‘Despite 30 years of war,’ remarked General Stanley McChrystal, the commander in 2009 of NATO forces in Afghanistan, ‘civilisation grows here like weeds.’ Unfortunately for the Afghans, their tribal, rural, autarchic civilisation that grows so readily has never been acceptable either to the western allies or to the Taleban.
However much NATO’s military goal has altered in the ten years it has been fighting there — from driving out al-Qa’eda and their Taleban hosts, to pacifying the country for elections, to holding the fort for their product, President Karzai, to countering the Taleban’s growing insurgency, to defeating the Taleban’s increasing terrorism, to withdrawal in 2014 — the civilian aim has always remained the same: to create a society resistant to Taleban rule.
In northern Afghanistan that has probably been achieved — primarily by reinforcing existing tribal structures — but repeated attempts at reform in the southern swathe, and especially the war-torn provinces of Helmand and Kandahar, have left the mosaic of village, clan and linguistic loyalties largely unchanged, and singularly vulnerable to Taleban incursion.
Whether some other outcome might have been possible is the central question of this compelling and clear-sighted account, from an American perspective, of the last three years of hostilities in the south. As he demonstrated in his justly applauded dissection of the shortcomings of the Iraq war, Imperial Life in the Emerald City, Rajiv Chandrasekaran, a distinguished journalist with the Washington Post, has impressive access to high-powered sources, but his outstanding ability is to place violence in its strategic context. His book catches the chaos and bloodshed of a firefight in Sangin, pulls back to the military planning beforehand, then to the earlier political calculations, and travels again down the bureaucratic channels and the lines of command to the battle itself and the consequences, invariably different to those originally calculated. Very rarely does he lose focus, and the picture that emerges is fascinating, moving and distressing.
Little America takes its title from the legacy of the last attempt to modernise Afghan society, when the Americans built a network of dams, canals and a hydro-electric power station in Helmand during the 1950s that still provide much of the south’s water and power. Unfortunately, lack of drainage and water salinity left much of the soil unfit for anything but growing opium poppies, while the rush of incomers to the region destroyed the old hierarchy of clan chiefs and regional warlords. It was no coincidence that dysfunctional Helmand and Kandahar became the birthplace of the Taleban.
The Little America syndrome still holds good — in 2008 a giant turbine for the power station, transported under the guard of 4,000 British troops, proved useless because 700 tons of concrete required for its base never arrived — and as the book makes clear in merciless detail continues to bedevil every attempt to introduce what the Ministry of Defence’s current website calls ‘strong democratic institutions, a functioning legal system, and a sustainable and legitimate economy’.
At times, Chandrasekaran seems to suggest the reason is political — American farm interests frustrated attempts to introduce cotton as a replacement crop for opium — and at times he points to military shortcomings — lack of numbers and equipment nullifying the gallantry of Britain’s 9,000-strong force, while the backing of American troops by seemingly unlimited resources, from tilt-engined aircraft to impregnable armoured vehicles and an annual budget of $100 billion, led them to dissipate their strength in over-ambitious operations.
But ultimately it is the underlying reality of Afghanistan itself — green valleys sliced up by sharp mountains and a population that is 70 per cent rural — that dictates the outcome. We have built hospitals, schools, roads and airfields there, and these are important. But as Little America makes clear, the country’s farmers and villagers need the security and order that tribal and religious allegiances have always provided. To replace that structure would require full-scale imperial colonisation rather than a mere ten years’ war.