Monday, April 28, 2014

A bummer of a book about a bummer of a war

KABUL, Afghanistan — Three [civilian] Americans were killed at a private hospital in Kabul on Thursday morning when an Afghan police officer turned his gun on them, officials said, in the latest in a string of attacks against Western civilians here. ....

“The foreigners have been here too long,” said a man outside the hospital who gave his name as Fawad and said a female relative was in the Cure hospital undergoing surgery. “People are tired of them."

New York Times, April 25, 2014

Yet another day in a war gone bad.

I've just wolfed down a gripping book that tells this same story in unrivaled depth. Rajiv Chandrasekaran's 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.

The American bureaucracy had become America's worst enemy. The Pentagon was too tribal. ... The generals were too rigid. ... The grunts committed too many unforced errors. Although the vast majority of American soldiers and Marines see served with honor and distinction, a handful of miscreants would soon tar America's "we're here to help" message with a series of egregious acts: murdering civilians, disrespecting the Koran, mistreating Taliban corpses. ... The war cabinet was too often at war with itself. ... Those rivalries were compounded by stubbornness and incompetence at the State Department and USAID...

All told, I spent three years observing Americans attempting to defeat the insurgency in Afghanistan. ... the real challenge wasn't head counts, budgets, or public opinion. For all the lofty pronouncements about waging a new kind of war, our nation was unable to adapt. Too few generals recognized that surging forces could be counterproductive, that the presence of more foreign troops in the Pashtun heartland would be a potent recruiting tool for the Taliban. Too few soldiers were ordered to leave their air-conditioned bases -- with the siren call of Baskin-Robbins ice cream in the chow halls and big-screen televisions in the recreation rooms -- and live among the people in fly-infested villages. Too few diplomats invested the effort to understand the languages and cultures of the places in which they were stationed. Too few development experts were interested in anything other than making a buck. Too few officials in Washington were willing to assume the risks necessary to forge a lasting peace. And nobody, it seemed, wanted to work together. The good war had turned bad.

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.

No comments:

Related Posts with Thumbnails