- - Friday, July 13, 2012


By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Knopf, $27.95, 384 pages

This book is a critical and detailed – sometimes too detailed – account of America’s involvement in Afghanistan, going back to the Cold War when the United States attempted to replace Soviet influence in that country.
It can best be summarized as “a history book with a point of view.”

Author Rajiv Chandrasekaran, a correspondent for The Washington Post who has reported from Afghanistan more than a dozen times in recent years, concludes that after decades of American efforts, “none of it remedied the core problem: Our government was incapable of meeting the challenge” of defeating the Taliban and other insurgent groups in Afghanistan.

The author elaborates on this inability: “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 our own.”

The title is a reference to America’s first involvement in Afghanistan, just after World War II. The country’s king hired an American company to build an irrigation canal and other facilities in an area called Lashkar Gah. The Afghans began calling that area “Little America.”

Mr. Chandrasekaran illustrates many of the points he makes in the book with vivid firsthand anecdotes. For instance, in discussing the widespread corruption among Afghan officials at all levels, the author reports that as the Taliban attacked a British NATO contingent in the city of Now Zad in 2006, “The portly [Afghan] police chief, holed up in the same compound as the Brits, spent his days finding the last few residents to extort and the last few boys to molest.”

But some of the author’s anecdotes seem irrelevant. For example, he describes a top Marine commander in Afghanistan, Larry Nicholson, this way: “He projected the image of a tough, gruff Marine who relished a good fight. But that facade hid a deft practitioner of modern warfare whose out-of-uniform interests included listening to the pop star Katy Perry and watching ‘Downton Abbey,’ a British period drama on PBS’ Masterpiece Theater. He drove an Audi and savored Italian red wine.”

The last chapters of the book, by far the most interesting and informative, provide a rich behind-the-scenes accounting of efforts by President Obama and his aides to keep the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan.

Mr. Chandrasekaran reports that top American military leaders opposed Mr. Obama’s strategy: a “surge” in U.S. efforts to defeat the Taliban, followed by a fixed date for ending U.S. military involvement. The author portrays the military leaders as thinking that “letting up too soon … would sacrifice all they had achieved.” But, Mr. Chandrasekaran writes, “The president’s civilian advisers were not convinced.” They cited the “erratic behavior” of Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai, Pakistan’s failure to move against Taliban sanctuaries on its territory and “the Afghan army’s rank incompetence.”

Additionally, the author notes, a majority of Americans “no longer believed the war was worth fighting.”

Meanwhile, he writes, by 2011, the patience of the Afghans was wearing thin.

“Many Afghans had welcomed the Americans as liberators in 2001,” the author says, “but a decade later the presence of so many foreign troops was stoking frustration and anger.” For one thing, many of the American and NATO ground and air attacks were accidentally killing and injuring innocent Afghan civilians and troops.

“Afghans even took to blaming U.S. and NATO forces for civilians blown apart by Taliban bombs,” Mr. Chandrasekaran reports. “To the American military, more troops meant more security. To many Afghans, it was just the opposite. More troops meant more insecurity. If the foreign forces weren’t there, the insurgents wouldn’t be seeding the roads with explosives.”

As the book draws to a close, Mr. Chandrasekaran sharpens his criticism of U.S. officials involved in formulating and carrying out war policy: President Obama, his top civilian advisers and U.S. military leaders.

“The war cabinet was too often at war with itself,” he writes. He states that those involved in war policy were “all honorable men who worked 18 hours a day, seven days a week, to save Afghanistan.” They could have accomplished a lot more, Mr. Chandrasekaran states, “if they hadn’t been consumed with one-upping each other.”

To make matters worse, “Those rivalries were compounded by stubbornness at the State Department and USAID,” he writes.

It appears that Mr. Obama’s policy in Afghanistan will not be an issue in this year’s presidential election.

Based on Mr. Chandrasekaran’s knowledgeable and critical volume, perhaps it should be an issue.

Ron Nessen is journalist-in-residence at the Brookings Institution and a former Vietnam War correspondent for NBC news.

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