Tuesday, October 23, 2012

What We Have Is Folly

Just finished reading Rajiv Chandrasekaran's Little America:  the War Within the War For Afghanistan.  Chandrasekaran spent three years--2009 through 2011covering the Afghan War and before that the Iraq War.  He had a great deal of access to virtually all of the key players as well as real time access to the war on the ground as seen by both Americans and Afghans.  The book traces American involvement from the original Little America projects of the 1950's through the current war.

Chandrasekaran presents Little America in three parts that pretty.  Part One--Grand Dreams quickly moves from the opening chapter, "An Enchanting Time" to "The Road to Ruins" and ends with "The Surge".  The story does not improve in Part 2--Shattered Dreams; the Surge is largely wasted through incompetence, bureaucratic sloth, institutional rivalries and individual ego.  Part 3--Triage is all about looking desperately for an exit.  The final chapters "My Heart Is Broken" and "What We Have Is Folly" tell the reader that the exit will not be pretty.

Most tellingly, Chandrasekaran understands Afghans, their culture,their history and their rivalries. He understands far more than most Americans he meets.  Throughout Little America he shows how Americans largely ignored the country and the people that we were supposedly helping.  He celebrates the few Americans who do understand Afghanistan in its own terms and chronicles their occasional success and all-too-often not success.  Cultural ignorance and bureaucratic incompetence torpedo  whatever possibilities America might have had for success in Afghanistan. 

The final pages show some real passion, more than is typical for most mainstream reporters.  Chandrasekaran writes as a man who has seen a terrible waste, life and treasure spent for naught, and he's willing to name names:  "The Pentagon was too tribal...The generals were too rigid...The grunts committed too many unforced errors...The war cabinet was too often at war with itself...[R]ivalries were compounded by stubborness and incompetence at the State Department and USAID...For years we dwelled on the limitations of the Afghans.  We should have dwelled on ours."  

If you want to know what America gained for the more than 1,200 dead in Afghanistan since 2010, you can find out in Little America.  The results are not good.



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