Book Reviews

Cover image of Little America: The War within the War for Afghanistan.

Cover image of Little America: The War within the War for Afghanistan.

Little America: The War within the War for Afghanistan

by Rajiv Chandrasekaran
New York: Alfred A. Knopf , 2012
384 pages, $33.00 (HC)
ISBN 978-0-307-95714-6

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Reviewed by Jordan R. Fraser

Shortly after taking office in 2009, President Obama ordered an immediate surge of 21,000 troops into Afghanistan, and Rajiv Chandrasekaran followed them there.

After this immediate surge, Obama then proceeded to conduct an overall review of the Afghan mission. Having campaigned on Afghanistan being the ‘right war,’ his actions appeared to line up with his campaign promises. For the majority of the book, Chandrasekaran is attached to US Marine Brigadier General Larry Nicholson during his 2009-2010 rotation as the commanding general of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade in southern Afghanistan. This provides the author with valuable experiences in witnessing the interactions of US troops and civilian development personnel with Afghan civilians and government officials, a subject that forms an important part of his book.

Obama’s surge was a compromise: it was not quite all the troops General Stanley McChrystal had requested, but it was enough. There was to be a surge in civilian personnel as well. The aim of Obama’s surge was not to conduct a total counterinsurgency campaign in all corners of the country, but to do it in enough strategic locations in order to ‘hold the line’ and roll back Taliban advances in recent years. If that could be done, and the Afghan National Security Forces could be strengthened to a level able to manage a small counter-insurgency, US forces could then, at least, leave Afghanistan in a state where the country had a ‘fighting chance.’ Obama placed limits upon this surge, with withdrawals required to begin by July 2011.

The second portion of the book, entitled “Shattered Plans,” details the results of the surge ordered by Obama and the infighting inside the American government’s various arms involved in Afghanistan. Chandrasekaran’s account reveals a State Department and US Embassy compound in Kabul characterized by a sclerotic and risk-averse bureaucracy. The embassy staff members are rarely allowed out into the streets due to security personnel having become obsessed with maintaining safety, while State department staff, supposedly in Afghanistan to help build governance capacity for the Afghans, sign off their e-mails by counting down the number of days they have left in Afghanistan before they can leave. Chandrasekaran’s description of embassy employees and their clear lack of understanding of the cultural norms of an Islamic society (i.e., holding large parties where everyone got drunk) leave the reader embarrassed for the Americans.

US difficulties are further exacerbated when the Marine Corps’ surge forces are deployed in Helmand province and given their own separate chain of command. They are made distinct from all the other US forces operating under General McChrystal. While the efforts of the US Marine Corps in Helmand are exemplary, Chandrasekaran critiques them for their rogue-like behaviour, which leads to them being in unnecessary places and taking unnecessary casualties. While the reader gets the sense that Chandrasekaran admires Brigadier General Nicholson’s efforts, the author signals his disagreement with some of Nicholson’s choices in the deployment of his troops.

The final portion of the book, “Triage,” deals with how US forces, the Department of State, and USAID tried to engage the Afghan government and key players in the southern provinces. These efforts were aimed at trying to bring political stability to this part of the country. Targeted counterinsurgency operations in Kandahar and Helmand brought some tangible results. However, a lack of fundamental understanding of basic Afghan needs, and the inability to move bureaucratic inertia to meet those needs led to a series of lost opportunities. For example, it was recommended by a number of USAID consultants that they help the Afghans grow cotton as a substitute for poppies. The Afghan government would subsidize the production of it and thus encourage it as a legitimate crop. However, the US Government was unwilling to grant exemptions to rules that prevent it from supporting countries where the production of cotton was subsidized by the government, and therefore, the project ‘went nowhere.’ Chandrasekaran’s interviews with State Department individuals that reside on the agricultural file in Afghanistan greatly enhance his argument. They highlight the State Department’s many missed opportunities for development in the area of Afghan agriculture.

In reading Little America, one gets the sense, unfortunately, that the United States has actually been its own worst enemy in Afghanistan, even after the surge. While the Obama administration did renew focus upon Afghanistan, its desire to begin pulling out by July 2011 did not really lend enough time for commanders to necessarily consolidate the surge’s gains. As well, the internal wrangling inside the US Government and military apparatus make it clear that the competing objectives inside both the military and civilian branches were not properly reconciled into a clear and cohesive direction.

While Chandrasekaran’s account relayed in the book make this point indirectly, I find that he does not often state what his own recommendations should be. The book’s value would have been enhanced if he had made more overt recommendations of his own, rather than having the reader try to infer them from the content of his book. That being said, he seems to highlight criticisms and quote the views of specific State Department and military personnel on a more regular basis, leading the reader to believe that their views are synonymous with his own.

This book is truly a fascinating account of both the history of America’s involvement in Afghanistan and its failures to complete its work there. This is despite an enormous, albeit hampered and often misdirected effort. It is a book that is certainly worth reading, and it would be of interest to any person wishing to gain insight into America’s war in Afghanistan, where it has come from, and where it may be going.

Jordan R. Fraser, BA (Hons.), is an MA Candidate in the War Studies program at the Royal Military College of Canada, and he works on Parliament Hill.