Sunday, July 29, 2012

Book Review - Little America


Little America, Rajiv Chandrasekaran's book about America's decade long war in Afghanistan, could have just as easily been called "Obama's Folly," as the author systematically dissects the errors and missteps that accompanied the President's focus on what had been our "forgotten war" under George W. Bush.  In the same way Thomas Ricks's Fiasco laid bare the myriad mistakes made in Iraq, Chandrasekaran has written the definitive account of our "surge" in Afghanistan. 

The title of the book comes from a post-World War II effort by the U.S. government to irrigate, dam and enrich the arable land in Helmand Province.  This idealism was tinged with colonialism - if only these poor peasants were provided the tools of modern agriculture, they would succeed.  Of course, our government contractors misjudged everything from the strength of the soil to its salinity, inadvertently doing greater harm than good and in the process, engendering a fair amount of ill will for promises unkept. Like so much of what we would do decades later, Chandrasakaren's framing of the effort, with an initial price tag of $17 million that ultimately more than tripled to $63.7 million (roughly $600 million in today's dollars) ended up being a cautionary tale in our ability to project our Western technology and prowess to a country that had, in many ways, missed the entire Industrial Revolution. A project that began in the early 1950s went uncompleted well into the 1970s, until the then-Prime Minister beseeched Henry Kissinger to complete it, which itself became a fool's errand when the Soviets invaded. 

Chandrasekaran's story fast forwards from Ford-era works projects to the early days of the Obama Administration - conceding, as should be noted, that the Bush years, save the first few months after we invaded Afghanistan, were a largely undersourced battle that allowed the Taliban to slowly chip away at American gains as troops were shifted to Iraq, other countries were reluctant to join the battle, and trust between the citizenry and the tribal leaders who ruled, often despotically, eroded. Indeed, threaded throughout the story's narrative is the sense that the Americans and their allies never truly grasped the little "p" politics at work in Afghanistan. Peasants and farmers did not aim for a Jeffersonian democracy, but simply wanted competence without graft from their leaders. They did not necessarily need air conditioning or modern technology, they needed a way to earn a living, free of bribery and shakedowns with a level of security that did not make them fear leaving their homes. When the allies failed to provide these things through the Bush years, the reemergence of the Taliban was unsurprising. 

As with many stories of war, the heroes are the "boots on the ground," the late teen and early 20something privates, lance corporals and grunts who do much of the fighting and dying. The higher up the food chain Chandrasekaran goes, the more dysfunction he sees. The Marine Corps, who, as a unit, come through as fearless defenders of country (and glad we should all be for that), are also zealous protectors of their prerogatives, which results in their being detailed to Helmand Province, which was considered less strategically important than Kandahar Province, but because the Marines deployed first under Obama's initial "surge" of 17,000 troops and were not within the Army chain of command, they alit for the more sparsely populated western province. As a result, large swaths of countryside were brought under control but the impact of that achievement was dubious. Marja, which was elevated by General McChrystal as an example of the so-called "counter-insurgency" (COIN) strategy, ended up being a "bleeding ulcer" because the "government in a box" McChrystal promised did not end up doing what it was supposed to do. When McChrystal brought Afghan President Karzai to Marja a few weeks after the Marines secured it, he was met with a fusillade of criticism from residents, who complained bitterly about the years of graft and corruption that stemmed from Kabul and the leaders it appointed to run Marja. 

Meanwhile, as the story unfolds, it turns out that many of the assumptions about COIN sold to the Obama team turn out to be unmet. Successes end up being largely due to more aggressive raids and use of Special Operations - something that Vice President Biden had advocated for - a smaller, but more focused footprint - but had been derided in private meetings by the generals and in print in a now-famous Rolling Stone article that ended up getting McChrystal fired for insubordination.  Further, Chandrasekaran points out that COIN was not universally adopted among the generals leading the effort. The attempt to fit what was part of a larger policy to pacify Iraqi Sunnis in a country with far greater infrastructure and natural resources simply does not end up making as meaningful a change in a rural, land locked environment with myriad tribes and allegiances. 

More damning is Chandrasekaran's discussion of the Pakistani ISI's complicity in cultivating the insurgency, hiding its leaders and funding its efforts. Even as U.S. troops and Marines made progress throughout the South, we learn that Pakistani elements were providing safe haven for the Taliban on the other side of the border and blocking American efforts to capture or kill battlefield leaders. The ISI turned a blind eye as tons of ammonium nitrate made its way through Pakistan to be processed into bombs by Taliban fighters, drugs were trafficked through the mountains to help fund the insurgency and, as the 30,000 troop surge that began in 2010 came to bear, providing more sophisticated weaponry directly to the Taliban. That a purported American ally had blood on its hands even as we sent billions in aid to them should outrage us all. 

But if the conspiratorial action of the ISI makes your blood boil, the sometimes comic efforts at "nation building" will make you laugh, if it does not make you cry because of the hundreds of millions that went down the drain (or more accurately, into the pockets of perfidious Afghan warlords and American contractors). Chandrasekaran tells of USAID employees who burn out quickly from being in country, or are overwhelmed by the scope of their work or are ignored/denied by their supervisors.  Everyone churned at a healthy clip, so one boss's pet projects became another's bane. One program, AVIPA, flooded Helmand with $30 million in agricultural support in ONE YEAR ($400 for every man, woman and child), a "sugar rush" of funding that provided a short-term spike in economic development but could not be sustained over the long-term. In Kandahar, a program to distribute seed for crops resulted in driving prices down and extra grain was sold on the black market. AVIPA paid farmers to clear irrigation ditches they would have done without being paid and items like protective sheeting for crops were delivered too late to be of use and largely went to waste. 

Meanwhile, many civilians rarely left protected bases to get into the country to see how funds could (or should) be directed. When ideas that made sense for Afghanis were raised, such as the utility of planting cotton as an alternative to poppy plants, bureaucrats shot down those ideas because of an overly rigid interpretation of something called the "Bumpers Amendment," which does not allow U.S. funds to help foreign cotton producers (even though the chances that any cotton from Afghanistan could have any impact on American exports was laughable). Instead, farmers were encouraged to plant crops like pomegranates, that take years to mature, instead of cotton, which can be harvested the first year it is planted and would have provided meaningful income.  Of course, left with the choice between starvation and money, farmers simply went back to growing poppy, spiking production throughout Southern Afghanistan.  A $225 million diesel generator that one general described as a "bridge to nowhere" went forward largely because others at senior levels of the military did not want to be embarrassed by having to cancel the project even though, as the general noted, Afghanis would have seen little increase in electricity, and in many villages, "when the sun does down, it gets dark and that's fine." 

At the highest levels of government, back biting, bureaucratic sniping and pettiness slowed the war (and peace) effort.  To be sure, leaders have egos, but to read about senior officials pulling schoolyard stunts like directing subordinates to not attend meetings convened by other leaders, scheduling meetings on short notice (or when another principal was known to be out of town) or attempting to keep one another out of meetings with the President is maddening. The likelihood of "success" in Afghanistan was low by the time Obama came into office, but to add a degree of difficulty like this simply defies reason. And when officials weren't taking target practice at each other, they simply ignored orders. One particularly damning statement is attributed to a member of Petraeus's staff who, when asked by Chandrasekaran about the "term sheet" Obama issued when he announced the 30,000 troop surge, replied, "we didn't pay much attention to that memo." Wow. 

Equally depressing are the smaller stories Chandrasekaran tells, of high minded people who signed up for service because they wanted to play a small part in the reconstruction of Afghanistan, only to be stymied by a host of obstacles - bureaucracy, ineffective leadership and tentativeness on the part of those in charge of making decisions to allow for those willing to take initiative and run with it.  For example, Chandrasekaran introduces us to Summer Coish, a woman who had spent a lot of time in Kazakhstan and was so eager to serve that she tracked down Richard Holbrooke and left a copy of a magazine she edited with the doorman of his building. Shortly thereafter, Coish was on her way to Afghanistan with USAID, except her paperwork took months to get through. Once there, she discovered the base she was assigned to discouraged staff from traveling while loading the heavily armed compound with the amenities of home - fast food, alcohol and air conditioning - while the people they were putatively sent to help continued living in squalor. Others, like State Department political advisor Kael Weston, Brigadier General Ken Dahl (he, of the "bridge to nowhere" statement regarding a planned generator) and Wes Harris, an agricultural specialist from the University of Georgia are all portrayed as well meaning and diligent whose efforts are frustrated by the same obstacles Coish encountered.  

Of course, Chandrasekaran's perch as a a journalist affords him the ability to advocate for a policy purity that anyone who has worked in government knows rarely exists. At times, Little America gives short shrift to the broader achievements that have occurred in such a short period of time, particularly when one considers how long this forgotten war went on before it was fully resourced.  Where policy is made at the highest levels of government, with so many competing interests and opinions, it is inevitable that mistakes will be made. What is tragic in anything related to war is that the costs end up being dead Americans while those who make the mistakes pay a far smaller price. This is not to take away from the many shortcomings Chandrasekaran discusses, but rather, to say that silver linings to these grey clouds should not be diminished. That said, the book's final chapter is damning and makes a convincing case for the folly of our effort. Little America is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand this complex military, political and policy challenge that has vexed our leaders for more than 10 years.

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