The “Second Apology” Tour

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Army photo / Sgt. Michael J. MacLeod

Paratroopers with the 82nd Airborne Division's 1st Brigade Combat Team fire at insurgent forces June 15. The firefight happened on the outskirts of Spedar, a remote village in Afghanistan'€™s Ghazni Province. It would be only the first of several firefights the paratroopers and their Afghan National Army counterparts had that day.

Rajiv Chanrasekaran’s new book, Little America, is making a splash with a pair of lengthy excerpts in the Washington Post (first one here, second here),, and Slate.

Several reviewers, bloggers and tweets have noted that you now hardly need buy the book.  The author, a reporter with the Post, chronicles a litany of dysfunction behind the 2009 Afghanistan “surge.” He sets out the authoritative version of what I’ve called in private conversations the “second apology” for what went wrong in Afghanistan (the first, of course, being the Bush Administration’s “taking their eye off the ball” to push more resources into the Iraq war). The lowlights include:

— A  Marine Corps that influences the process to put the bulk of the troops in the wrong place.

— A USAID that refuses to fund appropriate projects, largely because they can’t hire competent people.

— A State Department whose internal rules keep its people from interacting with the Afghans they are nominally there to help and whose quasi-incarcerated staff begin to act like college sophomores.

— A White House whose security staff is largely unqualified while the few who are get into turf wars with the State Department.

The book’s basic frame: if we had just put the surge troops in the right place, fixed our civilian agencies, made the military and the embassy get along and (an important part of this story that Rajiv under-reports) kept a four-star military commander in place for longer than about a year (the current commander, Marine General John Allen is widely rumored to be leaving Afghanistan shortly for Europe and NATO), then things might be better.

But let’s imagine a world in which the events Rajiv chronicles do not occur.
Let’s imagine a world in which:

— The Marine Corps does not lobby for a specific piece of ground, and instead lets their infantry be placed wherever the ground commander thinks he needs them.

— Let’s imagine that the State Department hires from among America’s best international entrepreneurs and adventurers, then further pushes most of them out of the embassy to remote field sites.

— And then further allows them to ignore the regional security officers and instead actually do their jobs (as a handful of Rajiv’s characters manage to accomplish despite the restrictions).

— Let’s imagine that USAID has both a strategic vision aligned with ground truth, and contractors who can translate that vision into reality.

— Let’s imagine that the White House had studied up on Afghanistan and was in a position to conduct responsible oversight, and further imagine that the White House and State Department coordinators worked hand-in-hand to advance a common agenda.

— Let’s then finally imagine that a four-star commander appointed in 2009 was neither fired nor sent off to a nominally more important job and was still sitting in Kabul three-plus years later.

Would we be in a different place than we are now?

Or is the stubborn fact that Afghanistan rests near the bottom (172/187) of the Human Development Index a much more relevant fact?  By comparison, Iraq (at 132/187) is two spots higher than India (134/187) I didn’t believe it either—look it up.

It is an open question whether there is sufficient human capital in Afghanistan to accomplish the reforms that United States policy calls for—particularly given the demand for educated Afghans as a) military translators, b) diplomatic translators, c) drivers/translators for contractors, whether private military or construction, and d) “fixers” for journalists that leaves very few to actually do the work of administering the country.

Rajiv’s book essentially echoes the point that a co-author and I made not long ago. We may need to engage in an Afghanistan-like nation building exercise again, so we should get better at it. And it’s hard to argue with a call for basic competence and adopting a “first do no harm” ethic. But what if the real lesson is one about the limits of American power—whether “hard,” “soft,” “smart,” or otherwise?  At least in this particular case, it may be that there simply is not enough “raw material” to “refine” into a modern nation state.

You can’t make something out of nothing.

Perhaps the real lesson of Afghanistan is less one about American incompetence (as real as that may be) and more one about the intractable nature of some problems.

Douglas A. Ollivant is a Senior Natural Security Fellow at the New America Foundation.   A former Iraq Director at the National Security Council, he spent two years in Iraq before retiring from the Army, then a year in Afghanistan as a Senior Counterinsurgency Advisor.  He is a graduate of the Army’s School of Advanced Military Studies and holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from Indiana University.