[This review was published in the Spring 2013 issue of The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, pp. 117-125.]


Book Review


Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan

Rajiv Chandrasekaran

Alfred Knopf, 2012


          If this is a shocking book, it is not because its author, Rajiv Chandrasekaran, is anything other than moderate in his account of his two and a half years between February 2009 and July 2011 as a senior correspondent serving as an observer in Afghanistan for The Washington Post.  Truculence is not his style.  And yet, a reader may be excused for being shocked, outraged and filled with pathos by the facts he relates.

          Seen in what is almost certainly a proper light, it is unspeakable that so many young men have suffered the war’s “signature injury” of having their legs blown off in a war that Chandrasekaran’s account shows to have been so ill-begotten a misadventure.  The pathos comes from allowing oneself actually to reflect on the pain.  Truculence is out of place in a detached telling, but detachment never conveys a complete understanding.  In human terms, the losses are horrific.

The pathos is compounded by the fact that the whole misadventure flows from so much good intention.  The American people, for the most part, believe in doing good throughout the world, even if often it involves “fighting the bad guys” at the point of a bayonet.  Moreover, they are told, and most believe, that in the war with Islamists “our soldiers are in Afghanistan to defend our freedom” and that “we have to fight the terrorists over there to keep us from having to do it over here.”[1]  This is a faith much to be admired for its simplicity and sincerity.  But it is a faith that lends itself to being fodder for some rather dubious ideology and for the service of interests of which its adherents are hardly aware.  (Students of history can’t help but notice that, in one incarnation or another, this mixture of simplicity and manipulation has been present in a good many wars.)

          The book’s title, “Little America,” refers most directly to the attempt by the United States from 1951 until the Communist coup in 1978 to build in Afghanistan a replica of itself.  This included, among other things, an American-style subdivision in Lashkar Gah in 1966; the building of the “national ring road” that circles within the country; the installation of a modern airport; the digging of extensive irrigation canals; and massive construction projects that served the intention of creating “new towns, with Western-style schools, hospitals, and recreation centers.”  All of this was in keeping with the then Afghan king’s desire to modernize the country.  It is worth noting that this project seems not to have been born out of America’s Cold War resistance to Communism so much as it is evidence of how much the United States, even during the Cold War, never let go of its post-1898 impulse toward global meliorism.

          It makes sense for Chandrasekaran to refer back to that earlier time and to see the similarity to what the United States has done since 2001.  The immediate basis upon which the American invasion in that year was predicated was that al-Qaeda needed to be punished and eradicated.  That fairly narrow premise morphed rather quickly into the far more expansive idea that the world wouldn’t be safe from al-Qaeda unless all of Afghanistan, which had allowed al-Qaeda to have bases within it, were “brought into the family of nations” by installing a modern-style government, reforming the culture on such a matter as women’s rights, and defeating the Taliban.  Indeed, in the post-9/11 thinking of President George W. Bush, this didn’t apply just to Afghanistan: the world would be in peril until evil were rooted out worldwide, a Gargantuan task.  Such thinking resonated with the American public’s presuppositions we just mentioned.  It gave America a purpose that was more far-reaching (and more Quixotic) than any that had ever been articulated before, except perhaps by the major religions.

          Although Chandrasekaran limits himself primarily to the tone of objective reporting, such as by explaining in turn the various lines of thought pursued by military and civilian planners, he allows himself to voice an occasional critique.  He writes of “the dysfunctional American attempt to secure and rebuild Iraq” – which, although referring to Iraq, is a good summary also of his view of the effort in Afghanistan.[2] 

          As we see from what he tells us, there are several parts to this dysfunction:

          1.  For a number of reasons, the objective of recasting a nation (“nation building”) where the culture, the history, the demographic divisions, and the religion are so very different from America’s is inherently unrealizable, with the result that any effort in that direction is headed for long-term failure.  The reality is that Afghanistan will be there, rather immutable, long after the Americans have left.  It is too painful a truth to articulate among Americans that those who die or lose their legs on that mission do so in vain.

One might think of an aggressive mother-in-law who forces her way into a young couple’s home with the idea that they aren’t running their lives properly and that she can set everything right.  So presumptuous an undertaking is bound to be deeply resented by the couple, just as the United States’ years-long occupation of Afghanistan chafes against the desire of the many Afghan tribes to live their own lives and rule themselves.  There are numerous indications in Chandrasekaran’s narrative that many Afghans find the occupation offensive, such as when he recounts that “Afghan officials had told commanders that foreign troops should stay out of Kandahar city, given its cultural and religious significance” and that “Afghans chafed at the presence of so many foreign soldiers on their soil.”  To Americans who see their purposes as benevolent, this may seem ungrateful; but, seen from the point of view of the indigenous population itself, it is nothing more than the natural desire of people to live their own lives.  The resentment goes so far that many “Afghans even took to blaming U.S. and NATO forces for civilians blown up by Taliban bombs,” thinking that “if the foreign forces weren’t here, the insurgents wouldn’t be seeding the roads with explosives.”

Indeed, Chandrasekaran gives us much reason to conclude that the war is misconceived if it is seen as one against the Taliban and al-Qaeda, and not against the Afghani people themselves.  (This isn’t to say that he himself ever says as much.)  Afghanistan is an Islamic society and very much a conglomeration of disparate tribes.  The “warlords,” we are told, often enjoy the support of their tribes, and readily recruit militias of their own.  We are told of the West’s effort at nation building that has sought to establish a functioning central government and a national army capable of sustaining it.  This effort is confronted by incompetence, nepotism and graft; and so many Afghans when recruited into the national army or police seem untrainable, little motivated, conflicted in their loyalties, and shiftless.  (Years of fruitless effort have run up against this reality.)  These are just the opposite of the qualities seen at the tribal level or among the thousands who join the Taliban.  There, as Chandrasekaran tells us, the militias and insurgents are highly motivated and competent.   How are we to explain the difference?  It seems clear that Afghans are stout people when they see themselves as acting on their own behalf, but not otherwise.

Chandrasekaran gives little attention to the Islamic feature, but a reader may be forgiven for thinking that the West’s attempt to remake male-female relationships, championing “women’s rights,” runs deeply counter to the fundamentalist Islam so many Afghans prefer and to the centuries-old culture of the tribes.  How can they see this as anything other than as cultural imperialism, inasmuch as it is totally extraneous to the supposed anti-al-Qaeda raison d’etre of the war?  It is interesting that Chandrasekaran observes that “when female Marines attempted to gather local women for a meeting, not a single person showed up.”

An incongruity stands out about the imported feminism.  The ideology that supports it seems profoundly selective, caring greatly about women and very little about men.  It is in no sense off the mark to observe that the feminism that prevails among the opinion-dominating elites of the West is accompanied by an equally powerful feature that condones and protects homosexuality.  And so it is that although Chandrasekaran tells of rampant homosexual abuse of boys in Afghanistan, this attracts no attention, and certainly no murmur of condemnation, from the media and policy makers in the United States or Europe who speak so clearly of the abuse of women.  “Pederasty is a common, socially acceptable practice among the Pashtuns in southern Afghanistan.”  There is an expression, bacha bazi, which is “the Pashtun term for sex with prepubescent boys.”   Chandrasekaran’s years of observation were in the southern part of the country, where he says “it is a common custom among police officers” to “force boys to dance and perform sexual favors in the evenings.”  We cite this not so much for its own sake as we do to point out the strangely skewed nature of the West’s own contemporary ideology.  While those who are seeking to remake Afghan culture see their own thinking as truth personified, it must seem an oddly irrational, even hypocritical, amalgam to those upon whom it is forced. 

2.  There is a paradox in the American “counterinsurgency” strategy when it has sought simultaneously to fight the Taliban and to perform monumental feats of reconstruction.  President Bush sought $1.25 billion for reconstruction in 2008, and President Obama added $800 million more in 2009 before Congress appropriated $4.1 billion for 2010.  The danger under which this work was to be done is especially evident when we are told that in 2009 “thousands of security guards descended upon Afghanistan and sucked up a large portion of the reconstruction budget.”

During the first five years of the war, the emphasis was on “counterterrorism,” focusing on “capturing or killing Taliban members.”  This was followed by the “counterinsurgency” strategy (“COIN”) that was centered “not on hunting down guerrillas but on protecting the civilian population…, depriving the insurgency of popular support,” something that “requires resources and time.”  But Chandrasekaran tells how one Marine commander found, after “losing ten Marines within a week of their arrival,” that “the soft side of COIN – engaging with tribal leaders and rebuilding infrastructure – didn’t apply.  ‘Sangin [where the unit was operating] was a minefield,’ he said, ‘and you can’t do COIN in a minefield.’”  The tenuous ability of projects to reach completion resulted, even, in this absurdity: “Handing out cash to insurgents to keep them from attacking projects was a common practice.”

3.  The paradox of rebuilding during conflict has been compounded by multiple problems within the American effort, which include profligacy and incompetence, incoherence and action at cross-purposes, and a jumble of opposing personalities.

Chandrasekaran doesn’t set out examples of profligacy and incompetence all in one place as though he were trying to marshal a case regarding it, but his narrative tells of so much waste and poor planning that the case builds itself.  He tells of a project in 2007 to build “a sprawling commercial farm with miles of strawberry fields and thousands of cashmere goats.”  Forty million dollars “in reconstruction money [were allocated] to the venture.”  The bottom line: “It was not until a year later, after several million dollars had been spent, that USAID officials realized why Afghans had not cultivated the land themselves: The groundwater and soil were too salty to grow crops.”  This indicates the salinity had not been tested, forcing us to ask why; and that friendly Afghans had not been consulted, again forcing the same question.  The failure to consult was a recurrent oversight, such as when a project for the construction of a cobblestone road had to be abandoned after local leaders complained that “the cobblestones hurt their camels’ hooves.”  The cobblestone instance illustrates, too, an ignorance of the society that was being acted upon. 

This same syndrome is seen in the following example:  “International Relief & Development spent several million dollars to buy thousands of gasoline-operated pumps, which it planned to give away to farmers across central Helmand.  But when provincial leaders got word of the plan, they howled.  The pumps, they argued, would suck the canals down to the mud, leaving farmers downstream high and dry.  Since the pumps couldn’t be returned, they were left in warehouses to gather dust.”  Is it unreasonable to wonder whether ordinary competence wouldn’t cause planners to think of the effect of heightened water usage on farmers further down the watershed?  Chandrasekaran doesn’t tell of disciplinary consequences within the U.S. agencies, but it would be instructive to read the proceedings, if any, and see what explanations were given. 

There are a good many other examples of the profligacy and waste, but we will leave them for those who read Little America to discover.  It is best to move on to illustrations of the “incoherence and acting at cross-purposes.”  Chandrasekaran speaks of a “chasm between commanders and civilians in the president’s [Obama’s] war cabinet.”  A later result was that “the central assumptions on which Obama had predicated his surge seemed to have collapsed.  The military had ignored his order to limit the counterinsurgency mission.”  The author explains that “Obama did not want full-blown COIN.  He did not believe that every village and valley had to be pacified.  He had ordered [Gen.] McChrystal to focus U.S. forces in the most important parts of the country.”  But it turns out there was no coordinated command: “Although McChrystal opposed the growth of Marineistan[3] there was little he could do about it.  The Marines did not report to him – operational control… rested with a three-star Marine general at the U.S. Central Command.”  In this and in other reviews in this Journal,[4] we see a pattern that was evident in the response to the 2008 financial crisis, in the reconstruction attempts in Iraq, and now in the conduct of the Afghan war: that the attitudes and policies voiced at the presidential level were very different from what was actually done by those who so disconnectedly acted on behalf of the United States.  It has been as though the White House is a buoy that floats above an impenetrable deep.

The disconnects were to be found not only between the White House and those below, but between many others who might have been supposed to have been working together.  One example: even though the plan was to build up the central government so that it could eventually take over for the U.S./NATO forces, we are told that Afghan President Karzai “didn’t believe in the counterinsurgency” [which, as we have seen, was the U.S.’s focus of the war after the first five years], and that therefore “the Americans ignored Karzai.”  Another: Richard Holbrooke “became the Obama administration’s Afghanistan point man in January 2009” as a Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, but Chandrasekaran says there was a “festering rivalry” between Holbrooke and the White House.  Vice President Joe Biden had a long-felt dislike for him, but Secretary of State Hillary Clinton mentored him.  Holbrooke and Clinton were alone among top officials in wanting a negotiated settlement with the Taliban.  It wasn’t until January of 2011 that “the United States finally indicated a clear desire to negotiate with the Taliban,” dropping its erstwhile insistence on preconditions to any talks, but by then “America had wasted… its moment of greatest leverage,” which was while the surge was in full force.

That there was a conflict of opposing personalities isn’t especially surprising in a human enterprise of any sort, much less one of such size and with so many working parts.  Some of the leading figures were, as per Chandrasekaran’s descriptions, egotistical prima donnas – and this, too, is to be expected.  But a choir so composed, and conducted with so little discipline, would produce a masterpiece of dissonance.

4.  Historians will be kept well occupied examining still other problems about the war.  One of these, of course, was that the United States was again, as in Vietnam, fighting an enemy who found protection and sustenance in a hardly-touchable sanctuary, in this case Pakistan.  Chandrasekaran says that “in his initial assessment, [Gen.] Stan McChrystal wrote that success in Afghanistan required ‘Pakistani cooperation and action against violent militancy.’”  In a number of ways, this cooperation was not forthcoming, and this reviewer found the passage instructive in which Chandrasekaran explained the geopolitical reasons why this has been so: “It came down to Pakistan’s core national security interests… The Afghan government would almost certainly forge a stronger relationship with India than with Pakistan… For Islamabad [the capital of Pakistan], the risk of a hostile Afghanistan in league with India was simply unacceptable.”

Historians will ponder, also, whether the United States/NATO did not fight the wrong enemy.  The Taliban were, in effect, conflated with al-Qaeda, when in fact they are very different things.  A war against al-Qaeda alone would have been a much more limited and short-term venture, whereas a war against the Taliban put the West into an unwinnable conflict with an Islamic fundamentalism in which many millions believe and, for the most part, with the Pashtun tribes that make up forty percent of the Afghan population and who consider southern Afghanistan their “heartland.”  Kandahar, Chandrasekaran says, has over 2,000 mosques and is the “homeland of the Pashtuns.”  


Little America is, as we have seen, more than just a memoir of one journalist’s observations during the recent years of the Afghan war; it is an informed discussion of the conflicting strategies and their execution (or non-execution, as the case may be).  This makes it especially valuable for anyone with a serious intellectual interest in the subject.  It helps that the book is well-written, easily readable, and measured in tone (although, as we mentioned earlier, outrage would also not be misplaced).

Dwight D. Murphey

[1]   This is a view effectively refuted by Michael Scheuer, who was at one time head of the “Bin Laden desk” in the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, in his books Imperial Hubris and Marching Toward Hell.  The first of these was reviewed in our Winter 2005 issue, a review that can be found on www.dwightmurphey-collectedwritings.info as BR 95 (i.e., book review 95).  The second was reviewed in our Spring 2009 issue.  This appears on the website as BR124.

[2]   In our discussion, we will for simplicity’s sake most often speak of the “American” war, since the United States has been the prime mover, even though we know that other nations have added supplemental forces.

[3]   Marineistan” is Chandrasekaran’s name for the vast area in southern Afghanistan in which the U.S. Marine Corps was fighting.

[4]   The disconnect relative to the financial crisis aftermath between President Obama and the positions taken by the Secretary of the Treasury, Timothy Geithner, under Obama are discussed in our review of Neil Barofsky’s Bailout  (Fall 2012 issue; BR 159 on the website) and of Sheila Bair’s Bull By the Horns (in the Winter 2012 issue, website Article 108).  The disconnect relative to the Iraq War is discussed in our review of Peter Van Buren’s We Meant Well (also in the Winter 2012 issue, BR158 on the website).