Author Chandrasekaran describes reporting that led to book on war in Afghanistan

The Media School Report • Oct. 25, 2012

Claire Ronner | Oct. 25, 2012

Washington Post senior editor and author Rajiv Chandrasekaran gave the first Faculty Lectureship talk Monday evening. He recounted the reporting that led to his book, Little America. (Photo by Nicholas Demille)
Washington Post senior editor and author Rajiv Chandrasekaran gave the first Faculty Lectureship talk Monday evening. He recounted the reporting that led to his book, Little America. (Photo by Nicholas Demille)

Using his many years following the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and government in Washington, reporter and author Rajiv Chandrasekaran gave his audience a thorough description of what’s happened in Afghanistan, and where the efforts to resolve conflict and stabilize the region went wrong.
 
The first of the school’s Faculty Lectureship speakers, Chandrasekaran addressed a full auditorium Monday evening in Ernie Pyle Hall on the war in Afghanistan as related in his book,Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan. A senior correspondent and associate editor at The Washington Post,  he traveled to Afghanistan multiple times between 2009-11.
 
Chandrasekaran began by setting the scene of February 2009, when President Obama declared that the war in Afghanistan had to be won. He pledged to send 17,000 more troops and approved a strategy document with a clear end goal of defeating and disbanding Al Qaeda. To achieve this, the U.S. forces would need to stop merely killing and instead build an Afghan state strong enough to withstand an attempted Taliban takeover.
 
“American forces had to separate the good Afghanistan from the bad insurgents by focusing on the good and giving Afghanistan security and basic services,” said Chandrasekaran. “Doing that requires resources, and a lot of time. Protecting civilians means ensuring law and order. You have to institute systems for healthcare and education and rebuild an entire government’s infrastructure. It sounds difficult, and it sure was.”
 
Chandrasekaran guided the audience through the political landscape of Afghanistan, which included an undeniably corrupt government in Kabul; insurgents who received more faith and loyalty from civilians than the government; and a tangled relationship with Pakistan, who provided sanctuary to Taliban insurgents.

Chandrasekaran used sources from Google Earth to the national archives to research Afghanistan, even as far back as the 1930s. He thinks not understanding the Afghan people still is an error in today's efforts to stabilize the country. (Photo by Nicholas Demille)
Chandrasekaran used sources from Google Earth to the national archives to research Afghanistan, even as far back as the 1930s. He thinks not understanding the Afghan people still is an error in today’s efforts to stabilize the country. (Photo by Nicholas Demille)

The biggest challenge,” said Chandrasekaran, “was that President Karzai’s government was more corrupt and impatient than the insurgents. The insurgents ended up protecting civilians from the government that was supposed to be protecting them.”
 
The Americans stepped into a situation without a better plan of action than to get to Afghanistan and slowly rebuild the nation. However, if people in Washington had done a little more research, Chandresakaran shared, they would have found the history of America’s attempt to develop Afghanistan and the cultural challenges that accompanied it.
 
Using skills to uncover information from sources as disparate as Google Earth and the national archives, the reporter uncovered a story that traced back to the early 1930s, when Afghanistan exported millions of fleece pelts to Jewish fur traders in New York. This provided an influx in the Afghani treasury, and the 32-year-old king decided to hire the top caliber construction and engineering company from the United States, the same one that built the Hoover Dam, to turn “a barren desert into a verdant agricultural oasis.”
 
In 1946, the engineers arrived and started cultivating farmland. This eventually halted due to highly salient and very shallow Afghani topsoil, like “a giant planter box, but with no holes in it,” Chandrasekaran said. As the project slowly ran aground, the engineers, tired of living in tent camps, constructed an eight square block town. The mini-town left behind Afghan characteristics like high walls surrounding each home and instead duplicated American mores.
 
“These homes had manicured lawns, the first and only coed high school, community dances, and a bartender who poured a mean gin and tonic,” said Chandrasekaran. “They called it ‘little America.’ As I immersed myself in this history, I found a parable.”
 
Chandrasekaran learned that in the late 1950s, Afghans became fed up with the engineers, but the U.S. didn’t want the project to fall into disrepair. Instead, the U.S. sent American government engineers paid for by American taxpayers to solve the problem. They noted key problems in the irrigation and found a solution to flatten the land with bulldozers.  
 
“But nobody told the Afghans, and the construction crew was met with rifles,” Chandrasekaran said. “This began a 10-year cycle of not understanding culture and customs of country. If anyone had engaged with this history in 2009 instead of barreling ahead with policies that had a very slim chance of working, our story in Afghanistan might be drastically different.”

Chandrasekaran talked about his work as an international correspondent in professor Steve Raymer's J460 Reporting War and Terrorism class. (Photo by Steve Raymer)
Chandrasekaran talked about his work as an international correspondent in professor Steve Raymer’s J460 Reporting War and Terrorism class. (Photo by Steve Raymer)

Today, Americans face an Afghani president actively opposed to an effective local government because it undermines his corrupt network, Chandrasekaran said.
 
“And Washington failed to grasp that until it was far too late,” he added.
 
The seasoned foreign correspondent recognized the domestic issues with respect to Afghanistan, listing the cost, troops and American patience as heavy negatives to the little ground forces have achieved in Afghanistan.
 
“Parts of southern Afghanistan are largely peaceful,” Chandrasekaran admitted. “Schools and bazaars have reopened. But Afghanistan as a whole is still not stable.”
 
Chandrasekaran chalked much of the instability up to an operational failure by the Americans. He stated that the Pentagon sent too many troops to the wrong places.
 
“When I was reporting the book, the toughest thing to deal with was the tribal rivalries—not in Afghanistan, but in Washington,” Chandrasekaran said, chuckling. “Each party involved wanted a say, and it became a war in the capital between the state department and the White House.”

During a roundtable discussion over lunch, Chandrasekaran talked to journalism students about his work — and theirs. (Photo by Steve Raymer)
During a roundtable discussion over lunch, Chandrasekaran talked to journalism students about his work — and theirs. (Photo by Steve Raymer)

Chandrasekaran didn’t place the blame on one particular branch of the government, but instead put a blanketed failure over all of them. He cited the soldiers unwilling to leave their air-conditioned bases and diplomats who never learned the language as examples of the U.S.’s shortcomings abroad.
 
“The Americans dwelled on the limitations of the Afghans,” said Chandrasekaran. “We should’ve focused more on our own.”
 
The talk capped a full day of activities at the school for Chandrasekaran, who talked to professor Steve Raymer’s J460 Reporting War and Terrorism class, where he was “a huge hit,” according to Raymer. He also joined students for lunch and a roundtable discussion and at a reception before the lecture.