Monday, August 13, 2012

Book Review: Little America: the War Within the War for Afghanistan

This book could have been sub-titled “How to Lose a War;” or perhaps “Why has Everybody Screwed Up This War So Badly? “ This is the sinking thought a reader gets as Washington Post Journalist Rajiv Chandrasakaran argues in his book, Little America, that America’s recent surge in troops, foreign service and foreign aid workers, and huge investments of money have failed to turn the war in Afghanistan around. He begins his narrative with the interesting history of America’s previous attempts to make changes in Afghanistan, going back as far as 1951 when they tried to transform the arid lands of the Helmand River valley into a model farming community. Despite the infusion of tens of millions of dollars over a twenty-year period, numerous attempts failed to make any significant change. And, when the author returns in 2009, he finds that the same ineptitude, lack of vision and bureaucratic attitude is leading to failure again. What makes it worse now is that the lives of thousands of troops and hundreds of millions of dollars are at risk.

The United States and other western powers have taken on the task of trying to create a new government in a land they do not understand. Afghanistan remains one of the most complex societies in the world where any political initiative crashes against long-standing tribal conflicts, where the rule of formal law has never been known in most of its corners, and the cooperation of corrupt strongmen seems necessary to gain any headway. The author traces the debate at the highest levels of the US government over strategy. Richard Holbrooke believes negotiation with the Taliban is necessary but his egotistic manner clashes with others. General Petraeus, newly appointed commander of US and NATO forces, wins out to direct a surge of US troops to follow his COIN (Counter insurgency warfare) doctrine over the objections of Vice President Biden and others who argue for a strategy of counter terrorism.

Chandrasakaran arrives in Afghanistan to find the first wave of the surge going to what he believes is the wrong place: Helmand province. He laments the fact that, although the powerful US Marine force sent there will make good progress in wresting control back from the insurgents who have successfully opposed the British forces, they should have been deployed to Kandahar province which is the key strategic centre of southern Afghanistan. Even when US army troops finally arrive in Kandahar, they should have been in greater strength and are led by a rogue commanding officer whose aggressive attitude violates all the principles of COIN doctrine.

Chandrasakaran spent time in Afghanistan talking to military and US government on the front line and in Kabul, and to senior officials at the White House, the Pentagon and the State Department back in Washington. He writes of some officials and military officers who are dedicated to getting it right, but he observes too many others who are simply incompetent or concerned only with their own internal rivalries. Yes, this book is one-sided – there are undoubtedly many who did a great job and not enough of the successful stories are told. But this is not a history of the war from 2009 to 2011: it is critique of how the United States is managing the Afghan war, of how it is failing to deal effectively with a task which was very difficult from the start. It is in fact a record, as Chandrasakaran writes, of how “the good war had turned bad.”

This book is essential reading for anyone concerned about how we are going to proceed into a 21st century that is full of great political and military risks; the cost of making these mistakes again is too great.

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