Embedded bias

Little America:

The War Within the War for Afghanistan

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN is embedded so far up the ass of the US Marines Corp he might as well be a marine. Everything that he reports is viewed and filtered through the lens of the military. A senior correspondent and associate editor for the Washington Post, he is an eager and experienced self-censoring stenographer for the US military and the mainstream media and therefore inept at independent, critical thought.

Chandrasekaran is a big fan of violence—except when the enemy kills and maims the soldiers he embeds with. He keeps count. It never seems to occur to Chandrasekaran that the only way to keep a soldier from living as a double amputee is to end the occupation. In Little America, US forces are always the “good guys” and there are only two kinds of Afghans: the “bad guys” who deserve to die and enthusiastic Afghans who support the occupation.

The book is split into chapters that examine the troop surge and the civilian surge of nongovernmental organization (NGO) workers. The US military destroys the country, and USAID attempts to rebuild it. After ten years, both surges are miserable failures.

The author embeds with marine units in assaults in Helmand and Kandahar provinces. They are losing battles. The Taliban is temporarily routed only to return weeks later after the marines have moved on to the next fight. A harrowing account of the battle in the town of Sangin in the chapter, “A Fresh Can of Whoop-Ass,” exposes the barbarism of war. Ten soldiers are killed within a week. He calls them “fallen angels.” Furious marine platoons are out for revenge after the deaths of their comrades. They unleash more than eighty airstrikes, countless mortar attacks, and use Assault Breacher Vehicles that launch rockets embedded with explosives. One soldier said “We didn’t want to destroy Sangin to save it, but there were places we had to flatten, we had no choice.”

Almost twenty-five tons of ordnance was dropped on homes, mosques, and fields in Tarok Kolache. The author goes to great lengths to prove that no civilians were killed, but it’s a dubious claim. Civilian deaths are routinely covered up, not counted, or they’re denied in Afghanistan. Afterward, the US military spent $1.3 million to rebuild Tarok Kolache and warned the villagers that if the Taliban came back they’d be bombed again.

During the battle in Marja, the marines killed civilians, although Chandrasekaran doesn’t tell his readers that. He writes approvingly that the military has to use “extreme measures” there. After the bombing and ground assault, the military bans the use of all motorcycles (the primary way most Afghans get around) and blows up footbridges that cross the river. Travel is all but impossible. 

The crimes of the notorious army “kill team” brigade commander Colonel Harry Tunnell are glossed over in Little America. Tunnell’s book about the Iraq war argued, “It is virtually impossible to convince any committed terrorist who hates America to change his or her point of view—they simply must be attacked relentlessly.” This mentality was instilled in the soldiers under his command. One of his officers said the mission in Afghanistan was to “rack ’em and stack ’em.”  Platoon leader Calvin Gibbs, a member of Tunnell’s personal security detail, was charged along with four others with murdering unarmed Afghans for sport and cutting off their fingers for trophies.

The gung-ho Chandrasekaran’s only criticism of Tunnell is that his “stubbornness cost the United States a critical chance to pacify key areas around the most important city in southern Afghanistan.” He doesn’t flinch at the random and disproportionate amount of violence used by the marines, their acts of collective punishment, or their revenge-seeking. And he never expresses outrage at the atrocities committed by the troops.

Thousands of civilian workers were dispatched to Afghanistan to construct roads, clinics, and schools, to increase agricultural output and to repair generators, but were stymied every step of the way. It’s one long tragicomedy of expensive screw-ups. Ten years into the occupation there is no sustainable health care infrastructure, no national electrical grid, no reliable transportation, and no basic sanitation in most parts of the country. Since 2002, $60 billion in civilian aid has been transferred to Afghanistan and yet it remains one of the poorest countries on the planet. How can this be?

Despite the author’s enthusiasm for his marines, he shows how USAID and international private contractors like the American companies Morrison-Knudsen and Chemonics don’t understand Afghan politics or culture. They’re arrogant capitalists from California and Washington, DC, driven by the pursuit of a quick profit. They cut corners and pay themselves exorbitant salaries, many projects aren’t finished, and money spent is never accounted for. Project managers rarely consult with native Afghans who know more about the agriculture and development needs of their own country than the contractors.

Chandrasekaran chronicles one project development debacle after another. The scheme to grow saffron would be hilarious if millions of Afghans weren’t so hungry. The spice is one of the most expensive in the world. USAID authorized several projects to cultivate saffron, but the first crop never got to market. Afghan farmers defecate in their fields and don’t have facilities to wash their hands. The harvested saffron contained a thousand times more fecal material than is acceptable for human consumption. Other botched projects involved cashmere goats and cobblestone roads.

Summer Coish, a civilian aid worker, provides more examples of colossal ineptitude. Her honesty about the American NGO presence in Afghanistan is refreshing and instructive. Coish is an assertive American woman who stalked Richard Holbrooke, the former special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, to get a job. She planned to work with rich Afghan entrepreneurs to bring fair trade capitalism to Afghanistan. But most of her days are spent being bored behind the walls of the heavily fortified American embassy in Kabul in endless meetings or writing e-mails in her cubicle. Almost all of her co-workers were biding time until their one-year contracts were up. According to Coish, securing promotions or postings to another country were the priorities—not rebuilding Afghanistan. When asked if she accomplished anything she replied, “I couldn’t come up with anything worthwhile that I had done.”

Carter Malkasian is a dangerous and ugly American profiled in the book. Armed with State Department credentials and a PhD in the history of war from Oxford, he’s the whip smart, hip imperialist who tries to “go native.” He learns Pashtu, wears salwar kameez and a turban. Malkasian’s mission is to convince Afghans to support the occupation and the Karzai government. He meets with elders to coerce them into recruiting Afghans for the police force. He declares, “My job was to mobilize the people of Afghanistan to stand up to the Taliban.” His real job was to advise the marines on how to kill and control the Afghan people more effectively. Chandrasekaran writes, “He served as a counselor to five successive battalion commanders, influencing decisions about when to use force and helping them calibrate it with a political engagement strategy.” The author lavishes uncritical praise on this man.  

Chandrasekaran’s book is anchored by his deep gratitude and hero worship of Brigadier General Larry Nicholson, the commander of the Second Marine Expeditionary Brigade. Trying to humanize Nicholson, Chadrasekaran describes him as “a deft practitioner of modern warfare whose out-of-uniform interests included listening to the pop star Katy Perry and watching Downton Abbey.” This cultured Rambo, having studied in Italy, loves red wine. Nicholson is a supporter of Counter-Insurgency (COIN) doctrine and says he wants to protect Afghan communities from the Taliban. He tells his soldiers, “You’re going to drink a lot of tea. You’ll eat lots of goat, and you’ll need to be ready for some man-love. None of you guys are homophobic, are you?”  The idea that the US military is occupying Afghanistan to provide security and to immerse itself in Pashtun culture is one of the biggest fictions of COIN. “Hunting or helping” was a slogan Nicholson often used. But when soldiers get ambushed and blown to pieces, it’s hunt, not help, and avoidance of civilian casualties evaporates. The general wants to bomb residential buildings if there are “bad guys” inside and he prefers precision-guided missiles over ground-fired weapons.

The most vile pages of Chandrasekaran’s book are reserved for the reprint of a eulogy given by General John Kelly for his son who was killed in Afghanistan.

“Our enemy is savage, offers absolutely no quarter, and has a single focus and that is either kill every one of us here at home, or enslave us with a sick form of extremism that serves no God. . . . I don’t know why they hate us, and I don’t care. We have a saying in the Marine Corps, ‘No better friend, no worse enemy, than a US Marine.’ If it’s death they want, it’s death they will get.” 

That racist hate speech sums up Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan. 

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
Issue contents

Top story