Imperial Illusions

The War Within the War for Afghanistan

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 threat to the United States and its allies.

Against this counterterrorism strategy the president’s military advisers unanimously argued for counterinsurgency (known by the acronym COIN). This option would require more troops, who would create a secure environment in which the Afghan government could persuade its population that it was able to provide better services than the Taliban. Deprived of popular support, most insurgents would give up; the rest could be isolated and killed. Unlike counterterrorism, which was reactive and essentially inconclusive, COIN offered a coherent, positive approach that promised ultimate political victory. Its advocates pointed to the strategy’s apparently successful role in Iraq, where it prevented total disaster when it was applied under the leadership of the army’s brightest star, General David Petraeus, who had since become responsible for operations throughout the Middle East. (What actually was achieved in Iraq and how much this was a result of COIN are, of course, still open questions.)

The president decided to adopt a modified version of COIN. He authorized the deployment of thirty thousand additional troops, fewer than the military requested, but more than those arguing for counterterrorism wanted. Furthermore, he imposed a strict time limit on this commitment: by the summer of 2011, American military forces would begin to be withdrawn.

In Little America, Rajiv Chandrasekaran, a reporter for the Washington Post and the author of Imperial Life in the Emerald City, a splendid analysis of the American mission in Iraq, describes the origins and implementation of COIN in Afghanistan from the beginning of 2009 to the summer of 2011. Necessarily fragmentary and impressionistic, the book is a rough draft of the history that will someday be written about what has correctly been called Obama’s war. It is not the last word on the subject, but is well-informed, insightful, and moving—surely the best single book now available on this crucial phase of the American war in Afghanistan.

Chandrasekaran’s title evokes an earlier American effort to transform Afghanistan: the campaign in the 1950s, financed by government aid and run by the giant construction firm Morrison-Knudsen, that hoped to bring modern agriculture to the Helmand River Valley. “Little America” is what the local population called the town of Lashkar Gah, where the Americans created a place like home, complete with tidy bungalows, a supermarket, a community swimming pool, and a movie theater. The story of this ultimately abandoned project provides a thematic overture to what follows, anticipating the good intentions, hard work, and individual commitment, as well as the misunderstandings, bureaucratic bungling, and political ineptitude that would characterize the American strategy after 2009.

Chandrasekaran has spent enough time in the field to be able to describe vividly those small pieces of heroism and folly from which war’s bloody mosaic is assembled. Individuals dominate his account and, as is to be expected, the people who cooperated with him tend to come off better than those whom he must observe at a distance or learn about second hand. With few exceptions, this is an American story. Readers interested in a scholarly, deeply historical analysis of the Afghan side can turn to Thomas Barfield’s Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History, available in paperback from Princeton University Press.

Much of Little America takes place in the same Helmand Valley where Morrison-Knudsen engineers had once tried to construct a new foundation for economic prosperity and social progress. In 2009 the fate of the American project was in the hands of men like Marine Brigadier General Larry Nicholson and his political adviser, Kael Weston. Brave, competent, and resourceful, Nicholson and Weston are the heroes of Chandrasekaran’s narrative. The villains are those Americans and Afghans who make it hard for Nicholson and Weston to do their jobs: venal local officials, feckless commanders, inflexible bureaucrats, and distant, easily distracted policymakers.

Richard Holbrooke, the administration’s special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, was neither distant nor easily distracted. Holbrooke plays a powerful but ambiguous role in Chandrasekaran’s story. The highpoint of his distinguished career had been brokering the Dayton Accords that ended the Bosnian war in 1995. He desperately wanted to repeat this personal and diplomatic triumph in Afghanistan by bringing the Taliban to the bargaining table; some form of negotiated peace, he was convinced, was the only way out of the Afghan quagmire, which sometimes seemed to be all too much like Vietnam, where he had served as a junior foreign service officer. By the time Holbrooke suddenly succumbed to a fatal heart attack in December 2010, his efforts had led nowhere, in large part because no one wanted to negotiate, but also because his work was undermined by the intense opposition, both personal and political, that he had provoked within the administration itself.

Chandrasekaran concludes his book with a litany of the errors that subverted American policy: service rivalry in the Pentagon, rigidity of the military commanders, tactical mistakes in the field, divisions among the president’s top advisers, stubbornness and incompetence at the State Department and USAID. These criticisms are all well taken, but I am not sure that even a more cohesive and efficiently executed strategy would have sufficed. By the time Obama took office in January 2009, the opportunities that had been available immediately after the defeat of the Taliban had been squandered by six years of mismanagement and inattention. Afghans’ receptivity to American influence had evaporated, the economy was still in shambles, Afghan security forces remained largely ineffective, and—most important of all—every level of government had sunk ever more deeply into a swamp of incompetence and corruption. As many of the president’s advisers had feared and as he himself eventually recognized, it was simply not feasible to reverse these trends with a relatively small number of troops in a relatively brief period of time. Given U.S. commitments around the world and persistent economic problems at home, it would have been extraordinarily unwise and perhaps practically impossible to deploy a larger force for an indefinite period. Although they were very different in many ways, Obama’s war in Afghanistan shared one fundamental characteristic with George W. Bush’s war in Iraq: in the end, neither mattered enough to Americans to justify the massive deployment of resources necessary to create the possibility (although by no means the certainty) of success.

The chapter in Afghanistan’s long and often unhappy history that began on September 11, 2001, is coming to a close. Now that NATO’s combat role is ending and American aid will surely be radically reduced, what will the next chapter look like? It may be too early to write the Karzai regime’s obituary, not because it is strong but because the alternatives are weak. As frustrated as most Afghans are with the existing situation, only a minority want to return to the Taliban’s toxic mix of fanaticism, brutality, and incompetence. Indeed, many of the same characteristics that make it hard to defeat the Taliban insurgency—its ruthless violence, fragmented structure, and heavy dependence on Pakistan—would make a Taliban government difficult to establish. To become an effective national force, the Taliban would need much more direct Pakistani support, and while many Afghans are fed up with the Americans, few want to trade them for the Pakistanis. Faced with either a return of the Taliban or the real possibility that their country would completely disintegrate, local leaders could accept some kind of power sharing with Kabul; Afghan history is full of such uneasy and unsavory accommodations. The result would not be pretty and it would certainly not fulfill the hopes that many Afghans once had for a peaceful and just society. But it would create a messy kind of stability or, perhaps it might be better to say, a tolerable level of instability. After years of investing vast quantities of money (most of it American) and spilling vast quantities of blood (most of it Afghan), this is the best outcome one might reasonably expect. The alternative is much worse: a chaotic and violent struggle among competing regional, ethnic, and sectarian factions that would further destabilize an already fragile part of the world, sending shock waves north into central Asia, west into Iran, and—most perilously—south and east into Pakistan and from there into the Indian subcontinent as a whole.

Although Afghanistan’s future remains cloudy, one thing seems clear: despite some scattered successes, the strategy of counterinsurgency has failed and will soon take its place among the many imperial illusions that lie interred beneath Afghanistan’s inhospitable soil.

Published in the 2013-01-25 issue: 

James J. Sheehan, a frequent contributor, is Professor Emeritus of History at Stanford University.

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