Support the news
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."