Wall Street Journal
June 22, 2012
By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
(Knopf, 368 pages, $27.95)
Back in 2006, when the American war effort in Iraq was lurching from one disaster to another, smart reporters began publishing books trying to explain “What went wrong.” One of the most successful was “Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone” by the Washington Post’s Rajiv Chandrasekaran. It appeared just after George Packer’s “The Assassin’s Gate” and Thomas E. Ricks’s “Fiasco” and, like them, it traced the war’s woes to a lack of preparation on the part of political and military leaders and to an excess of ideological zeal among the political appointees sent to run things in Baghdad in the early days. It was even made into a silly adventure movie, “Green Zone,” starring Matt Damon.
Mr. Chandrasekaran no doubt hopes to repeat this success with “Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan.” If the title sounds vaguely familiar, that’s because in “Imperial Life” Mr. Chandrasekaran often referred to the Green Zone as “Little America.” But the new book does not focus on the Afghan counterpart to Baghdad’s Green Zone, the luxurious U.S. embassy compound in Kabul. Rather the title refers to attempts by the U.S. Agency for International Development to spur development in southern Afghanistan from the 1950s to 1970s. The city of Lashkar Gah, now the capital of Helmand province, was built to support a giant irrigation project run by expatriate engineers. Locals started calling it “Little America.” Mr. Chandrasekaran’s early chapter on those efforts is fascinating and fresh, but they are far removed from the post-2001 struggle against the Taliban.
He is trying to suggest that, like those earlier initiatives, the recent American efforts to transform Helmand and Kandahar provinces will come to naught. He may be right in the long run, but there is a big problem with his thesis: Insurgent violence in Afghanistan is going down, not up. The United Nations reports that civilian deaths in Afghanistan fell 21% in the first four months of this year compared with the same period in 2011. NATO reports that attacks with improvised explosive devices, the principal insurgent weapon, fell by 20% during the same span. Even Mr. Chandrasekaran concedes that, “by mid-2011, the security improvements across the south because of the troop surge were profound.”
All is not rosy, of course, and Mr. Chandrasekaran is right to point out that the successes may not be sustainable—that they have not yet extended to the east, that Pakistan has failed “to crack down on Taliban sanctuaries” and that senior Afghan officials remain “corrupt and incompetent.” But he is going too far when he writes that “the central assumptions on which Obama had predicated the surge seemed to have collapsed.” The most important assumption of all—that an influx of American troops could reverse the momentum of the Taliban in southern Afghanistan—has been vindicated. Likewise, the belief that additional support for the Afghan National Security Forces would increase their numbers and enhance their effectiveness has also been borne out. The Afghan war is simply not an Iraq-style fiasco. (Even Iraq wasn’t quite the irreversible disaster that Messrs. Chandrasekaran, Packer and Ricks suggested before the surge.)
Although his thesis is questionable, Mr. Chandrasekaran is a superb reporter and graceful writer whose individual vignettes, focused on military and civilian misfires, are on-target and often mortifying. There is, for example, the tale of a senior State Department official who, to match the Marines’ uniforms, embroidered polo shirts with his name and title. He was, in Mr. Chandrasekaran’s telling, more focused on rooting out “poor prose” among his subordinates than on defeating the Taliban.
Mr. Chandrasekaran is particularly good in describing how President Barack Obama’s “war cabinet was too often at war with itself” and how “those rivalries were compounded by stubbornness and incompetence at the State Department and USAID.” The civilian agencies sent too few personnel, their quality was low and most wound up in Kabul rather than in the field. On top of all this, the bureaucrats showed an illogical devotion to white-elephant development projects, such as the Kajaki Dam in northern Helmand, while neglecting the potential of cotton to replace poppy as the crop of choice for Helmand farmers.
Mr. Chandrasekaran is also right that “the Pentagon is too tribal.” He depicts the Marine Corps, granted control of Helmand province in 2008, pouring into remote villages disproportionate resources that would have been better directed at population centers such as Kandahar City. Just as they had in Iraq, with Anbar Province, the Marines wanted to control a discrete chunk of territory and to limit the ability of Army superiors to tell them how to deploy their forces.
He is less convincing, however, when he argues that “too few generals recognized that surging forces could be counterproductive, that the presence of more foreign troops in the Pashtun heartland would be a potent recruiting tool for the Taliban.” It is hard to know how to square this claim with his concession that the surge led to a “profound” improvement in security.
He is also on shaky ground in accusing “the generals” of designing a “campaign plan which was far grander than their commander-in-chief had ordered.” Mr. Obama sent mixed signals. While he disavowed any interest in counterinsurgency (COIN), he tripled the number of troops in Afghanistan in order, as he told the nation on Dec. 1, 2009, to “deny al Qaeda a safe haven,” “reverse the Taliban’s momentum and deny it the ability to overthrow the government,” and “strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan’s security forces and government.” Mr. Obama’s commanders—first Stanley McChrystal, then David Petraeus, now John Allen—calculated that only a full-blown counterinsurgency campaign could achieve these objectives, and the president did not overrule them.
Counterinsurgency is a bugbear for Mr. Chandrasekaran. He calls it an “ideology” that “America’s military leaders embraced . . . with the fervor of the converted.” Far from being a religion, counterinsurgency is just the accumulated wisdom of generations of soldiers of many nationalities who have fought guerrillas. It has worked in countries as diverse as the Philippines (during both the war with the U.S. in 1899-1902 and the Huk Rebellion in 1946-54), Malaya, El Salvador, Northern Ireland, Colombia and Iraq. Mr. Chandrasekaran argues that raids by Special Operations forces designed to eliminate top insurgent leaders are more effective, without realizing that they are only one part of a comprehensive counterinsurgency approach that must embrace, in military parlance, both kinetic and non-kinetic “lines of operation.” When leadership targeting has been done in isolation, as it was in Afghanistan before 2009 and in Iraq from 2003 to 2007, it simply has not worked.
As an alternative to counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, Mr. Chandrasekaran endorses the views of J. Kael Weston, a State Department political adviser who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and who is one of the heroes of “Little America.” Mr. Weston thought, in Mr. Chandrasekaran’s words, “Obama should have gone long, not big”—meaning he should have sent fewer troops but kept them in place longer. This, Mr. Chandrasekaran writes, “would have forced the Afghans to do more for themselves, and it would have led the Americans to pursue more modest and sustainable initiatives.”
Yet this claim ignores the precariousness of the Afghan situation. Gen. McChrystal’s judgment in the summer of 2009 was that, absent a substantial buildup, the war effort would “likely result in failure.” It is doubtful that a more modest surge would have reversed the Taliban’s growing momentum. Mr. Chandrasekaran also argues that the administration missed an opportunity by not pursuing negotiations with the Taliban more actively in spite of copious evidence, some of which he cites, that the Taliban had no interest in reaching an agreement.
In Mr. Chandrasekaran’s telling, the problem is that Mr. Obama granted the military too much of what it wanted. One could just as easily argue that the problem was that the president didn’t grant the military enough of what it needed. In 2009, Gen. McChrystal presented Mr. Obama with three troop-increase options—11,000, 40,000 or 85,000. Mr. Obama adopted the middle option but sent only 30,000 troops, or two-thirds of what was needed. Then in June 2011, Mr. Obama decided to bring the troops home faster than commanders had recommended. Gen. Petraeus thought that keeping the surge forces until mid-2013 would offer the “best chance” of a successful outcome. He judged that pulling them out at the end of 2012 would carry a higher, but acceptable, level of risk. Mr. Obama, however, demanded that they all come home by September 2012.
Although Mr. Chandrasekaran does not make the comparison, the president’s decision-making is reminiscent of the way that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld nickel-and-dimed troop requests during the Iraq war. Mr. Obama would have been better advised to emulate George H.W. Bush, who gave military commanders more than they had requested in the 1991 Gulf War to provide a margin of error.
The fundamental problem is that, as one Mr. Obama’s aides told the New York Times, “the military was ‘all in,’ as they say, and Obama wasn’t.” This ambivalence on the part of the commander in chief helps explain the uncertain outlook for the American war effort in Afghanistan in spite of the success achieved by troops in southern Afghanistan. Even so, it is possible to imagine an acceptable outcome if the U.S. remains substantially committed post-2014. It is premature to conclude, as Mr. Chandrasekaran does, that Afghanistan is “the good war . . . turned bad.”