A Dysfunctional Intervention

Steve Saideman considers what Rajiv Chandrasekaran got right about Afghanistan and what he got wrong.
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September 26, 2012
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Rajiv Chandrasekaran's Little America got a heap of press this summer and deservedly so. The author does an amazing job of travelling through some of the nastiest parts of Afghanistan and is able to discuss a lot of the key issues in play.  It reveals quite a bit about how the U.S. dysfunctions when it intervenes. I found it wanting, however for a variety of reasons, but that could be my bias.

That is, I loved his first book, Imperial Life in an Emerald City, because it was so convincing and horrifying about how a bunch of amateurs and hacks were given the keys to Iraq and screwed it up. But I hated the Bush Administration and its chosen war in Iraq with a passion. So, RC's first book played well to me. The second book, on Afghanistan, did not hit me in such a favorable mood. I didn't want to hear that the Obama folks screwed up Afghanistan, which they most certainly did.  So perhaps my reactions are a bit biased. So, I am making clear here and now that my read of this book is coming from a different perspective. It is also the case that I know a bit more about Afghanistan than Iraq (my ten days there equals expertise, right? No? Never mind), having researched the NATO effort for the past five years or so. 

Anyhow, the book shows that there were heaps of smart people working in difficult areas on difficult problems (which makes the Obama administration less stupid than the Bush folks). However, egos seemed to drive some things, like the conflicts between Richard Holbrooke and every person not named Hilary Clinton. RC tends to assert that Holbrooke might have been successful if not for the opposition from the rest of the government.

I find this to be not particularly credible. Would the Taliban have agreed to a settlement in 2009 if the U.S. had supported Holbrooke's efforts? No evidence for that. Would the Taliban have kept its word? Lots evidence against that. Would Karzai have supported a real agreement that would have cost him some power? Lots of evidence against that. So, yes, Holbrooke faced heaps of in-fighting at home, but would it have made a difference if he was secretary of state and had his way? Almost certainly not.

The book does a great job of showing the Marines in Helmand and how they went about their business. This is a central point to the book – that the first increase in troops that Obama sent (the pre-surge surge) were wasted in the poppy fields of Helmand rather than pop-centric Kandahar. This is absolutely right, although his explanation sounds just wrong to me. That is, the Marines went to Helmand and not Kandahar for two reasons RC avers: the Marines do not play well with others so they wanted their own hunk of territory, and the U.S. was not willing to bruise Canadian feelings by asking them to take a smaller role in what had become the Canadian zone of Afghanistan.

I buy the first part somewhat (although civilian control of the military should mean that the troops go where the strategy requires – more on that below). The second part, however, is just silly. It is clear that RC either did not talk to any Canadians or does not remember what they might have said. The story takes place in 2009, but in 2008, Canada went through a process to extend the mission to 2011 – the Manley Panel – where more troops from elsewhere were an explicit condition for extension. Yes, getting more help than just a battalion (which is what the Canadians initially got from the U.S.) would have probably meant giving up the lead in Kandahar (thanks to Andrew Exum for pointing this out to me). And?  By 2009, Prime Minister Stephen Harper was already letting go of Afghanistan and looking to get out. The Canadian Forces might have been mildly upset at having to take a supporting position to the U.S.'s lead, but that happened in 2010-2011 anyway. With more Americans in Kandahar, the flow of body bags back to Canada slowed down quite significant. Finally, the Canadian Forces had the ability to have a lasting effect because they could stick around in the same spot rather than just running in and out when the alarm bell rang.

So, RC bought whatever the American general might have reported to him in this instance, but RC should have asked some Canadians (he did hang out with some of the Canadian diplomats, so he could have asked). If the U.S. officers really believed this, then I am shocked that the system broke down –  if they had staffed the deployment decision properly, a Joint Staff officer (plus State Department folks) would have contacted the defense attache at the U.S. Embassy in Ottawa and been able to tell the folks planning the surge that the Canadians would not have minded a smaller role in Kandahar in 2009/2010, especially since that is what they had in late 2010 through to the end of the mission. In sum, I agree that sending the Marines to Helmand made little sense in pop-centric strategy and ran against Obama's intent, but I don't buy the "we didn't want to upset the Canadians" explanation. I do buy the bureaucratic politics account – that the Marines wanted to control the Marines and did not want to work in a multilateral headquarters with other folks ordering them around. But that raises other questions I get to at the conclusion of this already massive post.

The book does a nice job of showing how different American commanders put their own imprint on the mission, so policy/strategy varied from spot to spot and changed with every rotation. The U.S., as a big machine, does not have everyone playing from the same playbook. But it is not sure how much that matters, as RC does a great job of showing how the Marines in one spot, an Army unit more versed in COIN in a second, and an Army unit with little patience with COIN in a third more or less got the same kinds of outcomes – lousy ones. That is, they could, with enough force and persistence, create spots of order, but none of it lasted because the U.S. could not deliver the economic/governance stuff, particularly since the Afghan government had its own agenda.

Ah, there is the rub. The Afghans have agency. The U.S. could not get Karzai to focus on building institutions (such as respecting electoral ones), that accountability had little to do with good governance by district and provincial governors, and that the Afghans could reasonably consider the foreigners to be temporary, whether Obama pledged 2011/2014 or not. Indeed, that is a huge contradiction in this and many other works on Afghanistan – arguing that the locals had limited patience for foreigners hanging around but also criticized the clearly temporary nature of the mission.

RC argues in the end that the U.S. should not have gone big and short but kept smaller but remained longer. First, this ignores much of the text that shows that the U.S. was able to bring bits of order to where it deployed because it was big enough to have troops on every block. I had an instructive conversation the other night with a Canadian foreign affairs person who served in Kandahar when the Americans surged. They told me how the number of troops changed the game, since you had heaps and heaps of intel coming in all the time and heaps of deterrence as well. But doing that for a long time was not sustainable.

Second, Obama in 2009 was not in a great position to say no more troops when the military asked for it. The U.S. had not yet tried doing COIN right in Afghanistan with anything close to sufficient troops, and the military advocated reinforcements. It was not politically possible to bail on Afghanistan in 2009. I think only by trying the military's way at first did Obama then have the ability to begin the path to leaving. Yes, he could have been super-brave by pulling out in 2009 despite what the generals were advocating, but that (a) might have guaranteed a one term presidency; (b) ignores his hands were full with the economy; (c) given the Afghans not enough prep for the post-2014 civil war.  It is easy to say now no surge at all, but Obama had few decent alternatives in 2009.

I think there is a larger point in this book that RC glosses over: there was some serious civ-mil relations problems. There is a line in the book about how the military ignored the President's memo about focusing on the population and that this effort was not to be full out COIN but only focused in certain areas.  That sending the Marines to Helmand was not the intent of the president. Where was Robert Gates on this? The secretary of defense is responsible for making sure the military does what the president wants. Where was Mullen on this? The chairman does not have the ability to order troops around, but he was watching what was going on and could have notified the president and the secretary of defense that the troops were not going to where they were supposed to be going. That the chain of command for the Marines went from Helmand to the U.S. Marines stateside and not through ISAF is just awful, awful, awful from the standpoint of unity of command. Who let this happen? Why was CENTCOM (Petraeus) letting this happen? Why was Mullen as chairman not pushing back at the commandant of the Marines?

So, if you are interested in Afghanistan and what went wrong there, read this book (and then read my book with David Auerswald whenever it comes out). It is well-written, fascinating, and compelling (I hope the Steve and Dave book is half as well-written and compelling). RC sets expectations wrong in a few places (Taliban willing to bargain in 2009?) so that the story is just a bit off, but it does show that the bureaucratic dynamics at home did the Americans (and Canadians and Dutch and Danes and Brits and Afghans) few favours. I do think there is heaps of blame to go around as long as one remembers a few things: that there were no good policy choices available then (or now, really); that 2009 was already fairly late in this game; that the Afghans and Pakistanis (and other neighbors) have a big role here; and that Afghanistan is a really hard place to operate given the terrain, the decades of violence, and the incredibly low starting point for any development effort.

Yes, the U.S. could have done this better, but I don't think it would have made much of a difference.  My ambivalence in 2009 during the surge decision (see here for representative post) remains. How is yours?

Photo courtesy of Reuters