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Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan

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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.

384 pages, Hardcover

First published January 1, 2012

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About the author

Rajiv Chandrasekaran

13 books59 followers
Rajiv Chandrasekaran is an Indian-American journalist. He is currently assistant managing editor for continuous news at The Washington Post, where he has worked since 1994. Originally from the San Francisco Bay area, Chandrasekaran holds a degree in political science from Stanford University, where he was editor-in-chief of The Stanford Daily.

At The Post he has served as bureau chief in Baghdad, Cairo, and Southeast Asia, and as a correspondent covering the war in Afghanistan. In 2004, he was journalist-in-residence at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, and a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 111 reviews
Profile Image for Nick Lloyd.
146 reviews9 followers
July 11, 2012
I would have rated this book better, but there are a few things I feel the author got wrong. Overall, I would say this is an excellent history of the Afghan war circa 2008-2011. He delves deep into the political and diplomatic situation, as well as the philosophical debate within the military regarding counterinsurgency; all necessary discussions for a proper history. However, as a veteran of 5/2 Stryker Brigade, I saw a lot of this happen personally, and feel reality was slightly different in several instances.

He is absolutely right that the senior commanders in southern Afghanistan did not like Colonel Tunnell. He was not a fan of Petraeus-style COIN, believing instead in an antiquated, fringe philosophy of "counter-guerrilla" operations (We were dubbed, by him, a counter-guerrilla brigade, and given counter-guerilla streamers for our guidons...). However, most of the soldiers in the brigade saw this as a farce. The officers would smile and nod their heads when he lectured on his doctrine, and then would proceed to conduct actual COIN once he returned to KAF. From a company point of view (which is where the "rubber meets the road" operationally) there was little or no difference between 5/2 SBCT and any other unit in Afghanistan.

Additionally, the idea that "we lost a year" is hyperbolic and irrational. Admittedly, taking the vulnerable Stryker vehicles into the Arghandab River Valley was not a great idea, and the unit suffered great losses because of it, but that was only one battalion in a brigade which was responsible for most of southern Afghanistan. In Zabul, Spin Boldak, and eventually Helmand, we rarely had violent incidents during our deployment, and saw great gains in terms of local populace development, rooting out corruption, and building humanitarian projects. What's more, once 5/2 pulled out of the ARV, their replacement unit (4/82 ABN) suffered similarly high casualties, indicating that it was not the unit, but rather the area that was responsible for the SIGACTS.

Finally, while Colonel Tunnell may receive a great deal of the blame post hoc, the individual most despised at the time (2009-2010) was General McChrystal. McChrystal's extremely tight Rules of Engagement (no tolerance for civilian casualties) handcuffed US forces, who were afraid of being "hung out to dry" for firing artillery or attack aircraft in support of troops in contact. Subsequently, morale dropped, as soldiers developed the feeling that the commanding general would gladly sacrifice their lives in order to avoid accidentally killing Afghan civilians. The day General McChrystal was relieved was a great morale boost to troops in country.

Nevertheless, this book offered great insight into the inner working of the administration, and the roles of aid workers and the military in trying to find a winnable solution to the longest war in American history.
Profile Image for Mikey B..
1,007 reviews373 followers
May 17, 2013
An excellent look at the involvement of the U.S. in Afghanistan in the last few years – particularly since the Obama administration took over in 2009.

Mr. Chandrasekaran outlines the disconnects that exist at all levels between the U.S. government and the military, between the U.S. civilians in Afghanistan and the U.S. military, and even between the U.S. army and U.S. marines – who have a go it alone approach. For example some civilian groups wanted to supply and aid Afghan farmers to cultivate cotton which was feasible in many areas – but groups affiliated with the U.S. government objected because cotton is a protected crop grown by the U.S. and this would cause, they say, unnecessary or illegal competition.

We are also told of the disdain that most levels of the Obama administration have for Hamid Karzai – and with reason – the corruption, the drug smuggling, and the nepotism, are all notorious.

Both the army and the marines pushed the meaning of the counter-insurgency strategy to the outer limits – expanding military outposts to remote regions instead of consolidating urban areas. We are provided a description of a sequestered U.S. embassy where they cannot even cross the street without protocol and passwords to speak with the adjacent military people.

We are given descriptions of various personalities – from Afghan warlords who rule absolutely their territory, the flamboyant Richard Holbrook, American military personnel stationed in the nether regions of Afghanistan who valiantly try to establish some civil law within their zone of occupation, and U.S. citizens who also push for development and reform.

One comes to realize that in a country as destitute as Afghanistan these disconnects of various groups are fatal for any long term achievements. They are leaving a bad taste all around. Some in the military foresee at least 10 to 20 years of some form of occupation to attain any feasible development for Afghanistan and to rid the country of the medieval Taliban. It is very doubtful that the American people would support this in the long term, and more importantly the people of Afghanistan do not want a continued military presence in their country. In fact the U.S. military occupation is now a powerful recruiting tool for the Taliban. Mixed into – and complicating things even more, is Pakistan’s ISI which provides sanctuary and support for the Taliban.

There seems little hope for this forlorn country which is ranked as one of the poorest countries in the world (and may be artificially pumped up due to all the aid it receives). This is a well written book giving us evocative views of Afghanistan.

Page 249 (my book)
In Afghanistan, Ospreys (a combination plane and helicopter) seemed to travel in both space and time. When Nicholson’s aircraft alighted upon a dirt patch next to the bazaar, it was as if he had journeyed back centuries from the modern world. Taghaz had no electricity or running water. Residents lived in adobe buildings that lacked windows and furniture. They cooked over open flames and relieved themselves in fields. Save for the odd motorcycle, the people of Taghaz lived as they had five hundred or even a thousand years before.
Profile Image for Ms.pegasus.
722 reviews140 followers
September 6, 2017
Rajiv Chandrasekara reported on the war in Afghanistan for the Washington Post from 2009 to 2011. Most of his time was spent embedded with the marines in the embattled southern region of Helmand Province. At one point he recalls: “As I waded through waist-high water in Marja, I cursed the engineers of Little America. The north-south canals that Morrison-Knudsen had constructed, traversing the desert polder as straight-arrow as the avenues of Manhattan, were more than irrigation marvels. They were perfect defensive moats, wide and deep enough to keep out MRAPS — the hulking, mine-resistant, ambush-protected trucks, equipped with machine guns and grenade launchers, that had replaced Humvees as Marine combat vehicles. Small concrete bridges spanned the canals, but they had been rigged with homemade bombs.” (Chapter 7: “Bleeding Ulcer,” Location 1999) The use of the pronoun “I” in this book is rare. His reporting is that of a self-disciplined observer. At the same time, he conveys both the overwhelming obstacles to the military effort in Afghanistan and the prevalence of a troubled history of missteps that continue to this day. What is the relevance of a book written in 2012 about events that unfolded between 2009 and 2011? The effect of history is cumulative. Chandrasekara performs the difficult chore of reminding us of that truth.

Invasion and colonialism is part of that history. In part it explains Afghan sensitivity to foreign armies and foreign contractors under the direction of foreign powers. Great Britain's 19th century incursions are still remembered. “To this day, 'son of a Brit' is among the worst insults that can be slung in Helmand. On a trip to Musa Qala in 2010, I witnessed an Afghan army brigadier general, furious that a gate between abutting Afghan and NATO bases had been locked, upbraid two British government officials. 'This is my country, not yours,' the general fumed. 'When your grandfathers were here, my grandfathers killed five thousand of them.' U.S. And NATO officials had failed to grasp that enmity when they had urged the British to take over there.”(Chapter 2: “Stop the Slide,” Location 743)

Poppy cultivation is also part of that history. In 1951 the U.S. funded an ambitious irrigation project despite initial warnings about the topography and without further soil and drainage studies of the entire Helmand River Valley that would be affected by the project. Lots of money; cheap, rushed planning. It would be a formula repeated decade after decade. Irrigation would soon leave behind a salt saturated soil. One crop would be uniquely suited to grown there. Poppies. Decades passed. Tribal rivalries and the Soviet invasion became the catalysts. In 1981 a local tribal leader, Mullah Nasim Akhundzada, legalized and then demanded poppy cultivation to finance his anti-Soviet Mujahideen. A flourishing industry grew. The opium paste could be stored by farmers until transport was safe; Mullah Nasim could promise a fixed price and sell the opium at a profit thanks to investments in a network of processing labs.

Take a look at a map of Afghanistan. Kabul, the capital is in the north, over 350 miles from Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital of Helmand Province. In 2009 the entire province contained less than 4% of Afghanistan's population. Helmand Province was both remote from the authority of any central government and historically fundamental to America's efforts to modernize a country based on an agricultural economy. USAID had poured millions of dollars and populated Lashkar Gah with so many of its employees and contractors that the area had gained the epithet of “Little America” in the fifties andsixties.

Forgotten history was an impediment to USAID's efforts. It was the civilian agency charged with creating a sustainable infrastructure under the umbrella of military security. In 2001 Dick Scott was hired by USAID for his agricultural expertise. He proposed cotton as a viable substitute for poppies in the Helmand Valley. USAID proceeded to sabotage the efforts of its own agent. They vetoed the idea because it would require price stabilizing subsidies to insulate farmers from the volatile world market. Subsidies were politically unpalatable. Ironically, low prices on the world market were in part due to the U.S. Government's subsidies to American cotton growers. Almost a decade passed with a succession of expensive failures as other crop candidates were tried. In 2010 USDA expert Wes Harris conducted an extensive analysis. His conclusion? Cotton was a viable crop for replacing poppies! No one remembered Dick Scott's exploration of the subject. USAID still said “no,” this time citing ludicrously erroneous calculations and arguing the crop would be unprofitable.

The period from June 2009 to July 2011 was eventful. A troop surge was authorized. Battles were fought in Lashkar Gah, Gereshk, Sangin, Musa Qala, Kajaki, Garmsir and Marjan, each with its own distinctive problems. Construction of schools, clinics and police stations commenced in haste without consideration for adequate staffing. Money was poured into short-term unsustainable efforts.

General Stanley McCrystal assumed command of the NATO coalition forces, but inherited a scattered configuration of forces in southern Afghanistan: 9000 British and over 10,000 Americans in Helmand Province; 2800 Canadians and 4000 Americans in Kandahar. He inherited a war with forward momentum occurring in Helmand Province and conflicting strategies adopted by the British and Canadians allies under his command but not his control. He inherited a strategy favored by Washington policy makers: COIN, which required disciplined coordination between the military and civilian agencies (and that was poorly understood by many of the commanders in the field). That coordination was non-existent. USAID lacked the expertise. The State Department was torn between a commitment to involve the Afghan Government, ongoing corruption within that government and internal turf wars. Readers searching for a single cause for U.S. failures in Afghanistan, or a single source of blame will be disappointed. There are no clear sign posts for proceeding into the future.

However, Chandrasekaran does provide a costly lesson in public skepticism. Public relations is simply that. It is designed to spin public opinion in a positive direction, whether it comes from the mouth of a politician, a general, or a civil service bureaucrat. When money is allocated, how will it be spent. Who makes that determination? What qualifications inform their decisions? What metrics for accountability are in place? Are there explicit goals and are they realistic? If you believe answers to these questions are elusive, you will be concurring with Chadrasekaran: “The American bureaucracy had become America's worst enemy.” (Chapter 18: “What We Have is Folly,” Location 5068) Chandrasekaran argues that internal bureaucratic conflict defeated our goals in Afghanistan.

I read this book a couple of years ago. Chandrasekaran assumes the reader already has a firm grasp of chronology (I didn't). He structures his chapters into topical segments, including activities in Helmand Province vs. those occuring in Kandahar. I re-read his book, this time with a copy of some Afghanistan maps in front of me and notes indicating the dates of occurrence. I recommend other readers do the same. Now that we are committed to more military involvement in Afghanistan, I feel a responsibility to understand the news I am reading. This is not the kind of news that necessarily ends up in headlines or on the front pages. This book has provided me with a much needed context.

This map is an excellent guide to the locations mentioned in the book. http://www.understandingwar.org/sites...
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Profile Image for Chris.
1,505 reviews31 followers
September 16, 2012
I didn't want to read this book. I've read enough books about the topic. But my cousin sent me her copy and I devoured it in a day or two. It didn't leave me depressed but very angry at the incompetence of our goverment, particulary USAID and the State Department. Marines and soldiers are dying and more energy is being spent fighting each other than the enemy-whoever that might be: military vs civilian, NSC vs Holbrooke, and on and on. Some real heroes in this book fighting the bureacracy but they are too few. We could have easily replaced opium with cotton but USAID wouldn't allow it. This will be the THE book on Afghanistan during Obama's watch. It doesn't cover the whole country but it gives you a micro picture in one province and a good seat at the big picture table as well. I learned much about how the Marines got involved in Helmand Province and the fragile nature of our relationship with the Brits and their lack of aggressiveness was surprising. The monumental incompetence of USAID is inexcusable-not doing what needs to be done and then just throwing away money. I was hooked on this book as soon as I read the opening quote from Michener's "Caravans." We couldn't tame the land back in the 1950's so why did we even think we could "tame" the inhabitants. So many lost opportunities. It's like Iraq and the CPA all over again. It's Vietnam with sanctuaries and a government without the support of the people.
Profile Image for wally.
2,536 reviews4 followers
April 29, 2017
4/28/17: kindle, a library loan, and at 58% complete.

i chose this title, one, because the author's name suggests a prism that perhaps is without the taint so common in the u.s.a. today. chandrasekaran is american, i assume, judging from the little i read about his author's biography. but i read another to-do with afghanistan, No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War through Afghan Eyes, an though i can't say for certain gopal's residency, the name alone suggested to me he does not have a dog in that fight. all-in-all it was a good read, informative. and i've been reading other titles, Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield, Left of Boom: How a Young CIA Case Officer Penetrated the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. looking for information.

to explain our protracted presence in afghanistan. and so this one.

each one i've read has complimented the previous, has raised questions that didn't occur until i read another, has supplied information that explains much.

my everlasting question: what are we doing? mistakes? successes? we've been there for years. 9/11 was a decade and a half ago. gargantuan amounts of money have been spent.

in previous reads, i've come away with the suspicion that u.s. forces made egregious mistakes in the war on terror. understandable, to a degree, but when those mistakes should have been realized for the mistakes they were, little was learned, as the mistakes were made again.

this one...explains some more. one story herein informative is a marine...general...i think, someone at the top...some sort of stryker brigade, newly formed, rushing in where angels fear to tread, committing many of the same mistakes from a decade earlier. this is america? this is our military? this is the leader of the free world? how can we be so incredibly focking stupid?

and then there is the information of newly supplied troops and the bureaucracy military and academic (state) in nature, some action that succeeded, other that did not...and one area left untended because of the bureaucracy/academia. after close to a decade of being there? this is america? this is the leader of the free world? how can we...

and at the 58% mark complete, again...a man who signed up to make a difference, a georgia farmer, dirt under his fingernails. he goes. he sees. he suggests. cotton. but no. usaid, the main culprit, bureaucracy, intent at the same time on spending (wasting) massive amounts of money, workers cycling in and out of the country, few of them making a difference (it's a paycheck), the money changing the culture...and this cotton farmer from georgia suggests cotton again...as had been done seven or more years earlier. the same damn result. the price tag he calculated? a million. usaid wasted over $300 million at the same time. the georgia farmer's million in the plus/minus column but not even there as the same bullheaded arrogance and belief wouldn't allow it.

this is america? this is the leader of the free world?

so, yes, this title has information about the other side of the coin. previous reads have certainly laid bare mistakes (and successes) from the pentagon side of things (there are a pile of folk not in the pentagon, too), this one informs about the waste and mistakes from the bureaucratic side of the coin.

and...in this one, like the left of boom linked above, includes one story about a man who learned the language...and was hugely successful. so there are success stories. but the end remains...we've been there for years...and all information has shown, that i've read to date, that by story end, we're likely to walk out of the theatre, discouraged, another tragedy.

finished, 4/28/17/
earlier today. later now. a distinction between two kinds of offensive warfare are made. more is made about "coin" counter-insurgency and there's some variation on that. and "ct" counter-terrorism and very little is made about that. in one of the other reads above, there is quite a bit to-do with "c-t" although i don't think the author(s) of the piece used the expression much, if at all. more later after

early the next morning
okay, so having read the above, meaning titles, those that might be linked, too...wanted to make the point that chandrasekaran says nothing, or little, about the kind of force that is involved. was it dirty wars that highlighted, among other things, that it was....what...special forces that also did "c-t" counter-terrorism. chandrasekaran makes much about the improper deployment of marines in certain areas. and there's likely some truth to that...that perhaps they would have been better deployed elsewhere. the grass is always greener, as they say.

there's this i highlighted, the counterterrorism policy of raids [nigh raids] and air strikes that petraeus and other commanders had derided in the 2009 white house strategy review had become the military's principal tool to weaken the insurgency. chandrasekaran, like i said, does not make much, at all, about the kind of force. the reader is left to assume that is regular army, regular marines. and too, makes me wonder, what else was involved...as the fabled night raids, imagine it in your neighborhood....guns noises, banging, yelling...your reaction? bad guys. recipe for problems. say, if someone else, not directly involved with the impact of the noise and gun sounds, decides their neighbor is in danger.

which leads to this other highlight...he maintained [doesn't matter who] that successful ct (what the acronym-loving military called counterterrorism) required coin, [counter insurgency as i understand it], because good relations with the locals required good intelligence. but the vast majority of nights raids conducted in afghanistan during the second half of 2010 were based on signals intelligence and not based on the afghan civil war, long-running disputes, more recent insults, or simply human nature. and that lead to the bad guys swapping out their sim cards with their neighbors...so...wrong house...so...more of the default position of america is bad. and so it goes.

all in all, good read, much information, and i wouldn't say it is presented in too-much of a flawed-prism sort of way. but then, human nature. so say we all.
Profile Image for billyskye.
186 reviews22 followers
February 7, 2017
There’s an argument to be made that Little America serves as a solid third act in the sequence on U.S. involvement in Afghanistan that starts with Ghost Wars and continues through The Looming Tower. While the first of these two Pulitzer-winning accounts focuses on America’s role in the Soviet invasion and the second details events surrounding the September 11th attacks, Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s attention is drawn to the decade following the fall of the twin towers. The product is well-reported and thorough. It serves as a testament to America’s often-clumsy attempts at ‘nation building’ in Helmand and Kandahar. It is also a case study of Murphy’s Law.

Mr. Chandrasekaran’s primary preoccupation is with the people behind the policies and actions that soured America’s ‘good war.’ By his telling, there is plenty of blame to be shared. His is a story of ruthless Helmand politicians like Sher Mohammad Akhundzada (SMA) of the Alizai tribe who pushed farmers back to the poppy operations of his warlord uncle Mohammad Nasim Akhundzada and Abdel Rahman Jan (ARJ) of the Nurzai who led his police force to widespread acts of bacha bazi (pederasty on prepubescent boys) – all with the tacit backing of newly-installed president Hamid Karzai. It’s a story of officials in Kandahar like the president’s brother Ahmed Wali Karzai (AWK) whose corruption turns locals back towards the Taliban and of foreign leaders – including President George Bush – who become too chummy with the Afghan government to see past its obfuscations. Members of the Afghan National Army (ANA) are depicted as undisciplined, lazy, and doped up on hashish, sleeping through work assignments and relying on ‘spray and pray’ tactics in the field. Even potential allies on the ground come with flaws. Technocratic Helmand governor Gulab Mangal lacks the support of President Karzai and finds his authority repeatedly undercut in favor of SMA. General Abdul Raziq, the competent Achakzai commander of the Afghan Border Police in Spin Boldak, is compromised by shady dealings across the frontier. All the while, groups like the Haqqani network work with the ISI to support the Taliban in destabilizing Afghanistan with spy rings, assassinations, and bombings in the capital (so the moderate government, which Pakistan fears might side with India, doesn’t establish a toehold).

And that’s to say nothing of the United States’ own blunders. Mr. Chandrasekaran writes of government officials delegitimizing Karzai by refusing to help with ‘green on green’ actions (like removing Tajik warlord Ismail Khan from his stronghold in Herat) and by distributing aid through NGOs and the UN instead of the local government, essentially starving it of resources. He writes of USAID workers (with limited background in agriculture) stifling efforts to have heroin poppy replaced by cotton (the most economically viable alternative given the soil and margins) because of regulations regarding crops that receive government subsidies and compete with the US on international markets (although the US has similarly protectionist policies in place), using faulty math to justify their position. He writes of a failed hydropower project at Kajaki Dam that costs hundreds of millions of dollars for limited energy gains and tone-deaf programs like AVIPA that funneled money irresponsibly into Helmand’s Nawa district ($300mil spent in one year – mostly on day labor) creating massive distortions in the local economy as teachers quit their jobs and schools closed so that residents could have the time to receive the generous handouts that came with days spent building unneeded roads.

Richard Holbrooke, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, often finds himself at the center of the tragicomedy. He alienates Karzai leading up to the 2009 elections by vocally supporting challenger (and, incidentally, current president) Ashraf Ghani, and then later backing Abdullah Abdullah when it was clear Ghani had no shot. Holbrooke’s tactless behavior gets him in trouble on the home front as well. His aspirations to jumpstart a reconciliation process similar to the one he brokered in the Balkans that ultimately led to the signing of the Dayton Accords were hampered by the antipathy of ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry, ‘war czar’ Douglas Lute, and much of President Barack Obama’s national security team. They blocked his access, discarded his memos, and repeatedly tried to get him fired. Mr. Chandrasekaran writes that, although many of these policy leaders held similar views, rivalry got in the way of coordination and planning.

Those in the field are damned as well. We are treated to stories of aggressive commanders like Harry Tunnell, who ignores counter insurgency (COIN) directives and neglects working with local leaders to distribute aid in favor of ‘rack ‘em and stack ‘em’ ‘counter-guerilla’ operations. These careless tactics lead his ‘Stryker Brigade’ to lose more men to roadside bombs than any other unit and create an atmosphere that some find responsible for the Maywand District Killings. We are treated to stories of allied units – mostly British – cowering in their bases and behaving aggressively towards the local populations. Of ‘civilian surge’ personnel holed up in Kabul, binge drinking and partying, rarely leaving the comforts of walled compounds equipped with fast food joints and shopping centers, while the war is waged outside. Numbers balloon, but turnover is high. As one cynical staffer comments, “it’s like hitting the reset button every year.” Stanley McChrystal is sacked following the publication of Michael Hastings’ infamous Rolling Stone article and replaced by David Patraeus. The rift between civil and military luminaries grows. Chaos reigns. Two high-ranking Taliban operatives – Abdul Qayyem Zakir and Abdul Rauf – manage to conceal their identities for long enough to be transferred from Guantanamo Bay back to Afghanistan where they are mistakenly released, returning to the fight and planning a raid of Kandahar Prison, tunneling under its wall and helping to free more than 500 seasoned fighters in 2011.

Mr. Chandrasekaran is critical of President Obama as well. He credits the president’s lack of experience and desire to please the ‘troop hungry generals’ for the 30k troop surge, which he argues, combined with its 2012 deadline, had disastrous results. It signaled neither delicacy nor lasting commitment. And, as the CIA ‘report card’ came to show, was not the success touted by the media. Territorial gains in the South were offset by losses to the Taliban in the North and East of the country.

Titled after a failed 1950s project taken on Morrison-Knudsen to transform Helmand’s capital Lashkar Gah into a modern city, Little America is an indictment of modest progress achieved through astounding expenditures of blood and treasure. The book is occasionally unfocused – skipping back and forth in time – and without any serious thesis to complement its venom, but its educational and well-written. More like 3.5 stars, but, as Xerxes I totally said in real life, “I’m a generous god.”

Four stars. We make them good wars go bad.
Profile Image for T. Fowler.
Author 6 books19 followers
August 9, 2012
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 are 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.
Profile Image for Nick.
678 reviews29 followers
February 2, 2013
Another great job of interpretive, analytical reporting bu Chandrasekaran. I wish my years in the U.S. Foreign Service did not reinforce the failures of accountability, cooperation, and strategic thought and action that he documents. Unfortunately, everything he writes rings true. More people outside the Beltway should read this book and then demand change based on its lessons.
Profile Image for Merricat Blackwood.
266 reviews6 followers
April 18, 2021
This book makes an interesting companion to Imperial Life in the Emerald City, Chandrasekaran's book about the occupation of Iraq. Barack Obama was obviously a much better administrator and commander in chief than George W. Bush--he at least sometimes did the reading, and his administration didn’t hire a bunch of recent college graduates to rebuild an entire country just because they sent their resumes to the Heritage Foundation. But the fundamental problems chronicled in both books are the same. Many of those problems are basic dysfunctions of the U.S. military. Some portions of the military are always going to turn out to be run by sick people--see the sections in this book on the Stryker company led by Col. Harry Tunnell, whose fighters killed civilians for sport and kept parts of their bodies as souvenirs--but more importantly, once the military takes on a goal, that goal immediately becomes secondary to self-preservation, and self-preservation induces hostility between the military and the occupied people. It also leads to preemptive violence that breeds blowback. The ideal version of counterinsurgency presented here--the world in which American soldiers fight the “bad guys” while building dams and rooting out corruption in the local police force--is just not plausible on the ground, not least because inevitably corruption in the local police force is sometimes going to serve the American soldiers.

Chandrasekaran is admirably clear-eyed about the many failures of the U.S. in Afghanistan, but he has irritating jingoistic tendencies. He repeatedly refers to anyone fighting the Americans as “bad guys,” even as he acknowledges that plenty of people turned to the Taliban as protection from the brutal corruption of the Karzai regime and that, furthermore, sometimes the people fighting Americans weren’t Talibs but just tribes involved in local rivalries. He mentions civilian deaths I think three times in the whole book, each time only to point out how they strained relations between Karzai and the American forces. He is prudish about examining the history of America in Afghanistan. For example, at one point he notes the long relationship between the CIA and the warlord Ahmed Wali Karzai. You might wonder what this relationship consisted of, what the CIA and the US got out of it, and what the CIA helped Karzai do. You will not get answers to any such questions here! Nonetheless, I do think this book is a good piece of reporting, within its limited purview. It contains a lot of lessons that we really really do not seem to want to learn.
Profile Image for Raghu.
393 reviews77 followers
November 3, 2016
This book seeks to analyze the Obama administration's approach and conduct of the war in Afghanistan between 2009 and 2012. At the outset, I must confess that I am perhaps not the right person to review a book such as this. The reason is that I hate wars. I don't believe they solve any of mankind's major problems. Nothing seems worth the price paid in terms of young, promising lives on the battlefield and hospitals. Nor is the resultant trauma brought on their parents and other family members for the remainder of their lives, not to speak of the destabilization of peoples' lives, wastage of resources and destruction in life, limb and property. I am drawn to seeking solutions where nations would swallow their pride and ego and seek a less violent solution to problems than resort to war. The great Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu says in his Art of War that “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” and "The greatest victory is that which requires no battle.”. Surely, these cannot be empty, impractical words. In spite of such an unsympathetic outlook towards war, I still felt that it is worth to review this book from an anti-war perspective even though the book is all about 'where did we go wrong in Afghanistan'.

The Obama administration's approach was to bring stability to Afghanistan and drive out Al-Qaeda and the Taliban for good. Beginning in early 2009, as many as 30000 troops were dispatched along with experts, administrators and other specialists to do warfare and enough nation-building so that the people of Afghanistan will start to side with the Hamid Karzai government and oppose the Taliban. A major part of the strategy was to do COIN. It meant counter-insurgency whereby you do nation building activities like discouraging corruption, building roads and dams, training the Afghan National Army, making governance more responsive to the peoples' needs etc alongside the fight against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. But COIN also meant that strongmen and warlords were to be roped in as part of the solution. Obviously, this ran counter to the principles of nation-building. So, to resolve this contradiction, the military sought to reform the warlords using incentives and threats. Broadly, we know now that this approach has failed by 2013. As of Oct 2016, we know that the Taliban has gained more territory than at any other point in the last 15 years. This is despite the high level of foreign support to the Afghan government. The Afghan National Security Forces have been beaten back by the Taliban in no less than three major provincial capitals: Lashkar Gah in Helmand, Tarin Kot in Uruzgan, and Kunduz in the north. Two other capitals, Baghlan and Farah, are also under serious pressure. So, what went wrong?

Chandrasekharan cites a number of reasons for the failure of the Obama administration to accomplish its goals. Some of them are:
-Richard Holbrooke, the special representative for Af-Pak, was of the view that a negotiated settlement with Taliban is what we should strive for but received no support from either the military or the White House.
-President Obama was in favor of only a limited objective to roll back Al-Qaeda through the use of substantial force through 'the surge'.
-There was constant fighting between all the major representatives from the State Department, the US embassy in Kabul and the military, not to speak of the tense relationship between the Americans and the Karzai govt.
-President Obama did little to stop the infighting as he became increasingly skeptical of the US involvement
-Significant instances of insubordination in the US military at many levels as well as substantial discord between the Marines and NATO troops.
-COIN's implementation was overseen by incompetent and inflexible bureaucrats from USAID and the State Department.
-USAID overruled the potential of cotton as a substitute for poppy in the lives of Afghan farmers, in spite of strong arguments in favor of cotton.
-Money was squandered in useless projects like the Kajaki dam in Helmand.
-Corrupt governance of the Karzai govt
-Incompetence of the Afghan National Army

The author has done extensive field work in Afghanistan to enable him to say the above. He had access to all the high level staff in the US embassy in Kabul, the military in Afghanistan, USAID as well as the State dept officials. The book reflects the professionalism of his reporting. However, I thought it curious to leave out the role of the drone campaigns in Pakistan and Afghanistan in creating civilian resentment against American and NATO forces in Afghanistan. Investigations within the CIA and Pentagon have shown that the US does not know who it is killing in 9 out of 10 cases, as these are what is called 'signature strikes'. Signature strikes are those where you strike one who fits the computer profile of a 'possible terrorist', without having any actual data on the person's terrorist activities. Journalists like Mark Mazetti have also reported that in many cases, the targets are low-level operatives and not terrorist leaders. Even Gen. Stanley McChrystal has admitted: “The resentment caused by American use of unmanned strikes … is much greater than what the average American appreciates. They are hated on a visceral level, even by people who’ve never seen one or seen the effects of one.”

History tells us that Afghanistan has been the graveyard of invaders for centuries. Alexander the Great failed to tame them in 326 BC. The British East India company was decimated there some 175 years ago. Recently, we have had the Soviet Union learn the same lesson in the 1980s. Pakistan has been trying to control Afghanistan's destiny unsuccessfully for the past three decades without actually occupying it. It seems it is the turn of the US and its NATO allies now. Scholars like William Dalrymple have said that the British were forced to leave Afghanistan in 1842 because the country was too poor for the occupiers to tax it and make them pay for its subjugation. The situation is pretty much the same today. In the context of such history, I would think that it is only of dubious value to seek the tactical and strategic causes of the failure of the US invasion.

It seems to me that our long-standing foreign policy approach where we believe that we can impose order, stability, institutional governance, rule of law etc in a short span of time (like 10-15 years) in diverse far-off lands like Iraq and Afghanistan is at the center of our failure in Afghanistan. Every culture resists external attempts to change the way it lives and conducts its affairs. The Afghans even more so. As the cliche goes, the elephant in the room seems to be the more fundamental problem of our security being predicated upon changing what other people think and changing the way they live, even if they are living tens of thousands of miles away. Given this, it is doubtful that Afghanistan will be the last overseas military adventure the US will embark upon.
Profile Image for Rick Wilson.
701 reviews263 followers
February 24, 2020
Fascinating and well written collection of stories about Afghanistan. It lost me a few times with the specifics of this-or-that surge or new policy. My background on the Middle East is pretty sparse so I don't have a lot of context to judge this by. But as an introduction I thought it was great.
Profile Image for Keith Schnell.
Author 1 book7 followers
June 18, 2013
Little America is journalist Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s account of American management of the war in Afghanistan, based on his coverage of that war for the Washington Post. It is in many ways a follow-up to his previous book, Imperial Life in the Emerald City, which is about the gross mismanagement of the early stages of the Iraq War under the leadership of American Proconsul L. Paul Bremer. For those who have read both books, the differences between them are illustrative, and reflect important differences between the two conflicts.

Imperial Life in the Emerald City illustrated a Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in Iraq that suffered from a near-total lack of planning, strategy and basic situational awareness coupled with a level of corruption and nepotism that rivaled that of the Iraqis themselves. Hindsight tells us that following the demise of the CPA, the professionals in the U.S. military and State Department were able, with a good deal of luck and support from the Iraqis, to salvage a Pyrrhic victory from a situation that was well on the road to catastrophe. Little America, in contrast, describes a situation where those same organizations, given a relatively free hand and operating as designed, were nevertheless unable to achieve the United States’ strategic goals in Afghanistan.

The overall image of the war effort in Afghanistan, as portrayed by Mr. Chandrasekaran, is one of military and civilian agencies operating under a severe handicap imposed by their own structures and cultures. These are depicted as sclerotic and unable or unwilling to adapt to the needs of the mission, with organizational incentives driven by internal politics unrelated to the war and an alarming absence of unity of command both within the U.S. government and ISAF. USAID comes in for particular criticism for having allowed its core competencies to atrophy following decades of contracting out nearly all international development assistance and analysis, while the State and Defense Departments appear to exist in a continuous muddle of vague and conflicting priorities and seem unable to effectively bring their own organic resources to bear on even the most clearly identified problems. The take-away seems to be that, 80 years after the New Deal and 60 after the Marshall Plan, the U.S. government has lost the ability for nation-building in even relatively permissive conditions, much less in the face of active and violent opposition.

Although he has done good work in highlighting these institutional failures, Mr. Chandrasekaran’s book suffers from many of the same shortcomings that have made American war reporting over the past decade so inadequate. In a country where all politics is local and first reports are always wrong, Little America focuses heavily on the schemes and dealings of a relative handful of Mandarins in Washington and Kabul. This entirely overlooks the most important part of the war – the part that is actually being waged in Afghan cities and villages, between a bewildering array of hostile tribes and groups who will collectively determine the future of the country. The author periodically makes a flying visit to U.S. Soldiers in the field and was apparently quite comfortable in doing so, but in the structure of the book these visits serve more as a narrative backdrop than an occasion for detailed analysis, and his interaction with individual Afghans is even more limited. This is no small omission, and while a reader who is interested in U.S. domestic politics will undoubtedly come away with his preconceived notions confirmed, Little America cannot provide an accurate picture of the situation in Afghanistan.

Most inexcusable of all is the author’s failure to include the poem Stellenbosch, by Rudyard Kipling, in its entirety at any point in his book. No stranger to mismanaged colonial wars himself, Kipling nailed the point that Mr. Chandrasekaran is trying to make with great precision. With luck, being in the public domain, it will be in the preface to the second edition.
August 7, 2022
Explaining where we have got to in Afghanistan ... mostly. A Tale of Two Tragedies

A tale of two tragedies. The greatest of course, is what we have done to the Afghan people. We promised them many things, well set out in the story, but most of all, our friendship and loyalty. Oops. As in Vietnam. Oops. Why should anyone ever trust us again? Would you?

Our own tragedy is America's utter inability to learn from observation and experience. We went into Vietnam (leaving whether we should have or not aside) and did everything wrong that the French had done wrong. We had observers there. Our 'Experts' were there. But we didn't learn.

Then we go into Afghanistan and not only did we not learn from the Brits and Russians before us, we can't even learn from the Americans who had been there in the 50's and 60's! (which is a huge part of why this book is so important - how many of us knew that history?) Some reviewers have quibbled with the author on emphasis and style, but they miss the point. This book should be taught (along with a book about Dien Bien Phu) in high school. College is too late, if we are going to fix what is wrong with us.

We are so self-centered we don't even see what we're looking at. We give a farmer a tractor. We're such good guys. Well, not so much. Because if a tractor replaces 19 workers, we've just created 19 unemployed, ripe for recruitment by the Taliban, not out of idealism, but out of desparation to feed their families. Whereas if we had given them 19 shovels, we might have created something good. And some of our people knew this and tried, but their own bosses were so busy covering their own asses and fighting turf wars, that they didn't listen.

We stand guilty of:
1. Short-term, reactive thinking. Yes, we were there for 10 years, but we weren't there. We were in air-conditioned bunkers counting the days until the next batch of bureaucrats arrived.
2. Ignorance of the law of un-intended consequences. We rarely have the vision to understand the ripple effect of the things we do, or to look at them from some-one else's point of view.
3. Thinking money is the answer to everything. It isn't. Thinking first, acting second, and then keeping your word is the answer to everything.

Well, this certainly wasn't the most heartwarming or feel-good book I could have read with about two weeks left to go on this tour of Afghanistan. In "Little America", Chandrasekaran draws briefly on the history of (mostly counterproductive) US development assistance in Helmand as a backdrop to his examination of the US 30,000 man surge in Afghanistan over 2009-11 and the politics and strategy behind it. While most of the events he examines took place between my tours (and further south than my normal areas of interest), his description of the institutional perspectives and shortcomings that drove the USMC to fight their own private war in Helmand while British and Canadian forces tried to do too much with inadequate forces rings true. His even-handed evaluation of the tactical decision-making of BG Nicholson and other senior marines (together with the interaction between Nicholson and his senior policy advisor), together with his insight into USMC tactical operations paints a convincing picture of tactically successful (albeit expensive) activities that were, operationally, conducted in the wrong place (Helmand rather than Kandahar) and time. While he doesn't spend much time discussing tactical operations, when he does it is vivid and provided an excellent feel for the operating environment and a nuanced picture of the complexity and competing demands faced by tactical commanders - in particular, the frequent need to choose between equally unpalatable alternatives, all laden with risk and uncertainty. His brief account of the command climate within the US Army's 5/2 SBCT certainly aligns closely with what many other sources have reported - even before this Bde deployed to Kandahar, I had been told by other sources that I would hear of his Bde and it's commander for all the wrong reasons. Together with his discussions of failures in development aid and governance (both assessing the real needs and determining on how to deliver on them) I consider Chandrasekaran's discussion of the war in Southern Afghanistan to be sobering, insightful, yet even-handed and willing to put forward differing perspectives.

At the strategic level, Chandrasekaran again had consulted a range of sources and conducted a lot of interviews, but I suspect he had already decided on his narrative before he started writing. His view of the differing perspectives of and tensions between key decision makers and the institutional muddle in the US Embassy and USAID offices in Kabul is illuminating and cutting, but "Little America" in these parts remind me a bit of Tom Ricks' Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2003 to 2005 . At times Chandrasekaran appears to have relied a bit to much on the perspective of those who (1) have their own axes to grind (and perhaps to cover their own tracks - amongst a host of substantive observations were a few petty and misinformed complaints) and (2) want to tell the story that Chandrasekaran wants to tell as well. Chandrasekaran's perspective is that a COIN campaign was doomed to failure and administration critics who wanted to limit US engagement to a narrow 'counterterrorism' mission were right all along. As a consequence, we get to hear a lot first hand from critics of the surge but, with the exception of BG Nicholson in Helmand, only second-hand interpretation of the views of soldiers such as McChrystal and Petraeus's views, for example. In critiquing an enduring COIN approach, Chandrasekaran rightly points out the lack or resources and human raw material available to deliver functioning governance at district level and below. He however oscillates between approving and strongly condemning making compromises with a mix of traditional leaders and unsavory (usually overlapping) strongmen to get things done (often his approval seems based on who recommended or made the deal rather than the effect), and doesn't acknowledge the risk of limited engagement that would never produce any alternatives to these characters. While I wouldn't accuse the author of an overt partisan bias, his own preferences do color the work to an extent. If a sympathetic character is liberal leaning or an Obama supporter we get to hear a lot about it (even where the individuals politics weren't particularly relevant), but we don't hear about any competent conservatives (outside of the military) or incompetent liberals (there must have been one or two of the latter in the giant State Department/USAID machine, surely?).

There is a lot to critique in how the US elected to employ the surge force in southern Afghanistan in 2009. "Little America" does make a compelling case that the available forces were allocated to the wrong priorities, and exposes a range of very real institutional and individual shortcomings and poor decisions that contributed to this state of affairs. His description of the myriad failings of development efforts and the shortcomings of Afghan capacity building are equally cutting, but I suspect that except for scale this would look like the story of many western development efforts elsewhere. While his views of the strategic debates and decision-making are informative, I do think he was inclined to apportion a bit too much blame to the soldiers and not quite enough on the administration. By deploying an inadequate surge force with imprecise direction for an insufficient period of time the President may have made a similar strategic error to the tactical errors of the British and Canadians trying to achieve too much with the 'half each way' bet of insufficient resources - but the author is content to blame McChrystal and Petraeus.

Lucid, informative, and generally even-handed, "Little America" should be compulsory reading for anybody with an interest in where we are now in Afghanistan, and what to do about it. Even where I don't agree with all the authors conclusions, he makes compelling, intelligent arguments based on thorough research that are worthy of considered, serious reflection. I don't think there is a single 'one stop' book on understanding Afghanistan today, but this is a pretty good start. Don't expect to be cheered up by it, though.

I won't use this book to hang Obama, though the man has the vision of Stevie Wonder. He was ill-advised and betrayed by the monkeys around him. G*d help us if Hillary ever becomes President. There is plenty of blame to go around, Bush II included, and the hubris of our Generals.

And now? Now it is time to reflect.

Find an Afghan family or restaurant in your town. Patronize whatever business they have, consistently. Offer your friendship. Listen. And when they finally trust you - and it will take time - apologize. And should you meet a soldier who served there, or worse, the family of one who died, well, apologize to them, too. I know I will.
196 reviews7 followers
January 7, 2015
Candrasekaran is a wonderful writer. But this book was more difficult to read and follow than his book about Iraq, "Imperial Life in the Emerald City."

Afghanistan is a longer and much more complicated sot ry than Iraq. Just now in February 2014 is there some possibility that the US military presence that started in October 2001 may finally come to an end. For some strange reason, however, the US is trying to get Pres. Hamid Karzai to agree to our continued presence. A headline in today's (2/27/14) NYTimes is "Hard Talk Aside, Little Desire by the West to Leave Afghanistan."

On the penultimate page of Chandrasekaran's book is this, written in mid 2011. "I kept hearing promises of how it all would be fixed. New strategies. New teams of officers and diplomats. New requests for money. A new man [Obama] in the White House. But none of it remedied the core problem: Our government was incapable of meeting the challenge. Our generals and diplomats were too ambitious and arrogant. Our uniformed and civilian bureaucracies were rife with internal rivalries and go-it-alone agendas. Our leaders were distracted….For years, we dwelled on the limitations of the Afghans. We should have focused on ours."

The other headline about Afghanistan in today's NYTimes is "Warlords With Dark Pasts Battle in Afghan Election." The "apparent front-runner" is Ashraf Ghani. He is the one and the same Asghraf Ghani who was described in "LIttle America" this way. re the Afghan presidential election in 2009 (?) The late Richard Holbrooke in referring to Ghani as a presidential candidate said to Chandrasekaran "Isn't Ghani impressive?" "He was referring to former finance minister AG…he (Holbrooke) was touting the man he thought should be the next president of Afghanistan. Ghani had the sort of credentials that impress American bureaucrats. He had earned a doctorate from Columbia U, worked at the World Bank etc etc…..He was clean-shaven, he wore Western suits, he spoke flawless English. He hired the political strategist James Carville to help advise his campaign…."

Round and round we go. Will the outcome for Ghani and for Afghanistan be any different this time?
Read "Little America" and stayed tuned.
Profile Image for Kate.
337 reviews10 followers
April 30, 2016
This is an excellent encapsulation of the Afghanistan surge that has both America's checkered history in Afghanistan in the 1940s through the Communist coup, the rise of the Taliban and eventually our attack after 9/11.
Typical of most wars the errors of both the military and civilian organizations: State Department through USAID are evident. It is as though we are masters at self-sabotage. Afghanistan is known as the graveyard of Empires, and yet we as a nation took little note of the errors made by the Brits and Russians, had enough hubris to not bother to know anything about the people of this land we were preparing to lash out at to make their people pay for the sins of their government in harboring a declared enemy.
In this book we get to know many of the wise and the foolish who worked hard for a solution and through bumbling incompetence did the most to ensure many failures. We have plenty of history to let us know that counter-insurgencies rarely if ever succeed, and yet we always seem to believe that the next counter-insurgency we mount will be the exception. and...today as we are still losing blood and treasure on the barren soil of Afghanistan and Iraq and Syria we seem to still miss all that history has to teach us about our own people, our bureaucracies, our politics and military. We tend to demonize the wise, and make heroes out of those whose very myths we create to fit the narrative that are fed to the public that gets them to rally to war.
It gave me more appreciation of McChrystal and his staff and the unsung wise men and women we choose to ignore. A very good read to have a better understanding of what we have done and are doing in trying to build a system in our image in a feudal, tribal, kleptocratic nation.
Profile Image for M.J..
138 reviews3 followers
August 30, 2023
I read this while briefly working in Kabul. Books like this are originally what made me go to Afghanistan, just to at least see everything for myself and form my own opinion. The author has valid criticisms, but also misses a lot of good. Mind you, I went 10+ years after the book's observation period, during the drawdown and much has changed. It is written from an interesting approach where he observes military and civilians working in the country and does a good job of highlighting all all of the various personalities during that time period, who had major influence on the war. Recommended for those interested in U.S. war efforts there from a government and civilian perspective.
Profile Image for Daniel.
181 reviews5 followers
September 21, 2012
great analysis on the Surge and operations in Afghanistan. The author at times gets into the tactical level, but his analysis on operational and strategic level decisions was sound.
Profile Image for Vikas Datta.
2,178 reviews128 followers
April 8, 2015
Impressive account of how - and why - the Colossus is blundering in Afghanistan..
Profile Image for J.G.P. MacAdam.
48 reviews
May 16, 2022
"Nobody thought of the Taliban rolling into Kabul the way they did back in 1996: on the back of Hi-Luxes and without a shot fired."

Just one of many uncanny, almost eerie insights from Rajiv Chandrasekaran's Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan, published in 2012. (The above is not a direct quote but a paraphrase.) Chandrasekaran, senior correspondent and associate editor at the Washington Post, chronicles roughly the years of 2009-12 of the War in Afghanistan. The surge years. Most of his time is spent in Helmand and Kandahar provinces. So, for me, this book was a real eye-opener in some respects because my deployments were in Paktika and Wardak but, as Chandrasekaran points out, the heartland of the Taliban is in the south and if we were ever going to turn the tide of the War in Afghanistan it had to happen there. In Helmand. In Kandahar.

Although this book is 10 years old, it focuses on the hinge point and midpoint of our twenty year-long misadventure. No one thing went wrong in Afghanistan. A list of things went wrong. From the inability of US aid agencies to curb the explosion in poppy farming, to Marine and Army commanders fighting the war they wanted to fight instead of the war they needed to fight, to the illusive gains in hearts and minds that COIN doctrine was supposed to bring over to our side, to the shortsighted pet projects of administration officials, to no one really wanting to tackle corruption in the Afghan state (and the grievances this cultivated among everyday Afghans), to the Taliban proving themselves time and again a wily and recalcitrant nemesis, the list goes on and on...

To Chandrasekaran's credit, he simultaneously focuses on both the military efforts and the broader nation-building efforts of civilians and contractors. Agriculture gets a lot of attention, I'm happy to report.

Overall, what this book left me with was a question about what "nation building" really means. Perhaps it means shaping another country in our own image, perhaps it's a great gift in the form of freedom and rights and international aid that America bestows on other would-be nations, perhaps it's just ham-handed colonialism by another name.

But, for Chandrasekaran, the past holds clues to the present.

Little America, the title of this book, is a reference to a 1950's Western-style company town built in southern Afghanistan by an American corporation, Morrison-Knudsen. Morrison-Knudsen was on contract with the, at the time, Shah in Kabul. The promise was to turn the desert green with agricultural splendor, with modern technology (hydropower, particularly) and with modern values (nuclear families living in suburban oases). The results of this project can still be seen today, and felt (in 2009) in the sopping wet boots of U.S. Marines who had to wade waist-deep irrigation canals dug by MK back in the fifties in order to storm Taliban-strongholds like Marjah. Little America is a time capsule of a story within the broader, more modern one Chandrasekaran is trying to tell. A harbinger. Especially since Little America and the project to modernize the Helmand River Valley was all but abandoned after America, the Shah, and Morrison-Knudsen failed to deliver.

It's easy to walk away from Little America enraged. The errors loom large. And those errors are only made all the poignant by the sight of flag-draped transfer cases, one after the next, making their way back home to America from now-infamous battlefields like the Arghandab and Lashkar Gah. Soldiers, civilians and even Afghans were asking the same question, again and again: what the hell are we doing here? Sometimes, when reading articles and books about "what went wrong" over there, I get the feeling that we, Americans, love to bash ourselves. We were so wrong! We made so many mistakes! We swoop in with our dreams and promises, flinging money and bombs left and right, then comes the gritty, complex reality of the thing, and we tune out, till we eventually swoop out. Who the hell do we think we are?

And that leads me to the limitations of Chandrasekaran's chronicle.

It's an indubitably American tale of what went right but mostly of what went wrong. It doubles-down on the mistakes and sacrifices America made. Which is an important story to tell, but not the whole story. Little America, I would say, does not lend enough agency to Afghans themselves. There are telling interviews with poppy farmers, provincial police chiefs using American taxpayer dollars to fund their own private militias, with Taliban detainees, and so on. But Little America only slightly begins to peel back the cultural curtain on the people who are most responsible for what Afghanistan was, is and will be. Who always were.
Profile Image for Natú.
65 reviews49 followers
July 10, 2022
For about the first quarter of this book, I figured it would be a 2-star affair. Before the real themes and theses became clear, it seemed more like a collection of anecdotes and snapshots of figures of note rather than a substantive book. Happily, though, it did fall together, and has quite a bit to offer.

It must be said that Chandrasekaran's account is dismally lacking on two counts: first, in Afghan voices and perspectives (perhaps forgivable in that it is, after all, a book about the internal disputes within the military and civilian US bureaucracy), and second, in critical analysis of why the US was in Afghanistan in the first place, what the real goals were, and how those two points dictated the horizon of possibility for US "success." What the book lacks in Afghan perspectives, though, it makes up for with impressive levels of access to the upper levels of US bureaucratic heavyweights, whose voices coalesce into a major part of Chandrasekaran's core analysis, when they break through Chandrasekaran's effusive rhetoric around American military honor, diplomatic pedigree, and altruism.

This book revolves around two major axes which serve as reference points for Chandrasekaran's criticism of how the war, mainly the post-surge period in Obama's first term in office, was executed. The first is where the book begins, with Morrison-Knudsen's failed development venture in the Helmand valley, known as Little America. The episode, which Chandrasekaran diagnoses as a noble attempt marred by pigheaded stubbornness that blinded engineers from taking seriously problems facing the project, serves as one half of the author's criticism of the US bigwigs: they were a mix of incompetents and geniuses who shared the unfortunate quality of being totally wholly to their own vision to their own detriment.

The other point of comparison is the NGO and development community (USAID in particular). The focus on moneymaking and hitting targets, including spending targets, Chandrasekaran argues, created a culture of disconnect from the Afghan population and a simultaneous willingness to cooperate with warlords and other unsavory types for quick ribbon-cutting events or the chance to cite decreases in armed violence, and unwillingness to engage with the ANA or Afghan civil society to lay the foundations for the country the US was supposedly there to help build. This led to pet projects designed to burn through money with relatively little payoff in order to avoid losing funding the following year, with occasionally disastrous side-effects in the local economy, too small and mismatched for the flushes of cash and free seed.

These issues, paired with American unwillingness to even consider making minimal sacrifices of its own immediate interests (the key example being cotton, the ideal cash crop for Afghan farmers, which stood a chance at limiting the appeal of poppy cultivation by providing a reasonably profitable alternative) meant the US effort was locked into vicious cycles, hairpin turns in strategy, and rivaling bureaucrats scuttling each other's schemes for political ends. Chandrasekaran marks the surge as the US's last chance to turn the war into something like a success story (at least in terms of the stated objectives) but ended up (surprise!) angering both Americans, due to high casualty rates and exorbitant price tags, and Afghans, who found themselves caught in the crosshairs, screaming suggestions for what they needed to construct a livable country into the void of the US military and civil bureaucracy.

Chandrasekaran fails to look at the bigger picture at times, and more importantly, fails to question the underlying logic of US intervention in Afghanistan or American militarism more broadly, but his high-level access to key players in the US establishment sheds light on some of the motivating strategic considerations behind a key period in the US war in Afghanistan.
Profile Image for Joseph Stieb.
Author 1 book149 followers
June 25, 2023
RC is one of the best journalists of the War on Terror, someone who spent a lot of time in Iraq and Afghanistan and is both fair and critical of US leadership. His book on the Green Zone in Iraq is brilliant, illustrating the absurd unreality and incompetence of the first year or so of the IRaq War. This book is well-written and interesting, but like the Afghanistan conflict that it examines, more sprawling and at times, harder to follow. The Afghan War itself resists narrative structure, as it spread out in many relatively small conflicts in incredibly complex social contexts over the span of a vast country (in contrast to Iraq, where Baghdad and the surrounding cities dominated the course of the war).

RC covers mainly the Obama surge era, profiling policy disputes in the US all the way down to grunts in the fields, with a focus on Helmand and Kandahar where a large chunk of the Obama surge (2009-2011) went. RC hits on a number of themes in the book: the military brass bought in big time to counterinsurgency, and they were riding high on the success of the Surge in Iraq. They pushed for major troop increases and a long-term commitment to Afghanistan. Obama, and many of his civilian advisors (including Holbrooke) were skeptical. Obama had campaigned on the idea of Afghanistan as the good war and Iraq as the dumb one, but he also didn't want his first term to be dominated by a potentially endless and costly commitment to a foreign war. Given the very limited success of the Obama surge, he probably should have stuck to his guns and approved a smaller surge for a longer period of time while keeping the counterterrorism machine churning. He kind of chose a compromise option that didn't achieve a whole lot, and he later felt resentment of feeling boxed in by the military brass.

But from the vantage point of 2023, this book feels a lot like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. The US presence there, from military ops to agriculture to infrastructure to state-building to education, seemingly only scratched the surface of a country that was arguably the most primitive in the entire world (or, at least it had been reduced to that state by decades of war). RC notes that whatever the troops achieved on the battlefields during the Surge couldn't address the fundamental political problems: Pakistan continued to let Taliban have a safe haven on its territory, the Afghan gov't remained corrupt and inept in a society in which central gov't had never exerted much control, Afghan warlords on which he gov't relied were about as bad as the Taliban, and the simple fact that most Americans did not want to be in Afghanistan, saw it less and less as important to US national security over time, and didn't understand the country very well anyways.

These problems were never really solved, and when the United States cut the cord the entire thing fell apart. Back in the early 2010s when this book was being researched and written, all of these problems were there, but no one really thought it would all collapse. To use hindsight to criticize RC would be unfair; it's just that when you read this book it's hard not to think of eventual Taliban victory. Still, it's quite good at toggling between the wide and narrow lenses on the war, with a focus on Americans. To get more on Afghan experiences, see Sarah Chayes and Anand Gopal's books.

65 reviews4 followers
March 14, 2021
An excellent study of the policy debates, personalities and bureaucratic dynamics that shaped America’s Afghan policy. This book covers the period of “The Surge” circa 2009-2011.

This is a highly readable account and is perfect, I think, both for readers with no prior background as well as long-time Afghanistan-watchers.

Chandrasekaren perfectly balances first person narratives with general history; I never felt bored and always felt like I was being informed. He gets a good mixture of voices ranging from grunts in the field to generals and senior government officials.

One thing I especially enjoyed was the authors ability to give good-faith renderings of different people’s thinking on different topics. Rather than “straw-man” positions with which he disagrees, Chandrasekaren gives renderings of positions that I think the individuals themselves would likely recognize and agree with. It makes for a really engaging and thought-provoking series of discussions on the nature of military intervention and nation-building. Ultimately, the author presents a very persuasive depiction of American missteps in Afghanistan.

Also, some portions of the book are now newly topical, like Biden’s role in the narrative, and others have aged amusingly unwell: like the author’s position that Ashraf Ghani was not a realistic candidate for the presidency because he was too cerebral and wouldn’t garner the support of normal Afghans - “a miserable campaigner” with no real constituency is how the author describes him (Ghani became president in 2014 and was re-elected in 2019). I would be interested to hear Chandrasekaran’s thoughts on this, specifically regarding why he thinks his earlier assessment proved to be incorrect.

One small quibble I had with the book was the relative lack of Afghan voices. I understand that may not have been his primary focus and that he probably didn’t have the same kind of access to Afghans that he did with the Marine units he was embedded within, but I think it would have really rounded out the narrative and made for a more fulsome depiction.

Still though, a wonderful book that I highly recommend.

Profile Image for Hasan.
199 reviews6 followers
December 21, 2021
I decided to look into books about the Afghanistan War after Joe Biden abruptly pulled the cord on the war during the late summer of 2021. This book was written in the 2009, 2010 and part of 2011 timeframe and covered the Obama surge of troops into Afghanistan in 2009. The idea at the time was that these troops would help US forces clear out the Taliban from various parts of the country, work with the newly formed Afghan military to hold them and slowly wean off the American dependence.

In reality, it was a rudderless and random war that completely void of reason. Al Qaeda was practically routed from Afghanistan in the early 2000s. After that came nation building. The United States cannot build another nation with such a foreign tribal culture that hasn't seen normalcy in 50 years.

It was obvious, even in 2009, that the president got rolled by the Generals and sent more troops than he wanted to. What was less clear then, and totally unclear today and thanks to this incredible book, was what was Obama hoping to accomplish. Almost right after he announced more troops to Afghanistan, he starts talking about the idea of peace with the Taliban.

Biden was against the military surge in 2009 and saw what a cluster the Afghanistan War remained throughout the Obama term. It's no surprise that despite the idea of a Saigon-type collapse and the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, he decided to pull the plug on the 20 year was effort. There was nothing left to be gained for the US, which is incredibly clear in this book.
Profile Image for SeaShore.
692 reviews
Want to read
June 28, 2019
This book provides complete unbiased information on the history of Afghanistan from the time of the proposal to 'build' an America in Afghanistan. The 'whys', 'hows' and 'whens' are narrated here with references and resources. The contractors and engineers hired were anxious to fulfill the desires of many-

This is nothing new in the world; people have left their country of birth and explored other parts of the globe. In the days of Caesar - before and surely after - Columbus traveled. We always hoped that humans traveled on their own free will, sent by Kings and Queens but also people came to mostly the "new world" against their will- namely Africans brought to the United States.
Indentured Workers (they were slaves too) arrived to work in other parts of this glorious planet..

Today, we see labels such as Immigrants and refugees; children, kidnapped and put to work in various parts of Earth.

The author reflects on examples of families with home lives in both Afghanistan and the United States; an example of one family that lived in both Kandahar and Baltimore, traveleing to and fro.

To end the book, Rajiv Chandrasekaran includes detailed notes on each chapter, a complete bibliography, and photos --- starting with civil Engineer Paul Jones; one of Little America in Afghanistan as published in the Morrison-Knudsen Corporate Magazine; photos of military men such as General Stanley McChhrystal and General David Petraeus and General Ken Dahl; photos of Afghan farmers, of president Harmid Karzai; photos of the Kajaki Dam in Kandahar and the town of Lakari.
Profile Image for Alex.
139 reviews18 followers
April 14, 2021
I do not know how to summarize my thoughts about this book, so I am just gonna spew some sentences. I liked the lessons being drawn from the book, though at many times, I found the same points being repeated over and over. Yet, these points are crucial to the failures of the American/International community in Afghanistan. And, in light of Biden's recent proclamation to remove all troops from Afghanistan by September of this year, it really makes you wonder what the consequences over the past 20 years have been and will be upon vacating an essentially failed process. I was not a fan of the authors writing style, but much of the information was easy to follow, and the story was interesting to invest in. At the same time, I found many opinions unjust, but others validated, as with a handful of comments made toward Obama/Biden perspectives. Overall, the book is a great read if you are interested in the history of the Afghanistan war. Simultaneously, it leaves you wondering more considering the book covers only half of the time period now, maybe meaning a revised/updated version or another resource would supplement the more recent events - like the past couple of years negotiating with the Taliban and the Trump administration. Lastly, though I agree with the author's many conclusions, they do not really leave any recommendations on a pathway forward.
665 reviews3 followers
September 30, 2021
You know how going in you know that reading about the Enron debacle of greed or how the recession of 2008 lavishly rewarded the crooks and punished the victims over and over will piss you off? Well, here's another one. This book, covering from 2009 to 2012, has it all: corruption, ignorance and stupidity liplocked, blatant, prideful self-righteous cultural, political, economic, and religious arrogance, petty power struggles within the military and between military and civilian personnel, and greed, pure and simple. And that's just the Americans. But the biggest critique, at least through my eyes, is of American generals. Generals are like weathernpersons and Republican economists; they can royally screw up most of the time and continue to get rewarded and promoted-except maybe weatherpeople. And they squabble- "Mean Girls" in uniforms. Generals without a war are useless. But as I read here, perhaps generals in twenty year wars are equally without value.
Profile Image for Craig Wanderer.
115 reviews
March 8, 2019
Very good book that helps gives some insight on the war, thinking behind what was going on and where we needed to go.
One is struck with the Ideals needed to build a civilization to which we see here in the States being destroyed.
Education is paramount, Agriculture is a long term investment, climate is indicative of how you treat any given area and the future is built by investing in the People, with courage, dignity and plurality.

I gave the book four stars as it just kind of ended.

it is however worth anyone's time looking to understand that war, and to to give better insite in Nation building (basics) itself.

Profile Image for Jill.
479 reviews3 followers
July 20, 2019
Chandrasekaran does an amazing job of creating a clear, engaging picture of an extremely complicated situation, particularly for someone (me) who knows very, very little about Southwest Asia in general. I realize that I need to do more research on America's relationship with Afghanistan before I can claim to have even a basic understanding of the subject, but Little America is an excellent introduction.
Profile Image for Jason.
1,116 reviews10 followers
October 7, 2018
A very good book about the War in Afghanistan, talking about important points that I hadn't really heard before - the struggle to grow cotton, the disconnect between American nation-building and that Afghan citizens expected their government to be able to do, how nasty Holbrooke was. Not much pre-Amrfican history though so this book is only a piece of a larger puzzle.
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