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Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan (Knopf, 2012).

The first time Americans tried to “remake” southern Afghanistan was in the late 1950s. The United States was then already competing with the Soviet Union for influence in the ultimate “buffer state.” The most important part of the American effort was building a “miniature Tennessee Valley Authority” in the Helmand River valley. The river was dammed to generate electricity and irrigate new cropland; on its eastern bank grew the city of Lashkar Gah. Construction of the dam was done by Morrison Knudsen, a venerable engineering firm, but the Helmand project was never finished nor did it make sense environmentally: Salinity from rapid evaporation and over-irrigation was soon killing the land. The project largely failed. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

It is in that time and place that Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Little America opens, “Little America” being the Helmand River project’s nickname. Chandrasekaran’s main focus is not the river, nor older history, but rather the internal policy battles that have shaped the Obama-era war in Afghanistan, particularly the surge that began there in late 2009. It is a tragic story, laid out in superb and intimate detail befitting its author, a senior correspondent and associate editor at the Washington Post.

If Chandrasekaran’s previous book Imperial Life in the Emerald City exposed the appallingly outsized greed and stupidity of the rampaging free-market fundamentalism in Bush-era Iraq’s Green Zone, then Little America’s central theme is the small-minded, Power Point-enabled dissembling and bureaucratic ossification of Obama’s war. Little America evokes the limited imaginations and petty agendas at the heart of a big empire.

Much of the narrative is structured around portraits of emblematic characters such as the bombastic and widely disliked Richard Holbrooke, who died in 2010 as the State Department’s special envoy, and the infamously defenestrated Gen. Stanley McChrystal, as well as lesser-known figures like the wantonly violent, almost Kurtzian Army Col. Harry Tunnell. There is the obligatory starry-eyed, self-promoting aid worker and also a Lawrence-esque foreign service officer who is eventually ground down by his Sisyphean task.

Team Obama arrived in office with one mission in Afghanistan — “stop the slide.” The first step in that direction was to deploy the Marines to Helmand province, where they relieved British and Canadian troops. The Canadians, in particular, had taken very heavy casualties, much higher as a percentage of the national population than the Americans.

As the Marines were about to deploy, a debate was underway about where they should go. Should they focus their efforts in and around the cities, like Kandahar, the largest city in the south and the key to its political stability? Or should they head into the eastern mountains and southern desert wastes, the tiny hamlets where the Afghan government had no traction and Taliban columns could move and govern with ease? The ballyhooed doctrine of COIN — the revival and rebranding of counterinsurgency theory — would seem to suggest the centrality of population centers to the overall stabilization project. And as Sarah Chayes, the former NPR reporter turned Kandahar-based social entrepreneur, told a rather alarmed aide to Army Gen. John Nicholson, deputy chief of staff for the US-led forces in Afghanistan, Kandahar — or at least its edges — was already falling to the Taliban. But never mind. The Marines wanted to go to the very worst places in Afghanistan so they could do what Marines do: Kick ass.

Due to quirks of US military history, the Marines operate with their own air support and distinct supply lines. The US ambassador to Kabul, himself a former Army general who had served in Afghanistan, “joked that the international security force in Afghanistan, then made up of 41 nations, felt as if it had 42 members because the Marines acted so independently from other US forces.” So the Marines went where they pleased, deep into southern Helmand, where they could attack Taliban sanctuaries. It made for violent firefights. But the areas that were eventually taken had virtually zero strategic significance. Thus was born the absurd “battlespace” that officials in Kabul mockingly referred to as “Marineistan.” Meanwhile, Kandahar, and its road link west to Lashkar Gah and northeast to Kabul, came under tighter Taliban control. Allowing the Marines to get their way was Team Obama’s first grave error.

Next came the surge, which has been both military and civilian in nature, and the product of a mishmash of White House and Pentagon calculations. Gen. McChrystal — who comes across as a decent if extremely hard-driving fellow in Chandrasekaran’s account — wanted more troops then he eventually got. His analysts figured that 40,000 soldiers were the minimum number needed to “stop the slide.” Vice President Joe Biden wanted fewer than 20,000 additional troops and opposed all-out counterinsurgency as a framework. He argued instead that the mission should be understood as “counterterrorism” — hunting down al-Qaeda rather than trying to win hearts and minds among the Pashtun social base of the Taliban. Given three choices — 11,000 additional soldiers, 30,000 or 40,000 — President Barack Obama chose the middle number in his inimitable Goldilocks fashion. Then, in a transparent sop to the electorate, he announced that the surging troops would exit by July 2014. Many Afghans feared this date would mark the start of their abandonment and saw it as an invitation to the Taliban simply to wait out the surge.

Even COIN — the theory that presumably was guiding the mission — was not always adhered to. That was most apparent in the case of Harry Tunnell, one of the military’s few African-American colonels. Tunnell was wounded in Iraq, so badly that the Army allows him to substitute a bike ride for a run at his annual fitness test. Despite his disability, he deployed to Afghanistan in command of a brigade.

The very old doctrine of counterinsurgency is a political theory for political wars. The idea is to win over people rather than conquer territory, to build the local economy and train native auxiliaries. Governance comes first, and violence is used only when needed. During his recovery, however, Tunnell had written a book in which he advocated a different theory, one that he called counter-guerilla warfare. This theory gave “priority to destroying the guerrilla forces.” Tunnell trained his troops accordingly, naming his unit the Destroyer Brigade and ordering its vehicles painted with the motto, “Search and destroy.” Hearts and minds were out. Killing bad guys was in. It was an ethos summed up by a shoulder patch sold at a German-run PX — an American flag emblazoned with the words, “We’re gonna free the shit out of you.”

When the Destroyer Brigade got to Afghanistan, Tunnell neglected the civil affairs teams, reducing their supply of vehicles in order to direct maximum resources to hunting down the Taliban. He did not even feign interest in the COIN-inspired theatrics of cross-cultural dialogue and partnership with Afghans. At one important shura that Chandrasekaran attended, a chagrined Tunnell subordinate explained to a bevy of notables that his boss had skipped the meeting because he was busy “directing combat operations.” Indeed, he was. The Afghans soon scattered in fear when helicopter gunships began to strafe nearby buildings. In the end, Tunnell’s poorly led men suffered numerous easily avoided casualties, developed a hash-smoking subculture and committed a number of atrocities. The five soldiers who killed Afghan civilians “for sport” and took body parts as trophies were Destroyer Brigade members.

The opposite of Tunnell in Chandrasekaran’s tale is a foreign service officer named John Kael Weston. After dropping out of Ph.D. work at the London School of Economics, he served as a political adviser to the Marines in the Anbar province of Iraq and then went to Afghanistan. After seven years of heroic (if misguided) effort, Weston left the State Department, disillusioned and defeated.

Weston was the exception. Most personnel in the civilian surge were of considerably lower quality. As Mark Christien, a senior State Department official in Helmand, told Chandrasekaran, “We are past the B-team… We’re at the C-team.” Or, as one idealistic State Department volunteer described it, the civilian side of the US effort drew three types: “Those who had come to Afghanistan because they wanted to make a lot of money — with hazard pay and bonuses, some staffers earned as much as $300,000 a year; those who were getting their tickets punched for promotion or for posting to a comfortable embassy in Western Europe; and those who were seeking to escape a divorce, a foreclosed home or some other personal calamity.” Helping Afghanistan was not something they spoke about much.

The debauchery of this milieu is legendary. At times the details are almost pornographic. At one point the drinking was so out of hand that embassy staff were limited to purchasing two bottles of wine or one bottle of spirits per person per day. The booze was medication, not to salve the rigors of thinking through difficult problems, or learning Dari or Pashtu, or risking life and limb to check on development projects, but to ameliorate an all-consuming bureaucracy that, effectively, kept everyone pinned down in cubicles battling an endless onslaught of e-mail.

One of Holbrooke’s handpicked team, a woman named Summer Coish, worked 18 hours a day in the State Department’s vortex of paperwork but eventually quit because her labors achieved nothing. Coish’s personal journey through this maze designed by idiots began with a months-long security check conducted by a private contractor, a former police officer in rural North Carolina who had left the US only once, for a vacation in Baja California. The provincial ex-cop, with a head full of Fox News notions about the world, did not understand the simplest things about international travel. He was flummoxed, for instance, that Coish had visited foreign embassies to get visas, not to mention that she had spent most of the last decade living in Central Asia.

In describing the expatriate lifestyle, Chandrasekaran pulls his punches. One friend of mine explained that the alcohol purchase limit was due not only to embassy staff drinking but also to their wholesale (and rather lucrative) trade with underground Afghan dealers. In Kabul, ostensibly a dry town, a bottle of whiskey can fetch several times its initial cost. The same contact also told me about a mix of amphetamines concocted by embassy staffers called “embassy cocaine.”

Another crucial piece of the Afghan failure is the nature of the Afghan state. The Afghan government is a kleptocracy, pure and simple, and from President Hamid Karzai on down, its institutions are riddled with corruption. A 2009 State Department cable published by WikiLeaks revealed that the former vice president, Zia Masoud, was stopped at the Dubai airport bringing $52 million in cash out of Afghanistan. Karzai’s assassinated brother, Wali, was rumored to be a drug lord. His tenant farmers, working fields along the Kandahar-to-Kabul highway, all grew poppies.

The rot started when the Bush administration rushed the 2001 Bonn process and gave the reformed Afghan state over to the same forces, many of them murderous drug runners and some just as fanatical about religion as the Taliban, who had destroyed the old one. Karzai has subsequently set a tone of duplicitous incompetence that permeates government all the way down to front-line cops. Sections of the Afghan government routinely bribe each other and officialdom extorts from the population. There are notable exceptions — many of them former communists — who have tried to deliver governance and infrastructure. One such person is Helmand governor Gulab Mangal, who is profiled in Little America. But the Afghan state has virtually nothing to show for its billions of dollars in economic assistance. If the surge was about state building, then that project required a credible partner.

Team Obama entered office with a clear understanding of the dilemma. In February 2008, Joe Biden and Chuck Hagel, both senators at the time, met with Karzai in Kabul. Over dinner they asked what his government was doing about corruption. “Who is corrupt?” asked an affronted Karzai, denying the premise of the inquiry. “Show me. Give me the names.” Biden replied, “Mr. President, you’re not doing very well…. Your poppy production is at record levels.” Back and forth the argument went and Karzai would still not admit to a corruption problem. Finally, Biden stood up, tossed his napkin on the table and announced, “This dinner is over.”

The next time the two met, Biden was vice president and he informed Karzai that access to Obama would be restricted. President George W. Bush had called his Afghan counterpart weekly and chatted with him about mundane personal matters. That was all over, and Team Obama, indeed, hoped that Karzai himself would soon exit the stage. Holbrooke thought a robust election might unseat Karzai or compel him to step aside. That idea failed, as did most of what Holbrooke attempted in Afghanistan. The stress may well have caused the fatal tear in his aorta.

The interplay of these characters suggests a theory of causality or, at least, a partial explanation for why US-occupied Afghanistan is such a disaster. For Chandrasekaran, the debacle is rooted in missed opportunities, policy fumbles and tactical blunders. It is common for defenders of empire to write off its crimes as mistakes. Conversely, those who condemn imperialism too often overlook its asinine features, instead emphasizing its evil rationality — going to exotic lands, meeting interesting people and seizing their natural resources. What is needed is a critique of empire that sees both its rational and irrational components, that connects military and diplomatic adventures to the logic of capitalist societies, without reducing their operation to that logic. In other words, it is best to layer theories of causality upon one another.

In that regard, it is worth revisiting the Helmand River project and its broad context of geopolitics, the world economy and the climate crisis, for this is the context in which the players so closely watched by Chandrasekaran actually operate. Yet to such deep dynamics Chandrasekaran pays too little attention. He questions the Afghan war, its conduct and its rationale, but not the system that produced its leaders and thus the war.

At the end of this fine book, one is left asking: How much of US policy in Afghanistan over the years 2009-2012 can be explained by President Obama’s concern for reelection? Quite a bit, one suspects. But Obama, the man who decided to extend the war and expand it into Pakistan by means of drones and Special Forces, is conspicuously absent from Chandrasekaran’s lineup of dramatis personae. Nor is there a full accounting of Pakistan’s role in destabilizing Afghanistan.

On the penultimate page, Chandrasekaran writes, “For years we focused on the limits of the Afghans. We should have focused on ours.” Fair enough, but the point is to think not morally but structurally. Even if all had gone well, if all the donnybrooks detailed in Little America had been avoided, Pakistan would still be treating Afghanistan as its backyard. Afghan farmers would still face horrendous drought. And the US would still be dealing with a failed state that it helped to produce by funding the anti-Soviet jihad.

How to cite this article:

Christian Parenti "Big Empire, Little Minds," Middle East Report 264 (Fall 2012).
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