Yet another day in a war gone bad.
Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan is brilliant reporting, a deep dive into how the United States wore out its welcome in one obscure corner of that distant Central Asian country -- over and over and over again -- through its own fecklessness.
That corner is Helmand Province, a distant slice of the Southern Afghan desert, west of the Pashtun city of Kandahar, north of Pakistan. Only 4 percent of Afghanistan's population live there. It is bisected by the Helmand river, which despite repeated efforts, brings neither hydropower nor agriculture to the region. In the 1940s and '50s, a U.S. engineering company, a forerunner of such giants as Bechtel and Halliburton, won a contract from the Afghan government to turn the land into another agricultural paradise like irrigated Central California. The irrigation ditches they constructed only leached the salts in the soil to the surface; Afghans attracted to the land watched their crops wither and die. The irrigation ditches proved useful in later years only to the warring forces who fought over them: the Afghan communist government of the 1970s, invading Russians, the U.S.-funded Mujahideen who expelled the Russians, various surviving warlords, and eventually the Taliban.
When U.S. Marines arrived during the current war, they cursed those ditches, now mined with deadly IEDs. But they were Marines -- they stormed ahead, occupying the fields, killing their foes, and finally hunkering down to be sniped at and take mortar fire from invisible Taliban foes. They were maimed and many died. Their commanders were proud of them.
The U.S. brought in civilian agricultural experts who came to the same conclusion that every previous specialist had come to: the land would only be profitable to the Afghan farmers if it was seeded in cotton. This went nowhere -- the 1950s, the 1960s or the 2000s -- USAID doesn't help its recipients grow cotton. That crop competes with domestic US cotton which is propped up by Congressionally-favored price supports.
Eventually the Obama administration came into office and tried to figure out what to do about what candidate Obama had made "the good war" in contradistinction to George W. Bush's Iraq morass. The generals said what generals always say: more troops. Obama would outflank them -- they'd get only 40,000 more and those would have to begin to come home after two years. Nobody questioned why 10,000 of this number, a quarter of the total, had to be sent to Helmand where there were hardly any Afghans. Why was that? To satisfy the Marines who wouldn't play with the other services. Hence the "campaign" that briefly captured headlines in the U.S. in 2010 to take the insignificant almost-"town" of Marja. More Marines died in ditches.
Nothing good was coming of any of this and the cost of fighting halfway around the world was mounting up at home. The State Department's Richard Holbrooke was feuding with White House "security" honchos.
Yes, this book is a downer. But if anyone cares to know just how crazy bad the U.S. experience in Afghanistan has been for Afghans as well as our troops, this book is essential reading. Chandrasekaran has a knack for finding the informant who can give him the unvarnished back story, soldiers, aid workers, and Washington insiders. That's a very special skill and worth experiencing.