Imperial Illusions

The War Within the War for Afghanistan

Little America
The War within the War for Afghanistan
Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Alfred A. Knopf, $27.95, 368 pp.

On the morning of October 9, 2009, Barack Obama learned that he had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. That afternoon, in an irony that would probably not have amused the prize committee, the president met with his military and foreign policy advisers to decide how to win the war in Afghanistan.

As early as 2007, then Senator Obama had declared that, in contrast to the unnecessary and terminally mismanaged war in Iraq, the Afghan war had to be fought and could be won. One of his first actions as president was to send seventeen thousand additional troops to strengthen NATO forces on the ground. By the summer of 2009 it was apparent that this was not going to be enough. Attacks by the Taliban were intensifying, allied casualties were increasing. Meanwhile the Afghan government’s effectiveness continued to decline. Instead of consolidating the government’s legitimacy, as some Americans hoped, Afghan elections in August merely revealed the degree to which President Hamid Karzai depended on international aid, NATO soldiers, and homegrown fraud and corruption.

The people who gathered at the White House on October 9 were divided about what to do. No one recommended abandoning Afghanistan, but most of the civilians, led by Vice President Joe Biden, argued for a relatively modest increase in the number of troops, who would concentrate their efforts on fighting those terrorists who posed a direct...

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About the Author

James J. Sheehan, professor emeritus of history at Stanford University, is the author of Where Have All the Soldiers Gone? The Transformation of Modern Europe, among other books.