firepower.)

In other districts that did not endure the hard hand of US infantry, locals have become resentful of the Taliban’s heavy taxation that brings in nothing and their irksome prohibitions of schools and music.  They too have turned on the insurgents and now look to Kabul and the US for help in recovering from three decades of war.

Perhaps the most remarkable and disconcerting paradox in Chandrasekaran’s presentation is his observation, almost in passing, that commanders in Afghanistan have come to see the counterterrorism (CT) program of concentrating on the targeting of high-ranking insurgent figures as fairly successful.  That is, commanders have all but abandoned the COIN confidently advocated by senior military figures and have adopted the CT which Biden, Emanuel, Axelrod, and Eikenberry vocally but unsuccessfully advocated, which has shown promise in wearing down the Taliban and pushing it toward negotiations.  A definitive history of the war is of course a decade or more away, but at present it appears that the administration faction with the least collective military experience has demonstrated better judgment than the general staff and intelligence community.

Copyright 2012 Brian M Downing