This special edition of the Politics Hour combined local and national politics live from Slim's Diner in Petworth, Northwest D.C.
As a candidate for president in 2008, Barack Obama often accused the Bush administration of ignoring and mismanaging the conflict in Afghanistan. But when President Obama authorized a military and civilian surge in Afghanistan in 2009, the effort was quickly bogged down by bureaucratic infighting, questionable strategic decisions and lessons unlearned from history. Author Rajiv Chandrasekaran joins Kojo to explore the war within the war for Afghanistan.
- Rajiv Chandrasekaran Senior Correspondent, The Washington Post
Read An Excerpt
Excerpted from Little America by Rajiv Chandrasekaran. Copyright © 2012 by Rajiv Chandrasekaran. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThe surge was supposed to change the trajectory of the war. In December 2009, President Obama announced a new policy in Afghanistan, a surge of 33,000 troops deployed mostly to the Southern Province of Helmand, along with hundreds of millions of dollars in new development assistance. Candidate Obama had long held up Afghanistan as the right war, the conflict we had to fight, unlike the war of choice in Iraq. But the decision to double down in Helmand exposed deep rifts within the White House and the Pentagon and placed a huge amount of faith in a questionable assumption that Afghan hearts and minds could be one with military forces and development dollars.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIn his new book, "Little America," Rajiv Chandrasekaran explores the story within the story of the Afghan surge. He also uncovers a forgotten chapter of American history in Southern Afghanistan, an ambitious project to bring a corner of 1950s America to a small town in Helmand province. Rajiv Chandrasekaran is senior correspondent and associate editor at the Washington Post and author of "Little America: The War Within The War for Afghanistan." Rajiv, thank you so much for joining us in studio.
MR. RAJIV CHANDRASEKARANGreat to be here with you, Kojo.
NNAMDIPresident Obama had been in office for less than a year when he ordered the surge in Afghanistan. It was marketed as a major escalation with a clear end point, 33,000 troops in by early 2010, out by 2011. Even though the White House tried to project confidence about this move and put up a united front, it was clear, even then, that this decision was highly contentious, even among the President's closest advisors. This book makes it pretty clear that contentious was an understatement. What was going on as they decided to do this?
CHANDRASEKARANWell, there really was a second war going on and that was in Washington among the members of the Presidents war cabinet. Now, when Obama took office, there was a great hope that he'd be able to turn Afghanistan around. I mean, going back to 2001 and 2002, you know, U.S. forces, not that many of them, working with Afghans, toppled the Taliban government, a brighter future seemed to be sort of inevitability there after decades of warfare. Yet we took our eye off the ball there as we all know so well, to focus on Iraq. President Bush pulled out troops, pulled out all forms of, you know, well reduced civilian assistance there so he could pursue the war of choice in Iraq.
CHANDRASEKARANSo when Obama took office, after having campaigned that Iraq was the bad war, Afghanistan was the good war, he and his closest advisors thought, look, if only we send a few more troops, increase reconstruction funding, get the right focus on it in Washington, we can succeed where Bush failed. We can turn it around. We can reverse the strategic drift that had been occurring there and beat back the Taliban.
NNAMDIThe problem was by 2009, Afghanistan was really too far gone, or if put differently, Kojo, it required an awful lot more troops and money to get to the same point we could've gotten to in 2002. And at the time Obama ran for office, he thought the price tag to turn around Afghanistan was only going to be 10 or 20,000 troops. What happened was by the time he took office and a few months went on, the situation in Afghanistan got worse. But also the Pentagon said, you know what? It's actually going to cost more than that. And this led to sort of a form of sticker shock in the White House.
CHANDRASEKARANThe candidate Obama thought fixing Afghanistan would cost X and it turned out that fixing Afghanistan, in the Pentagon, it would really cost X times 3 or 4. And this was a real eye-popping moment in the White House. And it led to this real reexamination of strategy, but also to a real, real episode of great tension between the president's civilian advisors and his military commanders.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call if you'd like to join this conversation. Looking back at the surge in Afghanistan, do you think it was successful or is it still too soon to tell? 800-433-8850. Has this long fight in Afghanistan forced you to reconsider some of your assumptions about the war and about how the U.S. can wield its power? You can also send us a Tweet at kojoshow, email to firstname.lastname@example.org or simply go our website, kojoshow.org, join the conversation there.
NNAMDIYou also present this as a reckoning for some misplaced ideas about what the Afghan people wanted and how to win hearts and minds. How so?
CHANDRASEKARANWell, the military argued back in 2009 that they could simply replicate what they had done in Baghdad during the height of the civil war to try to reduce violence there. By sending tens of thousands more troops they were able to reduce violence and they thought we could do the same in Afghanistan. The problem is -- we have many problems with this. I mean, chief among them, Afghanistan and Iraq are very different countries, different problem sets.
CHANDRASEKARANBut this view held by the military that if we provide security to the Afghan people they will -- you know, the government will come in, provide services, people will be happy, life will be great. Problem was for the Afghan people -- let's make no mistake about it, they don't love the Taliban. They know what it was like to live under the Taliban religious zealots. But you know what? They don't like their own government either. They see their government as fundamentally corrupt, filled with thugs and warlords.
CHANDRASEKARANAnd so when the Americans came and said, look, we're here to deliver you security and we're going to bring your government to you, a lot of Afghans said, whoa, you know, it's fine to improve security, but we don't want our own government. And this was a fundamental flaw in the U.S. strategy that never was really grasped fully enough in Washington back then.
NNAMDIYou also -- well, in some ways, this surge was kind of a reckoning for President Obama and liberals in general more broadly, was it not?
CHANDRASEKARANIt was. I mean, this was a chance to sort of get the right war done right and sort of push aside Iraq and say, all right, look, this was a war that began with a real justifiable reason, the 9/11 attacks. You know, the Afghans have been living miserable lives and been subjected to all sorts of crises for decades. We were going to deliver them a better life. Women there have been so oppressed, we were going to try to improve their condition. A generation of Afghans had no education. We were going to try to improve that.
CHANDRASEKARANAnd, you know, Afghanistan sits at the bottom of all the world indexes on, you know, childhood nutrition, on infant mortality. It's just -- the people of Afghanistan have it so rough. So this was going to be a noble effort. And this was a chance for Team Obama with smart people to show how they could get it right. And there was great optimism in Washington that a new team at the State Department, at the U.S. Agency for International Development, even Pentagon generals who had been sort of scarred and shaped by their experiences in Iraq would somehow all come together and get it right. But it didn't happen.
CHANDRASEKARANAnd, you know, I explore the reasons why in this book, but it's a confluence of factors from Afghanistan being very resistant to rapid change, to people within that war cabinet fighting amongst one another, to fundamental failures to really understand the history and politics of Afghanistan. But this is, for many liberals, a great tragedy because the hope was that Team Obama would show how this could be fixed. And unfortunately, when we look at the broader national security record of the president, and the White House loves to point to things like the drone war in Pakistan, special operations missions in Yemen and Somalia...
NNAMDICapture of bin Laden.
CHANDRASEKARANOf course, and the overall decimation of al-Qaida to show a strong decisive focus leader. And all that is true, but Obama's management of the Afghan war presents some more complex nuanced picture of his overall record and one that really does -- has prompted a degree of soul searching among his most ardent supporters.
NNAMDII should say the assassination of Osama bin Laden. We're talking about the book, "Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan." We're talking with the author Rajiv Chandrasekaran. He is the senior correspondent and associate editor of the Washington Post. And we're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Here is Anne in Washington. Anne, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ANNEThank you very much for taking my call. I just wanted to take exception strongly to the statement that Obama was elected with the hope that he would "turn around" the war in Afghanistan and make it into a good war. I believe that the majority of people who voted for Obama did so in the belief and hope that he would end these wars. And some of the reasons that your guest gave for the intervention, the concern over human rights, particularly the oppression of women, the U.S. actually funded and trained the Taliban forces against indigenous Afghanis who were waging a fairly successful struggle to educate women and for those rights.
ANNEAnd I think that we have to look at this whole thing in the context of overall interests of the corporate community internationally and controlling the Middle East historically.
NNAMDIWell, I think we were talking more specifically about what President Obama said when he was running for office and after he came to office. But here's Rajiv.
CHANDRASEKARANWell, Obama was very clear as a candidate. Iraq was the bad war, the wrong war. Afghanistan -- he never used the words good war, but it was implicit in his statements. He did not want to be the young democratic senator running for the presidency who opposed both wars. So he chose to oppose Iraq. Afghanistan, he was very clear in his statements repeatedly as a candidate that he would finish the job. He said that, you know, American cannot repeat the mistakes of the past when it turned its back on Afghanistan. 9/11 shows us that America and Afghanistan, you know, are fundamentally interlinked. He was very clear as a candidate on that.
CHANDRASEKARANAnd with regard to the U.S. support of the Taliban, the U.S. never explicitly supported the Taliban. The U.S. supported the Mujahideen resistance against the Soviets in the 1980s. Now did some of those Mujahideen warlords turn into Talib leaders in the following decade? Yes, but the Taliban, as a specific entity that rose to power in the mid '90s in Afghanistan, never received any direct support from the United States.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. Talk about the president being in a position of strategic disadvantage, if you will, when it came to dealing with the military in Afghanistan.
CHANDRASEKARANWell, here he was, you know, in office for less than a year. He hadn't had any military service. You know, young first-term president. And one where he was already pushing the military to reduce forces faster than it wanted to in Iraq, had made a commitment to a counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan just a few months after taking office, back when he thought the price tag was lower than it would turn out to be.
CHANDRASEKARANSo he'd already essentially signed on the dotted line saying he favored an integrated civilian military strategy and one that as interpreted by the military was sort of far more expansive. And then you had his generals who all sort of lined up in lockstep. General David Petraeus, the head of the Central Command, General Stanley McChrystal, who was then the top commander in Kabul and Admiral Mike Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
CHANDRASEKARANMeanwhile, members of his own team at the White House, the State Department, at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul all were very skeptical of the surge, as well, chiefly, his Vice President Joe Biden. The problem was, was those civilians largely couldn't get along. Joe Biden didn't like Richard Holbrooke who was the point man at the State Department for Afghanistan policy. Holbrooke and Karl Eikenberry, who's the ambassador in Kabul, didn't get along. Jim Jones, the National Security Advisor, had pained relations with some of the others. So the civilians were consumed with one-upping each other.
CHANDRASEKARANMeanwhile, the military comes in in nice unified front. And essentially it was a bit of divide and conquer.
NNAMDIMost Americans had never really heard of the Helmand Valley until American Marines began amassing there in the year 2010. But this was not the first time Americans had invested into this corner of Afghanistan. Beginning as early as 1951 an American company called Morrison Knudsen had launched one of the most ambitious development t projects in American history around the town that was known as Little America. Please explain.
CHANDRASEKARANThat's how I get the title of my book.
CHANDRASEKARANI was -- I'd made several trips to Afghanistan. I didn't know much about this history. It wasn't, Kojo, until early 2010 as I was preparing to accompany U.S. Marines in an invasion of a place called Marjah, very sort of Taliban infiltrated farming community in Central Helmand Province. I looked at some Google Earth images and I saw these razor sharp north south irrigation canals. And, you know, in a land of mud brick homes and meandering far plots I said, this doesn't look like it as built by the locals. And I started to dig around a little bit.
CHANDRASEKARANAnd it turned out this history wasn't all that hard to find. It exists in the Library of Congress, in the files at USAID. In fact, head U.S. policymakers wanted to look for this stuff. It would've been very easy to find and it would've, I believe, helped to fundamentally shaped our overall nation-building efforts today. Put simply, Kojo, this story involves the Afghans being wealthy enough in the 1940s to go out and hire the American firm that built the Hoover damn and the San Francisco Bay Bridge to build a network of canals and dams in Southern Afghanistan.
CHANDRASEKARANThe hope was that these canals would feed brand new farm land...
NNAMDIWell, let me ask you to back up for a second, because one of the reasons they were wealthy enough -- you have to look at what was happening in America and Europe in the aftermath of World War II. How did Jewish refugees end up making all of this possible?
CHANDRASEKARANThis is a bizarre, bizarre story. I didn't believe it when I first read it. This actually starts with the holocaust. As Jewish fur traders fled Europe many of them settled in New York. They needed a new source for pelts and they turned to Afghanistan for the fur of the newborn Persian Fat Tailed Sheep, the karakul pelt, which was used to make lustrous coats and hats. And in the late '30s and early '40s Afghanistan exported between 1 and 2 million pelts a year to the United States. The sale of each one put a few more dollars in the Afghan king's treasury.
CHANDRASEKARANSo at the end of World War II when Europe was broke in need of the Marshall Plan, the Afghan king was sitting on $100 million in gold reserves, considered a fortune at that time. So he could just write a check to these American engineers to come in there. It was this bizarre world where the Afghans were rich and were hiring the Americans essentially at full price to come in and do this. And the hope was that they would create a bread basket like the Central Valley of California, lush farm lands.
CHANDRASEKARANNow unfortunately this grand vision ran aground. The soil was too salty. The American contractor fleeced the Afghans. The proper studies weren't done. The Afghans who lived in the capitol who wore suits and spoke English and talked very nicely to the Americans didn't really understand their country, nor did the American engineers. And so this reconstruction -- this construction project, I should say -- it's not reconstruction. It was construction from scratch with these grand dreams of nation building did not meet its hoped-for goals, much in the same way everything we're doing there today isn't.
CHANDRASEKARANBut in the middle of all this, Kojo, the American engineers said, we need a place to live. And they thought they would build themselves a town. And they thought this town would also serve as part of a social engineering experiment. When the Afghans looked at it they'd say, we want this for ourselves. So the Americans built initially an eight-square-block community with suburban style white stucco homes and manicured front lawns.
CHANDRASEKARANThey had a coed swimming pool, the only one in the country where boys and girls could swim together, a coed high school and a clubhouse where a Filipino bartender would mix potent gin and tonics. There were nightly card games, weekly square dances. It was a bit of Americana dropped into the Afghan desert. The Afghans looked at this and said, well it's fine for them but we don't want this for ourselves.
CHANDRASEKARANAnd they looked at this community and they came up with a name for it. They said...
CHANDRASEKARAN...this is Little America and that's where I get the title.
NNAMDIThe project was supposed to be called Lakshar (sic) Gah.
CHANDRASEKARANLashkar Gah and that's...
CHANDRASEKARAN...and that today is the name of the city. It's the capital of Helmand Province. This little place created by the Americans is the capital of Helmand Province. And I found, as I was working on this book, at the Woodrow Wilson Center in D.C. from the Library of Congress actually American blueprints for the design of this town dated 1952.
CHANDRASEKARANAnd it -- we were so detailed back then, it specified the width of the streets, the type of trees that were to line the streets, what buildings would be set up there. We created this from scratch. We thought this would be a model for what the Afghans would build for themselves.
NNAMDIWell, the young king saw this project as a chance to pull his subjects up out of poverty but he also saw it as a way to consolidate his own legitimacy, which barely extended beyond Kabul. Even then it would appear the Head of State was grappling with some familiar forces, not just tribalism but also regional rivalries with Pakistan. Why did Pakistan distrust the king and his ambitions to modernize southern Afghanistan then?
CHANDRASEKARANBecause Pakistan back then thought that the Afghans had designs on the Pashtun population of Pakistan. What's so fascinating here is that back then the Pakistanis were torching supply -- American supply convoys going to Southern Afghanistan, the same thing they're doing today. They were attacking supply lines. And, you know, you look at why is Pakistan causing trouble in Afghanistan? Well, some of the tensions dates back all the way to this period I wrote about.
CHANDRASEKARANWhen Pakistan applied for membership in the United Nations in 1947, one country voted no in the United Nations general assembly. It wasn't its archrival India. It was Afghanistan. And so this tension between these two countries dates back to this Little America period. So we try today to understand why isn't it working there? You know, why are they torching these convoys and attacking them? You go back and you look at history and you see this all happened before.
CHANDRASEKARANAnd what is so galling, Kojo, is that this history was out there. There are great reports in the files at USAID that people could've read. And it could've shaped their approach to what we're trying to do in terms of national building there today. You know, part of what we're trying to do is connect the government in Kabul down to these remote villages, you know, build a functioning modern state. Well, it's not in the Afghan tradition.
CHANDRASEKARANYou go back and you look at this young king who was in Kabul back then. His authority didn't really extend out to these far flung provinces, and yet we're trying to tell the Afghans, well this is in your interest. Well, they look at it and say, this isn't in our tradition. And we never bothered to really fundamentally grasp that.
NNAMDIAnd we are dealing with cultures that have very long institutional memories, are we not?
CHANDRASEKARANWith long memories and change comes evolutionarily. We think -- and this goes back again to the sort of critique of President Obama and his team. They believed that if they only added more troops, increased spending significantly and sent more civilians they could turn things around quickly. What Afghanistan shows is that if you put in lots and lots of stuff, of troops and dollars but it changes on its own pace. You can't rush things over there.
NNAMDIHere is Sanjiv in Laurel, Md. Sanjiv, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SANJIVYeah, hi Rajiv. I had a question that even though we can afford troops in there -- in Afghanistan, if they continue to have sanctuaries in Pakistan we could have another 300,000 troops and it won't make any difference. I mean, just like in Vietnam, if the sanctuaries are there, we can't effectively wipe out the Taliban.
NNAMDI'Course you have two countries who blame each other for the internal instability in their own country.
CHANDRASEKARANLook, the sanctuaries are a fundamental problem. And this is one big reason why the overall strategy there hasn't worked as well as hoped because the caller's right. You know, the Talibs have a free base to organize, to plot attacks and then to come across the border and conduct those. And despite lots of promises from the Pakistani government that it would crack down on the sanctuaries, it hasn't really done so.
CHANDRASEKARANAnd so it does raise a fundamental question, how can you stabilize Afghanistan so long as you have these sanctuaries? And, you know, we've thought that, okay, we can give carrots to the Pakistanis, give them more money to go and do this. That hasn't really worked. We've tried to use sticks by cracking down on elements of the diplomatic relationship. That hasn't worked so well.
CHANDRASEKARANYou know, ultimately Afghanistan won't be stable unless you get a stable Pakistan. And one could argue that the problem with our policy is that, you know, it was always abbreviated as AFPAK, Afghanistan Pakistan. Perhaps our approach should've been more PAKAF. Focus on Pakistan, the real nuclear armed country that is the real problem in that region and then deal with Afghanistan.
NNAMDIRajiv Chandrasekaran's book is called "Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan." He joins us in studio. He is senior correspondent and associate editor at the Washington Post. We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Has the fight -- the long fight in Afghanistan caused you to reconsider some of your assumptions about the war and how the U.S. can wield power? You can call us 800-433-8850. You can send us a tweet @kojoshow, or email to email@example.com.
NNAMDIBack to the project that become known as Little America. It began with the best of intentions. It ended up becoming a major boondoggle. Why did the project not work?
CHANDRASEKARANWell, for so many reasons. For a failure of planning, a failure of communication with the Afghans, for ambitions that were just not commensurate with the reality of Afghanistan. It was too costly. There was lots of federal bureaucratic red tape involved. So again, I could -- I could change the dates. I could change the names I could be writing about today, Kojo. And the way the story ends is also remarkable.
CHANDRASEKARANAfter several decades of getting it wrong, finally the U.S. government comes up with a very modest plan to get these Afghans using basic hand tools to dig drainage ditches on their farms, to reduce water logging in an effort to sort of increase farm yields. This solution finally works. It starts to get deployed in the late 1970s, but then...
NNAMDIUh-oh. I think of something else that happened in the late 1970s.
NNAMDIHere come the Soviets.
CHANDRASEKARANHere come the Soviets. And by the time the Soviets come in, the Americans have to flee Little America, and the solution never gets -- never gets deployed in a broad scale. We came up with the right approach, but it was too late. And as I look at what we're trying to do now with doing some basic training for the Afghan army, trying to refocus our mission on sustainable ventures. But in the 12th year of a war, with an exhausted America, with an America that's in economic crisis, you know, you're left wondering have we finally sort of seen an approach that might be more modest and sustainable yet we're running out of time?
NNAMDILittle America indeed is presented in this book as a kind of metaphor for enduring American approaches to international development and assumptions about how to begin to change the priorities of people you are trying to help.
CHANDRASEKARANYes. And we didn't get it right then, and we're not getting it right today.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. If you have called, stay on the line. We will get to your call. When we come back, we'll continue our conversation with Rajiv Chandrasekaran about his book, "Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan." 800-433-8850 is the number, or you send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking with Rajiv Chandrasekaran. His book is called, "Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan." He is a senior correspondent and associate editor at the Washington Post, and we're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. One of your central claims, Rajiv, is that from a military standpoint, the surge might have worked, but the war effort itself was hamstrung by poor allocation of resources. Could you please explain?
CHANDRASEKARANYeah. So if you say, all right, look. The surge was the strategy approved by the President, how well did the government carry it out? You look at how the military handled it, I argue in this book that we sent the first waves of additional troops to the wrong part of the country. Instead of going to Kandahar, which is the country's second largest city, the real spiritual capital for the Taliban, the city that if it fell to the Taliban, they'd have a springboard to capture much of the rest of the country. That was the place that had to be defended.
CHANDRASEKARANInstead of focusing on that first, we sent the first wave of new troops, the bulk of them, over to Helmand, which is, of course, the Little America area, but it was at this point fairly sparsely populated. It wasn't as important as Kandahar. You ask why? What I detail in the book is it was because of tribal rivalries, not in Afghanistan, but in the Pentagon. The U.S. Marine Corps, which was sending that first wave, didn't want to work side by side with the U.S. Army and the Canadian Army in Kandahar, and they wanted to have their own patch of the desert so to speak.
CHANDRASEKARANSo they got a part of Helmand that really wasn't home to all that many people. It, in the view of many military strategists really squandered the bulk of the first tranche of troops that the president authorized.
NNAMDIHow did political infighting in -- oh, is there a distinction to be made -- I guess I should get to this first, between counterinsurgency and counterterrorism?
CHANDRASEKARANWell, yes. A big distinction. I mean, counterterrorism is the narrow approach that was advocated by Vice President Biden and president's civilian advisors that says use a small number of troops to go after and kill the senior bad guys. You go and kill and Osama's of the world. You go and kill top Taliban leaders. You don't go with big numbers and flood into valleys and villages. Counterinsurgency is that bigger approach. It means going into these communities, trying to protect the civilian population, trying to rebuild government, and trying to stabilize the country that way.
CHANDRASEKARANBut that requires a lot of things. It requires a willing government to partner in President Hamid Karzai and his government. It requires the Pakistanis to crack down on sanctuaries. It requires patience on the part of the Americans. It requires lots of money. It requires lots of troops, and that's what the military argued for. It's what the military largely got out of the president, and now we look back on it and we say, what was the real return on that investment?
NNAMDIHere is Tom in Laurel, Md. Tom, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
TOMWell, if you've ever read a book "New Legions: I Quit," it was Master Sergeant Donald Duncan, who was one of the original special forces troops that went into Vietnam and he wrote honestly about the limitations of what could be done, and, of course, that's your -- when you're coming in conflict with the big army which is conventional, which wants to get in there so everybody can get their promotions, everybody, you know, who's a Colonel before this thing is over is gonna be maybe a two-star.
TOMThe contractors are gonna get in there and things get turned around. We succeeded in Korea because Korea's a peninsula, so unlike Afghanistan, where Pakistan wants a weak Afghanistan to be a buffer state against India, we get played, and, of course, Afghanistan still will charge us money for routes and flying into Afghanistan, and...
NNAMDISo Tom, you seem to be suggesting this is a no-win situation.
TOMWell, what I'm saying is the British, with their system of empire, had people who stayed in those areas for seven generations, and the final estimate is Kipling's statement, the east is the east and the west is the west, and never shall the twain meet. If you want to understand Afghanistan, see the Sean Connery and Michael Caine movie, "The Man Who Would Be King"...
TOM...and that has a lot of parallels.
NNAMDIThat could be one of several sources. Another some might suggest might be a book called "Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan." We're talking with the author of that book, Rajiv Chandrasekaran. He is senior correspondent with the -- and associate editor at the Washington Post. Care to comment at all on what Tom just was saying?
CHANDRASEKARANWell, a lot of things there. I'll just pick one which is, you know, Tom makes a good point. Small can be beautiful, and when we look at some of the most effective U.S. initiatives over the past several years, I think, you know, what the special forces have done, both in terms of trying to train Afghan security forces, working in remote areas with the indigenous population, and also going after senior terrorist leaders. I know some of these raids are very controversial, but they have had a real impact on beating back al Qaida and Taliban forces who are in Afghanistan.
CHANDRASEKARANI think there is a lot of wisdom as you look back to the debates in 2009 at the White House between Vice President Biden who argued for the small approach, and the military that wanted to go big.
NNAMDIYou profile an interesting U.S. diplomat named John Kael Weston who served as political advisor to the Marines. He says the big flaw in thinking about this war was that decision to go big instead of going long.
NNAMDIGive us a sense of how he viewed the war.
CHANDRASEKARANSo he's -- he was not of the mind that we should pack up and go home. He believed, and I share this view, that in 2001 we asked the Afghan people to side with us against the Taliban, and we implicitly promised them a shot at a better, freer life. And if we pack up and go home entirely tomorrow, and we cut off civilian assistance and everything, they're going to be plunged into another civil war, or the Taliban will somehow manage to take over the country.
CHANDRASEKARANBut that doesn't mean the current approach or sending more troops is the right thing to do. The surge as Kael Weston argued exhausted our patience, our stamina. What Afghanistan needed, he believed back then, and he still believes today, is a long-term strategy to say, look, this is our American commitment for a period of years. This is what we'll provide you in civilian assistance. We'll have some troops here to help with your security, but we don't do the fighting for you. That's for you to do.
CHANDRASEKARANWe're gonna help you train your security forces. We will help provide you with some things that you don't have like medical evacuation helicopter flights and such, but it's not going to be the same big footprint approach. And he believed that back in 2009, Obama had this opportunity. Instead of surging, or instead of ending the war to have gone long. That would have been politically risky. It could have been costly, but less costly than what he chose to do, and this is what Kael Weston thought should have been done, but it unfortunately was not the chosen policy.
NNAMDIYou mentioned earlier, political infighting in Washington and how it may have affected the situation on the ground. You mentioned Richard Holbrook widely seen as one of the most talented and influential diplomats in decades, but also seen by many as extremely difficult to work with. This book features some truly bizarre and disturbing anecdotes of how he was marginalized.
CHANDRASEKARANYeah. I mean, meetings called in the White House that he wasn't invited to. When he wanted to travel out to Afghanistan, sometimes denied the use of government airplanes. At one point, a story I recount in the book, Hamid Karzai, the president, was coming to Washington for a visit, having an Oval Office meeting with Obama, and some of the president's aides tried to arrange to exclude him from this, and then their plan was to slip Obama talking points, one of which read, everyone in this room represents me and has my trust.
CHANDRASEKARANThe implicit message to Karzai being, Holbrook, who's not there, doesn't have the president's trust. It was foiled at the last minute when Secretary of State Clinton insisted that Holbrook be brought in, but it shows the level of even sometimes childish infighting that was taking place at the upper levels of the administration because of what was fundamentally a personality clash. Sure, Holbrook was a larger-than-life person.
CHANDRASEKARANHe was difficult to get along with, he had sharp elbows, he had a big ego, but instead of firing him, or telling his staff -- or pardon me, instead of the president telling his White House staff work with him, they were allowed to fight, and what it meant was that that infighting, I believe, meant that for a period of many months, the U.S. did not have a coherent strategy to try to pursue peace talks with the Taliban at the very...
NNAMDIBecause Holbrook wanted to negotiate a peace...
NNAMDI...between the Taliban, the Afghan government and the U.S. Was that goal at odds with what the military wanted to do?
CHANDRASEKARANIt was at odds with the military, but it was not at odds with what the president wanted. The president wanted this, yet his own team was consumed with fighting one another. So at the moment when we were having -- sending troops in, when we had increasing leverage, we weren't using that leverage to try to forge a deal to end the war.
NNAMDIAcross this entire war, few candidates have been a difficult to understand as Hamid Karzai, the president of Afghanistan. We know that Washington views him as being part of the problem, while also viewing him as indispensable. We also know that Karzai actually believed in counterinsurgency.
NNAMDIOr never believed in...
CHANDRASEKARANNever believed -- never.
NNAMDI...counterinsurgency, correct. What do you make of him?
CHANDRASEKARANWell, see, this is the fundamental -- or one of the great flaws of our strategy. We assumed that we had a partner in Kabul who was willing to sort of work in tandem with us, but Karzai looks at the problem and says, no, it's -- you know, we look at the problem and say, you know, it's bad government in Afghanistan. It's corruption that leads people to support to Taliban because they see the Taliban as brutal, but at least anti-corruption and pro-law and order.
CHANDRASEKARANWell, Karzai doesn't see that. Karzai says the problem is all coming from Pakistan. And so he thinks we should put all of our troops on the border with Pakistan, and by going around in Afghan villages and trying to rebuild governments, he thinks we're mucking around with a self-regulating system of tribal governance. And so he doesn't want to help. And when we go there and we said where's the Afghan government, they were AWOL. U.S. officials then thought, oh, well, it's an issue of Afghan capacity. They don't have enough people. We need to train them.
CHANDRASEKARANWell, yes, that is partially true. But the bigger issue is, it's a lack of political will. They didn't want to step up because they didn't think it was a worthy thing to do. So why are we out trying to do all of this stuff when even the Afghan leadership doesn't want to do it?
NNAMDIUSAID and the civilian development apparatus does not come across very well in this book. The idea of the surge was to pair all this military might with new civilians pending on agriculture, projects, reconstruction. But you argue that the USAID bureaucracy became a huge hindrance.
CHANDRASEKARANYeah. We -- look, Afghanistan was deserving of additional assistance. It was starved of it during the Bush years. Think of Afghanistan as sort of a parched man on a hot day, but instead of giving him a big tall glass of ice water, we turned a fire house at full blast on him. More water than he could drink and sort of injuring him in the process. All in good intentions, team Obama flooded Afghanistan with money.
CHANDRASEKARANWe tried to spend $4 billion on reconstruction programs there in 2010. It fueled corruption, it fueled waste, and it led to outcomes that were exactly the opposite of what we were trying to achieve in some cases.
NNAMDIRajiv Chandrasekaran. He is a senior correspondent and associate editor at the Washington Post. His book is called, "Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan." Thank you so much for joining us.
CHANDRASEKARANGreat to talk to you, Kojo.
NNAMDI"The Kojo Nnamdi Show" is produced by Brendan Sweeney, Michael Martinez, Ingalisa Schrobsdorff and Tayla Burney, with assistance from Kathy Goldgeier and Elizabeth Weinstein. The managing producer is Diane Vogel. Our engineer is Timmy Olmstead. Natalie Yuravlivker is on the phones. Podcasts of all shows, audio archives, CDs and free transcripts are available at our website, kojoshow.org. Rajiv Chandrasekaran will be speaking tomorrow, July 17, at 7:00 at Politics and Prose bookstore. That's at 5015 Connecticut Avenue Northwest. That event is free and open to the public. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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