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.