A Cautionary Tale About Transforming Afghanistan


The plan in Afghanistan was ambitious. Americans would set up a base in one of the most remote parts of one of the world’s most isolated countries. The project would last many years and cost large sums of money. And in the end, Afghanistan, or at least one small part of it, would be a new, modern country.

When Americans think of large-scale U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, most would point to the Sept. 11 attacks that prompted the American invasion of the country in 2001.

But a half-century earlier, Americans carried out another major undertaking. Afghanistan’s King Mohammed Zahir Shah, who was in his early 30s at the time, wanted to bring his ancient civilization into the 20thcentury. He invited the Americans in for a huge engineering project along the Helmand River in the unforgiving deserts of southern Afghanistan.

This effort, which ultimately spanned three decades, is the starting point for a new book by journalist and author Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan.

Chandrasekaran’s book is about America’s current war in Afghanistan. But he begins with that long ago and largely forgotten effort in southern Afghanistan, portraying it as a cautionary tale of what happens when America tries to transform a land of impoverished, small-scale farmers and a deeply conservative culture where fundamentalist Muslim clerics resist social change.

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