Excerpted from “Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan.”
The day after he arrived in Kabul in June 2009, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, then the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, gathered his senior officers to discuss the state of the war. They barraged him with PowerPoint slides — the frequency of Taliban attacks and their impact; the number of local security forces; and an evaluation of the Afghan government’s effectiveness in each province. The metrics were grim, the conclusion obvious: The Americans and their NATO allies were losing.
The part of the country that concerned McChrystal most was the city of Kandahar and the eponymous province that encompasses it. Founded by Alexander the Great in 330 B.C., Kandahar city has long been the symbolic homeland of ethnic Pashtuns. In the 1990s, just as every other band of conquerors had done for the past thousand years, the Taliban used it as a springboard from which they captured Kabul and much of the rest of the nation. If the Americans were going to retake Afghanistan, they needed to start with Kandahar.
Related information: Afghanistan war strategy during the surge
But the Pentagon had not sent most of the new U.S. forces that had arrived in Afghanistan to Kandahar. The first wave — a Marine brigade comprising more than half of the 17,000 additional troops President Obama authorized in February 2009 — had been dispatched to neighboring Helmand province, which McChrystal and his top advisers considered of far lower strategic significance.
“Can someone tell me why the Marines were sent to Helmand?” the incredulous McChrystal asked his officers.
The answer — not fully known at the time to McChrystal and his officers — would reveal the dysfunction of the U.S. war effort: a reliance on understaffed NATO partners for crucial intelligence, a misjudgment of Helmand’s importance to Afghanistan’s security, and tribal politics within the Pentagon that led the Marines to insist on confining themselves to a far less important patch of desert.
The consequences were profound: By devoting so many troops to Helmand instead of Kandahar, the U.S. military squandered more than a year of the war. Had the initial contingent of Marines been sent to Kandahar, it could have obviated the need for a full 30,000-troop surge later that year, or it could have granted commanders the flexibility to combat insurgent havens in eastern Afghanistan much sooner, allowing them to meet Obama’s eventual withdrawal deadlines without objection.
Instead, U.S. forces will begin heading home this summer with much of the east in disarray and security improvements in Kandahar still tenuous. Helmand is faring considerably better, but the gains there are having only a modest impact on Afghanistan’s overall stability.
Without the diversion into Helmand, U.S. troops could have pushed into more critical areas of the country before a clear majority of Americans concluded that the war was no longer worth fighting. Before the U.S. military death toll neared 2,000. Before the conflict became the longest in American history.
As Obama battles for reelection, White House aides have sought to depict the president as an engaged and decisive leader on national security matters. But the Helmand deployment also exposes the limits of his understanding of Afghanistan — and his unwillingness to confront the military — early in his presidency.
Just weeks after Obama took office in 2009, Adm. Mike Mullen, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, urged him to approve the 17,000-troop increase before the new White House had finished a review of war strategy. Mullen said the additional forces were needed to secure the country in advance of Afghanistan’s presidential elections that August. But White House officials never pressed the Pentagon for details about where the new troops — the first major military deployment of Obama’s presidency — were heading. If they had received them, they would have learned that more than half of the forces were heading to a part of the country that was home to about 1 percent of its population.
“Nobody bothered to ask, ‘Tell us how many troops you’re sending here and there,’ ” said a senior White House official involved in war policy. “We assumed, perhaps naively, that the Pentagon was sending them to the most critical places.”
The problem escalated later in 2009 when McChrystal asked for 40,000 more troops. Some of the new forces would be sent to Kandahar. Others would secure the regions around Kabul as well as a few Pashtun-dominated pockets in the north and west where insurgent activity had increased. But thousands of the additional troops were slated to go to Helmand — on top of the nearly 11,000 Marines who already were there.
McChrystal wasn’t happy about devoting a third of his surge to Helmand, but he believed the Marines had to expand their counterinsurgency operations across the province to demonstrate momentum to the Afghan people. “We had to show we could fulfill our commitments,” he said.
The military’s counterinsurgency strategy was supposed to place troops near civilian population centers to protect residents from insurgents, not chase bad guys in the desert or remote valleys.
When McChrystal presented his troop request to Obama’s war cabinet — he spoke via a secure video link from Kabul to participants in the White House Situation Room — he displayed a map of Afghanistan dotted with blue bubbles that indicated where he intended to place the new forces. Several bubbles were in Helmand.
But in more than two hours of discussion, the 14-member war cabinet — which included Vice President Biden, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton — never asked McChrystal why he wanted so many more Marines in Helmand. The civilians didn’t know enough about Afghanistan to focus on that issue. They were also concerned about micromanaging the war, of looking like President Lyndon B. Johnson picking bombing targets in North Vietnam.
From his seat along the wall, Obama’s top adviser on the Afghan war, Douglas E. Lute, believed that those around the table were missing a crucial point. Instead of arguing about counterinsurgency strategy — whether Afghan President Hamid Karzai would improve and whether the Pakistanis would crack down on Taliban sanctuaries — they should have focused more on how the forces would be employed. That would have revealed how the military had misused the first wave of troops Obama authorized.
Had they inquired, the president’s civilian advisers also could have learned that the initial 17,000 troops played only a minor role in the overall security effort for the Afghan election. In fact, the new troops protected polling sites in Helmand and Kandahar where Karzai supporters engaged in some of their most egregious ballot tampering.
After the meeting, Lute and his staff assembled a list of follow-up questions for McChrystal. Lute, a three-star general, asked McChrystal to provide more explanation of the location of the bubbles. At the war cabinet's next meeting, McChrystal talked briefly about the need to “demonstrate momentum” in Helmand. To Lute, the answer seemed unsatisfactory, but nobody around the table pressed McChrystal any further.
NATO alliance vs. winning war
Shortly after McChrystal was appointed the top commander in Afghanistan in 2009, Defense Secretary Gates had told him to take stock of the war effort within 60 days. The idea for the assessment had originated with national security adviser James L. Jones, who grew alarmed when McChrystal told the Senate Armed Services Committee, during his confirmation hearing that he did not know whether the 17,000 troops Obama had approved that February would be enough. Jones believed the Pentagon was lobbying for more forces before the 17,000 had fully deployed — and after McChrystal’s bosses had all but told the president that they would not be asking for more that year. As a compromise, Jones suggested that McChrystal first conduct an assessment of the war. Then, if he determined that he required more troops, he could make a formal request.
McChrystal, the rangy former commander of the secretive Joint Special Operations Command, convened a group of outside experts from Washington’s prominent national security think tanks to travel to Kabul for a month to help him draft the assessment — and then sell the conclusion inside the Beltway by writing op-eds, giving speeches and talking it up at Washington cocktail parties.
Among them was Andrew Exum of the Center for a New American Security, the most influential cradle of counterinsurgency strategists in the capital. He was the youngest of the outside advisers, but he had served in Iraq and had led a platoon of elite Army Rangers in Afghanistan. Exum understood that Kandahar was of critical importance, but he had no idea how tenuous the situation was until the group met with Sarah Chayes.
Chayes was a former National Public Radio reporter who ran an agricultural cooperative in Kandahar. She had once been close to the Karzai family but had a falling-out with the president and his half-brother Ahmed Wali Karzai over their connections to warlords and, she alleged, their involvement in corruption. Frustrated by the failure of commanders and diplomats to grasp how graft was pushing Afghans toward the Taliban, she had accepted an offer to advise Gen. David McKiernan, McChrystal’s predecessor. She stuck around when McChrystal arrived, hoping to convince him and his staff that fighting corruption had to be a central element of their counterinsurgency campaign. She told them that Kandahar seemed to be slipping away. Ahmed Wali and his cronies had divided the spoils for themselves, and the have-nots were turning to the insurgency. She explained that the Taliban had taken control of the four districts that ring the city — Arghandab, Zhari, Dand and Panjwai — shutting down schools, seeding roads with bombs and forcing pro-government tribal leaders to flee.
Exum grew alarmed. On a trip to the main NATO base in the south, he and others on the assessment team asked the top intelligence officer on the Canadian task force responsible for Kandahar for his take on the situation.
“I have no idea what’s going on inside the city,” the officer said, according to Exum’s notes of the meeting. That was because the few Canadian troops in the city were focused on reconstruction activities, not providing security or gathering intelligence.
The problem was partly rooted in a 2005 decision by President George W. Bush to reduce American forces in Afghanistan and deploy them in Iraq. As the Taliban was gathering strength and violence was flaring across southern Afghanistan, his administration asked NATO to take up the task of stabilizing that region. The Canadians got Kandahar, and Helmand fell to the British.
By 2009, the British had 9,000 troops in Helmand because London kept adding more to confront expanding Taliban ranks. Although Kandahar was home to far more people, Canada had deployed only 2,830 soldiers to the province. Most of them were assigned to headquarters and support roles; fewer than 600 went on patrol.
When Exum returned to Kabul, he asked U.S. Maj. Gen. Michael Tucker, the soon-to-depart director of operations for all NATO troops, why more Canadians had not been sent into the city. Tucker said he did not want to dictate to the Canadians where to place their forces. “It is wrong,” he said, “to tell a commander, from this level, to put troops in Kandahar city.”
Exum was sitting next to Tucker. When he did not want others to see what he was recording in the Moleskine notebook he took everywhere, he scribbled in Greek. “This guy is a jackass,” he wrote. “Kandahar — not Helmand — is the single point of failure in Afghanistan.”
The decision to send the Marines to Helmand instead of Kandahar had been made by McKiernan, but he had been urged to do so by his subordinates in Kandahar, including a then-one-star U.S. Army general, John “Mick” Nicholson. When Nicholson met with Exum and his teammates to explain his reasoning, he emphasized that the Kandahar mission was Canada’s largest overseas deployment since the Korean War. Military leaders in Ottawa were reluctant to ask for more help — some were convinced that security in Kandahar was improving, others didn’t want to risk the embarrassment — and McKiernan didn’t want to upset the Canadians by forcing them to cede additional territory. To Exum and others on the team, however, it seemed that U.S. commanders thought that managing the NATO alliance was more important than winning the war.
The British had the opposite view about U.S. assistance in Helmand. Eager to reduce casualties, British commanders wanted to concentrate their forces around Lashkar Gah and a few other key towns. They were happy to let U.S. troops assume responsibility for the remote parts of Helmand, so long as the transfer was portrayed as a partnership, not a takeover.
Nicholson insisted that the Marines could be used more effectively in Helmand for three other reasons: It was the epicenter of poppy production, the Taliban were conducting more attacks there, and Afghan officials had told commanders that foreign troops should stay out of Kandahar city, given its religious significance. But Exum thought the new troops should be closer to the largest population center in the south, not where violence was worst. The drug argument similarly made no sense to him, because Richard C. Holbrooke, the State Department’s point man for Afghanistan, had just announced that to avoid antagonizing farmers, the United States would no longer participate in the eradication of poppy fields. A CIA study also claimed that the Taliban got most of its money from illegal taxation and contributions from Pakistan and Persian Gulf nations, not from drugs. And even if the Afghans were right about the psychological impact of foreign forces inside the city, the surrounding districts seemed like the best home for the Marines.
The Taliban’s surge in Helmand was “a feint,” Exum wrote in his notebook. “It draws our attention and resources away from Kandahar.”
When he recommended that the Marines be sent to Helmand, Nicholson did not know it would be a force of more than 10,000. He had assumed that Marine commanders would dispatch the equivalent of an infantry brigade, which typically ranges from 3,500 to 5,000 personnel. That would have allowed the Army to send more troops to Kandahar. But the Marines insisted on bringing their own helicopters and logistics teams, and they wanted to set up their own large headquarters that duplicated some of the functions performed on the giant NATO base at Kandahar’s airport. To Nicholson, “it was a lot of overhead we didn’t need.”
Breaking with tradition
There was another reason the Marines had wound up in Helmand: They wanted it.
In discussions with senior Pentagon generals in charge of troop deployments in 2008, the Marine commandant, Gen. James Conway, was willing to dispatch thousands of forces to Afghanistan as soon as the president approved a troop increase. His zeal for Afghanistan stood in contrast to that of his comrades in the upper echelons of the Army, who had more than 120,000 soldiers in Iraq and were struggling to find enough units to replace those coming home. Conway, however, could afford to turn his sights to Afghanistan because he was planning to pull his Marines out of Iraq. He wanted his Marines to hunt bad guys, and by then there were more of them in Afghanistan.
But the gray-haired Conway, who looked as though he could win a wrestling match with a 19-year-old lance corporal, drove a hard bargain. He required that any new forces be kept in a contiguous area where they could be supported by Marine helicopters and supply convoys. These stipulations effectively excluded Kandahar. The geography of the province, and the Canadians’ desire to hold on to key districts around Kandahar city, made it nearly impossible to carve out a Marine-only area there. Helmand was the next best option, even if it was less vital.
Conway’s requirement had its roots in World War II. Marines landing on the Pacific islands of Guadalcanal and Tarawa hadn’t received the air support they had expected from Navy planes to hold off Japanese troops. Since then — in Vietnam and Iraq — Marine commanders have insisted on deploying with their own aviation and supply units. In the initial years of the Afghan war, the Pentagon broke with tradition and sent small Marine units into remote districts to help train and mentor Afghan soldiers. They were forced to rely on the Army for air support, particularly when they came under attack. But overstretched Army helicopter crews were sometimes slow to respond and the delays rekindled concern within the Corps about abandonment.
Conway made an even more remarkable demand: a three-star Marine general at the U.S. Central Command, not the supreme coalition commander in Kabul, would have to have overall operational control over the force going to Helmand. That meant McChrystal would lack the power to move the Marines to another part of Afghanistan or change their mission in anything other than minor, tactical ways.
The Pentagon brasses were willing to meet Conway’s conditions. They needed boots on the ground, and he was the only one offering them.
After the Marines arrived in Helmand, the U.S. ambassador in Kabul, Karl Eikenberry, joked that the international security force in Afghanistan, then made up of 41 nations, felt as though it had 42 members because the Marines acted so independently. Before long, some American officials began referring to the Corps’s area of operations as “Marineistan.”
‘Welcome to Hell’
With so many troops in Helmand, the Marines could afford to conduct missions that were unheard of elsewhere in Afghanistan. One of them was a charge into an abandoned town.
Set atop a dusty plain between two ridgelines, the orchards of Now Zad once yielded pomegranates as large as softballs, luring visitors from across southern Afghanistan during the harvest season. Some grew so intoxicated by the prospect of farming the fertile soil that they transplanted their lives. Waves of settlers in the 1960s and 1970s transformed Now Zad, which means “newborn” in Persian, into the fourth-largest city in Helmand province.
By the fall of 2006, the city looked like old death. The Taliban had invaded it with hundreds of fighters earlier that year. The pomegranate fields had been booby-trapped with mines. Homes and shops had been blown to rubble. Bullet holes pocked the few walls left standing. As the fighting escalated, most residents fled.
After desperate pleas from President Karzai, the British commanders responsible for Helmand dispatched a platoon of Ghurkas to evict the insurgents. But the fearsome Nepalese warriors were outmanned by the Taliban. A bloody standoff ensued as the insurgents roamed the city and the Ghurkas hunkered inside the police station. Every few days, the Taliban would try to storm the compound, sometimes getting close enough to hurl grenades, but the Ghurkas, and subsequent contingents of British troops, managed to keep them at bay with torrents of bullets and rockets.
U.S. Marine Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson was appalled when he visited Now Zad in February 2009. The first thing he saw when he landed was a wall at the police station that was scrawled with graffiti: WELCOME TO HELL. American Marines had relieved the British the year before, and they had expanded the patrol zone by a few blocks, but they were still surrounded on three sides by insurgents hiding in trenches and abandoned houses. A no man’s land lay in between, trod only by wild dogs. Injuries from IEDs — improvised explosive devices — were so common that the Marine Company in Now Zad was the only one in the country to be assigned two trauma doctors and two armored vehicles with mobile surgical theaters.
To Nicholson, a compact former infantryman whose weathered face appeared perpetually sunburned, the opposing forces staring at each other evoked the trench battles of World War I. He met a Marine at Now Zad who told him, “Sir, we patrol until we hit an IED, and then we call in a medevac and go back” to the base. “And then we do it again the next day.”
When Nicholson became the top Marine commander in Afghanistan in April 2009, he resolved to save Now Zad. IEDs had blown off the legs of more than two dozen Americans in and around the city. Fighting a war of attrition with fixed positions was not something Marines did, at least not in his book.
But his bosses at the NATO regional headquarters in Kandahar felt differently, as did the American and British diplomats in the provincial capital. They maintained that Now Zad didn’t merit more troops and dollars. They believed that stalemate was good enough in an imperfect war: A small unit of Marines had succeeded in tying down hundreds of insurgents who couldn’t launch attacks elsewhere. Nicholson was told not to worry about Now Zad.
But he would not let go. His job was to protect the people of Helmand, and that meant allowing the displaced to return home. He bristled when British and American officials told him that the former residents of Now Zad would not come back. That’s how people in the West might behave, but the only real assets most Helmandis had were their homes and their land. Nicholson felt they would reclaim them if they could.
It seemed as though every day he received word of another American double amputee in Now Zad. Each folded, handwritten casualty notification his aide passed to him stopped his heart a beat longer. Failing to act, he thought, would mean his brother Marines had sacrificed lives and limbs in vain.
When Nicholson’s political adviser, John Kael Weston, the diplomat he trusted most, arrived in Helmand that June, he asked the general which outpost he should visit first.
“Kael,” Nicholson said, “you’ve got to go to Now Zad.”
At first glance, the 37-year-old Weston seemed like a surfer who’d taken a wrong turn on the way to the beach. But his tousled hair and untucked shirts belied his place among the most erudite and experienced diplomats of his generation, one who had spent more time in Iraq and Afghanistan — six consecutive years in the two war zones, with just a few short breaks — than anyone else in the State Department.
Weston’s job description called for him to advise the Marines about Afghan government matters, palaver with local leaders, and keep his bosses in Kandahar and Kabul apprised of political developments in the Marine area of operations. But he saw his writ in more expansive terms. Weston was the brigade’s political commissar; he constantly reminded the Marines that the military had been deployed in support of the Afghan government, not the other way around. And he was Nicholson’s confidant. They had forged an enduring friendship while serving for a year in the Iraqi hellhole of Fallujah.
When Weston got to Now Zad, he climbed a guard tower to see the dead pomegranate trees that had been rigged with explosives. He walked through the shuttered bazaar, praying that his next footfall would not be atop a pressure-plate IED buried in the dirt. Halfway through the patrol, he asked the corporal ahead of him, who was scanning the ground with a metal detector, how much training he had received to use the device. “Well, sir,” the corporal replied, “not as much as you’d like to think.”
The following day, he mourned with the Marines of Golf Company when they received word that Cpl. Matthew Lembke, who had enlisted on his 18th birthday and served two tours in Iraq, then re-upped to deploy with his buddies to Afghanistan, had died of an infection. Three weeks earlier, he had stepped on an IED while on a night patrol. The blast had blown off his legs and deposited the rest of him in the crater left by the bomb.
As Weston prepared to depart the outpost, a young corporal approached him. “Sir, I just hope this all adds up,” he said. “All of my friends are getting hurt over here.”
Now Zad seemed like a blood feud to Weston. “It is truly an area where you’ve got a company of bad guys versus a company of good guys,” he told his parents in an audio recording he sent them shortly after the trip. “The question for me, the general and others at headquarters is going to be: What kind of further effort do you put towards a place like Now Zad?”
He would answer that question three months later. By then, Nawa, Garmser and Khan Neshin — the districts that had been the Marines’ initial focus — had grown relatively quiet. Nicholson wanted to address other problems in the province, and the arrival of a replacement battalion in northern Helmand provided an opportunity to make a big push in Now Zad. One night in early October, Nicholson made his pitch to Weston.
“I’m frustrated,” he said. “I feel like a bulldog who wants two more links in my chain.”
“You’re on twitch muscles,” Weston replied.
“I am. There are places I can’t go right now and it’s killing me,” Nicholson said. “I’d like to finish Now Zad because I think there’s a strategic payback and benefit of showing people what we’re doing — we’ll repopulate the second-largest city in Helmand.” (Only Nicholson thought Now Zad was once that big. Afghan records listed it as fourth.)
“The people have to want to come back,” Weston said. “And right now, it doesn’t sound like they want to.”
“If you clear it, they will come,” Nicholson continued.
“I’m just being honest with you,” Weston said. “I don’t believe in the time we’ve got that Now Zad is where we should focus our attention. Our report card ain’t going to be about Now Zad.”
“When Now Zad starts to be repopulated, it will be one of the biggest stories to come out of Afghanistan.”
“If the world still cares about Afghanistan.”
“The world will care about it,” Nicholson said.
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