Small Wars Journal

"Little America" - Doug Ollivant's View

SWJ friend Doug Ollivant takes a contrarian view of Rajiv Chanrasekaran’s new book, Little America; a view we here at SWJ don’t necessarily share. That said; he, in the same quarter as COL Gian Gentile, is a wise and experienced practitioner, researcher and deep thinker. The definitive history is yet to be written, if ever. As SWJ presents all views with anticipation that our community of interest and practice will aid in contributing to the historical works of the future we present Doug’s op-ed at Time’s Battleland blog as yet another piece of the Small Wars jigsaw puzzle. Please feel free to comment away (put up or shut up).


Bill C.

Thu, 07/05/2012 - 10:38am

If the goal is/was (for whatever reason) to transform certain states and societies more along modern western lines, then surely this can be done.

Such a thing has been done in the past.

Whether such a thing -- re: Afghanistan or any other state and society for that matter -- is actually both necessary and prudent, who could and should do it, how it might actually be done, how long it might take to do it, what the costs might be: these are other questions.

So, before forming -- or retaining -- a force and capability to "do" these type of things (transform outlier states and societies more along modern western lines), the questions asked immediately above may need to be addressed (unbelievable as it may seem) maybe for the very first time.


Tue, 07/03/2012 - 9:45pm

up front, I haven't read the book yet so I don't know if the conclusion is as simple as Ollivant says it is (these are the mistakes we made; knowing that, we can then be prepared to do better for the next time; in fact, we could have won if we were smarter in the first place).

If that's the case, then the book definitely overreaches its reasoning and shows as much cognitive dissonance as COIN strategy and nation-building in Afghanistan to begin with. If this is the case, then Chandrasekaran's book is already trying to provide a solid foundation for the "better war"-myth crowd to build upon. We would never have won Vietnam with all the 'we could've done it better' ideas (the 'better war' myth) and now we're getting the same diatribe from a growing group of people about Afghanistan. This war as well as the other war would never have been 'won' - wrong war, wrong place, wrong time, wrong partners, wrong mission. We failed as soon as we started.

In that, I totally agree with Ollivant and Gentile, and would totally disagree with Chandrasekaran. But in the least, the book is important to show the level of hubris, poor planning, zero expectation management, and general asinine-ness of the US involvement in AFG. For that alone it should be read as a caution to the shills calling for expanded R2P or future nation-building efforts.

As always, my views are mine alone and not those of the 'doubling-down for sunk costs in the face of all reason to prove point' DoD or US Army.

LTC Kotkin


Wed, 07/04/2012 - 9:52pm

In reply to by Ken White

Afghanistan, for us and barring a miracle, is lost. The Indians will probably take over the task of thwarting the machinations of the Pak Army/ISI and they will most likely do a far better job at a far smaller cost. They will plainly recognize the real enemy because they will not have to carry the impossible burden of legions of graduates from all the best schools living inside the beltway telling each other each other the nuances and wisdom of swallowing all that the Pak Army/ISI tells them.

So I am not too concerned with Afghanistan anymore. I am concerned with the next small war that comes along though. And I am concerned that everyone telling everyone else that there was nothing that could have been done will preclude people learning from the experience. Why should they study the mistakes and think of ways to avoid them if "it was written."?

Three thousand years of Afghan history shows pretty much what three thousand years of history of any part of that section of the world shows. Empires come and they go. Conquests are made and lost. Battles are won, lost and peoples and regions get to pay taxes to some new guy as a result. Beyond that, it doesn't show much. Chewing up interlopers? I didn't notice that to any extent more or less than any other part of central and south central Asia. Besides, even if that were true, it wouldn't matter much. Everybody can be taken.

Thank you for pointing out that Kipling and Ollivant have more local knowledge than I possess. So do Green, Chayes, Exum, Petreaus, Barno, Kilcullen, _B_, Lynch, Shaffer, Rashid, the guy who wrote Little America, everybody who writes for Afghan Analyst Network, in fact, everybody who has flown over Afghanistan and looked out the window has more first hand local knowledge than I have. But I read a lot and form opinions, just like you, though without first hand local knowledge. I do know where the place is on a globe though.

I think The Young British Soldier doesn't have a thing to do with the futility of messing about in Afghanistan. I think it is what it seems to be when you read it, a description of what a young redcoat could expect in Queen Victoria's Little Army. Fraser thought it meant a lot more and that it said something profound about combat soldiering whenever and wherever, especially the 9th verse. He had a lot of first hand experience so I will defer to his judgment.

Ken White

Wed, 07/04/2012 - 1:34am

In reply to by carl


The US will never possess the requisite skills to 'succeed' in Afghanistan. Even if those skils could be obtained and employed, what would be the reason? At what cost? More importantly, to what worthwhile benefit to the US? Afghanistan as we did or could possibly do it in any mode doesn't pass the common sense test. Afghanistan as you seem to want it done would realize little to no net change.

Three thousand years of history say you're mistaken with respect to Afghanistan. Your opinions versus that fact don't detract from that salient point. I believe the poem points out that Kipling, like Ollivant has more local knowledge than you seem to possess and it reminds us that Afghanistan has been chewing up interlopers for a long time; we're just the latest and no smarter nor worse than any of the others. No more successful, either...


Tue, 07/03/2012 - 11:50pm

In reply to by Ken White

Ah Ken. Very clever resort to dueling analogies. But doesn't detract from my point that before you say it can't be done, you should actually have a few of the basic requisite skills to do it. Just because you don't know how to build an airplane doesn't mean that man can't fly. You are free to respond with something about blacksmiths.

Kipling was great poet and The Young British Soldier was a great poem. What does it have to do with Mr. Ollivant's comments?

Saying Afghanistan was doomed from the start is a cop out. It allows the institutions and the leaders of those institutions to sidestep responsibility for failure and allows them not to even bother to acknowledge there was a failure. And it further allows them not to change. Since the failure would have happened anyway, no need to study the reason why, that might result in important people looking bad.

Mr. Ollivant's comments are opinions, not facts. When somebody's argument rests primarily on "just imagine this, would it have made any difference?" that is musing, opinion, not fact.

Ken White

Tue, 07/03/2012 - 10:50pm

In reply to by carl

Carl:<blockquote>"That is sort of like saying it doesn't matter if your team can't hit, has no pitching and nobody can catch or throw, it still would have lost. Maybe you should actually field a team that can do those basic things before deciding that it is impossible to ever win a ball game..."</blockquote>You can field a great team that can hit, has super Pitchers and great ball throwers. But if you put that Team on a Rugby Field against even a poor Rugby Sevens Team they are likely to fail.<blockquote>"...because "...what if the real lesson is one about the limits of American power”...because the thing could never have been done anyway."</blockquote>That about sums it up. Just as was true in Viet Nam, the Afghan adventure was doomed before it started. No one is ever going to turn around three thousand years of history in a generation or two -- or five...

We were foolish to try.

Kipling figured that out a little over a hundred years ago. "<i>When you're wounded and left on Afghanistan's plains, and the women come out to cut up what remains, jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains and go to your gawd like a soldier"</i>

Ollivant also has it figured out, his comments are sensible and accurate. They are not an apologia, they're simply facts.

Mr. Ollivant's comments didn't make a lot of sense to me. He doesn't deny the litany of ineptitude and failure that seems to be Mr. Chanrasekaran's book. Mr. Ollivant merely states that it doesn't make any difference anyway. That is sort of like saying it doesn't matter if your team can't hit, has no pitching and nobody can catch or throw, it still would have lost. Maybe you should actually field a team that can do those basic things before deciding that it is impossible to ever win a ball game because "...what if the real lesson is one about the limits of American power”.

Mr. Ollivant's comments are sort of an apology in and of themselves, to the effect that none of the institutions responsible for the failure and ineptitude are really at fault because the thing could never have been done anyway.

Mark O'Neill

Tue, 07/03/2012 - 9:41pm

Doug's piece was soundly logical.

I do foresee criticism from those who think that 'hope' or 'want' are a sound basis for attempting something.

I think Doug, correctly, is suggesting 'pragmatism' might be a better departure point.

In this respect he echoes some of Bacevich's perspectives and is also in step with Gray's recent piece.