Back in 2006, when the American war effort in Iraq was lurching from one disaster to another, smart reporters began publishing books trying to explain "What went wrong." One of the most successful was "Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone" by the Washington Post's Rajiv Chandrasekaran. It appeared just after George Packer's "The Assassin's Gate" and Thomas E. Ricks's "Fiasco" and, like them, it traced the war's woes to a lack of preparation on the part of political and military leaders and to an excess of ideological zeal among the political appointees sent to run things in Baghdad in the early days. It was even made into a silly adventure movie, "Green Zone," starring Matt Damon.
Mr. Chandrasekaran no doubt hopes to repeat this success with "Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan." If the title sounds vaguely familiar, that's because in "Imperial Life" Mr. Chandrasekaran often referred to the Green Zone as "Little America." But the new book does not focus on the Afghan counterpart to Baghdad's Green Zone, the luxurious U.S. embassy compound in Kabul. Rather the title refers to attempts by the U.S. Agency for International Development to spur development in southern Afghanistan from the 1950s to 1970s. The city of Lashkar Gah, now the capital of Helmand province, was built to support a giant irrigation project run by expatriate engineers. Locals started calling it "Little America." Mr. Chandrasekaran's early chapter on those efforts is fascinating and fresh, but they are far removed from the post-2001 struggle against the Taliban.