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‘Little America’ Delves Into U.S. Presence in Afghanistan

June 26, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
In 2008, President Obama promised to make Afghanistan a top priority. Soon after, he agreed to a troop surge. Ray Suarez talks with author Rajiv Chandrasekaran about the U.S. strategy, the administration's role in Afghanistan and what he calls "the war within the war" in his new book, "Little America."
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GWEN IFILL:  The war in Afghanistan may be winding down, but the American presence there will likely be felt there for some time to come.

Ray Suarez speaks to a veteran correspondent who assesses whether the U.S. plan is working.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA, D-Ill.:   We have seen Afghanistan worsen, deteriorate.  We need more troops there. We need more resources there.

RAY SUAREZ:  In 2008, then candidate Barack Obama promised to make Afghanistan a top priority. One month after his inauguration, the new president agreed to the military’s request for a troop surge, adding 17,000 to the 36,000 American forces already there.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:  As commander in chief, I have determined that it is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan.

RAY SUAREZ:  Ten months later, the president beefed up the U.S. presence further and added more civilian aid to the Afghan government. But how effective were those efforts, which cost billions of dollars every month?

A new book, “Little America: The War Within the War For Afghanistan,” delves into all of this.  Its author is Washington Post reporter Rajiv Chandrasekaran.

I began by asking him about the Obama administration’s new approach.

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN, The Washington Post:  This was a surge to the exits. What the White House wanted to do was to increase troop footprint so they could find their way to the door.

The problem was, was that that increase was really squandered by the military, by the civilian agencies of our government. We wound up sending the first waves of troops to the wrong parts of the country. Our strategy was supposed to be counterinsurgency, protecting the people, getting the troops to where the people are and protecting the civilian population from insurgents.

Instead, we sent the majority of the first wave of troops that President Obama authorized to Helmand Province, a province with only 4 percent of Afghanistan’s population. They wind up charging into abandoned villages, very small towns, doing just the opposite of what we should have been doing in an effort to try to beat back the Taliban and stabilize the country.

RAY SUAREZ:  Now, right next door is Kandahar Province, which is hot during those months that you describe in the book. How did the Marines end up in Helmand and not in Kandahar?

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN:  It’s an amazing story that dates back to World War II, when Marine units on Pacific islands felt that they weren’t getting enough air cover from the Navy.

And so when the Marines agreed to deploy to Afghanistan, they demanded that they have their own — essentially their own patch of the sandbox, where they could bring in their own helicopters, their own logistics unit.

And so the only place that they could get was this sort of patch of central Helmand Province that wasn’t home to a whole lot of people. They didn’t want to play ball with the army or with other NATO forces. And so as a result, we wound up sending them to a fairly strategically unimportant area, while neighboring Kandahar, the country’s — home to the country’s second largest city, sort of the spiritual capital for the ethnic Pashtun population, that was the key prize for the Taliban.

And if the Taliban could claim that, they would have a springboard to take over the rest of the country. And yet, in that he first year of Obama’s war in Afghanistan in 2009, the bulk of the forces went to Helmand. And we sent comparably fewer forces to the areas around Kandahar, which were in my view far, far more important to Afghanistan’s overall security.

RAY SUAREZ:  You were on the ground in both places.  How come there was never a readjustment or a reconsideration of that initial strategy?

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN:  Because the Marines didn’t want to move. The Marines actually in their first year on the ground didn’t report to the top U.S. commander in Kabul, Gen. Stan McChrystal.

They had demanded and received special dispensation to essentially have their overall control be to a Marine general at the U.S. Central Command. So, Gen. McChrystal sitting in Kabul could not redeploy them to other parts of the country if he wanted to. So, while the Marines were flooding into these small districts with not a whole lot of people, nearby Kandahar, teeming with people and teeming with insurgents, had very, very few troops.

RAY SUAREZ:  You clearly came to the conclusion that the U.S. Marines went to the wrong place. Anybody else back you up on that?  Is there a dawning sense inside military circles that that’s the case?

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN:  There is indeed.

A lot of senior officers will not say so publicly, but, privately, there’s a very significant chunk of the senior officer corps who is involved in the Afghan war that believes that that initial deployment in Helmand, at least in the numbers that we deployed our forces there, was a diversion and that we should have directed the Marines toward Kandahar, toward other parts of the country.

RAY SUAREZ:  At the same time, a mirror effort was supposed to be going on, on the civilian side in development, in the standing up of civil society in a country that had had its civil society destroyed during years of occupation and civil war.

But again and again, you tell us stories of how it comes to nothing, how it comes to grief.

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN:  Yes.

So there was supposed to be this civilian surge that would operate in tandem with the military surge. We were supposed to get our best and brightest diplomats out into the field to work on setting up local government, to get reconstruction specialists there to rebuild Afghanistan’s shattered infrastructure.

The problem was, the people arrived slowly.  We got the wrong people.  And in many cases, we got people who had burnt out after years in Iraq or people who just didn’t have the necessary experience to do the work that needed to be down there at the local level.

And when it come to reconstruction dollars, instead of focusing on sustainable projects that the Afghans could one day take ownership of, we essentially carpet-bombed the country with money.  In 2010, we tried to spend $4 billion worth of reconstruction money in Afghanistan.  In some places, that equated to more than the annual per capita income.

And so it distorted the local economy. It built dependency, and it created sort of the development version of a sugar high. We pumped them up with lots of goodies, only to then see it crash later as budgets would inevitably have to be cut.

RAY SUAREZ: “Little America,” the title of your book, comes from an earlier visit to Afghanistan by the United States and its largess. Let’s go out on a story about Little America.

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN:  So, six decades ago, legions of American engineers descended on Southern Afghanistan, the very terrain that the surge would unfold in 2009.

They went there in the late ’40s and ’50s to build a network of irrigation canals and dams to help create farmland for the Afghans, many of those same canals, U.S. Marines would fight and die in, in recent years.

This was a grand development effort that was ultimately a failure, because those engineers failed to understand the dynamics of Afghanistan, failed to work with the Afghans.  We brought in a contractor that sucked up all the money. You could change the names and the dates and it’s like you’re writing about today.

And they built this town for themselves. It’s now the capital of Helmand Province. But back then, it was this eight square block little enclave with American-style homes, with manicured front lawns, a coed pool, a high school, a clubhouse where you could drink a gin and tonic.

And, of course, the name of that town, as it’s called today, is Lashkar Gah. But back then, as the Americans danced and partied in there and built their own little oasis, the Afghans looked at it and called it Little America.

RAY SUAREZ:  Rajiv Chandrasekaran, I want to continue this conversation online.
But thanks for joining us here on the broadcast.

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN:  A real pleasure to talk to you, Ray.