Rajiv Chandrasekaran, senior correspondent and associate editor of The Washington Post, brings forth a searing indictment of President Obama's 2009 Afghanistan surge in his new book, Little America: The War Within the War in Afghanistan. He talked with PW about the 2014 finality date for U.S. involvement, and the hope for when Afghanistan will be able to build a viable infrastructure.
What was the most damning thing about the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan you witnessed first-hand?
We squandered the troop surge. Instead of sending the majority of the first wave of new forces authorized by President Obama to Kandahar, the country’s second largest city and a key battleground for the Taliban, the Pentagon dispatched them to neighboring Helmand province, a part of the country that was far less populous and strategically significant. As a consequence, I witnessed U.S. Marines in Helmand charging into an abandoned town. I also spent time with Marines who were patrolling tiny, remote hamlets that seemed to have little importance—for us, or even the Taliban.
As I write in the last chapter:
The day after I had sat in the office of Garmser’s police chief, I accompanied [Lieutenant Colonel] Sean Riordan as he drove south along the Helmand River to visit one of his rifle companies. We alighted in Lakari, a dusty village next to a swiftly flowing irrigation canal. It consisted of one main drag—a trash-strewn dirt road—lined with mud-walled shops and stalls, most of which had been abandoned. A few donkeys and emaciated dogs wandered about, as did some scruffy children looking for candy from the American visitors. A sandstorm had just blown through the area, rendering the landscape a sepia hue. The place had the same end-of-the-earth feeling as many other hamlets in Helmand.
Riordan had 225 Marines stationed in and around the village. . .Riordan viewed planting a flag in Lakari as a rational decision. He had more than a thousand men in his battalion, and he had to find places for them to patrol. Although Obama’s drawdown decision could have prompted Marine commanders to thin out the ranks in Helmand and address other hot spots before the clock ran out, they remained unwilling to move. They wanted to make Helmand a showcase.
What do you think of the 2014 finality of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan?
Although conventional U.S. forces will depart Afghanistan by the end of 2014, it will not mean the end of American involvement there. There likely will be a large presence of U.S. advisors working to train the Afghan security forces. U.S. military leaders also are hoping to station Special Operations teams in the country to target al-Qaeda leaders in Pakistan. And there will continue to be a large U.S. embassy in Kabul, which will still dole out hundreds of millions of dollars in American aid every year. That said, Afghanistan will move into a new phase in 2014. Afghan soldiers and policemen will have to assume responsibility for the security of their nation. The Afghans have been eager to do more, but the size of our military footprint there has, in some cases, discouraged them from taking initiative. Had President Obama not surged more forces there, perhaps the Afghans could have reached this point sooner.
Is Afghanistan ever going to build a viable infrastructure?
Not for a long time. As I detail in the book, American efforts to develop Afghanistan’s infrastructure began in the 1950s, with a vast development project in Helmand province aimed at turning barren desert into a verdant breadbasket. That effort largely failed—for many of the same reasons modern development programs there are so troubled. The U.S. government has poured billions of dollars into building roads, buildings and power plants in the country over the past decade. Some of those projects have been fruitful but many have resulted in tremendous waste. So long as we fund giant projects that the Afghans cannot maintain themselves, we will continue to waste money. The U.S. government needs to realize that change will come to Afghanistan slowly and development projects need to be modest and Afghan-led if they are to be sustainable.
If Romney is elected, will anything change in Afghanistan?
Probably not. Recent polling shows that even a majority of Republicans believe the war is no longer worth fighting. If he chooses to delay the U.S. withdrawal or even increase forces, he will have to contend with wide disapproval within his own party, not to mention objections from the Afghan government.
Will Afghanistan always be the so-called "graveyard of empires", i.e. is the U.S. the final power that will ever attempt military victory?
After all the lives, limbs and dollars that we have lost there—not to mention the Soviets and the British before us—it’s hard to imagine another nation trying to copy what we have done there over the past decade. The Afghans are tough people who are proud of their history of repelling conquerors. That sense of history and honor has led some Afghans, who are otherwise grateful for the international development assistance, to stand up and fight U.S. and NATO forces. When the U.S. relationship with Afghanistan involves less military power, there is a good chance the Afghan people will want to forge a lasting partnership with the United States.