Book review: Little America
FIVE years ago, with his first-ever book, Imperial Life in the Emrald City, American journalist Rajiv Chandrasekaran won Britain’s most prestigious non-fiction prize for his study of how the US tried and failed to bring peace to Iraq after the 2003 Gulf War.
His latest is another hard-bitten, humane, engaging and ultimately sympathetic account of how Americans tried and failed to do the same thing in Afghanistan.
Little America is Helmand Province. We in the United Kingdom have heard a lot about Helmand, because it is where most of our troops have fought and died since the start of the latest Afghan War in 2001. What most of us will not know is that Helmand was just 60 years ago the scene of a benign western intervention. That desperately poor region of a desperately poor country was chosen by the Americans in the late 1940s for an experiment in soft diplomacy.
Afghanistan was then a neutral, almost a secular monarchy. Militant Islam was apparently a thing of the past. Its strategic importance, which had made the country a battleground from the times of Alexander the Great and Genghiz Khan to the British Raj, was undiminished. In an attempt to win friends and influence people in Kandahar and Kabul following the Second World War, the United States pumped tens of millions of dollars into building hydro dams and irrigation canals in Helmand.
Hundreds of American engineers and labourers settled in the province. The Afghan governor of Helmand took an American wife. Helmand Province became known to Afghanis as “Little America”. In 1973 the king was toppled in a coup and replaced by a republican president friendly to the Soviet Union. The last American engineers withdrew from Helmand, leaving behind them a fine hydro dam and a network of canals. In 1978 the president was assassinated.
In 1979 the Soviet Union moved in. Ten years later, the Taliban took over. They provided a safe haven to al-Qaeda. On 11 September 2001, al-Qaeda killed 3,000 people in the US. The Americans returned to Little America, this time carrying guns.
Rajiv Chandrasekaran is clearly sympathetic to the view that whatever else the Iraq War represented, it served as an unjustifiable distraction from the real opportunity offered to the US and its allies to remake the ruined nation of Afghanistan. America took its eye off the ball. While the marines were mired in Iraq, the Taliban reconstituted themselves.
One American senator expressed that view as early as 2002. When that senator, Barack Obama, became president in 2009 he pledged to switch his nation’s priorities back to where they should always have been – Afghanistan. Intrigued and attracted, Rajiv Chandrasekaran was sent by the Washington Post to cover the Afghan War.
By that time 300 British soldiers had been killed in Helmand Province. The British had settled for holding relatively safe zones, doing deals with tribal leaders and leaving much of the countryside to the Taliban. Obama’s Afghani surge sent a further 25,000 troops to the country. Ten thousand of them, mostly marines, went to join the Brits in Little America.
Chandrasekaran was embedded with the incoming marines. He reports their disgust at the apparent laissez faire of their British allies (“We’re Marines. There’s no place we won’t go.”) Then, in a passage which offers morbid satisfaction to a British reader, the US marines went to those places, and the position of UK troops quickly became understandable.
The network of canals which had been built by their countrymen 60 years earlier made patrolling infernally difficult.
The footbridges across the canals had been mined by the Taliban. Soldiers had to walk through deep water. When they climbed up the bank of a canal, they were greeted by heavy machine-gun fire. Spotting a nearby ruined enclosure, they ran to it for shelter. The empty enclosure had also been mined.
Within minutes the marines had dead soldiers and legless medics to evacuate. They found their way back to base to think again. That night they went out for revenge. They failed to find it. The Taliban had melted away.
But over the following couple of years a large number of highly trained and viscerally aggressive marines made at least one difference. They killed a lot of Taliban. They killed so many Taliban (“We started stacking bodies like cordwood”) that military victory was as good as complete. It would have been complete, if not for the Taliban’s safe haven in Pakistan.
Rajiv Chandrasekaran makes it perfectly clear that Pakistan offers both official and unofficial support to the Taliban. Pakistan’s security forces, the ISI, effectively manage, equip and bankroll the Taliban insurgency against Nato in Afghanistan. Pakistan does this, according to Chandrasekaran, for comprehensible reasons. Without their support the Taliban would be eliminated, and their tribal opponents would then form a relatively stable government in Kabul that would be hostile to Pakistan and – much worse – friendly with India. Pakistan is not prepared to countenance an ally of India on its northern frontier.
It is less immediately obvious why, given this state of affairs, the US should continue to pump hundreds of millions of dollars into Pakistan, effectively financing its military, its security forces, and by extension the Taliban and what remains of al-Qaeda. The reasons are partly historical, dating back to an anti-Soviet agreement during the Cold War. There must also be concern in Washington that suspending all aid would create another, bigger, nuclear-armed, anti-western basket-case in the East. And not even Rajiv Chandrasekaran knows what is threatened, cajoled and promised on the hotline between the White House and Islamabad.
A feature of Little America is the number of hugely sympathetic Americans to be found roaming the badlands of Afghanistan, in and out of uniform. As well as the college boys who chose to fight and die for their country’s security, there are young and formidably clever Democratic Party advisors; latterday berobed TE Lawrences fluent in Pashto with degrees from Oxford; young women, the American equivalents of Scotland’s late Linda Norgrove, experienced in establishing agricultural cooperatives and eager to go to work among the bullets and the bad guys.
They might – just might – have won the battle for hearts and minds in Afghanistan, while the military was winning in the field. Chandrasekaran reluctantly concludes that what is now his country’s longest war is, if not lost, at an impasse. Afghanistan’s own famously irreconcilable tribes were fatally mirrored in Washington. Conflicting strategies, feuding Beltway egos and headstrong military tactics have left the majority of Afghanis, who initially welcomed Nato, weary and wishing to be left alone. Chandraskaran’s fine account of the West’s failure to bring peace is chastening, informative – and desperately sad.
Little America: The War within the War for Afghanistan
by Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Bloomsbury, 384pp £16.99
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