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“Little America” in Afghanistan: Is the US Repeating a Failed 1950’s Experiment in Social Engineering?

Last October, Adam Curtis posted an article on the BBC website that provided a detailed look at the forgotten history of US development efforts in Helmand province. As the NATO offensive heads into its second day there, it is useful to compare the current efforts to what transpired fifty years ago.

Here is how Curtis opens the piece:

When you look at footage of the fighting in Helmand today everyone assumes it is being played out against an ancient background of villages and fields built over the centuries.

This is not true. If you look beyond the soldiers, and into the distance, what you are really seeing are the ruins of one of the biggest technological projects the United States has ever undertaken. Its aim was to use science to try and change the course of history and produce a modern utopia in Afghanistan. The city of Lashkar Gah was built by the Americans as a model planned city, and the hundreds of miles of canals that the Taliban now hide in were constructed by the same company that built the San Francisco Bay Bridge and Cape Canaveral.

As Curtis works his way through the remarkable history, it is clear that the US attempts at development in Afghanistan that began in the 1950’s were doomed from the start, but political forces kept them in operation:

But almost immediately things started to go wrong. In 1949 the first, small diversion dam was built. But it raised the level of the water table in the whole area. And that brought salt to the surface.

The American engineers realised this meant that the whole project probably wouldn’t work. But at that very moment President Truman made a speech promising to give aid to poor countries. It was the start of the Cold War and Truman was going to use development projects and American money to stop countries from becoming communist.

Curtis also provides a photo of a page from the Morrison Knudsen (the engineering firm that built many of the projects) magazine touting “Little America” in Afghanistan.

Curtis describes one of the key players in development of the US plan:

But again all the doubts and worries were overwhelmed because the American technocrats and politicians had become fascinated by a new idea. It was called “Modernization Theory”. It said that there was a way of using science and technology not just to stop countries like Afghanistan going communist, but to actually transform them into democratic capitalist societies like America.

Modernization Theory had been invented by an ambitious academic at Harvard called Walt Whitman Rostow. He said that if you put the right technologies in place and educated key elites then the countries would inevitably develop into advanced capitalist societies. They would go through a series of logical stages (there were five) until you got what he modestly called “Rostovian Lift-off”.

In the US strategy review that President Obama conducted, how much of this history of Afghanistan was considered? Again yesterday, the New York Times repeated General McChrystal’s claim that:

“We’ve got a government in a box, ready to roll in,” General McChrystal said.

Given the previous concerns expressed by Ambassador Karl Eikenberry about the suitability of the Karzai government as a partner, McChrystal’s claim leaves one wondering about the basis of what is in his box:

We underestimate how long it will take to restore or establish civilian government. The proposed strategy assumes that once the clearing and holding process has been accomplished in a given area, the rebuilding and transferring to Afghans can proceed apace, followed by a relatively rapid U.S. withdrawal. In reality, the process of restoring Afghan government is likely to be slow and uneven, no matter how many U.S. and other foreign civilian experts are involved. Many areas need not just security but health care, education, justice, infrastructure, and almost every other basic government function. Many have never had these services at all. Establishing them requires trained and honest Afghan officials to replace our own personnel. That cadre of Afghan civilians does not now exist and would take years to build.

We learn from Reuters that one aspect of the plan for after Marjeh is “cleared” of Taliban depends heavily on social scientists:

U.S. military officials say shooting their way to victory will not lead to peace in Afghanistan, and winning the cooperation of Afghan civilians is their most effective weapon.

Kristin Post, a social scientist working for a Department of Defense “Human Terrain Team,” is about 12 km (8 miles) south of Marjah, and she is looking forward to going into the town, alongside a battalion of Marines, and talking to its residents.


Using civilian academics such as anthropologists and conflict resolution students like Post is a key part of the counter-insurgency, or COIN, doctrine behind Washington’s military engagement in Afghanistan.

If this approach sounds familiar, consider this revealing snippet from Curtis, where Rostow pops up again, but this time providing strategy for Vietnam:

By 1965 the Americans were fighting a bitter guerilla war against an unseen enemy, the Vietcong. The Vietcong hid among the thousands of villages in South Vietnam – from which they attacked the Americans. Rostow was convinced that you could use modernization theory to transform the country and defeat the communists.

He was a supporter of an idea called “Strategic Hamlets. The theory was simple – you took all the “good” Vietnamese out of the villages and resettled them in new planned villages which would be protected by the Americans. There the villagers would be educated by psychologists and special cadres to become new “modern” citizens devoted to democracy.

Granted, in this case the US approach is to “clear” the Taliban from Marjeh and then build government there, rather than moving the “good” Afghans to a new population center, but the approach appears to be the same. And the meetings with the population of Marjeh, which Post predicted, already have begun (h/t macaquerman for this link):

Hundreds of Afghan men walked for miles over dusty roads Saturday to hear the Marines explain those angry sounds of war coming from the Taliban stronghold of Marja.

Nearly 400 elders, farmers and tradesmen attended the open-air meeting called by their tribal leaders. In the distance, artillery boomed and Hellfire missiles exploded as the Marine-led assault on Marja entered its first full day.

For the U.S., the meeting was part of a strategy to move quickly from the fighting to the establishment of at least the beginnings of a government that answers to President Hamid Karzai, not the Taliban.

In noting the previous futility of instilling new governments in other countries, David Sanger in the New York Times article linked above notes its repetitive nature (hey, did he read my Groundhog Day post?):

The problem, of course, is that governments-in-a-box that are ready to roll in can also be rolled out — or rolled over. And the most heated arguments that unfolded during the Afghanistan review pitted those who thought that Mr. Karzai’s government needed one more chance to show it could get it right against those who argued that they had been to this movie before, and it always ended the same way.

Only time will tell us if we will see the same, sad ending to the movie or if a “Rostovian Lift-off” can be achieved this time. At the very least, it is my fervent hope that this time political considerations will not be allowed override signs of failure. In that regard, it would be very informative to have a fuller understanding of why Eikenberry is widely reported to have set aside his concerns last December to fall in line behind the present strategy.

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