This is an excerpt of a longer discussion posted at Small Wars Journal. Please go there for the rest of the interview.
Rajiv Chandrasekaran of the Washington Post has been one of the most important chroniclers of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. His "Imperial Life in the Emerald City," a searing tale about the dysfunction that wracked our efforts in Iraq, was a National Book Award finalist. I was excited for his new work on Afghanistan, "Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan," however the thrust of the excerpts published last weekend in the Washington Post left me a bit skeptical. Even a cynical Marine bristles at what seems to be an affront to the service and the thought that Marine efforts were squandered in Helmand created many emotions in Marines. What is more, the idea that things would have been vastly different if we sent the Marines to Kandahar, not Helmand, did not square with my impression of the larger flaws in our campaign. I am decidedly pessimistic about our ability to successfully prosecute small wars, as I have explained at FP's Af-Pak Channel, so my impression of this argument was that it was only a step above arguing over deck chair placement on the Titanic.
Nonetheless, when I was offered the opportunity to discuss these issues with Rajiv, I jumped at it. I plowed through the book in one sitting late into the predawn hours of Saturday, recalling my graduate school days and found that "Little America" was an eminently readable, sensible, and balanced account. Even if I remain more cynical than Rajiv does, this is no rosy pro-COIN missive. Even the title parable underlines a skepticism about our past and our future in Afghanistan, as you will see below. While the excerpts make it seem as if Chandrasekaran gives the Marines a black eye, he pulls no punches with anyone and many others, such as the Department of State and USAID, come off looking far worse. In fact, his criticism of the decision of where to send the Marines is a reflection his respect for their tenacity and success in Helmand.
"Little America" is a must-read account for those interested or invested in the war in Afghanistan. It is the best work yet in addressing our military-diplomatic campaign there and the dysfunction that stymies it. I would perhaps have liked a bolder prognosis for our efforts there, accompanied maybe by a starker description of the scope and reality of the carnage these efforts create, however Chandrasekaran is too diligent, humble, and balanced a writer to think that he has all the answers. I took him down this road in our discussion Saturday and found a much more nuanced and balanced skepticism than I would have expected if I stopped with the excerpts. I hope you will find the same. Before we get to the discussion, Rajiv asked that I point the SWJ community to his website and to encourage you to contact him with your thoughts there.
PJM: It is hard to understand how we fail to learn our lessons in Afghanistan, in Iraq, and even lessons we could have learned from experiences in Vietnam or from other non-combat development projects. Maybe part of this stems from throwing resources, rather than thought, at problems. Kael Weston believed that the effort in Helmand was over-resourced – that if the Marines were not given the extra troops that they would have been forced to think more strategically and economically. In numerous places, you recount how commanders felt that they needed to keep pushing into new areas because they had the troops to do so. In the book, and especially the excerpts, the fault for this misallocation falls on the shoulders of parochial Marine leaders. Yet, you also recount how Army commanders openly defied the COIN guidance handed down by McChrystal and Petraeus, how State and USAID failed to properly support the campaign, and how national pride and stubbornness forced suboptimal decisions with regard to force disposition and tactics. Do you think that the senior leadership could have done anything differently to enforce discipline on their subordinates at the operational and tactical levels? Or was this simply an unavoidable symptom of fighting what was ultimately a war of choice, versus a war of clear and undeniable existential national interest, to some degree?
RC: I believe that we could have fought this war in a far smarter way. Fighting smarter does not have to involve an existential threat. If the President of the United States and his war cabinet determine that committing US troops and US civilians and American taxpayer money was a critical thing to do for our national security, then I believe the organs of our government had an obligation to employ those resources in the most judicious way possible. You outline a number of problems that I illustrate in the book. Each of the problems you cite has a different cause. Let me take a few of them.
The Marine decision to push for contiguous battlespace – let me say at the outset that this book is not in any way a criticism of the Marines who went to Afghanistan and fought so bravely. They did phenomenal work and I try to capture that in the opening chapters of this book. I recently found out that the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade is going to be awarded the Presidential Unit Citation, an incredibly prestigious award. I think that a reader would determine from their work that I detail in the book that they were deserving of an honor like this. My criticism is with senior officers in the Corps in Washington, as well as our senior Pentagon leadership for sending the Marines where they were sent. There is no argument that Helmand is a bad place; lots of insurgents there. Helmand is the epicenter of poppy production. It was a nasty place, but was it the nastiest place in all of Afghanistan? Was it the most critical place?
I came away concluding after discussions with a number of smart military and civilian experts – and Afghans – that the real critical area was the city of Kandahar and the area around it: the country’s second most populous city, the spiritual heartland for the Taliban, the area which if they seized, they would have a springboard to move into other parts of the country much as they did in the mid-1990s. So, if that was the most important part of the country, shouldn’t we have taken the very effective new forces that were being added in early 2009, the Marine Expeditionary Brigade under the command of BGen Larry Nicholson, shouldn’t we have applied them to the most pressing problem? Sure, if we had 200,000 troops on the ground, yeah, plus up in Helmand, too. But there was a zero-sum calculus in Afghanistan. There were only so many troops and so you had to put them against the most crucial places.
The Marines have a legitimate insistence, I believe, on wanting to operate as a MAGTF (Marine Air-Ground Task Force) with their own organic air and logistics units. But, how does that MAGTF approach fit in the world of joint and coalition warfare and how can the MAGTF be better integrated? The feeling among non-Marine commanders on the ground in Afghanistan – those who were figuring out where the Marines should go – as well as the senior Marine leaders – the Commandant and others – was that it would be very difficult to employ the Marines of the MAGTF in an interoperable way in the areas around Kandahar. In my mind, that’s of concern because you don’t want your elite counterinsurgency forces--and I believe that Marine infantry units are elite COIN forces--to be off engaged in lower-priority missions. The central Helmand River valley, where the 2nd MEB deployed, is home to about 1 percent of Afghanistan’s population. If our strategy was COIN, it was population-centric operations, shouldn’t we have sent those units to the most populous of places that were at risk from the Taliban take-over, not sparsely populated desert communities? It is this issue that I really try to examine in the book and I think that for the Marines as well as other services, this is an issue that deserves serious ongoing discussion.
The what-ifs are pretty profound here. Had those Marines been sent to Kandahar, I believe we could have been a year ahead in the overall COIN campaign. It could have allowed Petraeus and John Allen to swing forces from the south to the east sooner. It might even have led McChrystal to have requested fewer troops which could have allowed for a longer-term mission, maybe even one without a deadline. Again these are what-ifs, but I do think that the deployment there came at a cost. Now, all that said, the Marines did great things in Helmand. But I have a scene at the end of the book and I’ll give it away to your readers. I’m having drinks with a senior Marine officer in a still-gentrifying neighborhood in Washington DC. I liken Afghanistan, in my conversation with him, to a block in the ghetto and ask whether we took the bulk of our community redevelopment funds and turned one tenement at the end of the block into a swanky mansion but left the rest of the buildings as boarded up messes. I said, “What if the history of Afghanistan is that we win Helmand, but lose the country?” And he said to me, “Well, that will be just fine for the Corps.” I know that certainly doesn’t represent the views of the rest of the Corps, but it does speak to a degree of parochialism that we should examine. Marine parochialism has many, many benefits; the esprit de corps, the ethos of our Marine Corps is phenomenal, but we need to know as a country that our Marines are being sent against the most important of challenges.
PJM: With the coming budget cuts and the potential for a bad outcome in Afghanistan, do you see this parochialism as a liability for the Marine Corps going forward? Does this parochialism, which is meant to defend the institutional survival of the Corps, actually threaten it?
RC: I don’t see this as mutually exclusive. I think the Marines can fight as a MAGTF in a more interoperable environment. They need to show that they can do that. I think that what doesn’t serve the Marine Corps is to try to defend the MAGTF concept by fighting in places that are less important. The challenge here for smart Marine Corps officers is how to best integrate MAGTF operations into a joint and combined COIN environment. Maybe I am too much of an optimist. Certainly you can argue I am not schooled in all the intricacies of the Marine Corps. Maybe what I suggest is unrealistic, but I would like to think there is a way with enough smart thinking and planning that the Marines could have deployed with key elements of a MAGTF in Kandahar. It could have been made to work had Marine leaders and NATO commanders been committed to trying to achieve that outcome.
PJM: Was there any discussion from the Marines or requests for the Marines to go into Kandahar as a MAGTF?
RC: It wasn’t like there was a formal request put to the Marines to go to Kandahar and the Marines said, “No.” Nothing like that. The truth is, US and NATO commanders in Afghanistan also pushed Helmand over Kandahar, so the fault here does not lie exclusively with the Marines. That said, both groups made a miscalculation. I do believe that the US Army commanders and NATO commanders who advocated for the Marines to go to Helmand did so in part because of MAGTF concerns and as for the Marines, they advocated for Helmand over Kandahar because they felt it would be easier to bring the MAGTF there. What you had was essentially this perfect storm brewing. You also had the NATO component. The Canadians in Kandahar were more reluctant to give up battlespace than the Brits in Helmand who wanted to reconfigure and wanted more American assistance, so there were a number of factors at play here, but the MAGTF issue was a key element of the calculations.