One of the most refreshing observers of international affairs is Rajiv Chandrasekaran, a senior Correspondent and associate editor with The Washington Post. His book “Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone” is a must-read for anyone sincerely interested in what happened in Operation Iraqi Freedom. His new book “Little America” is an equally insightful about Operation Enduring Freedom.
One of the things that makes Chandrasekaran so compelling as a narrator is his everyman approach. He sees what we would see, he asks what we might ask and he reacts as we might react. Even as he describes the most absurd circumstances, he never loses us because he is always anchored in reasonableness.
Last week, I have the chance to discuss with Chandrasekaran the war in Afghanistan and his new book exclusively for Guns & Patriots. Totally in character, he insisted I tell you: “I’m eager for feedback from G&P readers who read the book. Feel free to drop me a note at [email protected].”
Most importantly, Chandrasekaran said the war is not over and we still have game to play.
“I don’t believe we have ‘lost’ Afghanistan,” he said.
“Sure, traditional notions of victory are unlikely—the future there almost certainly will be chaotic and violent, with anti-government elements controlling parts of the country–but it’s hard to imagine the Taliban rolling into Kabul in pickup trucks with the same ease as they did in the mid-1990s,” he said.
The two heroes of the book should have been the theater commander Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal and Richard C. A. Holbrooke, the president’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Both men were cheated out of their moment by President Obama and his staff.
Holbrooke, who started his career as a civic advisor and embassy staffer in South Vietnam, was the man who negotiated the peace in the Balkans in the late 1990s. In Afghanistan, he was convinced he could cut a deal with the Taliban and end the war.
“There’s no guarantee that Holbrooke could have hammered out a peace deal with the Taliban—in fact, the chances were very, very slim—but he never really had a chance,” the author said.
Those slim chances were crushed by White House staffers, who resented Holbrooke’s overblown personality, he said.
“Instead of capitalizing on Holbrooke’s experience and supporting his push for reconciliation with the Taliban, White House officials dwelled on his shortcomings — his disorganization, his manic intensity, his thirst for the spotlight, his dislike of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, his tendency to badger fellow senior officials,” he said.
While Holbrooke and the courtiers spun each other’s wheels, the Afghanistan Surge was launched and spent.
“At every turn, they sought to marginalize him and diminish his influence. The infighting exacted a staggering cost: The Obama White House failed to aggressively explore negotiations to end the war when it had the most boots on the battlefield,” Chandrasekaran said. Holbrooke died in Dec. 13, 2010 after taking ill at his State Department desk.
McChrystal’s firing by the president also hurt the war effort, he said. The general was fired June 23, 2010 after a damaging article about him and his staff appeared in Rolling Stone magazine.
“McChrystal was a very dynamic general who had a vision for stabilizing Afghanistan,” he said.
“Had McChrystal been left in command, it would have increased the chances of a coherent U.S. government policy on negotiating with the Taliban,” he said. “Soon before he was fired, McChrystal had come around on the issue of reconciling with the Taliban, provided that the insurgents renounce violence, break with al-Qaeda and accept the Afghan constitution. He even had several discussions with Holbrooke on the subject. “
McChrystal was succeeded as the commander for the International Security Assistance Force by Army Gen. David H. Petraeus.
“His successor, General David Petraeus, was no slouch, but McChrystal’s firing did come at cost: It was a distraction that cost valuable months. Petraeus’s team had to get up to speed on the war, right in the middle of the summer fighting season,” he said.
“Had McChrystal been left in command, it would have increased the chances of a coherent U.S. government policy on negotiating with the Taliban. Soon before he was fired, McChrystal had come around on the issue of reconciling with the Taliban, provided that the insurgents renounce violence, break with al-Qaeda and accept the Afghan constitution. He even had several discussions with Holbrooke on the subject,” he said.
The former Baghdad bureau chief for The Washington Post said the Afghan National Army functions as a military force and can bring the fight to the enemies of the government.
“The Afghan army, which has been built and trained with a lot of very hard work—and billions of our taxpayer dollars—should be strong enough to keep the Taliban from retaking major cities, provided that the United States and our NATO allies continue to provide much-needed financial support to the Afghan army and the Afghan government,” he said.
“The Afghan army, for instance, will need about $4 billion a year to sustain its operations. It sounds like an enormous amount of money, but it pales in comparison to the $100 billion a year the U.S. government was spending to sustain the troop surge,” he said.
“Even if the funding comes through, there are other concerns about the Afghan army—one of which is right up the alley of Guns & Patriots readers: Thus far, the U.S. military has provided conventional Afghan soldiers with M-16 rifles,” he said. This is as nearly all American troops carry the M-4 carbine, the shorter and lighter cousin of the M-16.
“But many Afghans are far more comfortable shooting AK-47s. And, given their weapons-maintenance habits—cleaning doesn’t occur all that often—there are real concerns that the M-16s will jam in combat. AKs, on the other hand, can be buried in the backyard for 10 years and still fire,” he said.
“I’m no firearms expert, but there are important questions to be asked about the weapons going to the Afghan soldiers,” he said. “Are we giving them the weapons we want to give them, even if they are of better quality, or the weapons the Afghans know how to use, want to use, and can properly care for? “
Another subplot of the book is the struggle by American soldiers to synthesize the lessons of Iraq with the combat realities of Afghanistan.
“There was a view, in some quarters of the U.S. military, that a troop surge could quickly turn around Afghanistan because they believed a surge had prevented Iraq from slipping into a deeper civil war,” the longtime foreign correspondent said.
“I believe that thinking had two key flaws: Afghanistan is a far more complex country that was resistant to rapid change compelled by the presence of new forces, many Afghans, for instance, see their government as worse than the Taliban and had no desire to support U.S. troops and they sought to connect people to their government,” he said.
“The second reason is that the surge in Iraq did not spark changes that eventually reduce violence; those changes had occurred before the surge troops arrived, but the additional forces were able to accelerate the changes,” he said.
“In Afghanistan, such acceleration was difficult, if not impossible, because Afghans weren’t ready to take advantage of the surge by supporting their government; in turn, the Kabul government was unprepared and unwilling to deliver the necessary services to the population to take full advantage of the U.S. surge,” he said.
When it comes to his lessons learned, Chandrasekaran said one problem was the lack of unity of effort: “When it comes to fighting a war, all parts of our government need to row in the same direction. Unfortunately, each bureaucracy wanted to push its own agenda, or it failed to faithfully execute war policy. “
There was a under-concentration of force: “The Pentagon dispatched too many troops to the wrong places—we made a big stand in Helmand when we should have focused on the more critical and populous areas in and around Kandahar City,” he said.
Finally, he said civilian agencies were sluggish, he said.
“The State Department ‘civilian surge’ was too slow and it resulted in too many civilians staying on the massive embassy complex in Kabul instead of deploying to the field, where they were needed,” he said.
“The U.S. Agency for International Development flooded the country with too much money, which fueled the very corruption we were trying to stem,” he said. “As I write in the end of the book: ‘For years, we dwelled on the limitations of the Afghans. We should have focused on ours.’”