A book on the U.S. war in Afghanistan, by the author of the highly regarded "Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone" about that war, "Little America" does not disappoint the reader in the slightest.
Rajiv Chandrasekaran, a Washington Post reporter and editor, spent three years trying to make sense of the various parties to the Afghanistan war. These included -- and started with -- the Afghans themselves, whose approach to the zigging and zagging of the Americans there, the author is able to make comprehensible to the reader. He spent most time and effort on the Americans themselves, military and civilian, who basically failed to work their will in the South Asian country that has resisted outside engineer after outside engineer across the centuries.
Penguin Press ($27.95).
Despite the author's sharp and subtle criticism of how America has waged the now 11-year-long war there, it would be hard to say that "Little America" takes sides among the White House, the Department of State, the Department of Defense, the National Security Council and the branches of the military, the Army and the Marine Corps that had dogs in the fight in Afghanistan. I found myself bristling at some of his characterizations of Foreign Service Officers working in Afghanistan, my own colleagues in a 35-year career, although what he said about some of them corresponded with descriptions of some whom I worked with in Lebanon, Somalia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, pursuing the kind of part-war, part-quest for peace diplomacy that prevails in such places.
Mr. Chandrasekaran's basic contention is that the Afghans could have prospered in their terms, the United States could have achieved its objectives, and a lot of deaths and disasters could have been avoided if the United States had taken from the beginning of its latest involvement in Afghanistan, starting on Sept. 12, 2001, a long view, requiring a concomitant commitment to building a constructive relationship. He says we didn't. The U.S. approach was almost entirely short-term in its strategy and tactics and, worst of all, was rendered almost entirely ineffective by the lack of coordination within the U.S. government. Big personalities got in the way. Agencies worked at cross-purposes. Even different branches of the U.S. military marched determinedly to their own drums.
Not the first person to make this observation about the Obama administration, the author makes it clear that President Barack Obama's big, theoretically overarching decisions regarding Afghanistan were largely ignored by the senior and not so senior military and civilian officials under him. Each of them thought he was right. Maybe he was, but the end result was an American presence in Afghanistan that was all over the lot in its focus.
The most striking aspect and the most salient characteristic of "Little America" as a book is Mr. Chandrasekaran's portraiture of individuals, people whom he knew well, studied carefully, and painted with admiration for their courage, application to duty and human qualities. By the way, "Little America" refers to an American project, begun in 1951, returned to and, as of 2011, still not completed, that aspired to create an oasis in dirt-poor Afghanistan that fit that description. The author's cast of favorite characters ran all the way from Afghan President Hamid Karzai's disreputable brothers to U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke to current CIA chief David Petraeus, who called cash his most important weapons system.
For those who still have a taste for understanding the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, still costing an arm and a leg and American lives, as opposed to those who have heard all that they ever wanted to know about Afghanistan and can only await the news of final U.S. total withdrawal from there, this book is enormously informative and very readable. I didn't put it down during a six-hour foodless flight across the country.
Dan Simpson, a retired U.S. ambassador, is a Post-Gazette associate editor (firstname.lastname@example.org).