Fri 29 Jun, 2012 10:56 am
Little America; The War Within the War for Afghanistan
by Chandrasekaran Rajiv
Publication Date: June 26, 2012
From the award-winning author of Imperial Life in the Emerald City, a riveting, intimate account of America’s troubled war in Afghanistan.
When President Barack Obama ordered the surge of troops and aid to Afghanistan, Washington Post correspondent Rajiv Chandrasekaran followed. He found the effort sabotaged not only by Afghan and Pakistani malfeasance but by infighting and incompetence within the American government: a war cabinet arrested by vicious bickering among top national security aides; diplomats and aid workers who failed to deliver on their grand promises; generals who dispatched troops to the wrong places; and headstrong military leaders who sought a far more expansive campaign than the White House wanted. Through their bungling and quarreling, they wound up squandering the first year of the surge.
Chandrasekaran explains how the United States has never understood Afghanistan—and probably never will. During the Cold War, American engineers undertook a massive development project across southern Afghanistan in an attempt to woo the country from Soviet influence. They built dams and irrigation canals, and they established a comfortable residential community known as Little America, with a Western-style school, a coed community pool, and a plush clubhouse—all of which embodied American and Afghan hopes for a bright future and a close relationship. But in the late 1970s—after growing Afghan resistance and a Communist coup—the Americans abandoned the region to warlords and poppy farmers.
In one revelatory scene after another, Chandrasekaran follows American efforts to reclaim the very same territory from the Taliban. Along the way, we meet an Army general whose experience as the top military officer in charge of Iraq’s Green Zone couldn’t prepare him for the bureaucratic knots of Afghanistan, a Marine commander whose desire to charge into remote hamlets conflicted with civilian priorities, and a war-seasoned diplomat frustrated in his push for a scaled-down but long-term American commitment. Their struggles show how Obama’s hope of a good war, and the Pentagon’s desire for a resounding victory, shriveled on the arid plains of southern Afghanistan.
Meticulously reported, hugely revealing, Little America is an unprecedented examination of a failing war—and an eye-opening look at the complex relationship between America and Afghanistan.
About the Author
Rajiv Chandrasekaran is an assisting managing editor of the Washington Post, where he has worked since 1994. He previously served the Post as a bureau chief in Baghdad, Cairo and Southeast Asia, and as a correspondent covering the war in Afghanistan. He recently completed a term as journalist-in-residence at the International Reporting Project at the Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies, and was a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center. He is the author of Imperial Life in the Emerald City, which won the 2007 Samuel Johnson Prize. He lives in Washington, D.C.
Little America is a must read for those interested in the Afghanistan War or have been affected by it.
Mr. Chandrasekaran spends the first part of the book on history and the setup. The next part is about the War and the inner working of what went on behind closed doors and the personalities involved. He devotes pages in blistering criticism of the embassy staff, contractors and USAID. In fairness he uses too broad a brush, as noted by the one star reviews but I don't think anyone looking at the facts would disagree the US's efforts were grossly ineffectual. The final part exploring how different approaches to the war/reconstruction might have been better and/or more successful but I felt the book lost some momentum towards the end.
The strength of the book lies in the access Mr. Chandrasekaran had to high level internal meetings, then transitioning to the the lowly lance corporals tasked with carrying out the directives. The book focuses so much on what went wrong, I'd like to see more of what went right but that doesn't make for good headlines. There are moving moments of personal sacrifice and heroism. While some personalities were called out specifically, I'd be interested in reading more personal stories, from both sides (US and Afgani). I'm sure there are a ton of examples people trying to do the right thing and this book doesn't give them a lot of coverage.
In the end this is a solid book, very much worth reading. Some criticisms made by other reviews are valid but should not keep one from reading the book.
PS - I am confident there were good people in the embassy/USAID but I find it ironic that those who gave the book 1* seem to have missed the forest for the trees. This book, and the issues covered are bigger than the problems discussed in the embassy/USAID section. By focusing their reviews on one small element and dismissing the rest of the work proves the author's point about the Washington politicos and their tendency to be petty, arrogant and self-centered.
The Afghanistan report we all need to read June 28, 2012
Americans may understand Afghanistan means loss of life and loss of dollars, but seen through the Washington Post's most esteemed and revelatory war reporter, it becomes a different place, a different war. This is the conflict of our era, and the players are familiar but their infighting is not--Mr. Chandrasekaran reveals White House intrigue, when Hillary Clinton confronts the President over the attempted firing of her visionary confidant, Richard Holbrooke. Also Vice President Biden comes across as prescient, a true Washington gravitas figure behind his usual impulsive pronouncements. And President Obama's compulsion for compromise leads to harrowing costs for the expensive surge, disastrously coupled as it was with "hard deadline."
The generals are bedeviled by error. The Afghan landscape is scarred by not only battles but also absurd remnants of past American attempts at creating communities. There's evidence of mistake and misfortune and misery that decision-makers could have known and should have known. Thanks to Mr. Chandrasekaran, now everyone does. And we all can learn much from the book's hero, Kael Weston, a State Department official who dedicated years of service and brainpower to solutions that higher-ups, including President Obama, didn't heed. Weston needs to be read to be believed, and his verbatim dispatches are riveting. Anyone will be proud that the State Department invests in such problem-solving talent, and that the Washington Post (and Knopf!) have too. Kudos to Mr. Chandrasekaran for brave and indispensible storytelling.
There have been several great books about the Afghan war, but what sets Rajiv's book apart is that it captures the battles within the Obama adminsitration and the Pentagon and links them to the actual fighting in Afghanistan. It shows how the high-stakes politics of the war debate changed the way the war was being fought on the ground. Sometimes for better. Quite frequently for worse. The two men who drive the narrative -- Brig. Gen Larry Nicholson and Kael Weston -- are captured in vivid prose. This is a book that pulls off two important feats at once. It humanizes a complex and often difficult to understand war. It also lays bare important political failings in Washington and Kabul. It is a great piece of work by one of our best journalists today.