LITTLE AMERICA: The War Within the War for Afghanistan

America has conducted two wars in Afghanistan, the first being the post-11 September 2001 (post-9/11) offensive in which special forces on horseback and Gen James N. Mattis’ Task Force 58 shattered al-Qaeda and the Taliban prior to the unfortunate drawdown of troops and equipment for the upcoming Iraq invasion, and the second in 2009 under President Barack Obama’s “surge” strategy in which the United States finally began to take the war seriously.

Washington Post correspondent Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s book, Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan, focuses on Obama’s surge and then drills down and examines the surge through the eyes and experience of the Marines in Helmand Province. Chandrasekaran explores how with Obama moving Afghanistan to the forefront of his foreign policy, it quickly became a war of military and bureaucratic turf-building, complicating an already difficult mission.

The American public thought the initial mission in Afghanistan was a simple one: retaliate for 9/11 and ensure it would not be repeated. Iraq, however, knocked Afghanistan off the American public’s radar screen. Chandrasekaran describes the war Obama inherited in 2009 as a battlefield of competing NATO and U.S. interests, U.S. intra-Service rivalries, and spasmodic support from the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Competing factions included the counterinsurgency versus counterintelligence groups in the White House and Pentagon, Washington’s entrenched “no personal risk” bureaucrats, and a decidedly cooling European interest from those five countries actually fighting, with all of the above seemingly at the whim of Hamid Karzai, leader of the world’s most corrupt regime. As Chandrasekaran relates, it took the Marine Corps to cut through this Gordian knot of competing interests.

Both prior to and following the November 2008 election, it was no secret that Obama would be increasing American troop strength in Afghanistan; the questions were by how many, and where would they be stationed? The Army had no troops to offer; they remained bogged down in Iraq and by their ponderous 12-month deployment cycle. However, as then-Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen James T. Conway constantly reminded everyone, the Corps had troops available now, and after their stunning success in turning Al Anbar Province, they had both the experience and expeditionary mindset to succeed in yet another Third World three block war.

But the Marines would come as Marines, Conway insisted, which meant as a MAGTF with its own air support and logistics, and its own area of operations in which Marine commanders would fight the Marine way. He also demanded the appointment of a three-star Marine general at U.S. Central Command (then-LtGen Joseph F. Dunford, Jr. was already in place) to have overall operational control of the Marine forces to ensure they remained independent. The Pentagon accepted Conway’s conditions; they needed boots on the ground immediately, and the Marines were the only branch of Service able to deliver.

But where to send them? With the Army sitting in Regional Command-East, the choices were Kandahar, with its large population and religious importance, or Helmand Province, the most violent part of Afghanistan and supplier of 85 percent of the world’s opium. International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) control of either would be an integral part of a badly needed story showing that success was possible in Afghanistan.

Chandrasekaran explains the debate on where the Marines should go. He describes how ISAF politics kept the Marines away from Kandahar; for national honor’s sake the Canadians wanted to maintain control of the districts around Kandahar, even as they had too few troops to enter the city itself. Equally important was then-ISAF commander GEN David D. McKiernan wanting the Marines in Helmand; in May 2008 he sent the 24th MEU into Garmsir where they engaged in a 3-week fight that killed hundreds of Taliban. “My rapid-response force” he proudly called them. This positive experience made it easy to agree with Conway and give Helmand to the Marines.

While describing July 2009’s Operation KANJAR, when 2d MEB flooded the Helmand River Valley with Marines in dozens of hastily built patrol bases, Little America enables the reader to begin to understand the Marine mindset. Their goal was to protect the people of Helmand, 2d MEB’s commanding general, then-BGen Lawrence D. Nicholson said, and that meant protecting their only real assets—their homes and their land. Working from these tiny bases in the villages, the Marines would live and work with the Afghans and expand into the farming areas outside, training the Afghan National Security Forces, reopening schools, and building relationships with the village elders. It would not be quick. Nicholson warned his Marines, “You can surge troops, but you can’t surge trust.”

Little America excels in bringing the reader both the big picture and the view from the boots on the ground. Chandrasekaran has eaten more than his share of dirt on more than a dozen embeds into Afghanistan. From accompanying the Marines during the March 2010 offensive in Marjah to numerous patrols in the summer’s brutal heat, he sees and relates the effect of these big picture decisions on those young Marines implementing them—and he cannot find enough superlatives to describe their actions.

But he uses no superlatives in discussing the State Department’s and USAID’s efforts. Other than a few individuals who worked with the Marines in Iraq, Little America calls out the State Department and USAID for staffing their Kabul offices with employees who were disinterested, inept, or only interested in the paycheck—“their C team.” Chandrasekaran describes them as gauging success by dollars spent, regardless of whether the dollars were spent effectively or needed to be spent at all.

Much of Little America discusses Chandrasekaran’s belief that the Marines should have been assigned to Kandahar, which has a far larger population; if counterinsurgency is population-centric, shouldn’t the Marines have been assigned to an area with a far larger population? In theory, yes, but then the reality of MAGTF versus Army-Air Force joint operations planned from huge forward operating bases far away from the Afghan people, Canadian recalcitrance, and the overall bureaucratic nature of ISAF headquarters would have only added to the confusion.

Has Obama’s surge been wasted? Not by the Marines who walked 7,000 patrols weekly in Regional Command (Southwest) and turned Helmand from the most violent province to one of the quietest. Have the extra Army troops and money allocated to the State Department and USAID offered similar results? Chandrasekaran presents the facts and lets the readers draw their own conclusions. But since it is next to impossible to write a definitive book on a war while it’s still being fought, Chandrasekaran’s well-written and thoughtful book, Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan, sets the early standard for studying the American mission into Afghanistan.


LITTLE AMERICA: The War Within the War for Afghanistan.
By Rajiv Chandrasekaran.
Knopf, New York, 2013
ISBN 0307957144, 384 pp.
$27.95 (Member $25.15)

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A Complicated Mission