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Afghan soldier on security patrol in Helmand -- AFP

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.

The most naïve assumption, that the influx of American troops in the south to assist and take over from the British in Helmand would reduce the frequency of Taliban attacks, is noted. America’s star general Stanley McChrystal, known for his favourable contacts with the Kabul government, was concerned about Kandahar but not Helmand as much, writes Chandrasekaran, because it was a “strategic prize” for the Taliban in 2009. So if the Americans were going to “retake Afghanistan” they needed to start clearing Kandahar. The author, spending most of his time in Helmand, writes that Douglas E. Lute, the White House’s chief advisor on Pakistan and Afghanistan, and McChyrstal, had recognised this as a misallocation of forces but failed to correct it.

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

either troops or resources for reconstruction projects: “Kandahar — not Helmand — is the single point of failure in Afghanistan,” stated Exum, whose Iraq years had given him sufficient experience. The decision to send Marines to Helmand and not Kandahar had been made by General David McKiernan (commander of the US forces in Afghanistan until 2009), and like other decisions at the time, point to growing infighting among American teams, the lack of ground pre-assessments and the lack of interest in reversing many similar poor judgements. Take the example of Marine insistence that the push for Khan Neshin, located near the border with Pakistan, and “a way station for Talibs travelling from Pakistani sanctuaries,” would protect communities from the north and pay for development projects that would transform the town. That it was militarily and resource-wise a poor decision because it meant that Marines from a certain battalion required in other key trouble spots such as Garmsir and Nawa would be unavailable, exhausted or injured made little difference.

Chandrasekaran includes notes, observations and interviews from key players, military and civilian, to back up his thesis for American ineptitude, infighting and poor coordination. One wonders whether the gains made to curb the insurgency in certain districts could have been solidified if the local communities were more hands-on. We are told that McChrystal’s connections to “official Washington” would help shape Afghan policy in the wake of the surge as he poached Pentagon talent but looked beyond the State Department’s stabilisation and reconstruction office when he formed an advisory group of outside experts to travel to Kabul for a month and “help him draft the assessment and then sell the conclusion by writing op-eds, giving speeches and talking it up at cocktail parties.” But despite their recommendations, it is disheartening to read that almost nothing was implemented long-term and although Obama did give his generals what they had wanted, the failures in Afghanistan can easily be attributed to the lack of cohesive, accountable policies and the inability of Washington to monitor the war effort. Kael Weston, a State Department official, had said that Obama should have sent fewer troops but kept them in longer. His reasoning was that Afghans would have learnt over time to become self-sustaining and Americans would have been able to pursue more realistic projects rather than fast-track them at the cost of angering local communities. A modest surge, many argued, would not have helped at the time and as the author explains, talking to the Taliban in 2009 could have temporarily controlled the insurgency.

Washington refused to stop the infighting at the top levels of the American administration (see Bob Woodward’s Obama’s Wars) — Lute wanted Richard Holbrooke fired and the US ambassador in Kabul Karl Eikenberry wasn’t pleased with Holbrooke’s manner of dealing with Karzai, not that Eikenberry was fond of Karzai. The Pentagon wanted its counterinsurgency programme to work in Afghanistan whereas Obama’s Washington team favoured a diluted effort to keep insurgents at bay. At the time, Holbrooke’s suggestion to negotiate an end to the war was turned down.

With Nato-led combat troop withdrawals next year, the scenarios raised point to western failure to consolidate government, end corruption and bring a semblance of peace to a country that has witnessed more than three decades of intermittent civil war.

It is premature to conclude an outcome for Afghanistan after 2014 — whether it will descend into chaos, whether the Taliban will figure prominently in any settlement or whether warlords will gain more power — but one thing is clear: the war has proven militarily unwinnable, which is what Holbrooke had brought to the notice of Washington. Today, the main players are pinning their hopes on reconciliation with the Taliban, but without Pakistan’s intervention, the hardliners won’t come to any sort of negotiated settlement, which means a quick western exit would require the latter’s cooperation. A US military official in eastern Afghanistan in 2011 is quoted as explaining: “What we figured out is that people really aren’t anti-US or anti-anything; they just want to be left alone. Our presence is what’s destabilising this area.”


The reviewer is a staffer at the monthly Herald


Little America: The War within the War for Afghanistan


By Rajiv Chandrasekaran

Bloomsbury, London

ISBN 9781408830079