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A Cautionary Tale About Transforming Afghanistan

Jul 3, 2012
Originally published on July 3, 2012 12:05 pm

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 20th century. 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.

In 1946, the king hired the giant American engineering firm Morrison-Knudsen, which set up shop in the southern town of Lashkar Gah. This was the same firm that had built the Hoover Dam and the San Francisco Bay Bridge.

The King's Dream

"It was [the king's] hope that he would turn this barren desert into a verdant agricultural oasis that would vault his primitive, landlocked country into the modern era," Chandrasekaran tells Morning Edition's Renee Montagne.

How hard could it be for this firm to dam off a couple spots along the Helmand River, carve out some irrigation canals and bring modern agriculture and electricity to the Afghans?

Pretty damn hard, it turns out.

For starters, there was no place for the Americans to live. An entire "Little America" was built for the U.S. workers and their families. It looked as if an entire community had been uprooted from the American Southwest and transplanted to southern Afghanistan.

The families lived in white stucco homes. The men wore coats and ties, and the women dressed as they did back home, with knee-length skirts. There was a clubhouse where the adults played cards and drinks were served by a Filipino bartender.

The kids played tennis, attended a co-ed school and escaped the heat by frolicking along the banks of the Helmand River. There were cottages in the mountains for weekend getaways, where the men would hunt gazelle and the kids would play games and sing.

This was one of the largest U.S. foreign development projects at the time, fueled by the Cold War rivalry with the Soviet Union, which bordered Afghanistan.

"Afghanistan was this critical buffer state with the communists and the Soviets ... already active in the north," Chandrasekaran says. "If this project failed, it would be an opening for the Soviets and a blight on America's reputation."

A Litany Of Problems

From the beginning, the project encountered problems. No proper water and soil surveys were conducted before the project began. The soil proved salty and drained poorly. Afghan farmers lacked the resources to replicate and expand on what the Americans were doing. By the 1960s, the U.S. government had taken over, and Peace Corps volunteers had moved into the area.

At one point, new wheat seeds were introduced. They were supposed to improve yields, and they did. They were supposed to allow farmers to grow two crops a year, instead of one, and they did.

But the migratory patterns of birds hadn't been factored into the equation, and the flocks passed through right around harvest time.

A U.S. government report summed up the result: "The birds got fat and the farmers did not."

In the late 1970s, the Americans began to correct earlier mistakes, and crop yields soared. But Afghanistan's political scene turned chaotic. Afghanistan's Communist Party staged a coup in 1978, and Washington pulled the Americans out. The Soviet Union invaded the next year, and Afghanistan has been at war ever since.

"The point is, we finally got it right, but it was too late," Chandrasekaran says. "And quite frankly, if you changed the dates and you changed the names, you could be writing about today."

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Many Americans came to know the southern province of Helmand when thousands of U.S. Marines poured in back in 2009, a troop surge aimed at turning Afghanistan around. It wasn't the first time Americans showed up suddenly in Helmand, hoping to improve life in Afghanistan. In the early days of the Cold War, the Afghan government hired an American firm to run an ambitious agricultural development project in the province. That project began a decades-long relationship, and it's the subject of a new book, "Little America," by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, a senior correspondent with the Washington Post. Good morning.

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: The idea was to turn a virtual desert into a breadbasket, but the story about how this came about in the first place is quite fascinating in itself.

CHANDRASEKARAN: It actually begins with the Holocaust. As Jewish fur traders in the mid to late '30s fled Central Europe, many of them resettled in New York, and they had to search for a new source for pelts for coats and hats, and they turned to Afghanistan for the fur of the Persian fat-tailed sheep. And through the late '30s and early '40s, Afghanistan exported somewhere between one and two million pelts a year to the United States.

The sales of each one deposited a few more dollars in the Afghan king's treasury. So at the end of World War II, while Europe was digging out of its rubble, Afghanistan was sitting on a comparative windfall, and so the young king in Kabul, Mohammed Zahir Shah, decided he wanted to use that fortune to vault his country into the modern era. He had been impressed by the TVA projects during the Great Depression of the United States, the construction of the Hoover Dam, and so he used that money to hire Morrison Knudsen, an American engineering firm that had recently built the San Francisco Bay Bridge to come to the southern part of his country and build a network of irrigation canals and two large dams.

It was his hope that he'd turn this barren desert into a verdant agricultural oasis that would vault his primitive landlocked country into the modern era.

MONTAGNE: But it wasn't such a crazy idea because Helmand had centuries before been quite a garden.

CHANDRASEKARAN: It had. Centuries and centuries ago, the Ghaznavid rulers who lorded over much of central Asia actually had a network of canals over there. They were destroyed by the Mongols, by Genghis Khan's army, which actually salted the fields so nothing would grow there. And so for years and years it was pretty barren land, and the desert around it is actually known as the desert of death, a very harsh, foreboding place, but there is water, and so there was potential there.

MONTAGNE: So it was at least an understandable and maybe even beautiful dream on the part of the king, and possibly even the Americans as they came in trying to fashion this place as, the title of your book suggests, "Little America." Tell us about that.

CHANDRASEKARAN: Eventually the American engineers needed to set up a place to live for themselves, and so they set up a town in what is now the capital of Helmand Province, and they called it Lashkar Gah, its name still today. In the early days, it was about eight square blocks, but instead of being built in the Afghan style with mud brick construction and tall compound walls, they actually put more American-style suburban homes there with front lawns and no walls so neighbors could see each other.

This little town had the country's first and only co-ed swimming pool and co-ed high school. They had a clubhouse where they had card games at night, a Filipino bartender who could mix a potent gin and tonic, dances. It was a tiny bit of Americana dropped into the middle of Afghanistan. And though the Americans called this place Lashkar Gah, the Afghans around it looked at it and said we've got another name for it, and they called it Little America.

MONTAGNE: Give us an example of the sort of the thing that happened that made it not work.

CHANDRASEKARAN: Renee, there was no dearth of good intentions, but initially the contractor started fleecing the Afghan government, insisting that every piece of equipment be brought in from the United States no matter how small, and soon Afghanistan's budget was depleted. The critical soil and water studies that were necessary for a project this big weren't done. The Afghan government and the contractor believed this was a venture that was simply too big to fail.

The problem was, think of Helmand Valley as a planter box. You have soil in the top, but you don't have any holes in the bottom, and when you put in water, it doesn't drain out. And so what they needed to do was to dig a bunch of drainage canals so that the water going into these fields would drain out, so your fields don't become waterlogged. Well, that didn't happen because of miscommunication between the Americans and the Afghans.

It didn't happen because the Americans hired up all of the Afghans with technical expertise to work for them, so the Afghan government didn't have qualified people to do its share of the work to dig these drainage canals.

MONTAGNE: So by even the mid-'50s, certainly within a decade it became clear that this private company wasn't going to be able to finish the job. That created tension with the Afghan government. The United States already wanted to be on the good side of Afghanistan. This was a larger geopolitical issue.

CHANDRASEKARAN: They were worried that the Soviets were going to step in and take over that work. Remember, Afghanistan was this critical buffer state with the communists, and the Soviets were already active in the North, and so if this project failed, it would be an opening for the Soviets, it will be a blight on America's reputation, so the U.S. government steps in.

MONTAGNE: Which then became a question of the United States putting in millions and millions of American tax dollars.

CHANDRASEKARAN: This becomes the biggest overseas project in the 1960s for the new U.S. Agency for International Development, prior to the Vietnam War. So new canals are dug, new drainage ditches are put in, but nothing quite works, and then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger happed to visit Kabul, and the prime minister of Afghanistan complained that the Helmand project was this unfinished symphony, and Kissinger promised him that we'd get it right.

And at this time the job went to a small federal agency called the Soil Conservation Service, and they came up with a plan to try to improve the drainage by getting the Afghans to dig these canals with small hand tools.

MONTAGNE: So like those original good intentions, here was a situation where it sounded like a good idea.

CHANDRASEKARAN: And this one actually worked, Renee, for a couple of years, and then the Soviets rolled in and the projects ended, but well before all those fields could be salvaged.

MONTAGNE: So the Soviet invasion cut short a project that might have turned around this by now three-decades-old effort to turn the Helmand Valley into a valley filled with farms.

CHANDRASEKARAN: The point is, we finally got it right, but it was too late, and the story of all that went wrong, and quite frankly if you change the dates and you change the names, you could writing about today. Well, so few people in our government bothered to read about this history, to understand it. Had we done that, I think our whole development effort there over the past decade could have been very different, and we could have learned from these mistakes.

Instead, we wound up repeating mistakes that our grandfather's generation made six decades earlier on the very same sands of Afghanistan.

MONTAGNE: Rajiv Chandrasekaran is author of "Little America: The War Within the War in Afghanistan." Thank you very much for joining us.

CHANDRASEKARAN: A real pleasure to talk to you, Renee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.