Lessons For Afghanistan War From 'Little America' In his new book Little America, Washington Post correspondent Rajiv Chandrasekaran traces the decision-making process by senior American military officials during the 2009 troop surge in Afghanistan and analyzes their struggle to develop successful policies on the ground.
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Lessons For Afghanistan War From 'Little America'

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Lessons For Afghanistan War From 'Little America'

Lessons For Afghanistan War From 'Little America'

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. On assignment in southern Afghanistan in 2010, Rajiv Chandrasekaran of the Washington Post waded through chest-high water with U.S. Marines through canals originally dug by Americans 60 years ago, marvels of irrigation then, now perfect defensive moats for the Taliban entrenched in the city of Marja.

He discovered a massive Cold War project to transform the Helmand River Valley through electrification and modern agriculture, a project whose failures would be replicated by a new generation of U.S. policymakers, soldiers and diplomats in a part of Afghanistan once called Little America.

We want to hear from those of you who have been to Afghanistan: As combat forces begin to cycle home, what's the U.S. commitment now? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: Later in the program, NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton on a visit to Washington from her base in West Africa, she'll join us here in the studio. But first, Rajiv Chandrasekaran, senior correspondent and associate editor for the Washington Post. His new book is "Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan." He's here in Studio 3A. Nice to have you back on the program.

Great to be back with you, Neal.

CONAN: And Little America, the name not so far-fetched, not just a vast irrigation project but an American-style town with bicycles and poodle skirts and ice cream and coed swimming pools.

CHANDRASEKARAN: A vast social engineering experiment driven by Americans and by Afghans, modern-minded, suit-wearing Afghans who lived in the capital who wanted to transform the rural stretches of their nation. And in this story that I spill out in "Little America," the story of a massive post-World War II development effort on the deserts of southern Afghanistan intended to turn it into a real agricultural breadbasket for Afghanistan.

CONAN: Into the San Joaquin Valley.

CHANDRASEKARAN: Yes, yes, many parallels in geography between the two, and they brought in legions of American engineers to do just that, to build dams, to build canals, to try to create verdant orchards and farmland.

The project ultimately failed to achieve its great hopes, and as did the social engineering aspects of this, trying to modernize very traditional Afghan tribal communities throughout Helmand and Kandahar provinces in the southern part of the country.

But that story, which just occupies chapter one of the book, it's a fascinating slice of history, but I see it as a parable for what is to come later because when President Obama authorized new waves of troops to go to Afghanistan in 2009, doubling our troop footprint there, sending more than 50,000 additional men and women in uniform to Afghanistan, many of them were sent to southern Afghanistan to beat back the Taliban, the very, very same terrain that American engineers had worked in six decades earlier.

And much of what they were trying to do through their what they called a counterinsurgency effort was a form of nation-building, was trying to beat back the Taliban by building up an Afghan state in these places, by helping to reconstruct these places. And if you change the dates and the names, you could sort of be talking about today when it comes to that earlier history. I just thought it was tremendously instructive in looking at today.

CONAN: The engineering mistakes, obviously those are not quite parallel. The players, of course, are completely different. The lack of understanding of culture and tradition, those are the same.

CHANDRASEKARAN: Oh, totally, also the fact that you had a - you know, we complain about these wartime contractors and how they overcharge, well, the contractor that went in back in the '40s, Morrison Knudson, the American firm that had built the Hoover Dam and the San Francisco Bay Bridge, they insisted on bringing every piece of equipment from the United States no matter how small.

Very quickly, they depleted Afghanistan's treasury, the money that they had set aside for this project. So it's lack of understanding. It's venal contractors. It's Americans hiring up the few Afghans that possess technical skills so that when it's time for the Afghans to do stuff, they can't do it.

We see this today with the U.S. military, U.S. aid agencies, the international aid community hiring the few Afghans who possess language skills, who possess technical skills so then we look at the Afghan government ministries and say: Why can't they do a better job? Well, they don't have the people to do it. Where are those people? Oh, they're getting paid 10 times as much working for the U.N. or working for USAID.

CONAN: Indeed you conclude that, well, Americans tend to blame the Afghans for many failures, and boy, there's plenty to blame them for, but we tend to overlook our own, our indecision, our vacillation, our working at cross-purposes. Indeed one of the major mistakes you cite is that that place once known as Little America would ultimately be known as Marinistan.

CHANDRASEKARAN: Yes, so fast-forward to 2009, Neal. The president authorizes a first wave of troops soon after taking office, so in February of 2009. He signs off on 17,000 additional troops to go in, to help try to stabilize Afghanistan. He campaigned on Iraq being the bad war, Afghanistan being essentially a good war, a war that we really had to get right because our efforts there began in the wake of 9/11.

So you would think that that first tranche of troops authorized by the new president would be sent to the most critical place, to the place that was the spiritual capital for the Taliban, the city - and I'm talking here about Kandahar, the country's second-largest city and the biggest population center in southern Afghanistan...

CONAN: The cradle of the Taliban.

CHANDRASEKARAN: Yes, and the city if the Taliban took over, they would have a springboard to take over the rest of the country, just like they did in the 1990s. So you would think that the planners at the Pentagon, our top commanders, would dispatch most of those forces to help safeguard Kandahar. Instead, we sent them to another province, to neighboring Helmand province.

Now Helmand is a bad place. There were a lot of bad guys there. There was a lot of poppy being grown there, poppy which produces opium, which helps to fuel the Taliban. But it was less strategically important. Why? Why did we send the bulk of that first wave to the other place?

Well, it all goes back to World War II. Marines fighting on Pacific islands felt that they didn't get enough air cover from Navy planes, and so in the wake of all of that, in Vietnam and in Iraq and now in Afghanistan, the Marines have insisted on essentially bringing their own helicopters, their own logistics units. They want to fight as a unified taskforce.

That's - you know, there's a rationale for that, Neal. I'm not...

CONAN: They're constructed like that.

CHANDRASEKARAN: Yes, but what it meant was that in an environment where we were fighting with our NATO partners, where the Marines would have to work closely with the U.S. Army, the only place they could get where they could have their own sort of patch of the sandbox, so to speak, was in Helmand, in a part of the country that was home to about one percent of the population.

If our strategy was to be protecting the good people from the bad people, we should have been near the biggest city in the south. Instead, we were off in a sparsely populated desert. And I argue in this book, based on a lot of interviews with senior commanders and others, that this was a fundamental mistake.

I'm not trying to say that the Afghan war was totally winnable, that the strategy was right, but if you accept that the president made a decision to send more troops and to fight the war a certain way, his commanders should have then directed those troops to the most critical of areas, and instead what I found was that his effort was plagued by tribalism, not Afghan tribalism, Neal, tribalism at the Pentagon.

CONAN: Because there were people who were dedicated to the counterinsurgency policy, and these include David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal, who preceded him as the commander in Afghanistan. There are people who were then saying no, no, no, we have to deal with counterterrorism, and their spokesman was the vice president of the United States, Joe Biden.

There was an interesting character, though, who you write about a lot, Kael Wilson(ph) - Weston, excuse me, and I hope I'm pronouncing his first name right, but he is a State Department advisor to the Marines down there in Helmand who's saying wait a minute, we don't need a surge of 40,000 people, we need a commitment over time. We need to be able to tell the Afghans we're going to be here for some period of time even if that means fewer people now.

CHANDRASEKARAN: Yes, and this is why I made Kael Weston a big part of this book. He's a heroic young American who spent seven years of his life working for the State Department in Iraq and Afghanistan, probably more time in the war zones than any other foreign service officers.

And he supported the initial deployment of troops in Afghanistan, but he came to believe that the surge that Obama would approve later in 2009 was a bad idea. And you put your finger on it. He didn't believe that Americans should pack up and go home. I know a lot of people out there today feel that way. He didn't believe that, nor did he believe in a go-big approach, in a surge, sock them with everything you've got.

What he thought the Afghans needed and what the Americans needed to do was a more modest go-along strategy to demonstrate to the Afghans a long-term American commitment, to help them with basic security, with some basic assistance to improve their lives but to have the Afghans really do the hard work over time.

And he felt that that would also be the best possible strategy to try to then bring elements of the Taliban to a negotiating table if they saw that the Americans weren't going to leave right away. Instead he felt we did the wrong thing by sending more forces there for a short period of time.

And that's sort of a nuanced argument here, and that's why this book is a little different than a lot of others that have been written. It's not a polemic that says let's all pack up and leave, but it's not a sort of hey, hey, everything's going great, let's stay there. And that's why Kael Weston in my mind was such a compelling figure.

CONAN: And indeed since you wrote the book, the United States has negotiated an agreement to stay for a decade or so in Afghanistan but at greatly reduced levels and with, we're told, very little of a combat role. So we want to hear from those of you who have been to Afghanistan, NGOs but obviously most of you in uniform at one time or another. What's the U.S. commitment to Afghanistan now? What's the purpose?

800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. We're talking with Rajiv Chandrasekaran, the author of, previously, "Imperial Life in the Emerald City," a book about his experiences in Iraq. This is "Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan," in which he describes the commitment, as he describes it perhaps the mis-commitment of U.S. troops to southern Afghanistan, to very unpopulated areas of limited strategy value while places with greater strategic value like Kandahar went begging for resources and for, well, boots on the ground.

Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan. In Rajiv Chandrasekaran's new book "Little America," he opens with Paul Jones' arrival in Afghanistan in 1951, announced with billows of dust, an optimism about a plan to build a modern boomtown on the banks of the Helmand River, homes and a farmland for every family and four new villages, high schools and hospitals and rec centers.

Sixty years ago, he had big plans for an Afghanistan that never materialized then or more recently. You can read more about Jones and his vision for a new civilization in an excerpt from "Little America" on our website. Go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

If you've spent time in the country, tell us: As combat troops begin to cycle out, what's the U.S. commitment to Afghanistan now? 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's address is npr.org. Our guest, Rajiv Chandrasekaran, senior correspondent for Washington Post and author of "Little America." Let's get a caller on the line, and we'll start with Kyle(ph), and Kyle's with us from Grand Forks in North Dakota.

KYLE: Yes, how are you doing today?

CONAN: Good, thanks.

KYLE: Yes, as far I've been - I just recently tuned in, and I would have to say that the person that you're interviewing has brought up some very interesting points regarding what's been going on in Afghanistan. But, like, I actually spent two deployments in Afghanistan in the U.S. Army from 2006, and then also in 1009 with the 10th Mountain Division.

And, I mean, as far as - I think he's specifically oversimplifying what's going on specifically on the side with the Afghan tribalism. Probably the best way that I've heard about the explanation of the politics there is like the Hatfield and McCoys meet "The Sopranos." I mean, what Afghan commanders are dealing with on the ground and, you know, even at the top echelons in the Pentagon, it's just, it's such a difficult, difficult, difficult conflict. There's no easy answer, simple solution.

I mean, even from my experience, the best thing they can do is support the Afghan government. I mean, it's like they're plagued with corruption. I mean, even if you say functional corruption, but with the Afghan...

CONAN: If Rajiv has been a little simplistic, blame me, don't blame me. There's enormous stretches in the book where he goes on and on about the value of intelligence, white on green intelligence, not white on red, which of course is Taliban - blue on red, rather - but intelligence about the natures of the tribes and what's going to happen if the United States makes a deal with one tribal leader, what's going to happen to the other tribal leaders, how are they going to react to that, all that sort of information.

CHANDRASEKARAN: These were key challenges that for years we never bothered to focus in on. For years, the focus of U.S. intelligence gathering was on just the bad guys: Who are we going to kill; who are we going to capture? It hasn't been until recent years that there has been this shift, largely started by General McChrystal.

I have to say Kyle's unit, the second unit he was with, the 10th Mountain Division in southern Afghanistan, really, I think, did an excellent job of what it was assigned to do in terms of beating back the insurgents, trying to rebuild some institutions of governance. And they had - I'm not going to say her name on air, but a phenomenal intelligence officer at that division level fusing everything together and actually had a remarkable view of all these tribal linkages.

But it's too - it was too late, at least in my view. We should have been focused on these things years earlier. Now, one other point that Kyle makes, and I think it's a good one, the path to our exit I think increasingly is building up the Afghan security forces.

We're a nation that's tired of this war. It's been going on for more than a decade. It's our longest war. A clear majority of Americans want us, want our troops out of there. But how do we - how do we exit without - or exit with increasing the chances that there will be at least some form of, you know, messy stability there. Nobody's saying Jeffersonian democracy, nobody's saying it has to be perfect.

I think a lot of what we've been trying to do over the past couple years in trying to build sort of a model government there, trying to create local governments and provincial governments, quite frankly that was a little too ambitious, particularly for a country that lacks the resources that Afghanistan does.

Now the focus really is on trying to just have a good enough army and an army that can protect the country and protect its people. And I think finally we are focused on what is a reasonable, potentially attainable goal, though it will still cost us some billions of dollars every year.

We should have been focused on that much earlier.

CONAN: Kyle, does that make a little more sense?

KYLE: Yeah, it does, but I mean it's like - General McChrystal actually gave a speech in 2009, it completely agrees with how the complexities of the politics - you can actually look it up on YouTube, it was - actually I want to say given a year before he was replaced with Petraeus. But, I mean, he understood the complexities, given the fact that he - I mean, he had on-the-ground experience in charge of, you know, Special Forces command.

And it's just - I do agree with what we were doing was too late, I mean, given the problems of the Iraq War that the resources that were needed for Afghanistan, something that I speak - I personally know of because I was actually, both deployments I was in northeastern Afghanistan, in the provinces of Kunar and Nuristan. And if anybody's seen the movie "Restrepo," I mean, that's a pretty good idea what's - how the fighting was and how the living conditions were.

But it was just - it was just pretty much a holding action until we got the necessary equipment and money coming in. I mean, you could see a drastic change from 2006 until 2009, when the - when they started downsizing in Iraq, additional combat power and money was made available from every level, whether it be the PRT, the Provincial Reconstruction Teams, or even, I mean, just for ground commanders who were doing humanitarian aid missions and stuff like that.

But yeah, he makes several good points, and I just want to say good luck, and I'm enjoying the interview.

CONAN: Kyle, thanks very much. I'll need it. Let's see if we can go next to - this is Dan(ph), Dan with us from Grand Rapids, Michigan.

DAN: Hi, how are you, great interview today.

CONAN: Thank you.

DAN: My - I'm - he was kind of getting into - I'm talking about, I guess, the exit strategy. And I was listening to Zbigniew Brzezinski speak about the necessity, he believes, that we deal with the more moderate elements of the Taliban in getting to that point. We've been unwilling to deal with the Taliban.

Initially we went in there after al-Qaeda because the more radical elements of the Taliban were in - giving them harbor. And now that we're in a better position against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, it's - the best fix for long term and to get out would be to work with the more moderate elements of the Taliban to come up with some sort of peace solution that then we could leave, you know, at, you know, where it belongs, over on the other side of the world...

CONAN: But Rajiv, this is another tribal division in the United States.

CHANDRASEKARAN: Exactly. It's a great point the caller makes, and what I spell out - this is sort of a remarkable story that I was blown away as I started to uncover it. You would think as we're sending more troops in there, as the United States is increasing its leverage in Afghanistan, that we would start to work with alacrity to try to find a way to negotiate with some elements of the Taliban.

I don't think a grand deal was possible, but you could cleave off groups here and there because ultimately you're not going to kill every last single - the way this is going to end is through some sort of accommodation between rival factions in Afghan society. But what happened? Yes, Neal, this tribalism, but in Washington, between the State Department and the White House.

Soon after Obama took office, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appointed Richard Holbrooke, the veteran diplomat who died in late 2010, as the point man for Afghanistan and Pakistan. But his principal responsibility was going to be to look at trying to peace talks.

He had ended the fighting in the Balkans through the Dayton Accords. He had served in the Paris peace talks to try to end the Vietnam, a man with great experience. But he was also a larger-than-life figure with many flaws, rubbed people the wrong way, including a lot of members of President Obama's White House team.

An before long, there was a very vicious, personal fight between members of the National Security Council and the State Department, and it sort of overshadowed what was supposed to be the common purpose of trying to come up with a strategy to get to peace talks to try to end this fighting.

Instead, for more than a year, these various factions in Washington spent more time essentially fighting with one another, often very childishly.

CONAN: And you would think, and thanks very much for the call, Dan, you would think that that might have been resolved with, sadly, the death of Richard Holbrooke, but it hasn't. They are still working at cross-purposes.

CHANDRASEKARAN: There is still a lot of infighting going on, but after Holbrooke's death, the White House dropped a lot of its objections to sort of policies that Holbrooke was trying to push forward, which suggests to me that their issue really wasn't the substance of the policies, it was who was behind them.

But unfortunately, Neal, it's sort of too late. We're bringing troops home. And so if you're trying to negotiate with somebody, do you negotiate when you're putting in more resources or when you're pulling them out? The Taliban aren't stupid. They see us heading for the exits, and they realize: Why should we negotiate with them now?

We would have had a better shot at this earlier on, if we hadn't been consumed by infighting over here. And ultimately, this did a disservice to our men and women in uniform.

CONAN: And early on, you're talking a lot about the Obama administration, and indeed, Mr. Obama has taken this war on. As Obama's war, you talk about some of the - whether that's valid or not later in the book. But, anyway, there were so many opportunities lost in the previous administration, and there is a chapter - I know next to nothing about agricultural policy. I've grown up in and around the city of New York. I've lived in London and Washington. I garden a little bit, but, you know, believe me, a chapter on agricultural policy in the Bush administration moved me almost to tears. It is heartbreaking.

CHANDRASEKARAN: The amount of money we were wasting, hundreds of millions of dollars thrown away, giving Afghans things that they would just take to Pakistan and sell, focusing in on programs that didn't really improve the lives of Afghans, that in fact in some cases had blowback effects and helped to increase poppy production and smuggling and corruption. So, yes, there are no heroes here. I'm not trying to suggest that that the Obama administration bears even more responsibility.

You've got - you had two administrations in Washington, both of whom had made their shares of errors in managing the Afghan war, although I do focus a lot on the current administration because they came in - this book really starts in 2009. They came in promising a smarter war, a better war. This was supposed to be the team of guys who were going to properly resource Afghanistan after years of strategic drift, you know, taking resources out of Iraq, focusing on Afghanistan.

The problem was you had a Pentagon that sent troops to the wrong places. You had a State Department that promised a surge of civilians to work with those troops, but the surge came too slowly. Most of those people were stuck in Kabul. And on the reconstruction front, the Bushies made a mess of it, but the new team wound up putting way too much money in. We went from starving Afghanistan to literally turning a fire hose of aid on the country, more than they could reasonably absorb, you know, try to pour $4 billion a year in. It just - it fueled many of the problems we're trying to stop, like corruption. We made those problems worse by the amount of money we threw into the country.

CONAN: Rajiv Chandrasekaran of The Washington Post, "Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's go to Phil, and Phil is with us from - where is that - Dunbarton, New Hampshire.

PHIL: That is correct. Thank you.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

PHIL: I've been working in Afghanistan the past two and a half years as a senior adviser in the Ministry of Finance there. I'm an American citizen paid by an international organization, but I've been working directly in the ministry. And I wanted to observe that I entirely agree with the caller - with the guest, and I want to say also that there's a financial aspect to this as well as the military aspect that the huge sums of money that have flooded the country from the United States in particular, both through aid and through military contracting, has thrown fuel on the fire of the corruption problem and has also distorted the economy in a way that has really minimized growth that could have happened. I mean, ironically, a lot less money much better spent would have done far more good than the fire hose that was mentioned. Secondly...

CONAN: Well, I just want to give Rajiv a chance to respond to that.

CHANDRASEKARAN: I agree. I mean, this is like with troop numbers, you know, a more modest approach over a long period of time. You know, right - so we're going from a world where we flooded the country with money to now where the future commitment to Afghanistan is uncertain. We talk a good game. We will help them, but we're in economic crisis here at home. If any of the listeners have seen that movie "Charlie Wilson's War," the most instructive scene there is the last scene where after the Soviets are defeated, Charlie is fighting in a congressional committee room for $1 million for Afghan schools and can't get it.

As we pull out troops, what is our commitment going to be to help the Afghan people who have great needs? I mean, when you look at rates of malnutrition, of infant mortality, they're off the charts in Afghanistan. It's one of the poorest countries on the face of the Earth. What then becomes of all of that? But, you know, and then the caller made a very other good point. As we reduce these aid budgets, which are inevitably happening over the next couple of years, we may well be causing, you know, a real economic crash.

You have people who are used to certain levels of income. You have a bubble economy that's really built up in Kabul and other cities. As that money stops flowing in, you could well see, you know, the Afghan equivalent of a recession.

CONAN: You know, there's not the oil like there is in Iraq.


CONAN: One more quick point, Phil.

PHIL: Yeah. Sure. What I wanted to say as a follow-up to that is despite this I'm actually cautiously optimistic about Afghanistan. I mean, I - where I'm at in the Ministry of Finance, they're pretty darn good. They're very clean. Our economic forecasts are for continued growth over the next decade. Really the critical factor is going to be consistency of aid in the longer term, number one, and how that money is spent, number two. If it's spent in the way it's spent now by many donors, especially the U.S., where it's direct implementation in the field by U.S. contractors where 90 percent of the money goes back to the states, it's not worth it. It's just not worth it.

I mean, it should be going through the national budget structures. Smaller sums are fine but that - you get the most bang for the buck. It minimizes the macro fiscal impact of the withdrawal of funds and so...

CONAN: So as soon as you get to macro fiscal impact I have to stop you, but thank you very much for the phone call. Appreciate it. I wanted to end - there's a farmer you quote in Helmand in the book, Rajiv Chandrasekaran, he's asked about Americans, his attitude towards Americans, and he replied that he remembered the Americans fondly because they built the canals that watered his land and because things had been so much worse since the Americans left.

CHANDRASEKARAN: Yes. And the Afghans, you know, from over here, when you see images of Afghans rioting or you see the aftermath of attacks on U.S. forces, you think, oh, they hate us. You know, why don't we just leave? The truth is the Afghans don't really hate the Americans as much as we think. They have no great love for the Taliban. They see them as religious zealots. They really don't have much great love for their own government. They see us in many cases as honest brokers, as people who've been fueling their economy, who've been hiring them, who - if their child is injured, they can take them to the gate of an American base.

So it's, you know, they don't want us to be there forever, but they don't hate Americans. And, you know, it's worth us remembering that we did some great stuff there six decades ago. We also made a lot of mistakes. We're doing some good things now. We're also making mistakes. We've had a long engagement there. It's wrapping up. This is a story that really tries to explain the arc of American involvement in Afghanistan and what worked and what didn't.

CONAN: The book is "Little America," the author, Rajiv Chandrasekaran, with us in Studio 3A. As always, thanks very much.

CHANDRASEKARAN: Great to talk to you, Neal.


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