As Afghanistan prepares for the withdrawal of American troops, Washington Post senior correspondent and associate editor Chandrasekaran (Imperial Life in the Emerald City, 2006) delivers a clearheaded assessment of events since the war began, showing that precious little progress has been made.
America has been engaging in utopian schemes to remake Afghanistan for far longer than most people realize—e.g., in the 1940s and ’50s, American engineers planted model villages in the Helmand River Valley in the vain hope that modernity would spread infectiously across Central Asia. Now, Marines battle insurgents for control of these remote outposts, as the local population continues to live much as they did centuries ago. Chandrasekaran captures the absurdity of a bumbling bureaucracy attempting to reengineer in its own image a society that is half a world away. Though the prose is workmanlike, the author’s account of infighting and ineptitude in Afghanistan is well-researched and compelling. Development consultants further their own careers by accepting brief postings in the country where they spend their time counting the hours until their departure and socializing at embassy parties while rarely leaving their fortified bases or interacting with ordinary Afghans. Different factions within the State Department, the military, NATO and the development community pursue conflicting and mutually exclusive priorities, largely by funneling massive amounts of cash through the patronage networks of various corrupt local leaders. The complete lack of effective oversight ensures that most of the money has little lasting impact and some ends up in the hands of the Taliban. Based on extensive interviews with participants in the reconstruction effort and his own observations from some of the most volatile districts, Chandrasekaran systematically condemns the missed opportunities and the wasted resources of the campaign. “For years, we dwelled on the limitations of the Afghans,” he writes. “We should have focused on ours.”
A timely, convincing portrait of an occupation in crisis, with much to teach anyone involved in diplomacy or international aid.