Small Wars Journal

The War Within the War for Afghanistan

Fri, 06/22/2012 - 7:42pm

Editor's Note: The following was provided by the Washington Post and is posted here unedited.  I look forward to your comments.

In ‘Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan,’ author Rajiv Chandrasekaran explains how the Pentagon’s decision to send U.S. surge forces to Helmand in 2009 had profound consequences on the Afghan war effort. The Washington Post published an excerpt from book today, which can be read here. 

Key new information from The Post's excerpt: 

-- The U.S. military squandered more than a year of the war by sending troops to the wrong places. Most of the first wave of new forces authorized by President Obama was sent to Helmand province instead of Kandahar, which was far more critical to Afghanistan's overall stability. The failure to focus on Kandahar right away delayed and compromised U.S. efforts to beat back the Taliban.

-- The excerpt provides new insight into Obama's national security record. As Obama battles for re-election, White House aides have sought to depict the president as an engaged and decisive leader on national security matters. But the initial deployment exposes the limits of his understanding of Afghanistan - and his unwillingness to confront the military - early in his presidency. "Nobody bothered to ask, 'Tell us how many troops you're sending here and there,'" a senior White House official involved in war policy told Chandrasekaran. "We assumed, perhaps naively, that the Pentagon was sending them to the most critical places."

-- U.S. Marines made a series of highly unusual demands before deploying to Afghanistan in 2009 that hindered the war effort. Among them was the requirement that overall operation control of the Marine force rest with a three star Marine general at the U.S. Central Command, not the supreme coalition commander in Kabul. That meant General Stan McChrystal lacked the power to move the Marines to another part of Afghanistan or change their mission in anything other than minor, tactical ways.

-- While in Helmand, the Marines engaged in questionable operations. They conducted a massive assault on an abandoned town in late 2009. The Marines undertook the mission because they had so many spare troops. But when McChrystal's top deputy asked the Marines to secure part of neighboring Kandahar province, Marine commanders refused.

The Post will publish a second excerpt from Little America in Monday's print and online editions. It will contain the previously unrevealed story of how infighting between the White House and the State Department led the U.S. government to squander its moment of greatest leverage to hammer out a peace deal with the Taliban to end the war. 

Categories: Marines - Kandahar - Helmand - Afghanistan


Carl Prine

Sun, 06/24/2012 - 2:24pm

Yes. Had a few hundred more Marine trigger-pullers been posted in nearby Kandahar instead of Helmand, the war would've gone swimmingly.

Perhaps they could've been more profitably engaged in attempting to find some accountability for this debacle. I suggest they needn't look too hard around McChrystal's SUV or the broom closets of CNAS.

They've long forgotten where they put mere accountability.


Sun, 06/24/2012 - 6:22pm

In reply to by Dave Maxwell

Dave Maxwell

Funny - I thought of Nunn and Skelton (but not Cohen) when I wrote the prior comment, but (obviously) did not include. Great minds?...:)


Dave Maxwell

Sun, 06/24/2012 - 6:06pm

In reply to by ADTS

ADTS: and along those lines Nunn was a Democrat and Cohen was a Republican and with the Nunn-Cohen Amendment we would not have SOCOM today. Unlikely we could ever see bills like G-N and Nunn- Cohen these days.


Sun, 06/24/2012 - 5:58pm

In reply to by Bill M.

Bill M.


One point you may be hinting at, which I double-checked on Wiki (where else? :)), is that Nichols was a Democrat, while Goldwater was (of course) Goldwater. I am not sure whether I perceive a lot of potential for bipartisan unity on matters of foreign policy and defense (or other policies, for that matter) at present or in the days to come.

But I also realize other commenters may be constrained in what they can/cannot write and I myself am a set of capitalized letters. :)

Thanks again

Bill M.

Sun, 06/24/2012 - 4:36pm

In reply to by ADTS


Question 1 I can't answer (don't know)

Question 2: Issues exist largely based on personalties, some embrace joint and some don't. Unfortunately it has been my experience that a true joint team that willingly is mutually supportive is not the norm, but when it happens (clear headed personalties all in the right places at the right time) it is a beautiful thing to behold.

Personally, I think our jointness will decrease over the near term as each service fights to retain as much of its budget as possible. Gaining efficiencies through jointness will be rejected by some weaker personalties who are more loyal to their service than their nation. They'll make a case they can do the mission alone if given sufficient resources. We're in for an interested decade as we adjust to the painful the cuts.

With regard to jointness (Bill M./SWJED)

I recall similar issues regarding - namely, integration of USMC into unified/joint combatant command - described as to Desert Shield/Desert Storm (for example, in Trainor and Gordon). That was about five years after Goldwater-Nichols.


1) Is the Desert Shield/Desert Storm historiography accurate?

2) Do the issues persist today? (The consensus per Bill M. and SWJED seems to be, "Yes.")


Bill M. hit a home run in identifying the most important take-away from this book excerpt. US Joint Forces Command was disestablished last year under the mantra that we have achieved a permanent jointness over the last decade - whatever that might mean. I am under the opinion that the Services and many within the JCS and the DoD thought the command a hindrance in pursuing their particular programs and protecting rice bowels. Moreover, USJFCOM was the one place within the DoD that was actively working "whole of government" issues. So the bottom line is, not only are we backing off any attempt of achieving unity of command we are also seriously hindering any chance of unity of effort - both within the Services and within the US Government at large. - Dave D.


You may be right, but looking beyond the what if strategy debate I think this article points to much more critical challenge to our national security that extends well beyond Afghanistan, at least if I interpreted correctly. That is our joint force are still not joint (maybe less so than they were 20 years ago) and if the USMC asked to fall under a separate chain of command, and SOF asked to fall under a separate chain of command, and perhaps others, and furthermore (not discussed in the article), State, AID, CIA, and the military (and the different tribes w/in) all have different agendas then we have larger problems than a flawed strategy in Afghanistan. All the services should debate the plans, but once the plan is approved we need unified effort to execute it. I have little faith we'll have unified effort with the interagency, but by now we should at least get the joint right. We're much better since the reform in 1987, but we're still far from where we need to be. It is hard to get there, when each organization has a different interpretation of there.

gian gentile

Fri, 06/22/2012 - 8:53pm

Is RC really saying that if folks would have just listened to people like Gen McChrystal and cnas expert Exum then things would have turned out better in the place?

Gosh, when will we ever get past this fixation on the idea that if we simply tweak the tactics and procedures, get the right guys in charge and give them power then we shall win.

I dont know about you brother Peter but i find it quite frustrating that this line of argument just wont seem to go away.

Yet undoubtedly his book will be all the rage with the coindinistas of the think tank world and will be talking amongst themselves that see, we could have won if we just had put the right guys in charge and done the tactics right.