Reviewed by Razeshta Sethna
There is realisation that what went wrong in Afghanistan during the last 11 years of the American-led intervention bears a striking resemblance to the blunders by earlier invaders, such as the Soviet Union in the 1980s. The Obama administration may have periodically drawn parallels with the ghosts of Vietnam when deciding on troop withdrawals and acknowledging the lack of preparation and understanding on the part of political and military leaders when it comes to Afghanistan, but the real history lesson comes from the Soviets. Both Gorbachev and Obama had a war legacy that they didn’t create or support. The Soviet invasion was condemned by most member states at the United Nations, undermining the Kremlin’s position. A negotiated settlement and troop withdrawal, the only way out for the Soviets, has been adopted as a strategy by the Obama team — the counterinsurgency planners included — who acknowledge, despite internal rifts, that it is the only politically, financially and strategically viable route.
Another commonality is the end of the war failing to take into account the aspirations of local stakeholders and their fear of civil war. In the case of both the American and Soviet invasions the reason for war was the need to ensure national security. Both interventions were perceived as brutal and unfriendly in rural districts and as harbingers of socio-economic development and monetary infusions in the less conservative cities. Fought as a ‘war of necessity,’ there is fear yet again that Afghans will be abandoned, despite pledges to the contrary. The British Defence Select Committee recently published a report saying that civil war is likely when western forces leave Afghanistan.
Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan provides bleak insight into what went wrong with the Obama-approved campaign in Afghanistan. A model that was unrealistic and unsympathetic to traditional sensibilities meant “the grand American counterinsurgency plan … for winning over the population by helping the Afghan government deliver basic services” failed to an extent. Author Rajiv Chandrasekaran focuses on the southern province of Helmand in the years after the 2009 surge. Lack of management expertise by aid agencies such as USAID not only resulted in corruption but failed to benefit one of the world’s poorest economies. Chandrasekaran narrates the absurdities of the US State Department bureaucracy sent to Kabul to oversee a war being fought in the east and south, excepting a few idealistic and sensible employees. There was Carter Malkasian in Garmsir, Helmand, who taught himself Pashto and stayed more than the one-year tour, travelling in a pick-up and risking being fired because it was the better way to build trust with the locals.
Chandrasekaran used a similar lens in Imperial Life in the EmeraldCity, his prize-winning book on Iraq, which concentrated on Baghdad’s Green Zone. He pointed out that the successes achieved in Iraq were not sustainable because of the absurd American-led development planning which was formulated for most of the time in the fortress that was the Green Zone by amateur managers without suitable experience. Although in Afghanistan Chandrasekaran’s investigations are based on interviews and first-hand experiences with military and civilian planners, his thesis appears slightly flawed when he refers to the security surge in 2009 as being unable to reverse the insurgency, especially in the south towards the end of 2011.
Little America is the story of political mistakes, the deep rifts within America’s bureaucracy and why it failed to facilitate military and civilian officers on the ground, despite millions of dollars allocated for rebuilding. British troops numbering 9,000 had performed poorly in Helmand around 2008 although they had seen additions each year. Obama’s troop surge was concentrated on retaking and holding the southern provinces that had fallen to the Taliban with provinces such as Helmand — the centre of poppy production — seeing a rise in insurgency.
Chandrasekaran tells the story of Harry Tunnell, the commander of the Fifth Brigade in Arghandab, a counterinsurgency opponent who had given his team the moniker of ‘Destroyer’ during training, pushing rogue kill teams to track down militants and locals. He was never reprimanded by senior military commanders, writes Chandrasekaran.
When McChrystal arrived in Afghanistan, the British had relinquished control of certain parts of Helmand to the US Marines (in 2008) to minimise their casualty rates and concentrate their forces around Lashkar Gah. But the Helmand surge essentially took away attention and resources from Kandahar. The youngest of the outside policy advisors, Andrew Exum of the Centre for a New American Security, noted the importance of Kandahar when attempting to curtail the insurgency although few military commanders were receptive to reallocating