To be sure, much of Little America seems to be an Afghanistan version of Chandrasekaran’s acclaimed 2006 book about the ambition and cluelessness that marred the early years of the American effort in Iraq: Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone.
And the problems that Chandrasekaran points out in Afghanistan — rivalry between the Army and Marine Corps; discord between the United States and its allies; a host government’s dubious honesty; personality clashes at the White House; debatable battlefield strategies that cost American lives — are not unique to this war. All were factors in World War II.
But what makes Little America so compelling and disturbing is the breadth and carefulness of Chandrasekaran’s reporting. He made multiple trips to Helmand and Kandahar, spending time with infantry grunts in the field, Afghans, State Department representatives and military leaders. He started out believing that with enough time and resources the United States could achieve its objective.
If there is a hero, it is Kael Weston, a State Department field representative with experience in Iraq and a close relationship with the top Marine commander in Afghanistan, Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson. Weston’s growing disillusionment with how the war was being waged mirrors Chandrasekaran’s own.
Weston has since left government service. Nicholson is back in Afghanistan, at coalition headquarters far from Helmand, still trying to make the grand strategy work. Chandrasekaran doesn’t see much hope as the exit date of 2014 approaches:
“Our government was incapable of meeting the challenge,” he writes. “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 development experts were inept. Our leaders were distracted. . . . For years we dwelled on the limitations of the Afghans. We should have focused on ours.”
Tony Perry reviewed this book for The Los Angeles Times.