Losing the War in Afghanistan

War is hell, and so is bureaucracy.

Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan, by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Alfred P. Knopf, 333 page, $27.95

America's longest war began on October 7, 2001, when U.S. special forces entered Afghanistan to help topple the Taliban regime. That mission was accomplished in weeks, not months. With heavy backing from the United States, Hamid Karzai emerged as the head of a nascent government in the long-war-torn country.

But Little America, a compelling new account of the Afghan war by Washington Post correspondent Rajiv Chandrasekaran, begins earlier. Chandrasekaran traces America's involvement in Afghanistan back more than half a century, starting with an Afghan king's plans for a development project in 1950 and continuing through the American presence there today.

When President Barack Obama announced a military surge in Afghanistan in 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton added that a "civilian surge" would be a necessary part of the package. But the new spending turned out to be as ineffective as the Afghan government itself. Chandrasekaran, who came to Afghanistan in 2009 to cover the war for the Post, describes several sprawling facilities for Americans and other Westerners in Kabul, replete with amenities to emulate a modern Western campus and divorced completely from the world on the other side of the walls and fences. Stores offered overpriced souvenirs for Westerners stationed in Afghanistan who wanted something to prove they'd been there. Some offices had Virginia phone numbers, as if the State Department bureaucrats had never left home.

Chandrasekaran meets one employee recruited directly by Richard Holbrooke, Obama's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, after he was appointed in January 2009. Summer Coish had spent years in the region running a bimonthly periodical out of Kazakhstan. She was declared a security threat while being processed for government employment because she had opened a foreign bank account, used for the magazine. When she finally got to Afghanistan she found she couldn't get much done. "It's rare that you ever hear someone say they're here because they want to help the Afghans," she told Chandrasekaran. Coish divides most of the employees in the compound into "three camps": those trying to collect a hefty paycheck, those fulfilling a prerequisite for cushier postings, and those running away from problems in America.

Alfred P. KnopfAlfred P. KnopfChandrasekaran tells plenty of stories about petty bureaucratic behavior in those compounds. There's the tale of an official emailing his subordinates to admonish them about the proper use of I and me. ("NEVER, NEVER, NEVER SAY: 'He told Andrew and I.' SAY: 'He told and Andrew and me.' If he told me, he didn't tell I.") There's the tale of a female embassy worker urinated on a patch of grass near a flagpole during a drunken party, then threatened to sue the State Department under the Americans with Disabilities Act if it disciplined her. Such stories would be funny if they weren't happening in the midst of a bloody and costly war.

Again and again, Chandrasekaran suggests the Americans' most formidable enemy is not the Taliban but bureaucratic infighting. These counterproductive squabbles are best illustrated by the experience of Holbrooke, the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Chandrasekaran makes a reasonable case that the 2009–2010 surge created a prime opportunity for negotiations, as U.S. forces were able to clear insurgents from areas previously ignored by NATO allies. But Holbrooke insisted on approving nonmilitary initiatives in both Afghanistan and Pakistan while running a disorganized staff, with his own paperwork constantly piling up. He also aggravated his colleagues by calling them in the middle of the night to talk shop and by always being the center of attention for journalists. All this, in turn, prompted many officials to spend more time trying to squeeze him out than trying to take political advantage of the temporarily favorable conditions. Only when Holbrooke died in December 2010 did the work toward reconciliation negotiations begin in earnest, and by that the time the opportunity had been squandered. But at least Holbrooke wouldn't get any credit.

By Chandrasekaran's account, the U.S. forces on the ground accomplish the tasks they're given, but there's no clear mission in Afghanistan and no direction from the top. And no one has figured out a way to deal with an even more fundamental problem: the weak, corrupt, and hapless Afghan government. Under both Obama and his predecessor, White House policy on Afghanistan has relied on there being a reasonably effective national government in Kabul, and that institution does not exist. President George W. Bush started biweekly teleconferences with Karzai in 2006; during the presidential transition, Chandrasekaran reports, the Obama administration concluded that Bush "had become the case officer for Afghanistan." The new White House took a tougher stand on Karzai—denying him, for example, direct access to President Obama—but there could be no war in Afghanistan without a government there to legitimize it, and Karzai provided one. But he didn't, couldn't, and probably can't provide the infrastructure on which the American nation-building project is predicated. That isn't likely to change even if U.S. troops stay til 2022.

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  • Tim||

    Take up the White Man's burden--
    No tawdry rule of kings,
    But toil of serf and sweeper--
    The tale of common things.
    The ports ye shall not enter,
    The roads ye shall not tread,
    Go mark them with your living,
    And mark them with your dead.

    Take up the White Man's burden--
    And reap his old reward:
    The blame of those ye better,
    The hate of those ye guard--
    The cry of hosts ye humour
    (Ah, slowly!) toward the light:--
    "Why brought he us from bondage,
    Our loved Egyptian night?"

    http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/kipling.asp

  • FD||

    Perfect.

  • Whiterun Guard||

    Raaacisssst.

  • Almanian's Evil Twin||

    Perfectly racist

  • Dr. Frankenstein||

    O.k. now that I've actually read the poem could it not be seen as satirical or am I just spending too much time here with you sarcastic misanthropes.

  • FD||

    Of course it's laced with satire, (although there is scholarly debate on Kipling's motivation and a possible quasi-noblesse oblige view of rightness -- the culturally advanced are morally obligated to elevate the "backward").
    Moreover, these divergent views are what makes the poem so powerful, and it is why Tim's citation was really quite brilliant.
    The consequences of active imperialism are despicable -- apathy and disregard toward the individual -- men, women, who are dying for some noble's view or democratic majority's view of goodness. Not to mention the "conquered" who just want to be left alone.
    The irony is sickenly pointed.

  • Dr. Frankenstein||

    Thanks, I've just always heard that Kipling was a racist and this poem was an example of that.

  • Virginian||

    It's incredibly satirical. Kipling fucking invented snark.

  • Virginian||

    If your officer's dead and the sergeants look white,
    Remember it's ruin to run from a fight:
    So take open order, lie down, and sit tight,
    And wait for supports like a soldier.
    Wait, wait, wait like a soldier . . .

    When you're wounded and left on Afghanistan's plains,
    And the women come out to cut up what remains,
    Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
    An' go to your Gawd like a soldier.
    Go, go, go like a soldier,
    Go, go, go like a soldier,
    Go, go, go like a soldier,
    So-oldier of the Queen!

  • sarcasmic||

    But if we don't fight the terrorists there we'll be fighting them here!

  • Whiterun Guard||

    Think of the fuel savings though!

  • LTC(ret) John||

    At these prices, why not!?

  • Pro Libertate||

    Rather than war, occupation, drone attacks, what have you, perhaps we should just threaten to make more offensive films. Except with bigger budgets and in 3D. Perhaps that would end the violence.

  • Whiterun Guard||

    Michael Bay could finally be a force for good instead of evil.

  • Pro Libertate||

    Just don't tell him.

  • Tim||

    James' Cameron's Afghanistan and the sequel Afghanistanis.

  • Pro Libertate||

    God Wars: Jesus Versus Mohammed. Just to up the ante, we threaten to have Lucas do it.

  • Tim||

    Mo-Mohammed: Mesa gonna show everyone how bombad mesa really is!

  • Pro Libertate||

    To be honest, I think I'd surrender if that threat was against something I cared about. It's like the nuclear option of film-making.

  • Whiterun Guard||

    He's already thinking of CGI characters he can put in it!

    Mohammed's inept, clumsy, but well meaning sidekick, Mustafa Binks.

    Joseph's money-grubbing chair selling rival, Matto.

    And of course the surly and mysterious Creature from the East, Siddhartha Windu.

  • Paul.||

    Rather than war, occupation, drone attacks, what have you, perhaps we should just threaten to make more offensive films. Except with bigger budgets and in 3D. Perhaps that would end the violence.

    I was thinking this exact same thing. We could cause a Reagan-esque fall of the middle east: Just keep making these films and they'll riot themselves into destruction.

  • Whiterun Guard||

    Hey Ed and Chandraskahewhatever, we won Afghanistan in January 2009, when Obama killed Osama in a Texas cage match.

  • Ptah-Hotep||

    Hey Ed and Chandraskahewhatever, we won Afghanistan in January 2009, when Obama killed Osama in a Texas cage match.

    I would have paid to see that. Two men enter, one leaves. All proceeds go to pay down the national debt.

  • Whiterun Guard||

    Now that I think about it, that would be like the worst actual fight ever. I mean seriously, Romney could probably physically kick both of their asses simultaneously. And that's saying something.

  • Ken Shultz||

    There was a video from MTV's glory days kinda like that:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SXWVpcypf0w

  • Ken Shultz||

    "There's no clear mission in Afghanistan and no direction from the top."

    The mission is to make democracy flourish there just like it did in the U.S.

    And there doesn't need to be any direction from the top becasue once they see how wonderful our democracy is, naturally, they'll all just emulate it just 'cause they want to.

    P.S. Anybody else remember when questioning whether the people over there wanted U.S. democracy got you called a racist?

  • sarcasmic||

    Racist!

  • The Late P Brooks||

    U.S. forces on the ground accomplish the tasks they're given, but there's no clear mission in Afghanistan and no direction from the top.

    This looks like a job for the Storyteller-in-Chief.

    NEEDZ MOAR NARRATIVE

  • The Late P Brooks||

    And no one has figured out a way to deal with an even more fundamental problem: the weak, corrupt, and hapless Afghan government.

    And of course, it is INCONCEIVABLE that a nation could exist without a powerful centralized government controlling every aspect of life out there in the hinterlands.

    That would be anarchy.

  • Whiterun Guard||

    No, it's a cheaper, shoddier knock-off.

    Afghanarchy.

  • Bedonkedonk||

    Candidate for greatest comment ever.

  • T||

    Needs more roadz. For the children.

  • Ken Shultz||

    There has to be a victory short of making U.S. style democracy bloom in the middle of the most hostile environment possible. Otherwise, it's like saying you can't have a good season unless you win the Superbowl.

    And there might be something to the idea that it's time to stop putting the situation down--time to stop bashing it. I think sometimes the critics think that if people realize how bad it is, they'll finally accept defeat? That might be exactly the wrong way to go about this--since Americans can't stand losing...

    Bush Jr. may have been onto something with his "Mission Accomplished" banner. Instead of bashing the War in Afghanistan, let's start emphasizing what we won...

    The Taliban no longer controls the government.

    Osama bin Laden is as dead as a doornail.

    We won! Hurray!

    Now let's bug the f out of there.

    Mission Accomplished.

  • Raston Bot||

    If we were Canada or the Miami Dolphins, then yes just making the playoffs would be a successful year. But we are the USA and if you aint first yer last.

  • Ken Shultz||

    We're way ahead of the Both Afghanistan and the Taliban, I assure you.

  • GILMORE||

    In the words of Hank Paulson:

    'Better' is not 'Good'

  • GILMORE||

    Ken Shultz| 9.25.12 @ 1:28PM |#

    We're way ahead of the Both Afghanistan and the Taliban, I assure you.

    http://www.michaelyon-online.c.....he-mud.htm

    Before Staff Sergeant Matthew Sitton was blown up and killed in Afghanistan, he wrote to U.S. Representative Bill Young about incompetent leadership and meaningless risk-taking in this hollow war. Matthew was on his third Afghan tour.

    The Soldier’s words are emblematic of the realities and frustrations of a war that many Americans do not realize is still on. The veteran wrote, “As a Brigade, we are averaging at a minimum an amputee a day from our soldiers because we are walking around aimlessly through grape rows and compounds that are littered with explosives.”
    ...
    ....Yet the enemy is not the cause of most frustrations. This is war. We try to frustrate each other and this is expected. The worst frustrations are caused by our own leadership, by our Afghan cohorts, and because we create our own obstacles. Nothing is more maddening than watching the incompetence of our own side become more disadvantageous than enemy bombs and bullets. We are not just fighting the enemy. We are fighting against ourselves.

    ...

    Worth a read.

  • Gray Ghost||

    Michael Yon usually is.

    His memoir Danger Close is a great look at what Special Forces personnel actually do, as well as their training. Also a good tip towards staying out of bars in the Virginia Beach area...

  • GILMORE||

    Uh, yeah, I heard he killed a guy by accident in a bar fight while he was in... is that in the book? Need to read that.

    He gets into pissing matches with these "Soldiers Angels" (Blackfive blog) people which are really silly... i presume they're the dicks, though. He's always struck me as a serious and intelligent guy.

  • GILMORE||

    Ken Shultz| 9.25.12 @ 11:17AM |#

    There has to be a victory short of making U.S. style democracy bloom in the middle of the most hostile environment possible.

    Well, here you have the conundrum of "Fourth Generation" Warfare (4GW! better than the 3G iPhone!)

    Without delving too deep into military pedantry, one aspect of 4GW is that there is no organized 'army' to surrender, nor any single 'leader' who when decapitated removes the capability for organized resistance.

    Most of the conceptual framework implied in the very term "Victory" itself is a 3G holdover. It reveals a "sporting event" kind of thinking (your 'superbowl' vs 'good season'), where when if one Team simply statistically outscores the other in any arbitrary category, "We Win".

    Thats part of the problem.

    I agree, we can come up with our own arbitrary criteria for what *we* consider 'victory' (a- Osama Dead, b- Taliban out of power)... but that doesn't take into account *the other guys objectives* obviously.

    If the other guy simply wanted to reveal the limits of American military power, drain its ability to fight, make it a pariah amongst billions worldwide, hampering its foreign policy influence, and leading it into major longer-term economic distress...

    Well, they can play that game too.

  • fresno dan||

    "Otherwise, it's like saying you can't have a good season unless you win the Superbowl."
    I would say its like winning the freaking superbowl for 12 years in a row. Its time to follow a new sport, like baseball or bowling...maybe women's nude vollyball.

  • NotSure||

    Americas longest war, but it still has a long way to go to beat the hundred years war bewtween France and England.

  • The Late P Brooks||

    So, does he cover the part where we helped to plant the seeds of our own destruction by providing aid and comfort to the Mujahedeen in the '80s? Wasn't that bin Ladin guy involved in that somehow?

  • ||

    yep. I remember watching the movie about the congressman that got all that going and thinking...what the fuck was this guy thinking? We should have been helping the russians. Or just butting out.

  • ||

    Come to think of it, I was doubly irritated because the russians were portrayed as two-dimensional villians who were simply intent on doing evil for evil's sake. Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale.

    In fact, the russians were fighting a war on terror just as we are now. Support for the reprehensible chechnyan muslim terrorists was largely coming from afghanistan, and yes bin laden was up to his neck in it.

  • GILMORE||

    So i gather you havent read, "The Bear Came over the Mountain"?

  • GILMORE||

    I was referring to the book covering the Soviets in Afghanistan

    www.dtic.mil/cgi-bin/GetTRDoc?AD=ADA316729

    A 'war on terror', it wasn't precisely... considering that soviet-sponsored communists took over the country in a coup in 1978, which lead to a civil war, which led to the soviets intervening with 'overwhelming military force'... and so on.

  • GILMORE||

    we helped to plant the seeds of our own destruction by providing aid and comfort to the Mujahedeen in the '80s

    Read 'Ghost Wars'

    I think this detail is overblown and misunderstood in context. In fact I'd probably argue it is barely even particularly influential, considering the Saudis and others spent 10X what we did in terms of funds back then. If it pissed off anyone, it pissed off pakistan when we walked away afterward

    I think more relevant is understanding the history of the US meddling in Arab states throughout the 2nd half of the 20th century. I think 1979 and 1993- were probably far more influential in 'inventing the enemy'. The afghans/pashtuns who shoot at us in afghanistan these days shoot at us because *we're there*.... not because of anything having to do with grievances the Arabs have, or any grand visions of restoring a caliphate...

  • Enjoy Every Sandwich||

    What? You mean the government that's so incompetent at home doesn't become The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen when it goes overseas? Unpossible!

  • Paul.||

    Funny how Obama was elected to be McGovern, but ended being that lying sonofabitch Johnson...

  • FD||

    Excellent!
    Not meaning to be doling out congrats to every poster whose arrow pierce's the bull's eye, but this was really sharp.
    How pathetic it is to imagine the number of current White House occupier fans who would not even understand those names, let alone the irony.

  • LTC(ret) John||

    "By Chandrasekaran's account, the U.S. forces on the ground accomplish the tasks they're given, but there's no clear mission in Afghanistan and no direction from the top."

    As I mentioned once before - I noticed this back in 2004-2005. Vague theme of 'capacity building', reams of paper on tasks to accomplish...great job by lots of different folks on tasks. To what end...who the #$% knew?

  • GILMORE||

    I'd write it up to politicians, mostly, perpetuating our presence indefinitely because no one wanted to be the guy who 'quit'...
    ...and to some degree also the hubris and ambition of the 4-star army brass who can't help but want to "fix" the previous guy's fuck-ups ("its not that the war is a bad idea... its just not *being well executed*) and come out looking like a hero... (i mean, David Petraeus career has risen like a meteor, although when you think about it, neither Iraq nor Afghanistan have in any way been successful... he simply got credit for 'making things less shitty')

    I knew we were neck deep in shit by 2006, when the military started getting obsessed with the subtle doctrinal differences between Counterinsurgency vs. Counterterrorism ... "COIN". The death of any coherent military operation normally takes place in the context of A New Acronym.

    ...while at the same time, you'd get little flashes in the news that 89% of Afghans still didn't know 9/11 happened and believed we were trying to 'steal their women'...

    News at 11: "Monkey Still Fucking Football"

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