Rajiv Chandrasekaran on Afghanistan and His Book, Little America
HH: Special interview today. I don’t often spend this much time on a book. It has to be a book that I’ve nominated for the necessary bookshelf to understand the times in which we live, and the decisions in front of us. But the new book, Little America: The War Within The War For Afghanistan is such a book. Its author of Rajiv Chandrasekaran. He is the national bureau chief for the Washington Post. I got it wrong. Rajiv, thank you and welcome. I’m going to butcher the name a few times, but I’ll get it right before long.
RC: Hey, don’t worry. It’s great to be on with you. Just call me Rajiv. Everyone else does.
HH: You know who did earlier? I was talking earlier today with John Burns in London, part of my Olympic coverage, and he said to say hello to you, that you’re an old friend of his. And that’s not surprising to me, but at the same time, I told him I would pass it along. He said send him a book.
RC: I will do that. You know, John did some great reporting, great reporting all over the world. But we were together in Baghdad for those first few years after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. And he’s just done some really courageous work there and beyond.
HH: Well, I took Little America: The War Within The War For Afghanistan with me to Europe over the last two weeks, and it is so heavily annotated. And I’ve got to begin by telling you a little story before I dive into the book. As I was finishing the book, I was landing in Heathrow, transiting back from Europe. And I thought you know what? I never read Imperial Life In The Emerald City, which is Rajiv’s great bestseller from three or four years ago. Let me download that as I sit here on the tarmac, and I’ll read what he had to say at least at the beginning and the end of the book to put Little America into context. And I opened up, and I read in your preface, and then I read in your conclusion, your conversations with my old and dear friend, John Agresto, who I was his lawyer at the NEH. I’ve known John for 20 years. And I’m amazed that that’s how your book began. And I’m also amazed that the same problems that you’re talking about that he was encountering with civil aid agencies in America didn’t change between the Iraqi theater in which you were reporting then, and the Afghanistan theater in which you’re reporting now.
RC: You’d like to think that our government would learn something over the course of these years, and our engagements in these wars. And I approached the Afghan war thinking that things would be different. And I was sorely disappointed. But to John Agresto, a great American, and he really helped open my eyes to the U.S. engagement in Iraq. He went there to try to rebuild and reopen Iraqi universities, and it’s somebody with great credentials in higher education in the United States, and grew very frustrated by it, particularly by the way our government was approaching it, and has since spent a lot of time building a university up in Northern Iraq, but doing so directly, sort of with his own hands. And I really think an awful lot about him, and the real commitment he’s shown to help the people of Iraq over these years.
HH: Well, one of the things I’m amazed by about Little America, and it fits with Agresto, and I just call him Agresto because he’s such a pal, but there aren’t really a lot of ugly Americans in your books. Kael Weston, Carter Malkasian, Wes Harris, Summer Coish, along with Agresto, these are all civilians, and then I’ll back to the military, these extraordinary men and women in the military. But we do have a lot of big-hearted Americans who really wanted to do the right things by these countries.
RC: Oh, totally. You know, I spent fifteen trips out in Afghanistan, and in multiple weeks at a time. And when you’re down there in the field, the American civilians, the American military officers, these are people who have the best of intentions, work, sometimes, these people are working 20 hours a day, seven days a week, for year-long tours, sometimes more than a year, to try to do right by the Afghan people, trying to help their country, the United States. And I just came away feeling, how do I put this, I mean, these are great people doing great work. The problem is their leaders aren’t serving them well. But those who are out in the field, in many cases, now there’s some exceptions, I did find some duds out there, but I’ve chosen to focus on some of these heroes, because I think that they represent what’s good about the country, what’s good about the policy, yet for the best of efforts, in many cases, their good work was marginalized because of the bureaucracy, because of a policy that didn’t meet, in many cases, their commitment and their sacrifices. And there’s this horrible disconnect between what was happening on top and what was happening on the bottom.
HH: I’m talking with Rajiv Chandrasekaran. He is the national editor for the Washington Post. He has previously been a bureau chief for the Post in Baghdad and Cairo. He’s a graduate of Stanford College, author of the brand new book, Little America: The War Within The War For Afghanistan. And because I consider what happens there in the next, probably, six months pivotal, I’m going to spend a lot of time today with Rajiv talking about his book. The subtitle is The War Within The War For Afghanistan, Rajiv, and in fact, there are books within this book. There is a book about the U.S. history in Afghanistan, there’s a book about the Marine Corps in Afghanistan, there’s a book about Obama administration policy making towards Afghanistan, there’s a book about Cale Weston and all these other Americans with the agencies and the NGO’s, there’s a book about the British and Helmand. There’s even a book about the Afghans, whether it’s President Karzai or this amazing General Razziq, or Governor Mangal. I mean, is it fair to say there are many books within this book?
RC: There are a lot of stories that I’m trying to weave in here. Yeah, and you’ve read this book. It blows me away that you took the time to really engage with this. But you know, Afghanistan is a complicated story. America’s engagement there is. And so I have to tell all of these stories, and weave them together to try to help the reader understand the complexity of our involvement there. And you were noting sort of this early history, and this is where the book starts. And I find this really remarkable, I mean, that most of us think that America’s engagement in Afghanistan began with the 9/11 attacks, or began with the Soviet invasion, and the U.S. support for the Mujahideen rebels. But what I discovered is that America’s engagement in Afghanistan actually began in the late 1940s, a story that actually begins with the Holocaust, as Jewish fur traders forced to flee Europe resettle in New York and need a new source for pelts, and turn to Afghanistan. And so in the late 30s and early 40s, Afghanistan exports between one and two million fur pelts a year to the United States. The sale of each one puts a few more dollars in the Afghan government’s treasury. And so at the end of World War II, the Afghan government, the king in Kabul, says I’d like to modernize my country. He looked at what happened with the Tennessee Valley Authority in the United States during the Depression, and said I’d like to build a dam in my country, and try to turn the barren desert in the south into a breadbasket, into an agriculture oasis. And so he uses his own money, or the country’s own money, it wasn’t a foreign aid project back then, to hire the American engineering firm that had built the Hoover Dam and the San Francisco Bay Bridge, bring them to Afghanistan to build a network of irrigation canals to try to turn his country into, you know, what we were doing with the Central Valley of California in the early part of the previous century. And it was a project that ultimately didn’t work all that well, in part because of outsized expectations, in part because the contractor sort of fleeced the Afghans, because of miscommunication, because the Americans wound up listening to the suit-wearing, English-speaking modern-minded Afghans in Kabul, and not really listening to what the rural, traditional, conservative forces down in the south wanted. And this miscommunication, this whole project that didn’t flourish, I see as a parable for our later engagement there.
HH: And boy, it runs through the entire book as those canals run throughout Helmand Province. And it’s an amazing theme that you picked up on. I didn’t know, Rajiv, that between 1960 and 1970, three-quarters of every dollar that went into Afghanistan went into Helmand Province. I’d never heard of Helmand Province until the British Marines, the British military deployed there in force in support of the war four or five years back.
RC: I had no idea about all this stuff, either. But it turns out, Hugh, that it wasn’t all that hard to find. I mean, there’s material about this in the Library of Congress, in the National Archives, in the U.S. Agency for International Development’s own files. All that stuff was right there for the picking if U.S. officials, starting in 2001, wanted to read it, wanted to learn about it, and wanted to use it to inform how they were going to go about a nation-build in Afghanistan. But instead, most people simply ignored it. And so when I started reading this stuff, and started raising it with senior level officials, both in the State Department and at USAID and then the Pentagon, they were all surprised. They were like, seriously? I had no idea. And to me, this was a real failing. We need to understand this history if we’re going to sort of move forward and try to build anew over there, and if that’s even what we want to do.
– – – –
HH: Rajiv, when I was running down the various subjects I want to cover with you, I did not say that this was a book about the Taliban, or about al Qaeda, although, for example, Page 233, you write that, “Mullah Omar’s annual messages at the Eid al-Fitr holiday have become more sophisticated and moderate.” And there’s a lot of reflection of what’s going on, on that side of the aisle. But it’s not like your colleague, Joby Warrick, writing in the Triple Agent about how they are organizing themselves to strike again. There’s some of that, but I guess your point wasn’t what they’re doing. It’s what we’ve been doing.
RC: That’s right. My focus, really, is on the United States, is on our military, is on our civilian agencies, on the government here in Washington where I’m talking to you from today. That’s where I train my lens. It’s not really a book about the Afghan people, or the Afghan insurgents. What I’m looking at is what we Americans have tried to do there, and what’s worked, and what hasn’t, and why. I believe we’re a country with great ideals, great resources, great people who should be able to do better in these sorts of environments. And I’m trying to chronicle why our efforts there have not worked as many of us have hoped.
HH: Would you give the audience some sense of the amount of time you’ve spent in Afghanistan, and where you spent it, and what sort of conditions? I know you made over a dozen trips over 30 months, beginning in 2009 as part of the workup for Little America. But like how many days does that add up to, and where did you spend most of them?
RC: Well, the quick answer is way too many days for my wife or my mother to be happy about. But God, we’re talking dozens and dozens of weeks. You know, each of these, I’ve made fifteen trips since early 2009, each of them was between two and four weeks. Almost all of my time was spent down in Southern Afghanistan in Helmand and Kandahar, the two most violent provinces in the country. An awful lot of that time was spent with U.S. Army and Marine units walking foot patrols, flying in helicopters, getting shot at, having RPG’s sail over my head, crossing canals in the start of the Marine push to liberate the community of Marjah, a lot of time at senior levels with field-grade officers, with colonels and majors, and then up to field generals and those up in the headquarters, was given an awful lot of access by the U.S. military in telling this story, was allowed into all sorts of operational briefings, and really brought into the tent. Obviously, there are things that I didn’t put in the book because they’re sensitive, or compromised operational security matters. And I’ve tried to be very good with that. You know, I should note here, Hugh, in the response to this book, and the book is critical of decisions made by the military. It’s critical of decisions made by the civilians. The civilian response is to sort of declare me persona non grata. I just heard the other day that they’re trying to ban me from the U.S. Embassy compounds in Kabul. The civilian officials hate me. The military, while I am offering a critique of decisions made by the military, I was invited in several days ago to address the joint chiefs of staff’s Afghanistan-Pakistan Task Force at the Pentagon. I’m going up to the U.S. Army War College to speak to them. It’s on their fall reading list. I’m going down to Marine Corps University to speak to Marine officers who are there for a year-long program at Quantico. The military, our uniformed military wants to engage. They want to learn.
HH: Oh, I’m not surprised. Along with, I was trying to put it in the category with books like Thomas P.M. Barnett’s The Pentagon’s New Map, or Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower. You’ve poured a lot into this. Did you, how old are you, by the way, Rajiv?
RC: Oh, God, I’m 39.
HH: Did you ever see yourself doing this?
RC: No. I didn’t think I was going to be a war correspondent. I wound up in, I was in Cairo at the start of the Iraq War, and I wound up spending the bulk of the six months leading up to the U.S. invasion in Baghdad. It’s where I got to know John Burns. I was part of a small group of U.S. reporters that were allowed in. We were forced to stay at the al-Rashid Hotel. And then I stayed in Iraq for two more years to chronicle what came of it, thought I was done with war, came back here, ran our coverage of the 2008 elections. And then when Obama took office, it would have been easy to stay here in Washington and be an editor, or to cover what was happening here. But I thought you know, this is going to be an interesting moment in Afghanistan. We’ve got a president who says he wants to commit more resources to try and get it right there. Let me go back to the war zone and see what it’s all about. And Hugh, it may be a testament to what life is really like in an American newsroom that I chose to leave the comfortable confines of the Washington Post and go to a real war zone.
HH: Well, I’m hoping that Governor Romney, who of course if who I would prefer win this election by about a thousand percent, reads this, because I don’t think this war is lost. I want to come back to you later in the conversation and talk about that, based upon some of the things that you write about. And I hope people get all the way through the book to the end, because there’s a lot of, most of the hopeful stuff is towards the end as the surge took effect. But here’s the first key question. Has anything happened since you concluded it, wrapped it up, and sent it to the publisher that made you change your assessment of maybe how things are going there?
RC: Quite frankly, no. And that’s because the current administration is still on a path to try to rapidly disengage. That said, let me amend that remark, Hugh. Since I wrapped it up, I traveled to, I made another trip to Afghanistan, and I spent a lot of time with John Allen…
RC: …who’s the current top U.S. and NATO commander there, a brilliant, brilliant man. And we spent a lot of time together. and I’m convinced he actually has a sound strategy to start really transitioning control of parts of the country to the Afghans, and transferring responsibility to the Afghan Security Forces while we still have enough combat power there to help the Afghan units if they fall, and to provide them with medical evacuations, to provide them with air support, artillery, intelligence, and all those other enablers, as the military calls it. And he’s a really sharp commander who’s built good relations with the Afghan government. And I feel like we have a good strategy. The question is will that strategy be our strategy for the next couple of years? Or will it once again get thrown for a loop in the coming months?
HH: I’ll tell you, Rajiv, I had not read or heard of General Allen’s speech on the occasion of his addressing Marine Corps veterans in St. Louis after his son was killed in the war. And I’m trying to get the audio of that so we can play it in the course of this interview, because when you excerpt it on Pages 249-250, not only is it arresting and heartfelt, it’s also my worldview. And so I thought wow, this is how I think about this conflict. I’m not in the military, and never have been, but I’m so glad you put it in there, and no wonder the Pentagon respects your work, because I think you’ve accurately reflected a lot of their worldview of this war, and what happens if we blow it.
RC: Yeah, there’s, they feel that there are real stakes here. And there are. You know, look, regardless of whether you think a big counterinsurgency strategy is the right way to go, or a narrower counterterrorism mission, Afghanistan is still important, and here’s why.
HH: Hold that thought. Hold that thought until after the break.
– – – –
HH: When we went to break, Rajiv, you were saying the stakes are immense on how we leave or how we stay there.
RC: Yes, and we, I believe, have a moral obligation to the people of Afghanistan. Back in 2001, we told them if you side with us against the Taliban, we’ll give you a shot at a better, freer life. And I think we still owe it to them. And so look, this book is not, it’s not a polemic. It’s a work of reported journalism based on a lot of field visits out there. And it’s not a book that says pack and go home, it’s not a book that says the status quo is working. It’s a nuanced book that tries to help people understand the great complexities there. But Hugh, I couldn’t agree more with you when you talk about the stakes and the importance here. And really, what pains me, and I don’t want to jump ahead in our discussion, and I’m sure you’ll get to this, but you know, neither President Obama nor your man, Mitt Romney, spend nearly enough time talking about Afghanistan on the stump. We’ve got still 80,000 men and women in uniform there, thousands more civilians. This is the biggest, you know, war we’re fighting at the moment. It’s incumbent upon anybody, in my humble opinion, and I’m not a political guy. I’m not your traditional liberal journalist. I don’t vote in presidential elections.
HH: That’s clear. That’s clear from the writing.
RC: But I’ll tell you, I think that it’s incumbent on both of these candidates to talk about what’s going on there. We’ve committed so many troops there. They fight with great distinction. They’re putting their lives at risk every day. They deserve from their leaders and challengers to really not just draw attention to their sacrifice, but to talk honestly with the American people about where they see that mission going, what they would do. But the problem is neither one really has an incentive to do so. You know, for Romney, his principal critique of the President would be that the President didn’t do enough, didn’t commit forces for long enough, didn’t give the commanders what they needed. But I think he’s worried that there are elements of the Republican base that have now soured on the Afghan war…
RC: And so it wouldn’t be a helpful message there. And for President Obama, he doesn’t want to remind the Democratic base that he surged. So he has an incentive not to talk about it. And so you have both candidates essentially thinking that silence is more politically expedient than true, genuine engagement with the American people about what you rightly say is a very important national security issue.
HH: You know what’s a stunner? I think probably, and I don’t know if your PR people figured this out, Rajiv, but the story of Mullah Abdul Qayyum Zakir, and who he is, and where he was, and how we did not discover who he was, and then W.’s Gitmo people let him go, I’m floored by this.
RC: This is such a remarkable story. And as I was reporting it, I just couldn’t believe what I was finding. So the guy who is essentially the military leader of the Taliban today was somebody we were holding in Guantanamo. Now when we picked him, well, he was picked up by the Afghans and given over to us. He gave his American interrogators a false name. And we never understood who he really was. And so in 2006, the Defense Department assesses him to be of only medium intelligence value, and only a medium threat to the United States, and transfers him to the Afghans, who promise to keep him locked up. But of course, within six months, the Afghans mysteriously let him go. And within weeks, he’s in Quetta, Pakistan, and liking up with the Taliban high command, and eventually rises through the ranks to be essentially the number two leader of this movement.
HH: Oh, he’s their Patton. I mean, great reporting, by the way, extraordinary stories of him on his motorbike zipping around and encouraging the Talibs of Helmand and everywhere else. But I’m sitting there, he was in Gitmo, and here he is, charismatic…when we come back from break, we’ll talk a little bit more about this. But my hat is off to you. Has that been picked up on? Has anyone else noticed this yet?
RC: A little bit here and there, but you know, it’s a story that people just don’t really want to engage with, because it’s so embarrassing.
HH: Oh, it’s embarrassing, and if I was in the American military, if I was the family of someone wounded in the war, lost in the war after he had gone back, I would be so angry.
– – – –
HH: Rajiv, we were taking when we went to break about Mullah Abdul Qayyum Zakir, who is the sort of number two commander of the Taliban, in Afghanistan, going back and forth across the border, how he’d been a prisoner in Gitmo, and he, as you detail, he stonewalled us. He eluded detection through all our many interrogations. And you’ve got the transcripts of some of these interrogations where our guys are just befuddled. So here’s a question you may not even want to answer. But if we’d waterboarded him, would we have found out who he was? And would we ever send him back?
RC: You know, that’s a good question. I don’t know the answer to that. You know, it’s one of those great what ifs. But put aside particular methods. There was more that we could have done, in my opinion, to try to uncover who he was. And that might not have involved him acknowledging it, but basic connecting of the dots. The guy was picked up with the Taliban’s army chief, if you will. This was back in 2001. So you know, generally speaking, those who are apprehended with somebody of such high rank, it’s got to be somebody of some importance. Yet that really wasn’t factored in. One of the other associates who turns out to be a fellow bad guy, and I’m not sure I had this in the book, managed to convince his American interrogators that he was just a lowly bread delivery man, when he was actually somebody far, far more prominent in the Taliban hierarchy. I think this speaks to perhaps not so much methods of interrogation, but just the way our intelligence agencies managed to sort of connect the dots, link data, and do additional sort of fieldwork to try to corroborate these stories. And why then we, with people that we weren’t sort of sure about, just let them go back to the Afghans…
HH: Oh, huge question. In fact…
RC: And why the Afghans weren’t held to account to hold him in there.
HH: And recently, we have the example, I’m sure it’s confirmed by now, that the Bulgarian terrorist was another Gitmo releasee, the fellow who blew up the Israelis as they journeyed into Bulgaria. And so Gitmo is not appearing to know what they’re doing when they’re releasing these people, but that’s amazing reporting. Let me go back to your time there, these fifteen trips. And you really do go out and spend a lot of time at the tip of the spear. Dexter Filkins has been on the program, I try to talk to real live was correspondents. How, after the McChrystal Rolling Stone interview, did it change for you in the field?
RC: You know, it did and it didn’t. There was obviously, for some senior officials, a greater concern about engaging. But you know, I’d like to say in my engagements with military officers, and I think those that Dexter has as well, he’s a great war correspondent, we build a bond of trust with the people we cover. And I’m not out there, I’m out there to report the truth. And if I see bad things happening, I’m going to write about it. If I see people breaking the Uniform Code of Military Justice, I’m not going to hang back. But I’m also not out to engage in gratuitous embarrassment. And I spent a lot of time traveling around with Stan McChrystal and his aides, and I never once saw them say the sorts of things that the Rolling Stone piece captured. I’m not trying to suggest the Rolling Stone piece was wrong. Maybe they were, maybe some of his aides were more willing to say free-wheeling things in front of a Rolling Stone reporter than somebody from the Washington Post or the New York Times. But I also respect when people tell me look, this is off the record, or when somebody wants to blow off some steam after getting into a firefight, or you were nearly blown up and you know, you start to say things that are a little intemperate? Well, boy, I’ll tell you, if I were in their shoes, and again, this is probably a bad thing to say, but I’ll be honest with you. If I was sitting as a turret gunner, and we were just attacked with a roadside bomb, I’m not sure I’d have the same discipline that our 19 and 20 year old young men do when they really hold back as opposed to indiscriminately opening fire after they have been savagely attacked.
HH: Rajiv, tell me…this is important for the next question, a little of your background. Did you grow up in California?
RC: Yeah, I’m a Northern California kid.
HH: Okay, so where did you go to high school?
RC: In the East Bay of the San Francisco Bay area, just near Walnut Creek.
HH: Then you go to Stanford, and you were the editor of the Stanford Daily. Did you join the Post right out of Stanford?
RC: Yeah, I got lucky. I got an internship with the Washington Post 18 years ago, and haven’t left.
HH: All right, so with that background, it’s elite education, it’s elite institution, it’s public intellectual work, and it’s the white collar class. Were you prepared for the level of sophistication in the American military, and even among these 18 and 19 year olds, the amount of responsibility and their competence levels?
RC: In a word, no. My eyes were opened in Iraq in spending time with the military. So by the time I got to Afghanistan, I certainly did have a real good understanding of the U.S. military. But when I started out on this, no. You know, when you come from the background that I do, growing up on the West Coast and going to a school like Stanford, you kind of think of a lot of these guys in the military are meatheads. And boy, when you spend time with them, you come away with a completely different impression. I would take David Petraeus or Stan McChrystal or John Allen, who’s now running the show there, and put them against the smartest civilian strategists you can find in Washington, D.C., and these guys are great intellectual scholar-leader-statesmen. But even down at the other end of the chain of command, you know, your young lieutenants, or even, boy, when I’m out there with Marines, I want to go talk to the lance corporals, the guys who are just a year or two in, the guys who walk point on the patrols, the first guy on the patrol, or who are manning the checkpoints or the guard posts, because they’re seeing everything. And they have a real good grasp for what’s going on. And so I want to take what the four star generals tell me, and I want to overlay it with what the buck privates and the lance corporals say, and find the points of agreement, and the points of dissonance. But just back to where we were a second ago, you know, those 19 and 20 year olds, I’m just amazed at their discipline, at the great morale that they have. You know, Hugh, on July 4th, I went to Walter Reed-Bethesda Hospital here in D.C., and saw a bunch of very wounded young men who had been fighting in many of the parts of the country that I’ve spent a lot of time in. And you know on one hand, it was heart-breaking. And on the other hand, it was so, so heartening. These young men were filled with such a strong spirit. And I looked at them and said boy, if I had one-tenth of your courage, your desire to make a new life, I just…I came away so blown away, Hugh.
– – – –
HH: I want to go back to something we were talking about. Twice a year, Rajiv, I have, the Semper Fi Fund arranges for me to talk on Memorial Day Weekend/Veterans Day Weekend with 15-20 Marine Corps veterans who have, usually double amputees or terrible, traumatic brain injuries, and they’re making amazing recoveries. In this book, you are very careful to point out the cost of this war, whether it’s Corporal Centanni or anyone else, you tell their stories so that people understand this is not about bravado. It’s a real, terrible conflict with horrible injuries, and you’re very specific about the injuries they suffer and the bombs that they encounter, and the costs of this war. And my hat’s off to you for that, because I don’t think often, we are forgetting these people, especially those who are going to have lifetime recoveries.
RC: And my hat’s off to you for supporting the Semper Fi Fund. I don’t want to be in a position of telling people how to give their money, but I just want to tell you that the last check I wrote for charity was a donation to the Semper Fi Fund.
HH: Oh. Well, they are amazing. Wendy Lethin, they do an amazing amount of stuff, and of course, you’ve been hanging out with the Marines. And it’s interesting, how did the Marines react to this book, because we’ll come back next hour and talk about Marinistan and the expansionist tendencies that you write about in Little America, but how they like your book?
RC: You know, the Marines are willing to engage with the critique. And there’s a lot in the book that the Marines love, because what I write is that the Marines who were there on the ground were doing great things. They made a huge change. Now I have a strategic critique.
RC: Did we send the Marines to the right place? And you know what? Privately, many Marines agree with that. And they question whether they were employed in the best way possible. But what I do say very clearly is that where they were sent, they did really good things. And I just question whether we could have had great things in some other parts of the country from those guys, too. You know, that Marine unit, Hugh, that I write about in this book, the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, commanded by then-Brigadier General Larry Nicholson, that unit just found out that they’re going to be awarded the Presidential Unit Citation, which is the highest honor that a military unit can get. The last group to get it was SEAL Team Six for killing one guy named Osama.
HH: Wow, that is quite a high honor, and very timely with the publication of Little America.
– – – –
HH: Rajiv, I’m going to give you a hypothetical in a second, but in terms of other books about Afghanistan, I mentioned Triple Agent by your colleague, Joby Warrick. Does anyone else write about Afghanistan anymore in book length?
RC: No, not really. There’s not a whole lot out there. Steve Coll’s great Ghost Wars, but that looked at everything leading up to 9/11, and a lot of the intelligence failures, and our failure, really, to focus on Afghanistan in the years that the Taliban were gaining power. But no, because you know what, it’s a sad fact of American journalism today. Nobody’s really paying much attention to Afghanistan. I was critical of our political class a few moments ago for failing to speak about Afghanistan. But I should turn the lens on myself, too. We in the media, I think, have done a very poor job of this. Part of this is, it’s costly to operate there, it’s dangerous to be there. American newspapers have fewer and fewer foreign correspondents. But our television networks, our cable stations, nobody’s really paying much attention to this.
HH: When you were out there with General Nicholson and his troops in Helmand, or anywhere else, did you find many other forward correspondents for any other national paper that spent as, you know, even close to the amount of time you did?
RC: Well, there were a few others. I mean, Dexter Filkins, as we noted earlier, has done a lot of time on the ground there. There’s a small handful, but really not that many.
HH: That’s part of the problem. Now let me give you my hypothetical, and its’ a way of sort of illuminating this. Let’s say that Romney becomes President-Elect Romney. He’s got a transition team, and you know, it’s busy, but they’ve arranged for him to hear three panels. He’ll get to spend a day with each of them, but you know, stuff happens. The only guaranteed panel is going to be the first one, and he’s going to get big picture analysis and background, sort of framing the issue ahead. The first panel is, let’s say it’s you and Joby and Neil MacFarquhar and John Burns and Dexter Filkins, and maybe Lawrence Wright moderates it, and it’s about the American way of war in places like Afghanistan. The second one would be Generals Petraeus and McChrystal and Mattis, and you’ve got Larry Nicholson, and you’ve got some colonels like Christopher Kolenda, and Mike Killen, or Sean Reardon, you know, you write about, you get a military panel. Or the third one would be Hillary and Tom Donilon and Kael Weston and Carter Malkasian and Wes Harris, and maybe Summer Coish, a bunch of these civilians, someone standing in for Richard Holbrooke. Which one should Romney meet with first?
RC: He should talk to the military commanders first.
HH: And if he could only talk to one of them, would you trust them to do the right thing and brief him as to what would happen?
RC: You know, I think our commanders are, they’re actually a pragmatic group of people. And if the resource questions were put to them, if the President said hey, look, the new President, said you know, this is what I can and I can’t commit, or said look, these are my, this is…let me rephrase that. If the new President says to his commanders, this is the end state that I believe is important, and perhaps even talks about the resources that he’s able to commit or not, I think our commanders will go about coming up with a meaningful set of options for the President. You know, ideally, I think what, I think there should be a hybrid panel. I think that you should put the smart commanders there, you should put a couple of civilians who have actually spent time on the ground. I’d put Kael Weston there. This guy, and we haven’t really explained him to the listeners. I mean, he’s a former State Department officer who spent seven years, let me repeat that, seven years consecutively on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan, more time in the field than any other American diplomat. I’d put him on there and a couple of others. I’d put some of the senior military officers, and I’d bring in a guy like Larry Wright or Steve Coll, because I think all of those smart people together in some sort of joint panel could provide some essential advice.
HH: Well, let me tell you why I’ve set up the hypothetical this way. The reason I think your book will be read for years and years by staff colleges, et cetera, is because you go inside the policy development, and it’s a fiasco. I don’t know that you’re ever going to get invited to the Christmas party at the White House again, Rajiv, because what happens from President Obama’s first meeting forward is just an utter fiasco. Now Bush, they’ve got their own black eyes, but that’s ancient history. We’re talking about the here and now. As I read this, I kept shaking my head. They’ve got the NSC against Holbrooke, and Holbrooke running circles around the military, and the military divided against itself, and the NSC divided against the military, and the President above it all, and it’s fascinating, but it’s appalling.
RC: That’s why I write it’s the war within the war, and it’s no way to run a war. If you’re putting men and women at risk out in the field, military and civilians, you have an obligation to get the policy making right, and essentially be fighting with common purpose in Washington, not to be wasting your time fighting one another. And yeah, a lot’s been written about how the Bush White House managed Iraq. And I was very critical of the Bush administration, for their management of the initial years of the Iraq war in my previous book. But I don’t pull any punches from the Obama administration for their management of Afghanistan.
HH: Oh, no.
RC: And you can agree or disagree about the merits of, for instance, trying to pursue peace talks with some elements of the Taliban. I can recognize there are people out there who think it’s a bad idea. There are others who say maybe it’s a way to end parts of the conflict, because you’ll never kill them all. And in a place like Afghanistan, you just have to sort of bring in all the factions into the tent. Regardless of where you are on that issue, the Obama White House should have at least been working together on said subject, instead of essentially an internecine war between the State Department, principally Richard Holbrooke, who was Hillary Clinton’s point man for Afghanistan, and senior members of the National Security Council in the White House, then-National Security Advisor Jim Jones, his top deputy for Afghanistan, Doug Lute. They were at war with one another, and it was so childish, Hugh. I mean, it got to a point where they were denying Holbrooke the use of military aircraft.
HH: Trying to cut him out of the meeting with the President. He’s the number one guy, and they’re trying to keep him frozen out.
RC: This is a remarkable story. So Hamid Karzai comes to Washington for a meeting with President Obama, an Oval Office meeting. And so they arrange, these guys in the White House, Jones and Lute, they arrange to exclude Holbrooke, the point man for Afghanistan, arrange to exclude him from the Oval Office meeting. And then they come up with talking points that they’re going to slip to the President, one of which says everyone in this room represents me, and has my trust, the implicit message to Karzai being Holbrooke, who’s not there, doesn’t have my trust. The scheme is foiled at the last minute when Hillary insists that Holbrooke participate in the meeting. But then, Jim Jones and Doug Lute don’t stop there. They keep a dossier on Holbrooke.
RC: I mean, can you imagine the National Security Council keeping a binder of supposed misdeeds for somebody in the that administration?
HH: No, it’s shameful. It’s shameful, and then when I read, there’s a very poignant anecdote on Page 288 about the, “young crowd that came in with Barack Obama,” and they’re reaction to Holbrooke’s style, which seemed to them cartoonish, a throwback to a time when Averell Harriman, Henry Kissinger and George Kennan held unrivaled sway over shaping policy. And then another story of the President interrupting Holbrooke. Holbrooke says you’re facing a momentous decision, similar to one like LBJ, and the President cuts him off and says Richard, do people really talk like that? You know, I’m not worshipping Holbrooke. I know what he did at Dayton, and I know he’s an extraordinary diplomat. But it just seems like he was denigrated for what he knew and what is, I think, sometimes a problem of age in Washington, D.C. They don’t trust anyone who knows anything.
RC: If you read the rest of that quote you were talking about, that mentioned Henry Kissinger, it’s these young kids from the White House who saw in Holbrooke not an elder statesman, but they thought he was sort of buffoonish and cartoonish. And so a guy who had more experience with war and peace than anybody else at senior levels of the Obama administration was sort of pushed aside because the young team in the White House didn’t think that he had enough to contribute, or they had their own grievances. You know, for instance, some were upset that he was a supporter of Hillary Clinton during the primaries, so they were nursing grudges. Others thought because he had a big ego, he wouldn’t be a good member of the team, or he violated the sort of unspoken no drama Obama rule. Now I’m not trying to suggest that Holbrooke was the answer. But the problem was, agree or disagree, you either work together, or you remove somebody from your team. You don’t just let the team engage in continuous infighting.
– – – –
HH: Before we go back into the details, there’s a story in here about President Obama, Rajiv. How much time do you think he invest in understanding what’s going in Afghanistan?
RC: Wow, that’s a really good question. I don’t know for sure, but look, let’s just go by what we do know. A handful of trips, I think three there since he’s become President, but all very, very short, does not do the sort of bi-weekly video conferences with President Karzai that President Bush did. I’m not saying that those were the answer, but spends less time directly engaging with the Afghan leadership. And by all accounts, fewer videoconferences with the commander out in Afghanistan than, for instance, Bush had with Petraeus, when Petraeus was in Baghdad. I think Afghanistan factors into his daily briefings, but it probably does not dominate the national security agenda.
HH: Do you think it’s fair to say that President Obama gave him more troops, but President Bush gave more time to Afghanistan?
RC: No, I think only toward the end did Bush give more time to Afghanistan. Early on, the Bush team was very distracted with Iraq, and pulled away necessary resources from Afghanistan. You know, I know this will be perhaps controversial with some of your listeners, but I don’t think the Bush team did a great job managing Afghanistan, either. I think the tragedy here is that both administrations have not done right by this war in different ways, but they both have made mistakes.
HH: Now when I, again, that comes through. You’re an equal opportunity critic, and an equal opportunity complimentarian when it’s necessary. But when I look at the first page of the book, and thank you for the map, by the way, I don’t know who your editor was, but they came up with Camp Leatherneck, Kandahar, just what the level of detail that I was able to use it, and I knew where to get to Spin Boldak, and how to find Garmser and all these different places. If you put this map in front of either Obama or Bush, would they have a clue where their people were?
RC: That’s a really good question, and what I write about in the book is that when they were having discussions on surging, nobody really focused on where those troops were going, and how they would be used, and whether we should be sending so many more Marines to Helmand versus to Kandahar. You know, you would think that these sorts of key issues would be better known within the White House, and grasped, but what I’ve been able to ascertain from some of those situation room discussions on Afghanistan policy was that there was comparatively little attention on how additional forces were going to be used.
HH: Now explain for the audience who hasn’t had the benefit of reading the book as I have for a couple of weeks, sort of the first choice that the president, President Obama made, was to reject the large option from McChrystal, to reject the Joe Biden small option, certainly to reject running away from it, but to go a sort of a patched up deployment. And then they didn’t go, in your opinion, to the right place. Would you, in about three minutes, just set where the troops went, and why they went where they went?
RC: Okay, you know, what happened here was a classic Obama compromise, right, not giving one side what they wanted or the other, but trying to come up with something in the middle. And you can argue the merits of that, but I think that it wound up with both sides being fundamentally unhappy, and questionable results. But what we did was we sent, for the surge troops, 30,000 of them, we sent about a third to Helmand Province in Southern Afghanistan, where we already had lots of Marines. We doubled down there. And while those Marines did a lot of good things, we had force levels that were very high compared to the population density in one part of the country, and it took much longer to get additional troops into Kandahar, which is really, it’s the country’s second-largest city, it’s the spiritual capitol for the Taliban. You know, if Kandahar fell to the Talibs, they’d have a springboard to take over much of the rest of the country like they did in the 1990s. Kandahar was the prize, and yet we treated it as sort of an afterthought. We should have sent the initial waves of troops there as opposed to Helmand. And by not focusing on Kandahar at the outset, we squandered a year of the troop surge.
HH: Now is there, do the Marines when they get together, have a counterargument, which is look, they sent us to Helmand, and we’re going to take care of Helmand, and we did take care of Helmand, and it’s now pacified, because at the end of Little America, there emerges a picture of success where the Marines deployed.
RC: Oh, yeah. Helmand’s great. The changes that have occurred in Helmand have been profound. Don’t get me wrong there. I mean, places that were once shooting galleries are now safe enough to walk around without flak jackets and helmets. And I’ve seen this myself. I’ve walked through much of Helmand, and the change there has been remarkable, nothing short of it. Great work by the U.S. Marines. But how strategic were some of those places that have changed?
HH: But it raises this question, Rajiv, which is if they could do that in Helmand with the number of troops that they had, isn’t this just a question of resourcing the rest of Afghanistan? And I don’t want to get the Army mad at me, but just saying, because the 101st does a great job in Kandahar as you detail, but giving your fighting troops the resources they need to fight the war that has to be fought?
RC: Yes, it shows that what you can accomplish when you put in more troops, but if resources are limited, as they were by the President, then the question becomes how do you employ what you’ve got in the most judicious way possible. Now if you had 50,000 more troops, sure, do what you want to do in Helmand, and then you can do other stuff elsewhere. But if you’re living in this sort of zero sum world, you have to use those troops the most judicious way possible. I mean, even Stan McChrystal, I mean, his request was 40,000. He got 30,000 out of 40,000. But even if he had gotten all 40,000, there probably still would not have been a good argument to have sent as many forces to Helmand as we did. I just would have loved to have seen the Marines accomplish what they accomplished in Helmand, in the areas around Kandahar, which are far more strategically valuable. And the 101st did do great work there. The problem is the 101st Airborne Division showed up a year after the Marines did, in part because Big Army had troops in Iraq, they were moving far more slowly, whereas the Marines were eager to get into Afghanistan. But because all this was on a clock, because it was set by the President when he surged, that you know, troops were going to start coming home by 2011, then with the clock there, you had to pick the most strategic targets. You couldn’t just go everywhere.
– – – –
HH: Rajiv, I mentioned this earlier that on Pages 249 and 250 on your book, you quote from a speech given by Marine Lt. General John Kelly. It was actually delivered on November 13th, 2010, at the Hyatt Under The Arch in St. Louis to a group of Marine veterans. The General had just lost his son fairly recently in Afghanistan, and he gave a talk which I want to play for the audience so they can get a little bit more of the impact of it, and then talk with you about how it fits into the Marines’ worldview that you report in Little America. Here is Marine Lt. General John Kelly.
JK: As we sit here right now, we should not lose sight of the fact that we are at war. It’s underappreciated by most of our countrymen. Our enemy fights for an ideology based on an irrational hatred of who you are. Make no mistake about it, that no matter what certain elements of our chattering class relentlessly churn out, we did not start this fight, and it will not end until the extremists understand that reasonable people will never lose our faith or our culture. If they resist, these terrorism extremists, and the nations that provide them security and sanctuary, they must know that they will be continued to be tracked down and killed. American civilian and military protect us both here at home and overseas after nearly nine years have brought this enemy to a standstill. And they’ve never for a second wondered why. They know and aren’t afraid. This struggle is your struggle. They disdain those who claim to support them, but not the cause that takes, for instance, their limbs and their lives. As a democracy, we sent them there. We must support them. And I know it doesn’t apply to anyone in this room today, but if anyone thinks you can somehow thank them for their service, and not support the cause for which they fight, our country, then these people are lying to themselves, and rationalizing away something in their own lives, but more importantly, that are slighting our warriors, and mocking their commitment to this nation. Since this generation’s day of infamy, the American military has handed this ruthless enemy defeat after defeat after defeat. And it will go on until this curse is eradicated. We have done this by unceasing pursuit day and night into whatever visible layer al Qaeda and their extremist allies hide and plan future opportunities to attack our nation.
HH: Now Rajiv, that’s a slightly different excerpt than the one you used, but it caught, it’s the one we have available to us, and it caught up the unceasing pursuit nature of the Marine Corps ethic in Helmand. And it was so different from what the Brits had practiced.
RC: Yes, and this is why Helmand turned around when we sent the U.S. Marines in, why Helmand had been stagnating while the British were there. And if there are British listeners here, yes, shoot me nasty emails, but it’s true. The British didn’t have enough force there to really establish a real tactical advantage over the Talibs. The Marines come in, and it’s not just the soft side of counterinsurgency. Larry Nicholson, the Marine commander in 2009, in Helmand, we started to use a phrase that had been coined by one of his company commanders, who said, and he said every day, we’ve either got to be hunting or helping, some days doing both. And what that meant was that the counterinsurgency they practiced didn’t simply involve sitting around in towns and villages where the people were. They believed that if you were going to protect the places where the people are, you also had to be fanning off into the desert, going after the bad guys, that you had to create sort of a zone of security around those population centers, otherwise, the insurgents would come right up to the borders of the towns and villages, which is what happened when the British were there. So Nicholson believed that you had to push into the desert, you had to push down south to where the border of Pakistan, to push them to the north, to the foothills of Helmand Province. Well, this approach didn’t sit well with a lot of British commanders, with American diplomats, and even fellow U.S. Army generals in Kandahar and Kabul, who thought that the Marines were being needlessly expansionistic. They thought the Marines wanted to just go out and fight for the sake of fighting. But Larry Nicholson’s view, the Marines’ view, was that you had to be dynamic if you were going to be protecting the close-in population centers. And it’s a rational argument, right? If you’re not sort of pushing the enemy, then the enemy is going to come to you. But this captured the way the Marines fought differently. Now when the Marines got there, yeah, they’re part of the U.S. Military, but they also have a unique ethos, the espirit de corps of the Marines, is just phenomenal. And they believed that if they were going to make their patch of Helmand secure, they’d have to do it in a slightly different way than the traditional U.S. Military playbook.
– – – –
HH: Rajiv, you talk about the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, of which Kilo Company is a part, their first night, October 14th, 2010, after they deployed. And it’s just an amazing bit of reporting, and it’s also quite difficult to imagine being in the middle of it. I assume that you were in situations, if not this one, like it. And they just go, what do you call it, open a whole new can of whoop-ass, and they deployed their assault breacher vehicles, and they call in their A-6’s, and they do all the sort of stuff, and it works. So people can read that description. Here’s what I’m going to say when I talk to…hey, you should read Chandrasekaran’s book, because it’ll prove that if we’d only given enough troops to the effort in Afghanistan, we would have delivered a stable country. Am I going to, I mean, will you argue with me when I say that?
RC: I will. I think look, if we had put in more force, we could have improved security in more places. There is no doubt that when we add U.S. military units, they can do great things. I mean, this is, and this may be blatantly obvious to a lot of listeners, but I mean, for me, it was just instructive to see with my own eyes. As additional forces come in, convention, special operations, both of them, they will beat back the enemy, they will improve security. I mean, there’s no better fighting force than the U.S. Military. Big question in my mind, Hugh, is for the strategy to work, a couple of other things have to happen. And I’m going to outline three big things for you. The first is the Afghan government has to be a genuine partner. And I think we’ve had a lot of problems with the partnership of the Afghan government, starting at the top with President Hamid Karzai. And so despite the good work that our troops do, supported by our diplomats and reconstruction workers, will the Afghan government essentially take that baton, will they take advantage of what we’ve given them? Will they build the necessary institutions of government for themselves? Will they develop an army and a police force that’s competent enough to essentially hold onto those areas that we have cleared with lives and limbs of Americans? Number two, for this to hold, the Pakistanis need to start cracking down on Taliban sanctuaries on their own soil. They haven’t done that. They make great promises, but they’ve really done very, very little there. And so there’s a real question of how you hold onto your gains in Afghanistan when the enemy has essentially a free base right next door. They can launch attacks, they can stage, they can command and control from essentially immune territory across a border.
HH: Well then, that’s going to bring me, well, finish your points before…
RC: And the third point is you need, if you want to do this, you need American patience and an American commitment of resources. It can’t be done in just two years. So you have to get the public around spending the money, committing the troops, and taking the time. And that involves political leaders saying to the American people this is important, this is what we’ve got to do, and then the people have to get behind it. But you can’t do it if you don’t speak about the war, and then you get to a position where you’ve got two-thirds of Americans believing the war is no longer worth fighting. You have to manage public opinion.
HH: Well then, but going big, you’ve been in both war zones, didn’t we undersource both wars, both times, for political reasons, that we did not send enough troops into Afghanistan originally, then into Iraq after the invasion and the collapse of Saddam, and we still didn’t surge enough into Afghanistan? The only time, out of the four things we’ve done, Iraq 1 and Iraq 2, Afghanistan 1 and Afghanistan 2, the only time it’s been surged appropriately was Iraq 2.
RC: Yes, when you finally got Petraeus in there…
RC: …and you got the troop surge in Baghdad. You started to get the force levels you needed. For the first few years, the Iraq war, yes, totally, totally under-resourced. Same thing with Afghanistan. The question in my mind is if you were committing additional forces, did we have a civilian strategy that would have taken advantage of that, and by that I mean did we waste too much time trying to build institutions of government in Afghanistan that weren’t sustainable? Or have we been trying too hard to build an Afghan army in our image? Could we have, had we committed additional forces there, improved our odds of a better, more sustainable outcome by doing different things in terms of our dealings with the Afghans? It’s a tribal culture, in many places, you’ve got war lords and others, not necessarily the nicest guys, but who are, who do control swaths of territory. Could we have worked with those people differently? And could we have exerted different forms of leverage on Pakistan to try to crack down on those sanctuaries? I think that if you want to argue that we should have sent in more troops, we also had to have different elements of overall strategy. We couldn’t have just done what we were doing with more troops.
HH: I want to come back and talk about these locals, and some of the things that we didn’t do that we might have learned. What I’m really trying to get at is, though, you’re talking in the past tense. And do you think anyone will have, it took a lot for Bush to double down in Iraq in ’07. Do you think there’s any possibility Romney would have the advisors and the guts, if he came in, I don’t think President Obama can do this, but Romney might be persuaded, to tear up the playbook, commit the troops that we need to stop this from becoming Taliban 2.0?
RC: It’s going to be tough for Romney. You know, it’s hard to know what he’s going to do if he wins. He’ll have to convince the American people that this makes sense, there’s a reasonable path to a better outcome by doing so. And I think what he’d have to convince people of is that it’s not just more troops, but it is a comprehensive strategy overhaul, one that recognizes that the Afghan government is flawed, and that you’d try to find new and different ways to build up something sustainable there. And it involves a new approach to dealing with Pakistan. And if you can do both of those, then you can try to convince the American people that it makes sense. But ultimately, look, commanders-in-chief shouldn’t be guided by public opinion polling. They’ve got to do what they think is right for American national security. And they get elected based on what they’re going to do. The issue here, though, is that neither one is telling the American people what they’re going to do in Afghanistan.
– – – –
HH: Rajiv, this is a short segment, but I want you to tell people about Abzul Razziq, and again, one of those names no one’s ever heard of until they’ve read your book, and then you wonder why haven’t we ever heard of this guy before.
RC: He’s a powerful, fascinating figure in Southern Afghanistan. He essentially controls the largest border crossing in Southern Afghanistan. He’s a young man, just in his 30s, heads a large tribal militia, but also is, was when I was writing this book, in charge of the Afghan border police over there. He’s since been promoted. He’s now the overall police chief for all of Kandahar Province. He’s a dynamic young man who’s virulently anti-Taliban. But he also has his own…
HH: Killed his uncle, slaughtered his family, yeah, interesting stuff.
RC: Yeah, he hates the Taliban, but he also has his own business interests. He has some smuggling rackets, and the U.S. intelligence agencies believe that he’s involved in some drug smuggling. So he’s not a totally clean guy. He’s been known to liquidate his rivals in the middle of the night. But he’s fighting the bad guys. So the question is, do you work with him? Do you not? And we’ve sort of swung back and forth. Early on, General Stan McChrystal thought Razziq should maybe be pushed aside. But then, once we had the troop surge, we needed him to protect a very important road that would bring in the additional supplies for those troops, so we sought to try to reform him. And it speaks to, at times, our grand, at times misguided, approach to try to push people aside to build model democracies when in fact, some of these figures may well be sort of good enough for the Afghan landscape.
HH: That’s what I took away. In fact, here’s my question with a minute to the break, and then the last hour. You’ve got General McChrystal suspicious, British Major General Nick Carter likes the guy, State Department’s Owen Kirby thinks leave him alone, Colonel Waltemeyer gets in, in the interim and gets blown off. Would we know enough now to do it the right way going forward? That’s really what matters, isn’t it?
RC: Yeah, I’d like to think we’ve learned some of these valuable lessons. The question is going forward, will the people who’ve learned the right lessons be the ones leading this? Or will it be a whole new crop of people? A big problem, Hugh, is that every year seems to bring in a new group of military officers to headquarters, a new team of diplomats. You know, 80% of the Embassy staff changes over in the summer months. I was just on the phone yesterday with a friend in Kabul who noted to me that it’s lobotomy season at the Embassy, because, you know, everybody with any institutional knowledge is gone, a new crop of people come in. So the question is, can we learn these valuable lessons and put them to use going forward? Thus far, our track record on it’s been pretty poor.
– – – –
HH: I barely scratched the surface in two hours, and so I’m going to make myself march through some things here, Rajiv. Number one, my friend, Steven Pressfield, who wrote so many books about Alexander the Great and the 300, and all sorts of things, runs a website. www.itsthetribestupid.com. And he’s been a guest on the show a number of times. He wants to make the argument Afghanistan is just different. It’s tribal, and the Americans never get this, and we won’t get it. You seem to have a keen appreciation of this throughout Little America. How about the American military and the American State Department? Do they?
RC: Yes and no. The military gets it, the State Department doesn’t. I’m overgeneralizing here, but by and large, I think our military officers have a good feel at the ground level for some of these tribal dynamics, how local sort of warlords and power brokers have always ruled the Afghan landscape, and that any solution here that is sustainable that involves forces that are anti-Taliban, anti-al Qaeda will have to involve these people playing a real significant role in controlling the future Afghan state. But our State Department, I think, has long had this sort of more idealistic view that you can build more of a model democracy there, or at least a country that involves, a government that involves marginalizing some of these more maligned figures. And I’m not trying to apologize for these figures. I mean, a lot of them are corrupt, a lot of them are bad guys. But the question is what’s our goal there? Is the goal to create a state where the Taliban is totally marginalized, and there’s little to no risk of core al Qaeda elements from returning? Or is it also to try to create a flourishing democratic system of government where things like corruption are pushed aside? And if it’s the latter, it’s a more ambitious mission that will take years and years and years. I mean, some parts of Afghanistan that I’ve traveled in, Hugh, it feels like I’ve gotten in a time machine and gone back to the 13th Century.
HH: Yeah, that one description you gave of Alexander’s desert fortress, and the people who’ve never seen a car, it’s amazing to me. But…now tell people about General Dahl, because this, I want to make sure in this hour, I talk to you about my takeaway, which is the idea of nation building is absurd if we give it to anyone other than the military, because our civilians, you’ve got some heroes – Kael Weston, Carter Sahib, or Carter Malkasian, who’s an amazing character, Wes Harris, they’re just amazing characters. But they’re so rare, and the incompetence is so endemic on the civilian side.
RC: But Hugh, those three civilians you mentioned – Kael, Carter and Wes, all of them, they’re not military guys, but all of them worked incredibly closely with the military. They, you know, Kael spent 7 years there, all of it with, or at least 6 out of the 7 with the U.S. Marines. And his dearest friends are Marines, and he believes that you get stability by working, civilians working hand in glove with the military, same with Carter, same with Wes Harris. And so those civilians that I highlight as doing a great job are ones who understood that the way this is done is by using the U.S. Military and its assets, not trying to push the military aside and simply do projects on your own.
HH: But, okay, General Dahl says way to go, we’re going to go in there, we’re going to use all the civilian resources, work with me, State Department, we’ll bring our staff down and we’ll plan, and we’ll all deploy together. Then he goes over, and he doesn’t get those people assigned to him, and they’re not there, and he gets rookies, and he gets people…so what I’m saying is the rule that emerges from Little America is you can’t count on the civilian agencies. They don’t know what they’re doing in a war zone.
RC: This was a gut-wrenching tale, and you know, you’ve got to make your way through the book, and you did. I mean, the Ken Dahl chapter is the second to last chapter in the book. But it’s, to me, it’s an amazing story. General Dahl had served in Baghdad. He was actually the military commander responsible for the area that was a Green Zone. And he, at that point, started to see the disconnects between civilian agencies and the military. He comes back to Washington and spends years trying to address this problem, the civilian failure to work with the military. When it’s time to go out to Afghanistan, he does something very unusual. He invites the State Department to participate in the planning of the campaign plan for the 10th Mountain Division. He gives the civilians a seat at the table, the likes of which no other military commander has done, because he’s an enlightened guy who sees an importance of having the civilians work with the military. And he wants to get it right. And so the civilians sort of grudgingly show up, they participate in this, and then at the end, he says well, all right, how many of you guys are deploying with us? And they say oh, no, no, we’re not deploying, it’ll be somebody else. And that was his first big warning sign, and he gets there, and a number of these programs that the USAID had promised, they’re late, they’re not showing up, other commitments fails to materialize. And he’s really, he was at wit’s end. He finally sort of confided to me at one point there in Kandahar, we were sitting in his office late one evening, and he said you know, my heart is broken. I’ve spent the last ten year of my life trying to work on civil-military integration, and he said you know, I just want the last ten years back. He was trying to fight the good fight.
HH: Oh, I think that’s going to be taught for years, because it underscores, I deal in my laywering life with domestic government agencies every single day, and they’re full of nice people, but they never get anything done. And I just, I don’t think we could ever trust a bureaucracy in which you cannot fire someone, or assign someone against their will for long periods of time, to ever get this right. And tell me I’m wrong, Rajiv. I just don’t think we’ve got the British Foreign Office of the 19th Century available to us anymore to do this sort of thing.
RC: Look, our civilian agencies have been decimated. We don’t have anybody who really knows about agriculture who works for USAID, even though 80% of Afghans are farmers, or have some connection to the agricultural industry over there. You know, most of our diplomats are chosen because they can, they aspire to go work the cocktail party circuit in Europe, not because they want to live on dusty forward operating bases. But why hasn’t out nation pulled together a core of civilians specialists who can be deployed to places like this? It’s a real failure of our government, of both administrations, that we haven’t scoured the federal bureaucracy for talented people, we haven’t looked at the private sector, universities, non-governmental organizations, and built a team of people who can go out, who don’t mind living in the dirt with our Marines and our soldiers, who are willing to take some risk in the pursuit of American national security objectives, and who have skills in setting up local governments, and working with farmers, people who have some dirt under their fingernails, who can help farmers figure out how to improve the yields in their fields. You know, the Afghans want that sort of assistance.
HH: But now you noted in the first hour of our conversation, you’re not really welcome at the Embassy right now, and that’s probably because Ambassador Eikenberry does not come off very well in this book. Is that the Ambassador’s job to do what you just said, pull together that best and brightest? Is it the Secretary of State’s? Is it the NSC? Or is it the President’s, because someone is responsible for that fiasco at the dam and the turbines, and people will have to read the story. Someone is responsible for the fact that cotton is the crop that we ought to have been pushing for the last ten years, and instead, we’ve done everything to block cotton from getting into Afghanistan. Who’s responsible, Rajiv?
RC: That’s a really good question, and it does come back to Washington. I mean, the Ambassador out there doesn’t do the hiring, but why weren’t the people who were responsible for hiring people at the State Department, USAID, elsewhere, why didn’t they actively go out and recruit people? And part of the problem is these guys are bureaucrats. They’re time servers. I mean, look, if I were president, or I were secretary of state, I would have put in a call to Google, or to Microsoft, or to GE, and said would you loan me one of your human resources, one of your personnel recruiters for a year to help me work on Afghanistan, and assembled a team of really smart executive recruiters, and then told them look, I’m going to need 500 experts for Afghanistan. Scour the country and find them. Don’t just sit in your offices and wait for resumes to come in over the transom, which is what we did, and that’s why you get the people we got. You have to go out and look for top talent. It doesn’t just show up, particularly not with a mission that’s as dangerous as Afghanistan. You’ve got to convince people that this is the right thing to do, and go and find them.
– – – –
HH: Rajiv, I want to now turn to a figure who is sort of everywhere in the book, but nowhere in the book, and that’s David Petraeus. And by that, I mean he’s looming in the background everywhere, and then eventually replaces Stanley McChrystal, and he brings up his Anaconda slide in D.C., and he brings it up in Afghanistan. Big picture question first. I’ve only interviewed him once. You’ve obviously spent more time than that with him. Is he the genius that people say he is?
RC: I think he’s a brilliant commander, no doubt about it. He is, he’s somebody who is what they call in the military an 800 pound brain.
HH: And so when he was relieved of duty to go to the CIA, what did Rajiv say at that moment? Did he say oh, God, no?
RC: Well, you know, he wasn’t relieved of duty to that.
HH: I mean, just, he was asked to go.
RC: Well, because look, this is a guy who’s got, how many years of his life has he spent as a war zone commander?
HH: Oh, I know. He’s a hero. But if he’s winning…
RC: Yes, but he signed on for a year, I mean, because he had done his time in Baghdad, he’d done his time with the 101st before that. So it was going to be a one year tour. He was not looking to spend two years on Kabul, and he had made a huge transformation in the mission in his year there. What he wanted was to be the next chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. The Obama White House did not want that, so they gave him the CIA as something of a consolation prize, although I think strangely, it’s worked out in everybody’s interest. By putting somebody who is a war fighter in at the CIA, he has managed to really sort of take that agency’s war efforts, particularly in Pakistan, and take them to new levels. And his relationship with Obama now seems to be on pretty good footing. Now if Mitt Romney wins, it’ll be interesting to see where Petraeus goes. Would he be a potential secretary of defense? Would he be brought out of retirement to be a chairman of the joint chiefs of staff when Marty Dempsey’s tenure is up? I think it’s hard to imagine him staying at the CIA. I think something bigger and more prominent would be in the future for him.
HH: I’ll come back to a question about politics in a second, but in the book, you describe, when he takes over for General McChrystal, and the war council gets together in June, 2011, General Petraeus wants a token drawdown of three to five thousand troops, he wants the remainder of the surge troops in the country at least until the end of 2012, he wants to continue to deploy Special Forces and their very lethal and effective way, they’re just killing the Taliban and forcing them back into Pakistan…best reporting I’ve read about the war. But the President didn’t do that. I mean, that’s what I found Little America most revealing about is that the President just clearly overrode David Petraeus’ recommendation. Am I right in reflecting what you wrote?
RC: You’re totally right, and I saved the best for last, because this was all in the last chapter. Yeah, David Petraeus comes in with a set of options, and his recommendation is that none of the surge troops be removed, save for sort of a token amount, but the bulk of them not be removed until the end of 2011, or pardon me, 2012.
HH: 2012, yeah.
RC: Excuse me, the end of this year, because he wants another full fighting season. He wants to have this year be a full fighting season for the U.S. Military. And the President doesn’t agree. Joe Biden is arguing that they should all be brought out by this July. The President essentially strikes a compromise by doing September, but effectively, September, military commanders argue, means that they all have to start packing up sooner than that. And in fact, General Allen told an interviewer over the weekend that half of the forces that are to return home this summer have already left, which means, you know, we’ve, it’s only, you know, about 10,000 more to pull out between now and September. The bottom line here is that Petraeus’ recommendation was not accepted by the White House, even though he was the commander on the ground.
HH: So twice in four years, the President has overrode his military commanders. First time, he gave General McChrystal less than what McChrystal asked for, the second time, he’s overriding Petraeus in his request that the surge troops mostly all stay until 2012. So twice, Obama has done this, right?
RC: Because it seems, from everything that’s out there in my reporting, Obama doesn’t really believe in the surge. You know, he reluctantly gave the commanders some of what they wanted, not all of it, but put a deadline on it, because he was afraid of getting dragged into some sort of long war, and then concluded it wasn’t working. He saw the glass at half empty as opposed to half full.
HH: Well, you write on Page 324 that “Some in the administration believe that the odds are slim that the terrorist training group would return to Afghanistan, and reestablish its training camps after we leave.” Is that a safe assumption given your portrait of Zakir, who we talked about earlier, his desire for a burning revenge, that the Taliban does not seem at all reform-minded or interested in negotiations? In other words, if we bug out, is the Taliban coming back in full fury and start wielding their passport stamp again?
RC: Well you know, that’s a really good question. And it’s hard to know. I don’t see the Talibs rolling into Kabul with the same ease as they did in the mid-1990s. But underline the word ease in all of this. They still could. You know, our military has made a lot of accomplishments there in the past couple of years. They’ve beaten back the Taliban in large parts of the south. But the Taliban aren’t by any stretch of the imagination knocked out here. They’re still a potent adversary. They’re still laying roadside bombs that are killing our service members, and they’re conducting attacks that are killing lots of Afghan security forces and Afghan civilians. We shouldn’t look to the Taliban, Hugh, though, as a monolith. I think there are some elements of the Taliban that may well seek to reintegrate themselves into Afghan society, but others are going to be pretty irreconcilable. Guys like Mullah Zakir I don’t think are going to give up the fight at all. And some of them, if they had an ability to get in league with extremist groups, or get further in league with them, may well continue to do that. And in this case, it may not just be core al Qaeda that we have to worry about, but there are a lot of other groups in Pakistan, groups like Lashkar e-Taiba, the ones that were responsible for the Mumbai attacks a couple of Thanksgivings ago. But also, remember the Times Square bomber who had had some connection to some of these Pakistani groups? So some of these other elements may well form alliances with senior Talib leaders, and it all depends. If Pakistan starts to crack down on sanctuaries on its soil, and Afghanistan remains lawless, you could see some of them decide to scoot back across the border. There’s so many variables here, it’s very difficult to predict with any certainty how this will play out. It’s a very fluid situation. And you’re right to be concerned, you’re right that it’s something that we need to pay very close attention to, and we can’t essentially wipe our hands clean of it.
– – – –
HH: So Rajiv, I said when we went to the break, I’d ask you to talk about ISI. And I’ve known this for a long time, intellectually. I don’t really want to believe that they’re still playing this game. But when I put down Little America, and you’ve explained, “The ISI’s long range security concern is they want Afghanistan to remain unstable, because a stable Afghanistan becomes an ally of India.” I mean, that’s just a geopolitical reality there.
RC: Yeah, it is a basic fact of the world in South Asia. And what people don’t grasp over here is that if Afghanistan were left on its own, the Northern Afghans, who received support from the Indians during the civil war with the Taliban, would naturally be closer to India. But even the Pashtuns would look to India as a land of economic and educational opportunity. Hamid Karzai was educated in India. Lots of Afghans want to travel there, want to have linkages there. They see it as a big market for Afghan agriculture, for instance, and carpets. And Pakistan knows this. You know, go back to…one of these fascinating factoids in the book, Hugh, which I’m sure you underlined or circled, back in 1947, in September, 1947, when Pakistan applied for membership to the United Nations, the one country in the General Assembly to vote no wasn’t India. It was Afghanistan.
HH: Right, right. That was amazing, yeah.
RC: The Afghans have long had a very tortured relationship with Pakistan. And so, and Pakistanis know this, particularly the Pakistani Intelligence Service. So they are all about stirring the pot in Afghanistan, to ensure that a government does not take root in Afghanistan that forms a closer linkage with India, because it’s unacceptable for the Pakistanis to have an archenemy on one border, India, and then on the other border to have a country that’s in league with its archenemy. So they will continue to make trouble there, and that we think that somehow Pakistan will be a benevolent actor in Afghanistan is just a fundamental fallacy.
HH: Well, I’ve got a law partner, Tim Cook, former fighter pilot, says you know, his option, the Cook option, is just to say Pakistan, we’re out of here, and if you guys do anything, if you keep this up, we’re just going to arm India to the teeth, and in other words, to give an ultimatum to Pakistan. Would that work?
RC: The only problem in this whole scenario is that the Paks have nukes, and that raises the stakes over there. If they didn’t have nuclear weapons, you could take a much tougher line on them now. But you know, I think that if you were to totally turn the screws on them, you run the risk of more extremist elements taking control of the military, and potentially some rash actions that they might undertake. So…but there are no good options there, and here’s been part of the problem. You know, we haven’t had a good strategy when it’s come to dealing with Pakistan. They’ve been double dealing, they’ve been messing with us for now many years. But we still seem to suggest to them, oh well, we need you, so we’re never really going to turn the screws on you. Probably a tougher line needs to be taken with them, but one that does recognize that you can’t push things too far, just given what they’ve got in their arsenal.
HH: Has there been a difference in policy between Bush and Obama administrations vis-à-vis Pakistan?
RC: There has. But both have been, like with Afghanistan, in my view, misguided. You know, the Bush administration was too deferential to the dictator, Pervez Musharraf, all the while Taliban were reconstituting themselves and infiltrating into Afghanistan, and we didn’t want to push Musharraf. But the civilian government that the Obama administration’s been dealing with has been incompetent in its own way and duplicitous, and yet we’ve tried the carrot approach with them, trying to get them lots of foreign aid in an effort to essentially reform themselves. They’ve been happy to take the money, but have done precious little to go after the insurgents. If anything, the insurgencies have grown over the past few years.
– – – –
HH: And I want to cover three things quickly before the last segment, Rajiv. One is poppy, the second is graft, and that means Karzai, and then the third is Carter Sahib. First of all, poppy, is it ever going to be gone?
RC: We won’t eradicate it entirely. But there are ways to reduce it, and you know, one principal way is to help the Afghan farmers grow other cash crops. You know, spraying the fields only turns the farmers against you. But if you can convince them that they can make you know, about as much money growing something legal, many of them will switch. The problem is USAID and its partners have so screwed up the efforts…
HH: Oh, my gosh.
RC: …at trying to convince the Afghans to switch…
HH: You’d better not go near AID.
RC: No, no, they…
HH: They’re not going to let you in the door for 50 years.
RC: They probably have me on the ten most wanted list over there. I’m sure of it. But you know, this is a story, Hugh, that had to be told.
HH: Oh, I’m so glad you did, yeah.
RC: You know, the Afghans wanted help growing cotton, a crop that they had cultivated in the 60s and 70s. And when they went to AID and said can you help us with this, AID turned them down because there’s an act of Congress that prevents U.S. taxpayer money going to help another country’s cotton industry because of a desire to help protect America’s king cotton. But Afghanistan cotton was never going to compete with American cotton, and AID could have gone to the White House and asked for a waiver, but it never did.
HH: That’s amazing.
RC: And so here you had the Afghans wanting to grow an alternative crop that they knew how to grow, and instead, we tried to get them to do all sorts of other things. We gave them watermelon seeds. Well, we gave them so many watermelon seeds that we crashed the market for watermelons. We handed out fertilizer, which they used to fertilize their poppy fields. We gave them tractors, which many of them drove to Pakistan and sold for cash, instead of more modest, meaningful assistance with things they wanted to. We didn’t listen to them. We thought we had the answers, as opposed to saying to them, tell us how we can help you.
HH: Rajiv, question, do they know, you’ve spent a lot of time with Afghans, as well as with the Americans deployed there. Do the Afghanistan people understand that we’re not the Soviets? Do they get that we had a completely different agenda?
RC: Oh, totally. You know, here’s the funny thing. When you are out in these, when I’m out in these little villages, the locals, they have no great love for the Taliban, Hugh. They know what it was like to live under the Talibs. They don’t want that back. They also hate their government. They think their government is filled with corrupt thugs, and we can talk about that in a second. You know who they actually like? And this is surprising to a lot of Americans who see television images of Afghans rioting and stuff. You know, they actually like our forces, because we bring security, we pump money into the economy. If one of their children is gravely ill, fathers take their children to the gate of an American base, and the Americans will almost always provide medical assistance. They want our troops to stay. And this is a strange reality that most Americans don’t get. The Afghans, yeah, they chafe at the presence of foreigners on their soil. They’re patriotic people. Who wouldn’t? You know, you see a foreign military force in your community. But they have multiple reactions to it. On one hand, they’re very prideful, but on the other, they understand, and they see the Americans as far more honest brokers then their government or the insurgents.
HH: Okay, then the graft element, which you discuss on and off throughout, and in a really wonderful way, including our on and off again efforts to prosecute, and then no, don’t do that, and then all that different…good stories, but really, is anyone surprised that in a sort of almost pre-modern country, there’s going to be a lot of stealing?
RC: No, we shouldn’t be. This is part of the landscape. Now we can do things, though, that reduce this. And one of them is not to pump so much money into the country. And this was, again, good intentions by Team Obama. They said Afghanistan has been starved of resources. You know, think of Afghanistan as a parched man on a really hot summer day. But instead of giving him a tall glass of cold water, we turned a fire hose on him, more than he could drink, and injuring him in the process. You know, we fueled a lot of this corruption by how much money we were trying to pump in there. We should have been more modest. And I think we could have gotten even more effect, and even more bang for the buck had we not tried to sort of force feed the Afghan people with so much.
HH: Could Little America, the original development, ever have worked? Could those canals have been repaired, and that community, where they gathered in all these Afghans from all over the country made to work?
RC: Yes. And you know, I write at the end of Chapter One, Hugh, that finally, in the mid-70s, we came up a meaningful solution.
HH: I remember that – raise the canals.
RC: Instead of big, you know, big projects with bulldozers to flatten the land and moving people off it, it was give the Afghans hand tools, teach them how to dig drainage ditches themselves, and on the first farms, they dug those ditches. Farm yields increased by 75%. But then what happened? There was a communist coup, and Soviet tanks rolled in. And before we could implement this on a broad scale, all the Americans had to leave the country. And the lesson to me is did we finally come up with a good plan, but the clock ran out? And that’s the enduring question for today. Have we finally come up with elements of a strategy that are working, but the clock’s running out on us?
HH: Two quick one-offs before the last segment. Did the 16 M1A1 tanks work?
RC: Well, it depends on who you ask. I mean, the Marines loved them. They thought hey, you know, the 120mm main gun of an Abrams tank is an incredibly accurate firing system. Kael Weston, who I have a lot of respect for, didn’t see them as a good counterinsurgency tool, and thought it would remind Afghans of the Soviets. There’s a legitimate debate about it.
HH: And the story about Kandahar Province, and Lt. Col. David Flynn in the 101st, just flattening Tarok Kolache, am I saying that correctly, is that something that the military holds up and says we’re happy with this? It seems to be very effective.
RC: It is, it was effective. And all those people who said oh, it’s simply burning the village to save the village didn’t quite get it, because the locals were actually in favor of this. They had been forced out of their homes by the Taliban. The Taliban had turned their homes into explosives factories. There were no way they could return back. So flattening the village and then rebuilding it was something that the people wanted, or were supportive of. And no civilians were killed in this. It was an extreme measure, but one that demonstrated American resolve. It was, you know, we’re going to take decisive action. The one other thing the Afghan people look to and respect is American power. You know, when we are sort of weak-kneed about stuff, they see that. But when you’re tough, when you say we’re going to flex some muscle here, the Afghans look at it and say yeah, we respect you for that.
– – – –
HH: I just want to thank my guest, Rajiv Chandrasekaran A) for his patience with my butchering of his name. I’m getting it down now that we’re at the end of the show, but for his wonderful book, Little America: The War Within The War For Afghanistan, really amazing. Rajiv, I wanted to close back with the Marines. On Page 328, you’re having a conversation in D.C. with a Marine general who’s not named, and you come up with this great analogy. “Are you just building one great mansion on a dangerous street? What happens if we win Helmand but lose Afghanistan? And he said that would be just fine for the Marine Corps.” And that kind of, that stunned me as being not consistent with your portrait of Larry Nicholson, except that they do their tour and they leave. What do they expect will be there in ten years?
RC: Well, I should say that general that I quote anonymously was not Larry Nicholson. And there are different views in the Corps. You know, the Marines are very hopeful that the progress they made in Helmand will be sustained. I think there are some real questions as to whether the Afghan government is going to step up and do what’s necessary. We’ve transformed one part of the country. We’ve transformed some other pockets of the country. The great hope is that the commitment of American blood and treasure here will be sustained. We all hope that. We don’t like to see our countrymen dying and getting wounded in vain. But it now does depend on the Afghans to really take that baton from us, and to build upon this golden opportunity that we’ve provided for them.
HH: What do you think the country looks like in ten years, Rajiv?
RC: I think it’s going to be messy and chaotic. I don’t think the Taliban are going to run the place. I don’t think the Afghan government’s going to control every square inch of its territory. I think there’s going to be continued fighting. I think there’s going to be some internal tensions between the various ethnic groups there. But it’s not going to revert back to a pre-9/11 state. I think that everything that our men and women in uniform have done have really put the country on a new plane. Could it be better? Of course. But you know, but is that end state going to be one where there’s still some pockets where terrorists can operate? You know, that’s a real open question, and that’s why we need to be focused on this issue. We need to examine the strategies, and this is why it’s still of great importance, and it’s why I commend you, Hugh, for devoting three hours to this. This is an important issue. I wish our political leaders were talking more about this. At least you and your listeners can talk about this, because this is central and vital to American national security – understanding what’s happening there, understanding what has worked, and what hasn’t worked is essential to understanding the path forward, and it’s essential to American national security.
HH: Well, you gave us a passport to get there and back, and I appreciate it. Rajiv Chandrasekaran, thank you so much for the opportunity, and for a wonderful book, Little America: The War Within The War For Afghanistan. It’s in bookstores everywhere, a bestseller. It’s linked at www.hughhewitt.com.
End of interview.