Journalist Rajiv Chandrasekaran

The Washington Post associate editor weighs in on the war in Afghanistan—which he writes about in his new text, Little America, and whether the U.S. should continue to fund it.

Since 1994, Rajiv Chandrasekaran has had numerous positions at The Washington Post, including bureau chief in Baghdad, Cairo and Southeast Asia and as a correspondent covering the Afghanistan war. Currently senior correspondent and associate editor, he also covered local and financial news. He's a native of the San Francisco Bay Area and was editor-in-chief of his college paper, The Stanford Daily. Chandrasekaran's debut text was the best-selling Life in the Emerald City, about central Baghdad's infamous "Green Zone," and, his latest, Little America, is an account of the troubled war in Afghanistan.


Tavis: Rajiv Chandrasekaran is a senior correspondent and associate editor at “The Washington Post” whose previous book was “Imperial Life in the Emerald City.” His latest is called “Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan.” He joins us now from San Francisco. Rajiv, good to have you back on the program.

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: Tavis, great to be here with you tonight.

Tavis: I started the program a few moments ago by referencing those American servicemen who were killed this past weekend, and I suggested a moment ago that this may very well be the war with no end. Is that putting too much on it?

Chandrasekaran: Well, look, this war has been going on for an awful long time – more than a decade. Quite frankly, it’s the longest war our country has fought. It’s longer than the Revolutionary War. Even though our government as well as our NATO allies have pledged to end our combat missions there in 2014, there will still continue to be, if the Pentagon has its way, substantial numbers of U.S. forces in Afghanistan beyond that.

Special Forces troops to conduct counterterrorism raids, trainers for the Afghan military. So while certainly the levels of casualties will probably drop significantly, there will still be Americans in harm’s way in Afghanistan, I believe, for the foreseeable future.

Tavis: President Obama, as you know, has referred to this war any number of times as “the good war.” Is it the good war, and if it is the good war, have we fought it well?

Chandrasekaran: Well, it started out as the good war, Tavis, and I argue in my book that it was the good war that turned bad. Not because the cause was unjust. Remember, this began with the 9/11 attacks, and there was a belief at senior levels of the U.S. government that we had to go in there to topple the Taliban regime, to go after al Qaeda leaders who had safe harbor in that country.

But over the years, that mission’s really expanded. It’s expanded into a grand nation-building effort over there, and some of that is warranted because Afghanistan is dirt poor, it doesn’t have much of a government. It needs international assistance. But did it need that many more American troops? Did it need billions and billions of reconstruction dollars – well more than the country could meaningfully absorb? The way we went about and have fought this war, particularly in recent years, I believe was just too – we did too much. We committed too many troops, we committed too much money, and we haven’t really achieved the sort of sustainable result, achieved the sort of peace that we’d like to see over there.

Tavis: It’s obvious that the war lasted for the entire Bush administration, but it may very well, even if he’s reelected, last for the entire Obama administration. If I can simplify what you argue in the text, you basically argue that Bush starved Afghanistan, so to speak; Obama has put too much money in. Is that an oversimplification?

Chandrasekaran: No, I think you’re absolutely right, Tavis. We went from a sort of a country that was parched of resources to one that’s been flooded, and there is a happy medium there. The answer, as some of my characters in the book argue, is not to pack up and go home entirely, but it wasn’t really to surge.

It was a go-long strategy. It was try to do something modest and meaningful for a country that really does have needs, but not to sort of try to expect that we could somehow change the place overnight with 100,000 troops and billions of dollars.

Tavis: What’s the best argument that can be made to the American people for why we have stayed so long? When you consider all the wars that we’ve been engaged in as a nation, as you point out at the top of this conversation, this is the longest ever, what justifies that?

Chandrasekaran: Well, certainly the 9/11 attacks I think are a big justification for why we’ve been in there as long as we have, and look, it’s in our American nature, right? We don’t want to pack up and leave with our tail between our legs. We want to try to achieve a decent enough outcome.

I don’t think the end state is going to be anywhere near peace in our time or common notions of victory or Jeffersonian democracy there. Afghanistan is going to be messy and chaotic.

The hope, though, is that with a degree of involvement there – and remember, our troops are starting to come home – that we will at least achieve a strong enough Afghan government and a strong enough army that the Taliban isn’t able to roll back into Kabul and take it over with the same ease that they did in the 1990s.

But that’s a pretty unsatisfactory outcome. It won’t look like there’s a great, peaceful nation that we have birthed with our forces, and with American blood and limbs. There’s been a real human cost to this and for what we’ve achieved there.

Part of what I try to examine in this book, Tavis, is whether what we tried to do in the last couple of years, all with the best of intentions – President Obama really wanted to turn around this war, wanted to succeed where Bush had been distracted by Iraq and really hadn’t done what was right.

Had Bush committed the necessary forces early on, we’d never be in this position. Obama tried to turn it around, but it was too late and Afghanistan really defied a last-inning push to try to turn it around. It just wasn’t going to bounce back like that.

Tavis: Speaking of President Obama, so just days ago the administration – I’m trying to find the right word here – undergirds Afghanistan, if you will. Our love-hate relationship with Mr. Karzai notwithstanding, they get announced as a non-NATO ally. Have they earned that at this point? Have they earned that kind of status and stature?

Chandrasekaran: Well, not by any traditional definition. The Karzai government is at best a reluctant partner in the overall American war effort. It’s an administration that’s plagued with corruption, laden with scoundrels and other unsavory figures. No, but they have us over a barrel.

We need them to continue the war effort, and if we were just to sort of pack up and go home, they would fall and what would replace them would be even worse. It’s really the United States being forced to pick between a bunch of bad options, and what the White House is trying to do is choose the least worst option, even though it looks very unpalatable to many Americans.

They’re named a major non-NATO ally, and then later that day $16 billion is committed by the international community for Afghanistan. They need that money, but when we think back to the billions of dollars we’ve poured in there over the past few years, how much of that has not gone to the Afghan people and instead been siphoned off by corrupt Afghan leaders, put in bank accounts in other countries.

Or how much of that money has gone to U.S. contractors doing work there as opposed to meeting the very dire needs of the local population?

Tavis: You suggested earlier in this conversation, Rajiv, that we have poured and pumped more money into Afghanistan at certain points than they were even able to absorb. So why do we keep pumping money in?

Chandrasekaran: Well, that’s a really good question. We’re cutting back on it, but I think there was a view, a misguided notion in Washington, Tavis, that if you put more money into the place you could get more results more quickly. I think that was a fallacy.

There’s a limit to what the country can absorb, and beyond that it simply runs off. It runs off as corruption or waste. It took too long to get that. You had a new team in Washington, a well-meaning team that thought it could do differently, but it wound up being too generous.

Tavis: Finally, if Mr. Obama is limited to one term – I say “if” because we’ll know how this is going to turn out in November, obviously – but if he’s limited to one term, since you spend so much time in the book talking about this, obviously, what is his legacy going to be?

We know what the Bush legacy is on Afghanistan, or we see the beginnings of that legacy being written, of course. What’s the Obama legacy going to be vis-à-vis Afghanistan?

Chandrasekaran: I think it’s going to be a very complicated one, Tavis. I think that as historians peel back the layer here, they will start to see that Obama probably understood Afghanistan pretty well, but did not follow his gut instincts, perhaps, and did not stand up to the military.

Had he listened to his civilian advisers, had he listened to his vice president and charted a different course, I think we could be in a different place today, and this will be a subject of much discussion. Did Obama really take a forceful enough line with the generals?

It’s interesting – he’s not talking a whole lot about it on the stump, but nor is Mitt Romney. We’ve got 90,000 men and women in uniform there, and we’re in the middle of a presidential election season, Tavis, and nobody’s really talking about Afghanistan.

It shows you just how both politically volatile it is and how nobody really wants to engage with the subject because the clear majority of Americans, even a clear majority of Republicans, no longer believe the war is worth fighting.

Tavis: The new text from Rajiv Chandrasekaran is called “Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan.” Rajiv, good to have you on. Thanks for your text.

Chandrasekaran: A pleasure to talk to you, Tavis.

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Last modified: July 10, 2012 at 4:14 pm