For critical reportage on our grand adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, Rajiv Chandrasekaran has no peer. His 2006 book Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone offers a fly-on-the-wall perspective in the Coalition Provisional Authority’s headquarters at Saddam Hussein’s former palace, where pork products were served in nearly every meal—Muslims be damned—where “Bush-Cheney 2004” T-shirts were common but Arabic speakers rare, and where a 24-year-old with no financial training was selected to relaunch and modernize Iraq’s stock market.

In his latest book, Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan, Chandrasekaran reports from Helmand province, the focus of Obama’s efforts to save the country from a resurgent Taliban. “Little America” refers to a forgotten moment in U.S.-Afghan relations: America led an ambitious development project in the 1940s and 1950s that sought, but failed, to transform the area into Iowa-like farmland. The failure of the project, Chandrasekaran shows, echoes through our more recent travails in Afghanistan, where U.S. Marines trudge through Little America canals—like some bygone aqueducts of the Roman empire.

Together, his two works bookend the maddening violence, corruption, and incompetence unleashed on the Middle East in the post-9/11 decade.

We spoke on Monday, October 22, hours before the last presidential debate, where Afghanistan was largely absent from the candidates’ discussion. I asked him whether electoral politics make nation-building efforts impossible, why Obama didn’t resolve the bureaucratic infighting among our diplomats and military officers, and whether we should abandon counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) once and for all.

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David Johnson: Most Americans’ knowledge of Afghanistan begins with the Reagan administration’s support of the Mujahideen against the Soviet Union. However, you begin the book by discussing our development work in the post–World War II era. Why did you choose to frame the book around Little America?

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: I was fascinated when I discovered that America’s involvement in Afghanistan didn’t begin with the 9/11 attacks or the support to the Mujahideen in the 1980s but started in the 1940s. It’s a bit of history that I think most people really have no idea about. I came to it by accident as a result of my travels in Southern Afghanistan. I saw these canals that were built by American hands six decades ago and started to ask, “How did that come to be?” And I found this sort of great nation-building project from the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s to be a parable of sorts that helps us understand why our modern efforts there are so troubled. This development effort essentially unfolded on the very same terrain as Obama’s surge. And so there’s this great symmetry there. I mean, our Marines were fighting, and some cases dying, in those very same canals. I crossed them myself when I was accompanying Marines. It’s amazing: they’re still there and in pretty good shape.

DJ: In framing the book around Little America, the question naturally arises whether these sorts of grand nation-building projects are doomed to fail, or whether Americans have a peculiar inability to succeed in pursuing them.

RC: You know, I have wrestled with this question myself in the context of both Iraq and Afghanistan. These two books chronicle fundamental American failure at nation building, for very different reasons. In Iraq you had a merry band of neoconservatives. In Afghanistan you have supposedly the experts, but they’re hobbled by bureaucracy and a flawed strategy. And so I have struggled with this question of whether nation building is simply something that we Americans shouldn’t be in the business of doing, versus a belief that in our nation of 300 million people we do have individuals with the right subject-matter expertise, the language skills, the cultural understanding, the willingness to live in austere conditions for years on end, but we just haven’t found them because our government doesn’t smartly go out and recruit those sorts of people for these missions. So I’m torn because part of me wants to believe that the latter is true. I’d like to think that we can do this if we really approached it right. But it’s hard to come away from these two conflicts, seeing what I’ve seen, and think that building nations is something that we possess great skill at.

The Americans were trying to build something in Afghanistan that was fundamentally unworkable.

DJ: Even our post-World War II projects in Southern Afghanistan didn’t go terribly well, either, as your book demonstrates. But perhaps in other places in the world, our postwar projects enjoyed more success.

RC: Well, if you look for instance at the Marshall Plan, you’ll see it was a very different set of circumstances—a very different sort of American intervention. There aren’t great historical analogues for Iraq and Afghanistan.

DJ: In considering Emerald City and Little America as a pair, would you be comfortable seeing yourself a chronicler of U.S. imperialism and American hubris?

RC: I surely saw far more imperialistic overtones in Iraq than in Afghanistan. The bulk of my narrative in Little America focuses on how the Obama administration attempted to deal with the situation there. Though they pursued, in my view, a flawed strategy, they did approach it with some degree of humility. I certainly wouldn’t ascribe imperialist aims to the United States in Afghanistan from 2009 onward or even before that. I don’t ever think that we really went about it in that way. Whereas, one can look at what occurred in Iraq, particularly in the early years, and come to a very different conclusion.

DJ: Does an imperialist project have to have imperialist aims? Couldn’t it be imperialistic under the best intentions?

RC: It could. There were certainly elements of it in Afghanistan that might have had imperialist overtones. But in my mind, imperialism isn’t the common thread. Rather, it’s America’s strategic failure—its failure of strategic thinking and planning and execution. It’s a failure to truly understand the cultures in which we’re operating, the failure to be modest and sustainable, to engage, to work collaboratively. I see far more of those commonalties than I see imperialism.

DJ: The book focuses on our surge in Southern Afghanistan, and it carefully, and helpfully, distinguishes between our military surge and our civilian surge, which I don’t think is necessarily well understood by the public. And correct me if I’m wrong, but generally and very broadly speaking, the military surge was more successful and productive than the civilian surge.

RC: Well, yes and no.

DJ: What are the differences between the military and civilian surges and why is the distinction important?

RC: Let me give you the top line and then we can drill into it: the military surge, over the short term, had more impact than the civilian surge because the troops got out there quickly, they came in with overwhelming force, they killed a lot of Talibs, and they improved security in pockets of Southern Afghanistan. But both the military and civilian surges were strategically flawed in that they relied on the development of Afghan security forces to take the baton from U.S. troops and on Afghan civil servants to staff the new structures our diplomats and aid workers were going to create to provide basic services to the Afghan population. So, while it is right to say that there was a greater impact from the military simply because they were there in larger numbers, they hit the deck quickly, they were more, as the military would say, “kinetic”—they were out there doing stuff: conducting missions, dropping bombs, going on patrol, apprehending people—it does not look as though the Afghan forces will be able to sustain the gains that were achieved with so much blood and treasure.

On the civilian side of things, the American diplomats and aid workers that were supposed to work in partnership with the military arrived late—in some cases a year late—and many of them wound up staying in the comfortable embassy compound in Kabul, as opposed to getting out into the field where they were most needed. But even if they had gotten there on time and in sufficient numbers, they were trying to build something that was fundamentally unworkable. They were trying to build local governments, reasoning that if they could establish these structures, the Afghan government would staff them, provide services to the public, and essentially win their allegiance to Hamid Karzai’s government instead of the insurgents. The problem was that Karzai didn’t believe in our strategy and so never made the necessary resources available. He never sent civil servants to those rural areas to staff those new structures. In fact, Karzai took steps to undercut this great project. So, while the book is very critical of the execution of things like the civilian surge, one cannot evaluate all of this without considering the overall strategy, which was flawed from its inception.

DJ: One impression the book left me with, though I’m not sure it’s justified, is that the civilian surge didn’t have enough time to do the job properly. I mean, who knows whether it can be done properly and whether they were the people to do the job properly—but it seems as though everything was tailored to our four-year election cycle. Were the constraints of our politics too much for such an ambitious project? It seems as though Obama not only wanted to devote his first term to doubling-down on our mission in Afghanistan but also to wrapping it up by the time November 2012 rolled around.

Large parts of our surge effort will have been in vain.

RC: Yup. He wanted to do it quickly, and I think an enduring lesson of Afghanistan is that you can’t impose your timeline on the country. You can’t, for instance, increase your inputs threefold and expect to get three times the results, three times as quickly. Things work at a certain pace there, and that was a big flaw in American thinking, but even if we’d kept on for another four years, eight years, the larger issues would have still been there: the unwillingness of the Afghan government to support the effort and the fact that in 2009, by the time Obama took office, the situation was pretty far gone. What we could have accomplished back in 2002, in 2003, was going to be so much more difficult to pull off then. Maybe even impossible. Now, Obama decided to give it a good try, but he was starting pretty far back from the line. If we hadn’t taken our eye off the ball and not invaded Iraq, we wouldn’t be having this conversation today.

DJ: In the New York Times this week, a senior administration official was quoted as saying, “When you look at the map [of Afghanistan] in two years, the Taliban are going to be controlling big rural swathes of the South, and that’s something no one wants to talk about very much.” What do you make of the comment? If you think it’s true, doesn’t that mean that this whole project described in your book is going to wind up being in vain?

RC: I certainly think large parts of this effort will have been in vain. I should note that much of the rural part of the country is already in Taliban hands, but the insurgency will expand its footprint. The big question is whether the Afghan security forces will be able to hold onto the capital, and some other major cities, and other key infrastructure. I think it’s an open question. But if the Afghan security forces can, that means the Afghans will be able to continue fighting the Taliban on their own over the next several years or however long it takes before they find a degree of political accommodation to resolve either the whole conflict or parts of it.

The foreseeable future is going to be messy and chaotic. It may not be a future where the Talibs are able to roll into Kabul as easily as they did in the 1990s. You probably won’t see helicopters taking off from the rooftops of embassies as we saw in Saigon, but it’s going to be ugly and bloody for a while. But maybe Americans will ultimately see it as good enough. I mean, Osama Bin Laden’s dead, al Qaeda’s on the ropes, the senior Talib leadership has taken a beating. Yet the enduring question in all of this is whether we could have achieved a similarly messy-but-good-enough outcome without a full-on troop surge, and whether we could have reached a similar point without hundreds more Americans dead and thousands more gravely wounded.

DJ: Wasn’t the argument that in order to gain leverage for negotiations with the Taliban, we first had to rough them up a bit to get them more motivated to accept a peace settlement with the Afghan government?

RC: We squandered our best chance to try to broker a peace deal, and I underline the word “possible” because of the infighting in Washington during the first year of the surge that I chronicle in the book. That doesn’t mean that reconciliation between the Afghan government and the Taliban will never occur. In fact, it may well happen in the future. But it’s going to be in spite of us, not because of us. The Taliban do a lot of irrational things but at their core, they are rational actors. There’s no incentive for them to try to cut a grand deal as we’re heading for the exits and the strength of the Afghan security forces is very much in doubt. They’re going to wait until 2015 or later, when our conventional combat troops have left, and see how many American forces we keep in that country beyond 2014. And they’re going to assess the relative strength of the Afghan army and determine whether it makes sense to keep on fighting or to sue for peace, but you’re not really going to get any meaningful progress until that point.

DJ: You mentioned the bureaucratic infighting. Most notably in the book there are the conflicts between Richard Holbrooke, former special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Karl Eikenberry, our ambassador to Afghanistan from mid-2009 until mid-2011. But there are many others you discuss. Why didn’t President Obama intercede in all of this? Where was the higher authority to resolve these ridiculous, self-defeating conflicts among the various egos?

RC: With some of the stuff, the president should have stepped in. Now I think there were two defensible choices with regard to Holbrooke. Either the president should have told Holbrooke, “Look, Richard, it’s not working out, you gotta leave” and taken the political hit with Secretary of State Clinton, or he needed to tell his national security staff, “Look, you guys may not like him, but he has more experience with war and peace than anybody else at the top levels of this administration; you gotta work with him. Cut out the infighting.” One or the other. Pick and choose. But by simply allowing both sides to bicker and bicker, it meant that his Afghan policy was dead in the water. We wasted time.

What do Obama and Romney think should be done in Afghanistan next year? We don’t know.

The tragedy in all of this is that Obama supported the idea of reconciliation with the Taliban. He recognized then, and I believe still recognizes now, that you can’t go and kill every single Talib. The only way you end something like this is through a political settlement and, to be sure, his team at the White House and the State Department also espouses that view. This is just a battle of the personalities: Who would lead the effort, who’d get credit for it if it happened? It was petty Washington politics, and he should have stepped up and said “enough.”

DJ: This war was supposed to demonstrate the success of counterinsurgency, of Petraeus’s doctrine. Where do you think this whole Afghan experience has left the idea of COIN?

RC: I don’t think the Afghan experience has proved to us that counterinsurgency doesn’t work. I think that theory is still valid. I think Afghanistan was filled with a number of unique circumstances, not the least of which was the leadership of that country, which wasn’t supportive of the effort. And that’s a potential deal killer. You can’t do counterinsurgency if your host nation’s government isn’t onboard with what you’re trying to do.

But I think the big lesson of Afghanistan is that we can’t afford to do this. COIN may be a great theory, but it probably will be irrelevant for the United States for the foreseeable future because it’s just too damned expensive and time consuming. You have to understand the value of the object you are trying to save with counterinsurgency—essentially your classic cost-benefit analysis. Even starting in 2009, if we’d mounted a real full-on COIN effort, we probably could have gotten to a better point today. We shouldn’t kid ourselves that what we did was full-on COIN—that would have involved more troops, more money, more civilian experts. But would all of that have been worth it? Was what we’ve already spent on this effort worth it? Particularly given the other national security challenges we face? The economic stagnation at home?

So, the debate over COIN I think misses a key point: it’s not whether it works or not. It’s whether it’s a worthwhile expenditure or not.

DJ: Is it fair to say the lesson is that COIN on the cheap doesn’t work?

RC: COIN on the cheap doesn’t work. COIN when you don’t have a local partner doesn’t work. COIN when you have a large neighboring nation that provides sanctuary to insurgents doesn’t work. But even if all those issues were addressed, it would still be very, very costly in terms of dollars and lives. So COIN requires a meaningful national debate in this country about whether it makes sense to commit those resources to achieve your hoped-for goal.

DJ: What I especially admire about your books is that you have such incredibly vivid, well-reported detail of our rank incompetence in these nation-developing efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. In Little America it’s hard to say which anecdote takes the cake, but a lot of episodes have to do with USAID. The example that comes foremost to my mind is the whole cotton debacle: that cotton would have been a wonderful product to grow in Afghanistan, given its climate, its water limits, and its economic promise. Yet the idea was completely undermined by our development officials. It leaves one wondering whether USAID has any role to play in these development efforts. Its track record was so poor, so ridiculous, so wasteful. What role should it have, if any, in these projects?

RC: It was galling, but we need somebody that can go out there and help them. You’d like to think that our government’s aid agency would have the people to go and do that well. Even if there was no troop surge, the Afghan people still needed meaningful international assistance, and I think we have a moral obligation to try to help them. They have an incredibly poor country. But our construction effort has been plagued with mind-blowing incompetence at times, and to me cotton is a preeminent example: the crop that the Afghans had grown before; that they wanted to grow again; that would lead them to forsake poppy; that would work given the climate, the soil, the other challenges facing Afghan farmers—and yet we actively refused to help them. It was a massive self-inflicted wound.

DJ: Turning to the presidential campaign, I’ve been rather taken back by the lack of discussion of Afghanistan. If you think about Obama’s foreign policy, Afghanistan was a key plank in his platform when he campaigned in 2008.

RC: But he doesn’t talk about it much.

DJ: Not any more. Why is that?

RC: Truth be told, neither candidate talks much about it. They don’t talk about it because they both have reasons why it doesn’t make sense for them to do so. For Obama, he’d be reminding his Democratic base that he surged, which was something many of them thought was a bad idea. For Romney, his principal attack line on Obama would be that he put a deadline on the surge and perhaps didn’t give the commanders all the troops they wanted, but with polls showing that even a majority of Republicans now believe the war is no longer worth fighting, that argument isn’t going to resonate well with his base. So, there’s a complicity of silence.

But there are big issues to be discussed: What does each man think should be done there next year? How many troops should be brought home? Or not? How many troops would each man want to keep in that country in 2015, even though the ultimate number would be subject to negotiation with the Afghan government? The American people deserve an honest discussion of war policy. They haven’t really gotten it.

DJ: What about the media’s role in all of this? Why aren’t they pressing the issue more?

RC: Well, look, yours truly has written about this, as have others. Questions get asked but ultimately at campaign stump speeches, it’s not a Q&A. It’s the candidate getting up there and talking. In this case, I don’t fault the media as much as I fault the candidates.

DJ: At the end of the book, you write, “Afghanistan was Larry Nicholson and Kael Weston’s war, it was Dick Scott and Ken Dahl’s war, it wasn’t Obama’s war and it wasn’t America’s war.” The names that I mentioned are some of the figures in the book, both military and civilian. Generally speaking, they are people who are very well intentioned, very skilled, but were one way or another foiled in their attempts to make things better in Afghanistan. What do you mean that it was their war but not Obama’s and not America’s?

RC: That our nation wasn’t focused on this war. Most people have ignored it. Wished it to go away. It’s only been a small percentage of our countrymen who have served there, who are focused on it, and for those people Afghanistan mattered. In some cases, they devoted years of the their lives to it. But they did so in spite of the rest of the country. There was no collective sacrifice here, there was no collective recognition of what needed to be done. And in some cases that failure to engage meant that the military was free to go its own way. We wound up doing things that were perhaps far more ambitious than we should have. But our political leaders allowed our military leaders to get away with it. The public simply didn’t care.

DJ: And what about the statement that it wasn’t Obama’s war? It’s a bit paradoxical, because if there’s anything that Obama originally embraced, it was the Afghan war—even though he inherited the situation.

RC: He really didn’t embrace the war. He gave the military the troops they wanted, but then that was sort of it. He didn’t take ownership of it the way Bush was forced to with Iraq. He didn’t talk about it all that much. He did now and again, and he visited Afghanistan a few times but not all that frequently. He was a president that seemed very ambivalent and conflicted about it. It was his war, and he didn’t really seem to want it. I’m not trying to suggest that presidents have to want wars, but in the context of Afghanistan, he certainly seemed to be a reluctant warrior.

DJ: Some might say if you enter a war, you shouldn’t do so reluctantly. One last question: obviously our foreign policy troubles don’t end with Afghanistan. There’s Iran, there’s what’s happening in Syria, there’s Libya. What lessons might we draw from the book about our foreign policy future in the Middle East and elsewhere?

RC: Beware of another large land war in Asia.