Squandered Opportunities

6 Ways the U.S. Failed in Afghanistan: Speed Read of ‘Little America’

Why did the 2009 troop surge in Afghanistan fail? A nightmarish new book has devastating revelations.

Manpreet Romana, AFP / Getty Images

When Washington Post senior correspondent Rajiv Chandrasekaran went to Afghanistan to report on the troop surge ordered by President Obama in 2009, he found vicious bickering in the leadership that sabotaged a peace deal, generals who dispatched troops to the wrong places, and rogue commanders who killed civilians and cost soldiers their lives. The result is Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan. The author of the National Book Award finalist Imperial Life in the Emerald City gives another nightmarish account of a failed war and squandered opportunities. Here are the most devastating revelations.

Helmand, The War’s Biggest Waste of Time

When Gen. Stanley McChrystal took command in Afghanistan in 2009, he wondered why nearly 11,000 U.S. soldiers in that year’s troop surge had been sent to a sparsely populated province called Helmand, and only 4,000 were headed to Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second-largest city. Hundreds of U.S. troops were killed or injured defending ghost towns in Helmand, for no good reason.

Blame Canada (and Britain)

In 2005 President George W. Bush decided to reduce American forces in Afghanistan and deploy them in Iraq. NATO was asked to help stabilize the region. The Canadians got Kandahar and the British got Helmand.

The British had 9,000 troops in Helmand by 2009. Canada, on the other hand, had deployed only 2,830 soldiers to Kandahar province. Most of them were at headquarters or in support roles, while fewer than 600 were on patrol.

When Andrew Exum of the counterinsurgency advisory group Center for a New American Security asked U.S. Maj. Gen. Michael Tucker why more Canadians had not been sent into Kandahar, Tucker said he did not want to tell the Canadians what to do. Exum wrote in his notebook, “This guy is a jackass.”

‘Nobody Bothered to Ask’

Adm. Mike Mullen, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, urged then President-elect Barack Obama to rush the approval of a 17,000-troop increase in 2009—before the new White House could finish a review. The British had asked for as much U.S. assistance in Helmand as possible, but the Canadians had not, and U.S. generals did not want to force the Canadians to cede their territory. So more than half of the forces were about to head to Helmand in the first major military deployment of Obama’s presidency. “Nobody bothered to ask, ‘Tell us how many troops you’re sending here and there,’” Chandrasekaran writes, quoting a senior White House official.

When McChrystal asked for 40,000 more troops later in 2009 and presented his request to Obama in the White House Situation Room, the 14-member War Cabinet also never asked why so many Marines were headed to Helmand.

The Rogue Commander

Col. Harry Tunnell commanded a brigade that included the 1–17 battalion, which patrolled Arghandab in central Kandahar province. He disagreed with Gen. David Petraeus’s counterinsurgency theory, compiled as the COIN manual. Tunnell didn’t believe in protecting villages and winning over residents through reconstruction; he only wanted to kill the bad guys. He called his unit the “Destroyer Brigade,” and his vehicles were painted with the motto “Search and Destroy.” Most egregiously, the 1–17 battalion was using the new eight-wheeled armored vehicle, called a Stryker, in places where soldiers should have been walking. They hit roadside bombs, and in one incident seven soldiers and an interpreter were killed. By the end of the 1–17’s deployment in Arghandab, 21 soldiers had been killed, the highest death toll of any U.S. Army battalion in Afghanistan.

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Tunnell also sent a battalion to far western Kandahar province, and they were subsequently charged with “murdering unarmed Afghans for sport and keeping their fingers as trophies.” An investigation absolved Tunnell of any direct blame, but by then Tunnell had relinquished command of the brigade.

Infighting: McChrystal and Eikenberry

In the fall of 2009, Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, sent a cable to the White House and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton calling into question McChrystal’s rationale for the troop surge. McChrystal was livid and thought that Eikenberry should have sent the cable to him first. When Obama decided to impose a deadline on the surge, McChrystal was very critical. Then came the Rolling Stone article that quoted him and his aides calling National Security adviser Jim Jones a “clown,” special representative Richard Holbrooke “a wounded animal,” and Vice President Joe Biden “bite me.” McChrystal resigned the next day.

Infighting: Holbrooke and Lute

The late diplomat and special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan was the best hope to secure a peace deal with the Taliban. But many members of Obama’s team hated him, and the White House’s failure to resolve the dispute sabotaged a chance at a negotiated settlement. Holbrooke was tough to work with. He wanted to sign off on every nonmilitary initiative, but he and his staff were too disorganized to deal with all the paperwork. Eikenberry and Deputy National Security adviser Doug Lute were frustrated and eventually it turned into a nasty dispute. Holbrooke helped select Eikenberry and put him on a short leash, calling him late almost every night and making threats to embassy officials. Holbrooke looked down on Lute, ignored his requests, and made him and his National Security Council staff revise many memos.

Instead of stopping the fighting, the Obama White House let it persist, and even encouraged it—Obama’s team didn’t like Holbrooke, who had campaigned for Hillary Clinton. The only one to protect him and believe in his diplomatic genius was Clinton, but that wasn’t enough. Obama disliked him and sidelined him, while Lute and Jim Jones tried to get him fired. “The consequence was profound: The Obama White House failed to aggressively explore negotiations when it had the most boots on the battlefield,” Chandrasekaran writes.