Tilting at Windmills

September/October 2012 Making the same mistakes again

By Charles Peters

Read Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s and weep. In Afghanistan, Foreign Service and USAID employees are largely sealed off from Afghans, rarely fluent in the local language, frequently serving tours too short for them to understand the people or the country, and throwing too much money at problems that are usually far more complicated than we understand. It is the same story that we found in the Green Zone of Baghdad, which in turn repeated the sad story of all our mistakes in Saigon in the 1960s and early ’70s.

Chandrasekaran tells how the late Richard Holbrooke at a 2009 strategy session on Afghan policy “implored USAID and state department officials to increase the size of their initiatives.” Holbrooke, who as a young man had been a Foreign Service officer in Vietnam and should have known better, then said, “If you used to ask for 22 million and are now asking for 24 million, that’s not truly bold.”

Charles Peters is the founding editor of the Washington Monthly and the author of a new book on Lyndon B. Johnson published by Times Books.