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Dispatches from
Little America: Te War Within
the War for Afghanistan
Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Alfred A. Knopf,
2012, $27.95, hardcover, 333 pages.
Reviewed by Christine Dal Bello
Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s latest book,
Little America: Te War Within the War
for Afghanistan
, focuses on President
Barack Obama’s 2009 decision to send
additional U.S. troops to “Marineistan,”
the Marine Corps area of operations
in Helmand province. Te acclaimed
Washington Post
reporter conducted 70
interviews for this highly readable book,
which he notes would not have been
possible without Kael Weston, a State
Department employee who “introduced
me to Larry Nicholson and
convinced him to grant
me insider access to the
Second Marine Expedition-
ary Brigade during its year
in Helmand province.”
Troughout, Chan-
drasekaran makes clear his
respect for many of the mil-
itary and civilian ofcials
he encounters. He points
out that Carter Malkasian, the State
Department representative in Helmand’s
Garmser district at the time, was the
only foreign ofcial whom he ever heard
“widely referred to as a sahib, an Urdu
salutation once used to address British
colonial ofcials that Afghans employed
as a term of honor and respect.”
I particularly appreciated his assess-
ment of the late Richard Holbrooke, which
he illustrates with stories that capture
his genius, as well as his propensity for
rubbing others the wrong way. As Chan-
drasekaran says, the antipathy between
Ambassador Holbrooke and the White
House was “visceral and vicious … and
sabotaged America’s best chance [to mid-
wife a negotiated settlement among the
Taliban] for a peace deal to end the war.”
Te author concludes that Embassy
Kabul was not realistic in its aspirations,
wasting time and resources on “useless
district governments.” Making matters
worse, neither the State Department
nor the U.S. Agency for International
Development could fulfll the key civilian
component in the military’s counterin-
surgency strategy.
As for the U.S. military,
Little America
is replete with examples of tribalism
within the Pentagon; rigidity on the part
of many generals serving in Afghani-
stan; and egregious acts committed by a
handful of troops, including murdering
civilians, disrespecting the Koran and
mistreating Taliban corpses.
While the surge proved successful
in the short term, the spillover efect
that the military commanders had
expected when asking for additional
troops never materialized. Instead,
progress in the south was ofset by
losses in the eastern and northern
parts of the country. And even where
the military did stabilize areas, the
Americans weren’t confdent that
the Afghans were capable of taking over
the efort.
Ten again, that should not have been
surprising given the fact that 95 percent
of the army and police forces are report-
edly functionally illiterate. One Afghan
National Army battalion Chandrasekaran
observed lacked the ability to plan or
execute even the simplest missions. And
while they knew how to fre their guns,
their “spray and pray” technique was
hardly efective.
But the biggest problem was their lack
of motivation. While ideology has fueled
the most successful Afghan fghters,
Chandrasekaran reports that most ANA
recruits had joined out of necessity, for
the income to support their families.
My own Foreign Service tour in
Afghanistan, from 2005 to 2006, was brief
and predates the period covered in
. But even then, it was abun-
dantly clear to me that our measures of
success were far too short-sighted. Te
type of change we were trying to efect
takes decades, not months or years.
I still recall a conversation with a
civilian contractor colleague who was
involved in police training. She men-
tioned that many of the recruits had
never even looked in a mirror. Yet in both
the police and army sectors, we were try-
ing to mold them into images of Ameri-
can forces, comprised of young men and
women who have the good fortune to
grow up in more privileged and educated
Overall, the faws Chandrasekaran
highlights in the handling of the Marine-
istan deployment and the overall U.S. mis-
sion in Afghanistan will be all too familiar
to most readers. While I took exception to
some of his characterizations, which were
simplistic and one-sided, the personal
accounts he weaves throughout his narra-
tive, and his compelling storytelling style,
animate an otherwise thoroughly depress-
ing story.
Christine Dal Bello, a Foreign Service ofcer
serving in Pretoria, recently completed a
Pearson Fellowship. Her previous assign-
ments include Mumbai, Vienna, Jakarta and
Kabul, where she served for six months from
2005 to 2006.
Even where U.S. troops did
stabilize parts of the country,
it wasn’t clear that Afghans
could take over the efort.