Sad because it chronicles the mistakes, now in Afghanistan, that crushed reconstruction in Iraq. Sad because it shows America’s worst enemy is itself, not the Taliban. Sad also because it shows the book I wrote about Iraq, and all the garbage that came long with it, including losing my career at State, didn’t matter. The same errors in Iraq are present in Afghanistan– hell, based on Little America, it even seems like many of the same people are present– and that assures that once again money and lives will be wasted and nothing good accomplished. Like Iraq, we will lose this war too.
Though I have read only the brief excerpts online and have had a limited personal conversation with Chandrasekaran about his book, once you hear familiar sounds you come to recognize the place, and the author writes of an Afghan process all too similar. Again, here are the contractors only in it for the money (many it seems holdouts from the Iraq project who just packed up and shifted locales, dragging their irrelevancy along with them), the well-meaning development professionals smothered in bureaucracy and, omnipresent in its nanny state, my own State Department.
For even in this brief excerpt State comes off more than poorly. We learn of security rules that essentially prohibit local contact on a meaningful basis, the heavy weight of State’s own incestuous need for emails, updates and talking points to justify bureaucratic “engagement” with the field and of course pompous and ignorant FSOs that allow neither characteristic to slow them down. Foreign Service personnel stumble through meetings with important Afghans and smash relations with the powerful US military by dumbass moves like refusing to share gate lock combinations.
I saw all of this in Iraq, even wrote a book about it, in hopes that maybe a tiny, tiny breath of change might blow into the mission in Afghanistan. Based on Little America, I failed, and that makes me sad. It appears that the US will again fail in reconstruction, at the waste of thousands of lives and trillions of dollars, and that makes me even more sad. You probably should be sad, too.
Neil Sheehan, who wrote one of the seminal texts of the Vietnam War, A Bright Shining Lie, reviews Little America in the Washington Post, focusing on the inevitability of failure in Afghanistan due to the almost total corruption of the puppet Karzai government.
Want more? Here’s a blurb from the Amazon review:
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.
Be sure to read the excerpt from Little America, now at Foreign Policy. I will do a full review once I finish the book and after dealing with the PTSD it will no doubt trigger in me.
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