The clueless American war in Afghanistan

An extract from a new book by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan, author of the … startling book about the disastrous Iraq invasion, Imperial Life in the Emerald City:

When Richard Holbrooke became the Obama administration’s Afghanistan point man in January 2009, Summer Coish was keen to join his civilian operation. She had the requisite credentials: a master’s in public health and experience working on foreign development projects. For the previous five years, she had been splitting her time between New York and Kazakhstan, where she and a friend had started a glossy biannual magazine about Central Asia. Although she dug a little deeper into her savings to print each issue of… Steppe, the publishing venture had swelled the list of contacts on her mobile phone. She knew more Afghan entrepreneurs — from the founder of the country’s most successful television station to the owner of the largest bottled-drinks company — than anyone else seeking a job with USAID.

Coish, a tall blonde with a fondness for dangle earrings acquired in far-off bazaars, was just the sort of person Holbrooke desired for his Washington team. But she wanted to live in Afghanistan, so he introduced her to Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador in Kabul. He brought her to the swearing-in ceremony for the new USAID director in Kabul, who happened to be an old friend of Coish’s from Kazakhstan. They talked about possible assignments for her and settled on a position in Kabul coordinating donations from other nations. It seemed a good fit with Holbrooke’s goal of increasing international support for the reconstruction of Afghanistan.

Coish arrived in Kabul 14 months later. (It took that long for the sclerotic State Department bureaucracy to process her application and provide her a security clearance — a process that required her to list all of her travel outside the United States and every “foreign contact” she had had in the previous eight years.) When she finally got there, she expected to work with a team of fellow Americans committed to helping rebuild Afghanistan. Long gone were the days when the U.S. government had assembled postwar reconstruction teams based on political fidelity, questioning prospective hires about their views on… Roe v. Wade… and capital punishment, as the Bush administration had during the first year in Iraq. Now, Holbrooke was recruiting the best and brightest in Washington. Coish believed the same standards would apply in Kabul.

Within a day, she saw she’d been dreaming. She divided most of the people she met in the highly fortified embassy and USAID compound into three camps: those who had come to Afghanistan because they wanted to make a lot of money — with hazard pay and bonuses, some staffers earned as much as $300,000 a year; those who were getting their tickets punched for a promotion or a posting to a comfortable embassy in Western Europe; and those who were seeking to escape a divorce, a foreclosed home, or some other personal calamity. “It’s rare that you ever hear someone say they’re here because they want to help the Afghans,” she told me after she had been there for a few months.

The civilian surge was supposed to place more diplomats and USAID officers in southern districts where recently deployed U.S. troops were conducting counterinsurgency operations. But most of the new arrivals wound up staying in Kabul. By late 2010, more than two-thirds of the 1,100 civilian U.S. government employees in Afghanistan were stationed in the capital to feed the mushrooming bureaucracy at the embassy and the USAID mission. Although there were plenty of Afghans in the city with whom to collaborate, most embassy and USAID staffers were required to sit at their desks. When Coish asked to work at the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development, which was a key player in reconstruction programs, her boss released her for only three days a week, and even that came with a condition — that she come in to the USAID office those evenings to draft memos and proofread cables.

It was the ninth year of America’s war in Afghanistan, but it often felt like the ninth version of the first year, save for the massive expansion of the compound. Most staffers stayed for only a year, and 90 percent of them arrived and departed over the summer — … because that’s what Foreign Service officers do everywhere else in the world. By late August, the embassy and USAID mission had a whole new crop of people who lacked institutional memory. To Coish, who arrived in April and witnessed the 2010 summer transition, “It was as if someone had pushed a giant reset button on the entire place.”

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

Site by Common