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Little America

'Imperial Life Emerald City' author Rajiv Chandrasekaran employs excellent reporting and vivid writing to tell ugly truths about the fighting in Afghanistan.

By Steve Weinberg / July 10, 2012

Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan By Rajiv Chandrasekaran Knopf 384 pp.

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Year after year, American journalists risk their lives to enter nations invaded by the United States, hoping to learn the truth about war. During the early years of this century, Washington Post reporter Rajiv Chandrasekaran risked his life traveling throughout Iraq. His excellent reporting exposed the outright lies, half truths and self deceptions being disseminated by President George W. Bush, his civilian government appointees and his military commanders. The reporting resulted in the book “Imperial Life in the Emerald City,” published six years ago.

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With the mostly disastrous American presence in Iraq diminishing, Chandrasekaran turned his attention to Afghanistan. His travels there included time spent in combat with the Second Marine Expeditionary Brigade, as well as hanging around command headquarters. His new book, Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan, is rough on the Bush administration (again), but even rougher on President Barack Obama, his civilian government appointees, and his military commanders. By any measure, based on Chandrasekaran’s findings, the war has wasted military and civilian lives with almost no positive outcomes.

The title “Little America” is telling, yet probably requires elucidation. It refers to US civilian and military efforts dating to at least the 1940s to turn the rugged, tribal based nation state into something akin to the USA, with thriving agriculture, urban oases, formal education, gender equality and longer life spans. Every American effort at transformation has failed. But lots of otherwise intelligent individuals, including Obama, seem to have learned little from the history of American failure.

The subtitle “The War Within the War for Afghanistan" is telling, too, and also probably needs explanation. The war within the war refers to turf and policy battles among decision makers who should be pulling together. Chandrasekaran’s discerning reporting and vivid writing reveal deadly disagreements between military commanders and civilian political appointees, between US forces and allied forces (especially the British), and so many other permutations that the text of the book sometimes qualifies as mind-boggling. While important people bicker, US soldiers and Afghani soldiers and members of the Taliban “enemy” forces and civilians galore die or are permanently maimed, to no apparent meaningful end.

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