Late in his scalding and in-depth critique of U.S. policy and performance in Afghanistan, Rajiv Chandrasekaran visits Garmser, a village in Helmand province near the border with Pakistan.
Two dozen Marines had been killed as they pushed the Taliban out of the Garmser region. More than a hundred had been wounded. The United States had poured almost $2 billion into the reconstruction effort, Chandrasekaran reports. To make sure that Garmser would not slip back into Taliban control, more time, more money and more body bags would be needed. Chandrasekaran, senior correspondent and associate editor at The Washington Post, is appalled at the policy devised by the U.S. military and political leadership that sent the Marines to such an obscure outpost:
“All this for a district of 150,000 peasants who live in mud-walled homes. Was it worth it?” the author asks. “Garmser was far from Kabul. Its poppy harvest was not the insurgency’s life-blood. It had never been home to an al-Qaida training camp. Was this what America had gone to Afghanistan to accomplish?”
As Chandrasekaran sees it, there is enough blame for the floundering U.S. effort. He keys on the usual targets: the corruption and incompetence of the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai; the fumbling and feuding of various civilian agencies in the U.S. government; double-dealing Pakistanis who take U.S. aid and then provide sanctuary for Taliban and Al Qaida fighters.
But he goes much further. He asserts that the Marines went to remote Helmand province rather than the more strategically important area of Kandahar because they did not want to share battle space with the U.S. Army. And once in Helmand, he says, the hard-charging Marines showed disdain for the more reticent British forces.
The “surge” of troops ordered by President Obama in 2009 was a “missed opportunity” because, among other reasons, most of the troops were sent to the wrong place, according to Little America: “The reason wasn’t to be found in Kabul or Islamabad. It was in Washington: The American bureaucracy had become America’s worst enemy. The Pentagon was too tribal.”
Meanwhile, fighting inside the White House crippled the chance for reaching an accommodation with the Taliban to end the fighting, Chandrasekaran writes. The late Richard Holbrooke, a seasoned diplomat, wanted the United States to cut a deal but his abrasiveness and raging ego alienated everyone whose cooperation he needed, including Vice President Joe Biden: “The antipathy was visceral and vicious, dwarfing the quarreling in Helmand. . . . . And it sabotaged America’s best chance for a peace deal to end the war.”
The book title comes from an earlier U.S. venture in Afghanistan. In the 1950s and ’60s, in an attempt to keep Afghanistan from slipping into Soviet orbit, the United States launched a massive program of agricultural development in Helmand province.
A dam was built, irrigation canals constructed and farmers were taught modern planting methods. American companies built housing for their engineers and technicians that looked like an American suburb, earning the name Little America from the Afghans.
The project was only marginally successful. The Americans misjudged the soil, various U.S. agencies and companies were at odds, and to this day the huge hydroelectric Kajaki Dam remains unfinished. Chandrasekaran sees history repeating itself, this time with the loss of thousands of American lives.