June 26, 2012

Special Abu Muqawama Q&A with Rajiv Chandrasekaran

Rajiv Chandrasekaran's excellent if depressing new book Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan
comes out today. You may have already read excerpts in the Washington Post. Rajiv wrote much of the book while on leave from the Post and locked away in a cubby hole at the Center for a New American Security, so we are hosting a book event for him tonight to which you are all invited. 

I read the book in two sittings on Friday and Sunday afternoons. Rajiv's first book depressed me because I was close enough to the shenanigans up the road in the Green Zone to be angered by them. This book depresses me because I was even closer to many of the shenanigans in question and know some of the protagonists. I was also forced, in reading this book, to go back and think through my own assumptions in 2009, many of which I got wrong. Rajiv's third book, presumably, will be about how I myself incompetently managed the occupation of Syria and hosted wild parties at the embassy in Damascus while Marines fought mightily in Homs.

A friend of mine has never forgiven me for saying he was a "loser" in Tom's narrative of the Surge in Iraq. (He insists I called him a loser in life, which I didn't do -- I just wrote that he was a "loser" in the narrative Tom presented.) This book has very few winners and very many losers. The winners? A few intrepid U.S. military officers and diplomats. The losers? Pretty much everyone else -- and especially the U.S. Marine Corps and the U.S. Agency for International Development. I really hope those two organizations in particular take the lessons from this book and remember them going forward but suspect they will instead go into a defensive crouch.

Anyway ... on to the questions. 

1. You argue, in this book, that the United States essentially lost the first year of the Surge in Afghanistan because of the way in which it allocated its troops — sending thousands of Marines to Helmand Province instead of, say, Kandahar City. Who was responsible for that decision?

The responsibility rests with several senior U.S. and NATO officers. When commanders at the NATO regional headquarters in southern Afghanistan were asked by their superiors in 2008 to identify how they would use an additional combat brigade, they picked Helmand over Kandahar. Those officers — Dutch Maj. Gen. Mart de Kruif and his deputies, among them U.S. Army Brig. Gen. John “Mick” Nicholson — identified four reasons to send the forces to Helmand instead of Kandahar.

First, that the Canadian forces who had responsibility for Kandahar province didn’t want to cede more territory to the United States. Some Canadian officials were convinced security in Kandahar was improving; others didn’t want to risk the embarrassment. Either way, U.S. commanders didn’t want to push the Canadians to shrink their battlespace.

Second, Helmand was the epicenter of poppy production.

Third, there were more Taliban attacks in Helmand than any other province.

And fourth, foreign troops needed to stay out of Kandahar city, given its cultural and religious significance.

Our own Abu Muqawama (then a member of General McChrystal’s initial assessment team) was among those to question all four points. As I write in the book, “If the mission were to protect the people, Exum thought, the new troops should be closer to the largest population center in the south, not where violence was worst. The drug argument similarly made no sense to him, since Richard Holbrooke had just announced that to avoid antagonizing farmers the United States would no longer participate in the eradication of poppy fields; a CIA study also claimed that the Taliban got most of its money from illegal taxation and contributions from Pakistan and Persian Gulf nations, not from drugs. And even if the Afghans were right about the psychological impact of foreign forces inside the city—some on the assessment team questioned that logic—the surrounding districts seemed like the best home for the Marines. The Taliban’s surge in Helmand was ‘a feint,’ Exum wrote in his notebook. ‘It draws our attention and resources away from Kandahar.’”

The ultimate decision on where to place the first wave of new troops authorized by President Obama in February 2009 rested with the top U.S. and NATO commander in Kabul at the time, Gen. David McKiernan.

When McChrystal arrived in Afghanistan in June 2009, he gave thought to moving the Marines. By then, however, it was too late. But even if it hadn’t been, his hands would have been tied, because of a conditions set forth by the Marine Commandant at the time, General James Conway. He insisted that the Marines operate in a contiguous area where they could be supported by their own aviation. That effectively ruled out Kandahar. Conway also insisted that a three-star Marine general at CENTCOM have overall operational control of the Marine brigade. That meant McChrystal couldn’t have moved the Marines to Kandahar without the approval of the Marine high command.

2. And people wonder why I love U.S. Marines but have very little patience for the U.S. Marine Corps. (I really need to burn those notebooks, by the way.) But is it really possible to hold the Obama Administration even partially responsible for a decision related to the order of battle on the ground? Sam Huntington argued that politicians should set the policy and agree on a set of strategic objectives and resources with their commanders but that it was up to the commanders themselves to figure out how to operationalize the strategy. Is it then reasonable to criticize the administration for errors made by field commanders?

I agree that it doesn’t make sense for the White House to manage operational or tactical decisions, but the president and his national security team should be fully aware of how the troops are being used. It’s just a brigade, you might say, so what’s the big deal? Perhaps in the context of World War II or Vietnam, it’s a rounding error, but in the context of Afghanistan, the rationale for the placement of 10,672 Marines out of an initial deployment of 17,000 troops should have been clearer to the White House. A new president, signing off on his first troop deployment, should at least have known — or been told — that a majority of those forces were being sent to a part of Afghanistan that is home to about one percent of the country’s population.

3. You displayed a lot of admiration for the U.S. Marine Corps in your reporting for the Washington Post and again in this book. But you also have some very sharp criticisms toward the way the U.S. Marine Corps protected its own parochial interests at the expense of what you see as the greater mission in Afghanistan. Describe for us why you admire the Marines who fought in Afghanistan but fault the Marine Corps as an institution.

I think the Marines — particularly the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade (the first tranche, which was sent in 2009) under the command of then Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson — did an amazing job under very challenging circumstances. The work they did in Nawa and Garmser, in particular, was standout COIN (putting aside questions of whether we should have been engaged in a full-on COIN mission there). Did Nicholson push into some places that USG and NATO civilian advisers -- and his NATO bosses in Kandahar and Kabul -- thought were unnecessary? Yes. But the fault, as I write, did not rest with him. He was given the troops, and he was doing what any good field commander would. He wasn't going to let them cool their heels at Camp Leatherneck.

The problem was tribalism — among the Americans, not the Afghans. Marine leaders did not really want to be joint and interoperable. They wanted their own turf, even to the detriment of the overall war effort.

This is what I write in the book:

"[Political adviser Kael] Weston didn’t think Nicholson was being insubordinate in moving into Taghaz. Taking Kamchatka was a rational act if you had the troops. Weston believed the surge had put too many pieces on the Risk board. The problem had been compounded by the decision to send the Marine brigade to Helmand instead of Kandahar. The blame for those choices lay not with Nicholson but in Washington. To Weston, Nicholson was an aggressive commander who was using the resources at his disposal to secure his entire area of operations. Weston disagreed with some of Nicholson’s moves, but the political adviser understood that the general was playing the generous hand he had been dealt. He wasn’t going to keep his Marines sitting on bases.

"There was no doubt in Weston’s mind — or in mine — that Nicholson had used his forces to transform the central Helmand River Valley, evicting the Taliban from its sanctuaries and giving the Afghans another chance to make something of Little America. By the time they departed in mid-2010, Nawa had grown so quiet that Marines regularly walked around without their flak vests. Much of Garmser was safe enough for American civilians to commence reconstruction projects. Hundreds of families were returning to Now Zad. Even the bleeding ulcer of Marja was starting to heal. Nicholson’s year in Helmand felt like the most dynamic and entrepreneurial period of the Afghan War. After years of drift, momentum was finally starting to swing America’s way."

And this from the last chapter:

“Over drinks with a Marine general in a still gentrifying Washington neighborhood, I compared Afghanistan to a run-down urban street. It seemed, I said, as if the United States were devoting a large share of its community redevelopment funds to transform one tenement at the end of the block into a swanky mansion. What happens, I asked the general, if we win Helmand but lose Afghanistan? ‘That would be just fine for the Corps,”’ he said.”

The 2nd MEB has been awarded the prestigious Presidential Unit Citation. I'm no judge of awards, but their work sounds PUC worthy to me. But what if they had done all of that good work closer to the country's second-largest population center?

4. You're also unforgiving in your description of the civilian effort in Afghanistan (in a chapter bluntly titled "Deadwood"). You've now been witness to incompetent U.S. civilian efforts in two wars. Is there any hope for the U.S. government in this regard? What does observing the U.S. civilian efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan make you think as a taxpayer?

I believe that our nation has the talent to engage in war-zone nation building, if that’s something we decide to do again. (Any policymaker or military leader who thinks that’s a good idea needs to have his or her head examined.) The problem is that those doing the hiring for the civilian component don’t look in the right places. Instead of scouring the United States for top talent to fill the crucial, well-paying jobs that were a key element of President Obama’s national security agenda — they should have brought in top-level headhunters. Those responsible for hiring (often bureaucrats in D.C. with no great sense of urgency or creativity) first turned to State Department and USAID officers in other parts of the world. But the best of them had already served in Iraq or Afghanistan. Many of those who signed up were too new to have done a tour in a war zone or too lackluster to have better career options. Then they turned to retirees and to contractors who had served in Iraq. The right people do exist. We just have to find them, and then convince them to serve their nation.

5. Despite the criticisms, there are some real heroes in this book. Kael Weston and Carter Malkasian stand out in particular. What makes guys like that special, and who are some other heroes?

Kael spent seven years in Iraq and Afghanistan. Carter spent two years in a hot and dusty forward operating base in Garmser. They built trust with the Marines they served with, and the Afghans. I really respect Kael and Carter, and I wish I could say they are two-of-a-kind, but the truth is that many civilians working for the government could be just like them. If they agreed to spend real time on the ground. If they took the time to build relationships, and, in Carter’s case, learn the language. If they were willing to flout stupid rules set down by the embassy’s security officer.

Most importantly, they were willing to define their jobs in ways to give them maximum influence. Kael called himself a political commissar, not a political adviser. He constantly reminded the Marines that they had been deployed in support of the Afghan people — and as an extension of civilian diplomatic policy, not the other way around. Carter also saw his role as more a proconsul than an adviser. He single-handedly cajoled influential tribal leaders and mullahs to return to Garmser district, correctly betting that their presence would lead others to follow. He won the trust of skeptical residents through countless meetings and roadside conversations, convincing them to reject the insurgency and support their government. He also shaped the Marine campaign in Garmser in a way no civilian had in other parts of the country. He served as a counselor to five successive battalion commanders, influencing decisions about when to use force and helping them calibrate it with a political engagement strategy. He built such credibility with the Marines that if he urged a different course of action than the one they were planning, they almost always complied. Larry Nicholson was among his biggest fans. He thought the Americans needed a Carter Malkasian in every district of Afghanistan.

They weren’t the only ones. State Department officer Marlin Hardinger spent three years working at the provincial reconstruction team office in Helmand. He’s just finished a year of Pashto study and will be heading back for another year or two. That’s dedication.
There are/were others like them. But the problem is they are the exception, not the rule.

6. I always end with a question about food or drink. What are the top three most memorable meals you have enjoyed in Iraq or Afghanistan -- and why?

a. Eating chicken enrobed in an inch-deep layer of oil on the roof of the police station in Garmser with district governor Abdul Manaf. We spent a while joking about his deputy’s virility — the man had two wives and more than twenty children. But then the conversation moved onto the future of Afghanistan. It was then I wondered whether men like him — in whom the U.S. military and diplomatic corps had invested so much — would be able to survive once the Americans leave.

b. The First Strike MRE I cracked open after spending nine hours walking, kneeling, crawling and worming on my belly on the first day of the Marine operation to clear the Taliban from Marja. I was cold, wet, tired and miserable. Food never tasted better, even if it was processed junk with a ten-year-long shelf life.

c. The lunch that never was. I was on my way to have lunch with Ahmed Wali Karzai when I received word that he had been killed.

Ha. I sometimes test intelligence officers by asking them about local power brokers and who they had lunch with yesterday. It turns out a safe answer is "Rajiv Chandrasekaran." Buy his book here.