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Lessons For Afghanistan War From 'Little America'

On assignment in southern Afghanistan in 2009, Washington Post correspondent Rajiv Chandrasekaran waded through chest-high water with U.S. Marines, through canals originally dug by Americans 60 years ago. There, he discovered a massive Cold War project to transform the Helmand River Valley through electrification and modern agriculture in an area once known as "Little America."

The canals were marvels of irrigation, but the attempt to woo Afghans then failed — and some of those strategic failures, Chandrasekaran contends, were replicated decades later by a new generation of U.S. politicians, soldiers and diplomats. The canals now serve as defensive moats for Taliban entrenched in the city of Marja.

In 2009, eight years into the war, an additional 30,000 troops were sent to Afghanistan, and the counterinsurgency measures coincided with a surge of civil servants and aid workers. In his new book, Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan, Chandrasekaran traces the decision-making process behind the 2009 troop surge, the internal politics of the military strategies and the challenges presented by civilian bureaucracies in the reconstruction efforts.

He talks with NPR's Neal Conan about the original "Little America" and the wisdom of the 2009 troop surge.

Interview Highlights

On the "vast social engineering experiment" known as "Little America," modeled on the San Joaquin Valley

"[There are] many parallels in geography between the two, and they brought in legions of American engineers to ... build dams, to build canals, to try to create verdant orchards and farmland.

"The project ultimately failed to achieve its great hopes, and as did the social engineering aspects of this, trying to modernize very traditional Afghan tribal communities throughout Helmand and Kandahar provinces in the southern part of the country.

"But that story, which just occupies chapter one of the book, it's a fascinating slice of history, but I see it as a parable for what is to come later, because when President Obama authorized new waves of troops to go to Afghanistan in 2009, doubling our troop footprint there, sending more than 50,000 additional men and women in uniform to Afghanistan, many of them were sent to southern Afghanistan to beat back the Taliban — the very, very same terrain that American engineers had worked in six decades earlier.

"And much of what they were trying to do through what they called a counterinsurgency effort was a form of nation-building, was trying to beat back the Taliban by building up an Afghan state in these places, by helping to reconstruct these places. And if you change the dates and the names, you could sort of be talking about today when it comes to that earlier history. I just thought it was tremendously instructive in looking at today."

<em>Washington Post</em> senior correspondent and associate editor Rajiv Chandrasekaran is also the author of <a href="http://www.npr.org/books/titles/137986599/imperial-life-in-the-emerald-city-inside-iraqs-green-zone">Imperial Life in the Emerald City</a>, a finalist for the National Book Award.
Bill O'Leary / Washington Post
Washington Post
Washington Post senior correspondent and associate editor Rajiv Chandrasekaran is also the author of Imperial Life in the Emerald City, a finalist for the National Book Award.

On the 2009 strategy, which sent most forces to Helmand, not Kandahar

"If our strategy was to be protecting the good people from the bad people, we should have been near the biggest city in the south. Instead, we were off in a sparsely populated desert. And I argue in this book, based on a lot of interviews with senior commanders and others, that this was a fundamental mistake.

"I'm not trying to say that the Afghan war was totally winnable, that the strategy was right, but if you accept that the president made a decision to send more troops and to fight the war a certain way, his commanders should have then directed those troops to the most critical of areas, and instead what I found was that his effort was plagued by tribalism — not Afghan tribalism, Neal, tribalism at the Pentagon."

On Kael Weston, a State Department adviser to the Marines who opposed the surge

"He's a heroic young American who spent seven years of his life working for the State Department in Iraq and Afghanistan, probably more time in the war zones than any other foreign service officers. And he supported the initial deployment of troops in Afghanistan, but he came to believe that the surge that Obama would approve later in 2009 was a bad idea. ...

"He didn't believe that Americans should pack up and go home. I know a lot of people out there today feel that way. He didn't believe that, nor did he believe in a go-big approach, in a surge, sock them with everything you've got. What he thought the Afghans needed and what the Americans needed to do was a more modest go-along strategy to demonstrate to the Afghans a long-term American commitment, to help them with basic security, with some basic assistance to improve their lives but to have the Afghans really do the hard work over time.

"And he felt that that would also be the best possible strategy to try to then bring elements of the Taliban to a negotiating table if they saw that the Americans weren't going to leave right away. Instead, he felt we did the wrong thing by sending more forces there for a short period of time."

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