What might have been in Afghanistan

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The what-might-have-beens about Afghanistan are already starting, even though there are still about 90,000 U.S. troops there.

U.S. forces will draw down to 68,000 by September and will shift from a combat to an advisory role in 2013; most American troops are due to return home by the end of 2014. Yet, despite the loss of almost 2,000 U.S. soldiers in an effort to stabilize the country, the Afghan future remains murky. A Taliban comeback is quite possible.

So it’s worth reading a new book, out last week, by senior Washington Post correspondent Rajiv Chandrasekaran, called “Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan,” to get a sobering look at what went wrong.

Chandrasekaran, who made many trips to Afghanistan, focuses on the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar, which were the Taliban heartland, and on Kandahar city, which was Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar’s home base in the 1990s. I traveled to Helmand and Kandahar in 2010 and 2011 and saw many of the same problems the author details.

This was the area into which President Obama “surged” 30,000 troops at the military’s request (all will have been withdrawn by the end of this summer). The goal of the surge was to break the Taliban’s momentum, turn locals against it, and push insurgents toward reconciliation.

For reasons largely having to do with rivalries within NATO and between the Marine Corps and Army, the bulk of the surge troops went to sparsely populated Helmand — rather than to the critical area around Kandahar city or to troubled eastern provinces. But even had the surge troops been better directed — and even after they calmed Helmand and much of Kandahar province — their work was undermined.

One factor was key: No matter how many insurgent networks were destroyed, they could still regroup across the border in friendly Pakistan, where they could recruit more manpower in religious madrassas, and purchase ammonium nitrate for roadside bombs. I’ll always recall a U.S. colonel cursing in Helmand: “If we could only shut down that ratline from ... Pakistan, we could win this.” Or, if the Taliban no longer had a safe haven in Pakistan, the Afghans could sort things out themselves.

But much of Chandrasekaran’s book is taken up with tales of incompetent U.S. civilian aid efforts, which were meant to complement the military efforts and persuade the Afghans to reject the Taliban. U.S. civilians were also supposed to combat the corruption of the regime of President Hamid Karzai, which drove many locals toward the Taliban. Not surprisingly, they failed.

The title of his book, Little America, refers to the self-contained American compound U.S. aid workers built in the 1950s and 1960s when they were working in Helmand province on never-completed agricultural projects.

Ironically, Afghans still remember those Americans fondly, and were expectant that these new Americans might deliver this time.

Instead, as happened in Iraq, the U.S. rush to produce a “civilian surge” of diplomats and aid workers led to a flood of underqualified applicants, many out for the bonus pay, who were mainly clustered in Kabul and rarely ventured out to meet Afghans. It also produced a surge of lucrative contracts for Beltway-bandit firms, which dispersed floods of cash for short-lasting projects.

But the likely knee-jerk reaction in Congress — to slash foreign aid — misses a deeper point. We do have people who know how to do development right, as shown by some of Chandrasekaran’s heroes, such as State Department advisers Kael Weston and Carter Malkasian. They learned the local language, spent years in Iraq and Afghanistan, and defied draconian U.S. security restrictions in order to mix with Iraqis and Afghans, rather than remaining on base.

The problem is that our bureaucracy, under both Democrats and Republicans, is unwilling to require such tough standards — or look honestly at what happens when we don’t.

One might conclude that we should never try this again — at least until we can produce a qualified corps of civilians. But, unfortunately, we are still stuck with the Afghan problem. And, as Chandrasekaran also details, bitter conflicts within the administration over Afghan strategy have led to a point where it’s hard to foresee a positive outcome.

When the late, abrasive, special Afghan envoy Richard Holbrooke sought to talk with the Taliban, the military was hostile; now such diplomacy is belatedly considered vital, yet it looks unlikely to flower. Meantime, Washington is relying on the Afghan troops we trained to take over, even though few believe they are capable of doing so.

Many Americans won’t care: Two-thirds of Americans no longer believe this war is worth fighting. But a failed Afghanistan will continue to haunt us, especially with nuclear-armed Pakistan next door. And our mistakes there raise real questions about future U.S. military strategy.

Chandrasekaran’s book should make any politician who seeks to involve us in another Mideast war think twice.

• Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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