The Parable of Little America: A Discussion with Rajiv Chandrasekaran

Rajiv Chandrasekaran of the Washington Post has been one of the most important chroniclers of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.  His "Imperial Life in the Emerald City," a searing tale about the dysfunction that wracked our efforts in Iraq, was a National Book Award finalist.  I was excited for his new work on Afghanistan, "Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan," however the thrust of the excerpts published last weekend in the Washington Post left me a bit skeptical.  Even a cynical Marine bristles at what seems to be an affront to the service and the thought that Marine efforts were squandered in Helmand created many emotions in Marines.  What is more, the idea that things would have been vastly different if we sent the Marines to Kandahar, not Helmand, did not square with my impression of the larger flaws in our campaign.  I am decidedly pessimistic about our ability to successfully prosecute small wars, as I have explained at FP's Af-Pak Channel, so my impression of this argument was that it was only a step above arguing over deck chair placement on the Titanic.

Nonetheless, when I was offered the opportunity to discuss these issues with Rajiv, I jumped at it.  I plowed through the book in one sitting late into the predawn hours of Saturday, recalling my graduate school days and found that "Little America" was an eminently readable, sensible, and balanced account.  Even if I remain more cynical than Rajiv does, this is no rosy pro-COIN missive.  Even the title parable underlines a skepticism about our past and our future in Afghanistan, as you will see below.  While the excerpts make it seem as if Chandrasekaran gives the Marines a black eye, he pulls no punches with anyone and many others, such as the Department of State and USAID, come off looking far worse.  In fact, his criticism of the decision of where to send the Marines is a reflection his respect for their tenacity and success in Helmand.  

"Little America" is a must-read account for those interested or invested in the war in Afghanistan.  It is the best work yet in addressing our military-diplomatic campaign there and the dysfunction that stymies it.  I would perhaps have liked a bolder prognosis for our efforts there, accompanied maybe by a starker description of the scope and reality of the carnage these efforts create, however Chandrasekaran is too diligent, humble, and balanced a writer to think that he has all the answers.  I took him down this road in our discussion Saturday and found a much more nuanced and balanced skepticism than I would have expected if I stopped with the excerpts.  I hope you will find the same.  Before we get to the discussion, Rajiv asked that I point the SWJ community to his website and to encourage you to contact him with your thoughts there.

PJM:  In the first chapter, you discuss the efforts of Morrison-Knudsen to irrigate the Helmand River Valley.  This project went so far as to yield a Helmand Valley Authority, after our own TVA.  The workers who came to implement this project were housed in a hamlet in a place called Lashkar Gah.  They replicated the world they knew in this desert so faithfully that their town became known as Little America – hence the title.  Among the many problems that they ran into, the one that struck me the most was the Afghan farmers’ tendency to flood their fields due to the lack of absorptive capacity of the soil there.  When the water evaporated, the salt that was left behind stunted the growth that was planted.  This seemed to be a metaphor for many of the largest missteps you recount.  Based on our own New Deal experiences and the catastrophe of the Second World War and the Cold War that followed, we have desperately sought to remake many places around the world in our own image.  Sometimes, though, we cannot even live up to the ideals we try to force others to adopt.  In any case, do you see the Morrison-Knudsen story as a parable of this in that we don’t think things through, we throw excessive resources at a problem, and in the long run the society and economy cannot absorb those resources so they end up stunting the growth of the entity we are trying to build?

You totally got what I as driving at with the first chapter.  By writing about the Little America period, I wasn’t just trying to give the reader a history lesson; I wasn’t just trying to tell the story of what Americans did six decades ago on the very same terrain that Obama’s surge would play out.  There was a deeper lesson.  As I read through the history of that period and talked to people who were involved, I came away feeling that if I just changed the dates and the names, I could have been writing about today.   The effort six decades ago was a noble adventure, just as what we’re trying to do there now is noble – well intentioned.  But it was plagued with fundamental problems.  You put your figure on one of them – a big one – in the actual geography, the very nature of the ground there.  Think of Helmand a planter box with no holes in it, and if you flood your field the water will pool if it’s not properly drained out.  What happened in this project was that the proper work wasn’t done ahead of time to test the soil, to see what would work and what wouldn’t.  We just assumed that the effort was simply too big to fail.  And I believe a similar argument could be made about efforts today.

But there were other parallels.  The contractor, Morrison-Knudsen, insisted every piece of equipment, no matter how small, had to come from the United States, soon depleting the Afghan government’s funding for the project.  So when we look at contractors in the modern age and say, “These guys are wasting our money,” contractors have been doing that for a long time.  When you look at the US-Afghan partnership, this project wasn’t just driven by Americans, it was driven by English-speaking, modern-minded, urban-dwelling, suit-wearing Afghans – Afghans who had studied in the United States.  They wanted to civilize their country.  And they found in the Americans the ideal partners to work with.  Just as today, we spend too much time talking to elites in Kabul and not enough time talking to rural power brokers when we are trying to fashion development and reconstruction strategies.

Back then, the American contractors wound up hiring up all of the Afghans with technical expertise to work for them.  Meaning that when it came time for the Afghans to do their share of the work, they didn’t have the human capacity to do it.  Just like today.  Most of the educated Afghans find better opportunities working for ISAF forces, international diplomatic missions, UNAMA, or NGOs and so precious few of them actually work for their own government.  The list goes on, but this history is incredibly instructive in showing that many of the fundamental challenges that we face – particularly on the civilian reconstruction front – have been enduring challenges in Afghanistan.

What was particularly shocking to me was that this history that I tell is not something that was locked away in vaults.  This is stuff that exists in the Library of Congress, the National Archives, and in the files at USAID.  Many of the reports actually are online.  Had US officials wanted to understand the stuff in the years immediately after the 9/11 attacks or after we went into Afghanistan, or in 2009 when we surged into the south, all of that material was readily accessible.

PJM: It is hard to understand how we fail to learn our lessons in Afghanistan, in Iraq, and even lessons we could have learned from experiences in Vietnam or from other non-combat development projects.  Maybe part of this stems from throwing resources, rather than thought, at problems.  The 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade political advisor, Kael Weston, believed that the effort in Helmand was over-resourced – that if the Marines were not given the extra troops that they would have been forced to think more strategically and economically.  In numerous places, you recount how commanders felt that they needed to keep pushing into new areas because they had the troops to do so.  In the book, and especially the excerpts, the fault for this misallocation falls on the shoulders of parochial Marine leaders.  Yet, you also recount how Army commanders openly defied the COIN guidance handed down by McChrystal and Petraeus, how State and USAID failed to properly support the campaign, and how national pride and stubbornness forced suboptimal decisions with regard to force disposition and tactics.  Do you think that the senior leadership could have done anything differently to enforce discipline on their subordinates at the operational and tactical levels?  Or was this simply an unavoidable symptom of fighting what was ultimately a war of choice, versus a war of clear and undeniable existential national interest, to some degree?

RC:  I believe that we could have fought this war in a far smarter way.  Fighting smarter does not have to involve an existential threat.  If the President of the United States and his war cabinet determine that committing US troops and US civilians and American taxpayer money was a critical thing to do for our national security, then I believe the organs of our government had an obligation to employ those resources in the most judicious way possible.  You outline a number of problems that I illustrate in the book.  Each of the problems you cite has a different cause.  Let me take a few of them. 

The Marine decision to push for contiguous battlespace – let me say at the outset that this book is not in any way a criticism of the Marines who went to Afghanistan and fought so bravely.  They did phenomenal work and I try to capture that in the opening chapters of this book.  I recently found out that the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade is going to be awarded the Presidential Unit Citation, an incredibly prestigious award. I think that a reader would determine from their work that I detail in the book that they were deserving of an honor like this.  My criticism is with senior officers in the Corps in Washington, as well as our senior Pentagon leadership for sending the Marines where they were sent.  There is no argument that Helmand is a bad place; lots of insurgents there.  Helmand is the epicenter of poppy production.  It was a nasty place, but was it the nastiest place in all of Afghanistan?  Was it the most critical place? 

I came away concluding after discussions with a number of smart military and civilian experts – and Afghans – that the real critical area was the city of Kandahar and the area around it: the country’s second most populous city, the spiritual heartland for the Taliban, the area which if they seized, they would have a springboard to move into other parts of the country much as they did in the mid-1990s.  So, if that was the most important part of the country, shouldn’t we have taken the very effective new forces that were being added in early 2009, the Marine Expeditionary Brigade under the command of BGen Larry Nicholson, shouldn’t we have applied them to the most pressing problem?  Sure, if we had 200,000 troops on the ground, yeah, plus up in Helmand, too.  But there was a zero-sum calculus in Afghanistan.  There were only so many troops and so you had to put them against the most crucial places.

The Marines have a legitimate insistence, I believe, on wanting to operate as a MAGTF (Marine Air-Ground Task Force) with their own organic air and logistics units.  But, how does that MAGTF approach fit in the world of joint and coalition warfare and how can the MAGTF be better integrated? The feeling among non-Marine commanders on the ground in Afghanistan – those who were figuring out where the Marines should go – as  well as the senior Marine leaders – the Commandant and others – was that it would be very difficult to employ the Marines of the MAGTF in an interoperable way in the areas around Kandahar.  In my mind, that’s of concern because you don’t want your elite counterinsurgency forces--and I believe that Marine infantry units are elite COIN forces--to be off engaged in lower-priority missions.  The central Helmand River valley, where the 2nd MEB deployed, is home to about 1 percent of Afghanistan’s population.  If our strategy was COIN, it was population-centric operations, shouldn’t we have sent those units to the most populous of places that were at risk from the Taliban take-over, not sparsely populated desert communities? It is this issue that I really try to examine in the book and I think that for the Marines as well as other services, this is an issue that deserves serious ongoing discussion. 

The what-ifs are pretty profound here.  Had those Marines been sent to Kandahar, I believe we could have been a year ahead in the overall COIN campaign.  It could have allowed Petraeus and John Allen to swing forces from the south to the east sooner.  It might even have led McChrystal to have requested fewer troops which could have allowed for a longer-term mission, maybe even one without a deadline.  Again these are what-ifs, but I do think that the deployment there came at a cost.  Now, all that said, the Marines did great things in Helmand.  But I have a scene at the end of the book and I’ll give it away to your readers.  I’m having drinks with a senior Marine officer in a still-gentrifying neighborhood in Washington DC.  I liken Afghanistan, in my conversation with him, to a block in the ghetto and ask whether we took the bulk of our community redevelopment funds and turned one tenement at the end of the block into a swanky mansion but left the rest of the buildings as boarded up messes.  I said, “What if the history of Afghanistan is that we win Helmand, but lose the country?”  And he said to me, “Well, that will be just fine for the Corps.”  I know that certainly doesn’t represent the views of the rest of the Corps, but it does speak to a degree of parochialism that we should examine.  Marine parochialism has many, many benefits; the esprit de corps, the ethos of our Marine Corps is phenomenal, but we need to know as a country that our Marines are being sent against the most important of challenges.

PJM:  With the coming budget cuts and the potential for a bad outcome in Afghanistan, do you see this parochialism as a liability for the Marine Corps going forward?  Does this parochialism, which is meant to defend the institutional survival of the Corps, actually threaten it?

 I don’t see this as mutually exclusive.  I think the Marines can fight as a MAGTF in a more interoperable environment.  They need to show that they can do that.  I think that what doesn’t serve the Marine Corps is to try to defend the MAGTF concept by fighting in places that are less important.  The challenge here for smart Marine Corps officers is how to best integrate MAGTF operations into a joint and combined COIN environment.  Maybe I am too much of an optimist.  Certainly you can argue I am not schooled in all the intricacies of the Marine Corps.  Maybe what I suggest is unrealistic, but I would like to think there is a way with enough smart thinking and planning that the Marines could have deployed with key elements of a MAGTF in Kandahar.  It could have been made to work had Marine leaders and NATO commanders been committed to trying to achieve that outcome.

PJM:  Was there any discussion from the Marines or requests for the Marines to go into Kandahar as a MAGTF? 

RC:  It wasn’t like there was a formal request put to the Marines to go to Kandahar and the Marines said, “No.”  Nothing like that.  The truth is, US and NATO commanders in Afghanistan also pushed Helmand over Kandahar, so the fault here does not lie exclusively with the Marines.  That said, both groups made a miscalculation.  I do believe that the US Army commanders and NATO commanders who advocated for the Marines to go to Helmand did so in part because of MAGTF concerns and as for the Marines, they advocated for Helmand over Kandahar because they felt it would be easier to bring the MAGTF there.  What you had was essentially this perfect storm brewing.  You also had the NATO component.  The Canadians in Kandahar were more reluctant to give up battlespace than the Brits in Helmand who wanted to reconfigure and wanted more American assistance, so there were a number of factors at play here, but the MAGTF issue was a key element of the calculations.

PJM: Some people, prominently Col Gian Gentile, have criticized what they call the “better war” narrative:  the idea that if we had only done this or that, there would have been a better outcome.  They believe that this is a faulty lesson to draw and that there were more fundamental problems with our COIN campaign.  Along these lines, Ambassador Karl Eikenberry wrote in a controversial cable, “Our military… will clear anything we ask them to clear.  They will hold anything we ask them to hold.”  However, he continued, he was skeptical as to when or if we could build and transfer responsibility to a credible Afghan partner.  When I was in Afghanistan in 2010, a senior general stated similarly that the military was recording great tactical success in Helmand, however he did not know how we were going to aggregate those successes into strategic progress.  This was jarring to me.  As I read through the failures of the civilian surge, the incredibly silly concept of a “government in a box,” and our attempts to keep a flawed foreign leader “on the rails,” that being our rails, I was struck by the thought that we have COIN all wrong.  Unless we are ready to take on a neo-colonial or mandatory level of responsibility for governing a foreign land, we will have to accept the Afghan legitimacy of flawed actors.  Actors like Sher Mohammed Akhunzada, Abdul Rahman Jan, and the Karzais are surely unsavory, but we have forgotten the Charles Tilly reading (see also Giustozzi) of the history of western state development in that states arise from warlords and organized crime.  Even in America, politics of our recent past were far more unsavory than we are willing to admit.  Thus, we shouldn’t be so surprised at the lack of success in rooting corruption, for example, with what a friend of mine in Kabul calls the “Anti-Gravity Task Force.”  When you look at the troubled transitions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Egypt, is one of the biggest problems with COIN perhaps our misunderstanding of the messy process of building state capacity and institutions to the point at which democracy can have more constructive outcomes?

RC:  That’s a great question.  Let me try to answer it at a couple of levels.  Just stepping back for a second to the book, I examine US efforts in Afghanistan at two different levels.  There’s the strategic level which is “Did it make sense to pursue a COIN strategy there--to commit more forces, to try to rebuild the Afghan government, particularly to engage in efforts to create institutions of sub-national governance for the first time.  Then there’s the second level, which we have been talking about in the earlier questions, which is operationalizing the strategy and that is where I raise the questions about Marines in Helmand versus Kandahar, the efficacy of the civilian surge, whether we put in too much reconstruction money.  If you start from “This is the strategy that was approved by the President, how did we carry it out?”  The record shows that the Pentagon, the State Department, and USAID all made some pretty significant mistakes in the execution or the operationalization of the strategy. 

But you ask a more fundamental question, which regards the strategy itself.  And you quote from Eikenberry’s cable, which I think was a prescient cable.  But then as I note in the book, Eikenbeery got the diagnosis right, but then how we decided to treat the ailment was off base:  that we were going to fight corruption, we were going to build local governments, we were going to connect people at the rural level to their provincial capitals and the provincial capitals to their national government, we were going to hope that resources were going to flow from the center to the periphery, we were going to sideline malign actors.  All noble goals, but this was never something that could be done in a couple years with the resources that we had.  And quite frankly, it was debatable how much the Afghans really wanted that.  I don’t think that the Afghans have any great love for the Taliban, despite the fact that they promise law and order, but what we fail to grasp is that in many cases the Afghans do not have any great love for their government either—it is filled with warlords, corrupt power brokers, other sorts of thugs.  So, when we went to the Afghan people and said that we want to connect you to your government, some of them recoiled and said “Government’s not what we want more of” - and we failed to really understand that.

Now that might sound like the opening to say that what we need to do is rebuild the government from scratch.  Well, in an ideal world, perhaps.  But I don’t think the Afghan people wanted us to sit around for 20 years to do that, nor do we have the patience, the financial resources to pull that off.  So it was always going to have to be some sort of balance between entrenched power brokers and other sorts of malign figures with the hope that over time those figures would start to be eased out and governance would improve.  But, there was this misguided notion that all of this could be done very quickly and with our hands.  And I think what we’ve seen over these past couple of years is that a lot of these changes defy our timetables and our ability to really make them happen.  In cases where we thought, this guy is a good legitimate actor, we’ll back him and he’ll be the face of government… In some cases we found out that these guys were also crooks--just that they were stealing in other ways that we didn’t immediately see. 

Or, take Kandahar for instance.  For months and months, for years we sought to build up the provincial governor.  He worked in a vast palace that was largely empty.  Sometimes there were more Westerners in his palace than Afghans, because Kandaharis didn’t see him as the legitimate leader of the city and the province, despite the fact that he was the man we wanted to work with and funnel resources through.  They thought Ahmed Wali Karzai, the President’s late half-brother, the chairman of the provincial council, who we thought was a thug, who was corrupt – Afghans looked to him for leadership.  You go to the provincial council offices and it was thronged with people.  But instead of recognizing that’s who the Afghans saw as a leader – flawed as he was – we tried to build up somebody that very, very few people there thought was a legitimate leader.

PJM: There is some criticism of the book, and especially the excerpts, from the COINtras – opponents of the COINdanistas and the “better war narrative.  They see your narrative, as extrapolated from the excerpts, as supporting the idea that if we had only done COIN better, with more forces in Kandahar, for example, then the outcome would have been better.  That is not the message I came away with after reading the whole book.  Do you consider this to be a pro-COIN narrative?

This is not a pro-COIN book; if anything, it is skeptical of COIN.  Do I think that some of the COIN operations had an impact in Helmand?  Yeah.  But Nawa was a unique case where you didn’t have the same sort of tribal complexities.  The efforts to try to do this quickly in places like Marja came to naught.  And in Kandahar, much of the security improvements were the result of more narrowly focused CT as opposed to COIN.  So, this is far from a book that is an apology for COIN.  I think that what I try to do is lay out the facts and show people where COIN tactics led to changes on the ground, but also the limitations therein and how operations would fall more appropriately under the rubric of CT helped to lead to profound changes.   But if you have concerns about the overall efficacy of the COIN campaign, which is legitimate, you can’t just write off a decision to place troops in a less important area.  I’m making a strategic argument and an operational argument and it is easy to conflate the two.

PJM: In the book, you speak to the tension between varying conceptions of the war.  The clearest expression of our goals came from the strategy announced by the Obama Administration.  “To disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future.”  However, advisors like Bruce Riedel and subsequently Generals McChrystal and Petraeus felt that we had to wage counterinsurgency in order to be successful in countering terror.  You state, “after the Baghdad surge, America’s military leaders embraced COIN with the fervor of the converted.  It became their defining ideology.”  And this ideology became all-encompassing.  As a friend of mine stated as we discussed the book and his experiences in Helmand, “COIN concepts got spun out of control, which led to mission creep. COIN is protect the populace, not ensure anti-corruption and ultimate adherence to a Rule of Law that was based on western values.”  This is aptly summarized in Gen Petraeus’s “Anaconda Chart.”  If COIN means everything, it means nothing.  What is more, military leaders saw the conflict in good versus evil terms that sometimes strayed into polemical zealotry.  Here I am thinking of LtGen John Kelley’s 2010 speech in St. Louis.  When you have generals so invested in their military and so affected by nearly a decade of war at that time, generals who have seized on a simplistic good versus evil narrative for which the only antidote is COIN, generals who have been cast and have tried to live as supermen to the point that they faint before the Senate Armed Services Committee, are these generals really making fully rational decisions about what is possible in these conflicts and how to approach them?  If not, then to whom do we listen?  Are the voices of the growing club of military policy advisors, such as the Kandahari Sarah Chayes, Andrew Exum with his Greek scribbling, or Bruce Riedel – an intelligence officer fixated on al Qaeda and credited with leading the effort that had troops surging into Afghanistan to conduct COIN to defeat them – any better?  In sum, were our policy elites so fascinated with COIN that they could not envision a more rational, more circumscribed effort to target the few hundred al Qaeda members still hiding in Afghanistan?

RC: One gets the sense in looking back over the 2009 White House strategy review that then led to the President’s decision to largely accept McChrystal’s request for more forces that the military’s view of Afghanistan was sort of like Henry Ford and the color of your car.  You can have any strategy you like as long as it’s COIN.  The senior military leadership really coalesced around one option and alternative points of view, such as a narrower focus on counterterrorism as advocated by Gen Cartwright, were really cast aside by the rest of the military leadership. 

While we were trying to get our head around Afghanistan, I do think it behooved the nation’s military community to really more fully understand what happened with the surge in Iraq and the application of counterinsurgency.  It had its benefits, but it had its limitations.  It wasn’t a panacea, and understanding the truth of itm and moving beyond the politics, is essential to understanding how this strategy can and should be applied in the future. 

You opened your question with a fundamental disconnect in America’s war strategy.  The goal was narrow – to go after al Qaeda – yet the approach was broad – population-centric COIN.  And it did involve a civ-mil mission creep.  I think both sides fed on each other.  Yes, the military had a very expansive view on what to do with governance, anti-corruption, and so forth as epitomized by Gen Petraeus’s Anaconda slide, but the civilians in many cases were goading them along.  Karl Eikenberry who outlined accurately the many failings of the Afghan government and the many reasons why a COIN strategy wouldn’t work as hoped for then went along with these grand efforts to try to rebuild the government, to create government in many cases where the Afghans didn’t have it--to bring in dozens and dozens of American investigators to pursue corruption cases which further frayed our relationship with Hamid Karzai.  We tried to do two things that were in conflict.  We wanted a war with narrow goals, but we fought it broadly.  And that just doesn’t work.  If really what we wanted to do was just go after al Qaeda, then that’s what we should have done.  If the overall stability of Afghanistan, the defeat of the Taliban, the improvement of lives for the Afghans was something that we found to be in the American national interest, then a comprehensive COIN strategy was defensible.  But if that wasn’t the overall goal, then the record shows that we should have been narrower.

I explain in my book how all this plays out on the ground over these years. It is worth emphasizing that our troops did what they were asked to do.  They did so bravely, heroically, without complaint, with great sacrifice, but they deserved a very clear strategy and commitment from on high.   This disconnect in the policy, not to mention infighting at high levels of the Administration, and civilian partners who did not always fulfill their end of the deal, was not in the best interest of our men and women in uniform who were sent there, and by extension, not in the best interest of the American people.

PJM: In discussing Afghanistan with friends who are veterans of the war there, one of the group asserted that once we were in Afghanistan, COIN was necessary.  But did we really need to be there so long in the first place, he asked.  In reality, for all the certitude of the pundits, those who have been there have more questions than answers.  And most of us are not objective in trying to answer them.  Do you think that we needed to be in Afghanistan so long and do you think after seeing all you’ve seen, that you can be objective?

RC:  I think there is little doubt that had we focused on trying to build a reasonably functional Afghan government and helping to build Afghan security forces and even sought to marginalize some of the warlords and power brokers very early on, we could have done so far more effectively with far fewer resources and far fewer casualties.  But as we all know, the United States took its eye off of Afghanistan soon after the war began to shift its focus to the invasion of Iraq.  And had we not done that, I think the history of our engagement in Afghanistan would be very, very different.  But the real question here is, by the time we got to 2009 and Barack Obama assumed the presidency, should we have employed a different strategy than the one we embarked on. 

The challenge with saying we didn’t need as big of a COIN effort and we should have focused on a narrower counter-terrorism mission and one that was more focused on the clearly defined security interests of the United States is also one that poses interesting moral questions.  Our civilians and officers who were down there at the district level saw problems and as good Americans, wanted to fix them.  When you see that Afghan kids can’t go to school, but really want to, and that the parents are illiterate because the schools haven’t existed there ever, or you see infants dying because there is no healthcare, or you see malnourished people because their farms are unproductive, we as Americans want to help, so you get drawn into this sort of COIN effort.  And COIN may not be the right word for it.  In cases it is simply be Americans wanting to do what they feel is morally right.  And so how do you go in and say I’m only here for my own interests and not to help you people?  That’s a tough thing for Americans to do.  We believe in wanting to assist our fellow humans, particularly in a place that is as needy and deserving as Afghanistan.  So when one thinks about how this should have been done differently and what the right balance should have been, perhaps the traditional COIN versus CT debate is too narrow.  We needed elements of both, but maybe how we viewed those COIN elements needed to be different.  Maybe it wasn’t remaking government, but maybe it was focus on providing assistance at the local level. 

When people go around criticizing the United States for imposing American-style democracies on other countries, I say to myself: If only we helped the Afghans embrace a style of democracy that has made our country so great.  We don’t centralize all our power in Washington.  There’s a healthy balance between the center and the periphery.  Yet, the Afghans have a system of government that we and the rest of the Western world helped them install that centralizes power to a degree seen in few other countries.  It is North Korea-like.  It’s absurd that the president can essentially hire and fire a district police chief.  When we then set about in recent years to try to engage in bottom-up security initiatives, things like the Afghan Local Police program, I have to ask myself, “That’s great, but why aren’t we doing that on the governance front?”  Why, if we’re so concerned about trying to rebuild schools in Marja, why are we telling the elders of Marja we’ll work with you to try to get Kabul to deliver these services?  Why not try bottom up solutions?  And so some of this sounds like it’s a defense of grand COIN.  It’s not.  It’s trying to figure out how we can engage in the necessary tasks essential for American national security while also helping the Afghans in a modest and sustainable way.  Unfortunately, by surging as we did, by embracing such a robust COIN strategy, we exhausted ourselves and we exhausted the Afghans.  As [former 2nd MEB political advisor] Kael Weston always reminded me, Afghanistan is a marathon, not a sprint.  But we sprinted.  Had we been more modest, I’d like to think that we could have wound up in a better place.

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The problem with this discussion may be in understanding WHAT WE MAY NOT BE DOING and WHAT WE ACTUALLY MAY BE DOING.

Herein, I would suggest that WHAT WE MAY NOT BE DOING is counterinsurgency. Thus, any discussion re: "counterinsurgency," "war," "Sun Tzu," how long a "war" should take, etc., may not be applicable.

On the other hand, WHAT WE ACTUALLY MAY BE DOING (and what General Petraeus, General Allen, John Nagl, etc., may actually be talking about) is state and societal transformation.

Potential evidence of this fact: One would expect that, should the Taliban and al-Qaeda be defeated in Afghanistan, the effort to transform the state and society of Afghanistan would continue unabated and possibly/probably at a more accelerated rate/pace.

Thus, when we discuss strategy, etc., should we do so from the perspective of state and societal transformation -- not "war" -- and address such questions as "time," etc., etc., etc., within this possibly more-correct frame-work?

An example:

During the Cold War (takes 40 + years of "time") we used the strategies of "containment" et. al to ultimately bring about the favorable (?) transformation of the state and society of the former USSR; causing these to now run more along western lines.

Today we would seem to be attempting to use a strategy of (for lack of a better term) "engagement and enlargement" to bring about a similar transformation of the lesser and remaining "outlier" states and societies. This endeavor, likewise, possibly taking 40 or more years to achieve.

Comparing Vietnam during the Cold War to Afghanistan today?

a. Both being the wrong place and the wrong time to attempt such endeavors (state and societal transformation)? And

b. Both telling us that attempting to do this (state and societal transformation) -- under the guise of "counterinsurgency" -- does not seem to work/can be counterproductive?

Rajiv, I enjoyed the dialogue between you and Peter Munson and really appreciated your insights and ideas. One thing I thought was interesting was your view that Marine Infantry units are "elite COIN forces." I don't know that I disagree -- I read many Marine after action reports and believe Marines are excellent warfighters -- perhaps even elite COIN forces, but I don't know how to measure that in my own mind.

I do want to make a point on behalf of my Army brethren. The Army units I am familiar with are superb in counterinsurgency. I have interviewed many Army leaders on their return from operations in Afghanistan including many that served in Kandahar. These leaders were from 1st Infantry Division, 4th Infantry Division, 10th Mountain Division, and 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault). I have in every instance been tremendously impressed with these unit leaders in understanding their operating environment and also their creativity and effectiveness in shaping and executing operations. In fact, I can say that I have been astonished with the breadth and depth of unit counterinsurgency operations and subsequently, effectiveness at the local, district, and provincial levels.

Below are two highlights from unit commanders:

LTC Michael Katona, Commander of 4-4 Cavalry Squadron, together with his partner ANA unit, 2nd Kandak, 3rd Brigade, 205th Corps, cleared their assigned area of operation along the Arghandab River in Zhari District, Kandahar Province from March 2011 to February 2012. The Taliban had “owned” this area and had withstood years of Soviet occupation since the 1980s -- they had freedom of movement and a base of support. 4-4CAV and 2nd Kandak, conducting multiple lines of effort and following counterinsurgency “principles”, cleared and held the area. Further, the district governing system was strengthened, linking the District Center with multiple villages north along the Arghandab. Village governance was encouraged and built-up and the local economy improved, enabled by security and new roads. Effectiveness of security forces improved, particularly the 2nd Kandak and a robust Afghan Local Police program. 4-4CAV and their sister units of 3rd Brigade Combat Team,10th Mountain Division, created local security, enhanced essential services, improved economic development, established legitimacy of the government, and raised the capacity of the ANSF and GIRoA (at the district level). These efforts prepared the ANSF and GIRoA to take over following eventual transition to local control.

COL Chris Toner (3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, Task Force Duke) reported that his units, operating in Regional Command-East, Afghanistan, had “fostered GIRoA development, increased ANSF capacity, and defeated a brutal and determined insurgency.” His brigade’s mission from January 2011 to March 2012 was to execute a counterinsurgency strategy to separate the enemy from the population; achieve effects with the population through their security forces and government; and transform the environment into one where the enemy can no longer operate. COL Toner’s brigade sought to partner at every level and in all lines of effort in order to prepare ANSF and GIRoA to sustain themselves after the departure of US units in 2014. The emphasis on ANSF and GIRoA development can be seen during a Q&A session on C-Span on 5 April 2012. COL Toner was asked by a reporter if the Haqqani network could be defeated and ANSF and GIRoA able to sustain itself after the drawdown of the ISAF forces. COL Toner said “Speaking to the momentum we had there, with the maturity of ANSF, with resourcing and level of confidence in the government, unequivocally yes. If Haqqani waits till 2014 to return, his ‘tidal wave of forces’ will not hit sand castles. They will hit mortar and cement in terms of [ANSF and GIRoA capability]. The ANSF, the ANA brigade there and the AUP, are phenomenal fighting forces. The AUP was despised in 2006-2007. They were corrupt. They are now professionalized. The AUP defeated four spectacular attacks that were not spectacular – they fizzled. The AUP disrupted and destroyed the attacks. There were four ANA Brigade level attacks that they planned and conducted independently. There were over 4000 ANA patrols conducted independently, in addition to 14,000 combined patrols. These ANSF forces are very well led. It takes time. If anybody can make it happen, they can.” (For more information on 3/1IBCT lines of operation and COL Toner’s thoughts on security or “lethal” operations as part of a counterinsurgency campaign, see this article on the Counterinsurgency Center public website: )

One point on counterinsurgency and its overall effectiveness in Afghanistan. Given my own (limited) exposure to unit operations and responses from commanders like the ones listed above, I think I can see why General John Allen (Commander, ISAF) believes the war can be won (as he stated on a PBS interview 12 March). I can get an understanding for his optimism because he has the benefit of his own face-to-face “interviews” with unit leaders and soldiers in the fight during his many battlefield circulation visits, and he has many other sources and information feeds to consider, including GIRoA leadership. Since General Allen has risen to the very top of his profession and he is no push-over, I give him the benefit of the doubt on discerning overly optimistic unit leader reports or can-do fantasies from Afghan or US officials. Somehow, he has become convinced the ISAF/GIRoA strategy will work. Colonel Gian Gentile may be right as he has said in many places – that it will not work, but General Allen’s assertion is not without basis.

This statement is my own and does not constitute an endorsement by or opinion of the Department of Defense. Sanford Sheaks, Booz Allen Hamilton Contractor, US Army Counterinsurgency Center.


There are many others who agree with what you say about the army's competency at Coin. Shoot, some of the headmasters from the School of Coin, people like John Nagl, David Petraeus, David Kilcullen, and many others, have in so many words said that the American army is a very good Coin army.

Which is my point. The problem in Afghanistan is not with tactics. If the American Army (and Marines) are good at Coin, as you say, why have we not won yet?

I know the refrain is "we need more time." But time is a calculation of strategy, and an operational framework like pop centric coin should never be allowed to have its principles, ways, and procedures eclipse strategy and policy.

Remember what Sun Tzu said: speed is the essence of war, and no state ever benefited from a prolonged war. When John Nagl says something like Afghanistan is messy and unsatisfying because it is taking a long time, i say you too have flunked Sun Tzu.

Hello Gian, I am glad you are watching this blog. I wasn’t trying to avoid the really big issue like you normally bring up about the failure of COIN strategically, but because I spend so much time thinking about how units actually plan and execute COIN; that was the area I was addressing. So you asked this question: “If the American Army (and Marines) are good at Coin, as you say, why have we not won yet?” The best answer is probably the same ones Generals McChrystal, Petraeus and Allen have given when congressmen and reporters asked it. But that would take a few pages and I still would not have addressed the larger point. The point you are making I agree with. You said “an operational framework like pop centric coin should never be allowed to have its principles, ways, and procedures eclipse strategy and policy.” That is a sound statement and I agree. In the revision of FM3-24, the writers are stating more explicitly that counterinsurgency is an operation or tactic, not a strategy.

Your other point, that we have failed Sun Tzu because it is taking too long -- perhaps you are right with that also. I really do not know. I do not know because I can’t really say that we have failed yet. It may be taking a long time, but we have not failed yet. In my first response to Rajiv above, I brought up the interesting phenomena about General Allen. He seems to really believe that this strategy can work, in the same way as General’s Petraeus and McChrystal. Are (were) they just wrong? Or is there reasonable, rational justification to what they have said? Even given my own limited collection of evidence with unit AARs and interviews, I believe the answer is yes, there is reasonable evidence that the strategy will work. General Allen said in his PBS interview that “this campaign very clearly envisages that the ANSF will move to the front, the ANSF will have the lead, the ANSF will secure the population of Afghanistan.” He is in a better position than me to judge such a thing and that is what he is saying. This kind of thought is also reflected in Battalion, Brigade, and Division leader interviews that I capture. During the interviews and in the AARs, not all of the leaders say the same thing for sure, but the preponderance reflect this – that COIN is working. Can the tactical and operational successes with both ANSF and GIRoA overcome the weight of corruption endemic to the culture and the terror of the Taliban and many other negative factors? I just do not know, but General Allen seems to think so.

All the best, Bud

In the revision of FM3-24, the writers are stating more explicitly that counterinsurgency is an operation or tactic, not a strategy.

Will the revisions include any sort of reference to the following sorts of issues? (I am not in the military and, I confess, as a civilian I tend to get very confused and turned around on a lot. So, if none of the following is pertinent or if it well-discussed already, I apologize):

On the twitter feed of Dr. Steven Metz, I found the following:

"The US needs four different COIN categories" (paraphrase) and the twitter links take you to the proposed categories.

And previously here at SWJ, there was an article grouping conflicts/insurgency into different categories based on motivations of the various actors:

US Army Special Operations Command and Johns Hopkins University/Applied Physics Laboratory National Security Analysis Department have put together a useful reference for small wars students and practitioners entitled "Casebook on Insurgency and Revolutionary Warfare Volume II: 1962-2009." The resource is available for download in PDF format here. If you are wondering where Volume I is, that government document covers post-World War I insurgencies and revolutions up to 1962 and can be downloaded in PDF here. The original was published by the Special Operations Research Office at The American University in 1962.

In a way, aren't these issues the "bridge" between strategy and "lessons learned?"

Mr. Chandrasekaran's observation in the last paragraph is very interesting. He states that we helped impose upon Afghanistan a highly centralized government that we ourselves don't have, and they would have been better off with something like what we actually have.

I think what happened was that the inside the beltway power elites burdened Afghanistan with a government they WISH we had. They don't much like the decentralized system we have where the flyover people can often ignore what their betters in DC think is best. They figure things would run so much better if they could hire and fire local police chiefs. So when the opportunity came to make something in Afghanistan they helped make something that they WANTED, not something that we had. A very narrow segment of our political class imposed their political preference upon the country regardless of the local situation and regardless of what we actually do here. A bunch of high school sophomores, with Ivy League degrees, ran a good government workshop using a real country and real people, but they don't have to live with the consequences.

A bunch of high school sophomores, with Ivy League degrees, ran a good government workshop using a real country and real people, but they don't have to live with the consequences.

I know intentions are good and much good has been done via many of our aid and stability programs but the truth is that any intervention is essentially an experiment with real people. The profound responsibility of this is something that doesn't seem to sink in too deeply into many of our "helping" classes, it seems.

That may be very unfair of me but how to explain the advocacy as policy aspect of much of this? No matter how many times a certain type of program goes badly, people double down, there is no real accountability, no real self-reflection. Or, people are called doubting thomases and blamed for anything that goes awry if we don't act, as if no one outside the American foreign policy community has any real agency as human beings. "This time, we'll get it right, this time our aid won't result in corruption," etc.

Interesting that a generation of economists and political commentators in nations typically targets of good intentions are now writing vigorously against many paternalistic aspects. Dambisa Moyos, Manu Josephs, like that, off the top of my head....

I hope no one thinks I am suggesting none of this is good, or that we do no good. I am not suggesting that at all! Perhaps just a little more rigor, intellectually (and from our reporting class, too.)

It sounds like the book offers a great contribution to the understanding of the Afghan War and how we got it wrong in so many ways.

I have to take issue with one thing, however. Rajiv states, "But as we all know, the United States took its eye off of Afghanistan soon after the war began to shift its focus to the invasion of Iraq." I'm sorry but this is excuse making and I'm so tired of it. LTG(r) Sanchez and his ilk, who proffer excuse after excuse to hide their own inadequacies as leaders, make me sick. After the US started focusing on Iraq, who were the mini-Sanchez's running the show in Afghanistan? Who were the men who couldn't get it done and who probably spent more time cataloging the many reasons (excuses) for their failures rather than doggedly achieving victory against great odds?

Bill Slim led to victory the under-resourced rump of an Army stretched across the globe. No excuses. I'm sure some revisionist will tell me that Bill Slim has been reevaluated and is now seen less admirably. Baloney. Stop working to drag down true heroes, while writing apologias for the losers. Let victory be the only gauge for success.

If the President was absolutely stuck with a Sanchez as a field commander, at the very least the order from Washington DC should be: "General, you can come back home either victorious or dead. But not under any other circumstances." This policy writ-large would solve a lot of other problem too. If no one went home until final victory was achieved, there would probably be much less parochialism, much more commitment, much less subversion of the operational and strategic commanders, much more accountability of leaders, many more reliefs for incompetence....etc

Rajiv Chandrasekaran writes the below cited paragraph in reference to the use and application of civilian reconstruction:

'What was particularly shocking to me was that this history that I tell is not something that was locked away in vaults. This is stuff that exists in the Library of Congress, the National Archives, and in the files at USAID. Many of the reports actually are online. Had US officials wanted to understand the stuff in the years immediately after the 9/11 attacks or after we went into Afghanistan, or in 2009 when we surged into the south, all of that material was readily accessible'.

What I would like to ask him, how much of this existing historical knowledge was actually used in preparing for the commitment to Helmand Province, either by the UK in 2006 and then the USMC in 2009? The holder of cited web archive says neither party contacted him.

Something is very wrong here. I simply do not believe no-one knew of the information in the archives or that UK & US civilians had been on the ground before.

I provided the link to that web archive based on the first page of a google search. I think it was only a few results from the top. I'm not sure if this is the one that Rajiv was referring to, but it shows how easy it was to get to this stuff.

Egos intrude...

Relevant information has been available and discussed, persons with experience in the nation or area of interest are interviewed in all our little overseas adventures since World War II. Some Flag Officers heed all that, some do not -- all are serving at the whim of Politicians.

Politicians do not listen to Flag Officers (unless they're also politicians like former Admiral Jonathan Howe of Mogadishu - Clinton confidant fame) or area experts, they only listen to other politicians and / or like minded Academics. Thus what went before and current area specific advice are totally ignored for current political benefit or a presumption therof.

Everyone involved was not aware of the "Little America" effort in the 60s -- but plenty were. Egos and political expediency obscure harsh realities. The Politicians are briefed on what went before and by area specialists -- they promptly proceed to ignore all that because, this time, they are in charge and it will 'be different.'

It never is. Experience and good advice were available in Viet Nam, in Iraq and in Afghanistan. The Poliicians ignored it and forced the Flag officers (who mostly knew better...) to ignore it also. That will likely be true next time as well...

To be sure I appreciate the criticism that RC brings out in the book on the tactics of American pop centric coin in Astan, of which the book is primarily about. But i continue to ask myself why he needed to supercharge those useful criticisms with an interwoven set of counterfactuals essentially arguing--perfectly in line with the better war thesis for Vietnam, that if the US army had just done coin correctly it would have won--that the war could have been won IF this then IF that then IF one more time. Why not just write a book of criticism and leave out the counterfactuals of a possible better war especially since counterfactuals which are in essence historical hypotheticals can never be proven anyway since they didnt happen.

Let me make a historiographical analogy if i may (historiography meaning the study of the writing of histories). There has been much excellent and important work on the tactics of the German army in World War II in western and Eastern Europe. These studies bring out the strengths and weaknesses of the German tactical fighting system. But how would they sound if they argued say for example in Normandy that if only the German army had switched more panzer divisions earlier to the west to confront the americans, and if only they had adjusted their replacement system, and if only they would have streamlined their operational command structure, well then they COULD have won the war. Of course such a counterfactual would be dismissed as fanciful and detracting from the analysis and criticism of the German tactical system.

In effect by focusing a main part of his overall argument on a counterfactual for Afghanistan, this in effect is what RC has done, and in my humble view has detracted from the necessary and useful criticism, albeit debatable, that he brings out in the book.


A very interesting article.

I think I understand what Mr. Chandrasekaran is saying about being north Korea-like in terms of centralized decision-making power in this quote but I can assure those who have not studied north Korea that Afghanistan is not north-Korea like in any way and if it really had such centralized control as in north Korea the situation would be very different (believe me the north Koreans are probably the most efficiently brutal counterinsurgents in the world and perhaps even in history – there is no country in the world that can oppress its people to prevent insurgency like north Korea – if the Afghan government was like north Korea there would be no Taliban – but the one similarity might be corruption). Again I think understand the analogy that he is trying to draw but north Korea is not really a useful example but I do understand how those who do not study north Korea can make such an analogy off the cuff.

QUOTE: Yet, the Afghans have a system of government that we and the rest of the Western world helped them install that centralizes power to a degree seen in few other countries. It is North Korea-like. It’s absurd that the president can essentially hire and fire a district police chief. END QUOTE