June 17, 2010
In Afghanistan, Impatience Breeds Confusion and Chaos
More than 170 media representatives are expected to be embedded with military units in southern Afghanistan this summer, a statistic that is at best a mixed blessing for public understanding of the war. At a time when coverage of world events is being eviscerated by the economics of the news business, any commitments made to report from farther afield than the oil-slicked Gulf Coast are heartening. Ultimately, though, the bulk of reporting from Kandahar Province this summer will be done by war tourists pursuing what the trade calls bang-bang.
Media's relentless march (or digital-age sprint) toward the sound of guns is nothing new, as seen in Punch's take on W.H. Russell (right), who made his name covering the Crimean War in the 1850's. The long tradition of chronicling men's courage, compassion, cruelty or cowardice under fire serves many purposes. It can rally us to support the troops or cause us to regret the loss of their bodies and souls. What traditional war reporting too often fails to do, though, is explain what purpose is served by this violence.
In February of this year, the public relations machine that is the United States Marine Corps descended on Marjah with a massive helicopter assault followed by 60 days of hard fighting against insurgents who had dominated the area for years. Then the cameras went away, because the work yet to be done -- replacing the Taliban's rough justice and taxation with more humane, more inclusive and less corrupt governance, able to deliver the basic services that the local community had long been denied -- was like watching paint dry. The lack of immediate results proved an infuriating tedium for reporters, who grew surly in their predictions of failure despite slow progress in Marjah and greater progress across larger swaths of the Central Helmand River Valley. If not for the killings carried out by insurgents -- now significantly on the margins of life in Marjah, trying to get back in -- there would have been no good copy.
It's hard to know what to think about Afghanistan.
For years as we tried one thing after another in Iraq, I remained confident that so long as we persevered there was a good chance we would eventually succeed. Not in establishing an enlightened, post industrial democracy for Iraq, because that was never the goal. But in creating a better outcome - both for the Iraqis and for America - than either could have hoped for under Saddam Hussein. With all the uncertainty and peril surrounding Iraq's future, I believe we have done that.
I continue to believe that unless we throw everything we have gained to the four winds, Iraq will have been worth the terrible price we've paid in blood and treasure. The Middle East is hardly fertile ground for democratic governance, but people must believe a thing is possible before they're likely to let go of what they have and risk their lives to obtain it. When even centuries old democracies struggle with the responsible exercise of freedom, is it so surprising that Iraq is suffering more than a few growing pains?
That said, there is an important difference between the conditions that led to success in Iraq and those under which we now operate in Afghanistan. Though Congress continually threatened to pull the plug in Iraq, we had a President who resisted time lines and arbitrary withdrawal dates; who was unwavering in his firm commitment to staying the course even if that meant spending the last penny of political capital in his rapidly shrinking wallet.
I cannot honestly say that of our current leadership:
Choices are stark: Stick to the timetable and drawdown, or stick it out until the job is done. And so far, he has signaled intent to do both.
...When Obama announced his timetable last year, he tried to send a complex message, with different parts aimed at different audiences. To the U.S. military, the message was: Here are the troops you requested, but you can't have them forever and don't come back and ask for more. To American voters, including unhappy antiwar liberals, the message was: We're committed to begin a withdrawal next year. To Karzai, the message was: Here's a chance for you to succeed; seize it.
But Karzai, already distrustful of the Americans, appears to have focused on the wrong part of the message: the withdrawal of U.S. troops beginning in July 2011. Administration officials insist that the troop drawdown will be gradual, and will come only as the newly trained Afghan army takes over the war. But Karzai isn't the only Afghan who suspects that Americans are looking for an excuse to leave.
...even before July 2011 arrives, Obama faces a stark choice. He can insist on his timetable and its promise of a drawdown — but that will further reduce McChrystal's chances of success and increase the probability of eventual defeat. Or he can adjust his message and tell both Karzai and the American people that he intends to stick it out until the job is done — even if that means slowing the withdrawal. So far, he's sent both messages, and that has only sown confusion.
I'm not so sure Karzai has "focused on the wrong message" at all. If anything, he seems to understand the message all too well.
Whatever his deficiencies, Hamid Karzai is being asked to gamble everything on the support of an American president who won't commit to winning this war. In Iraq, success eluded us until we stopped shilly-shallying and went all in. It was our commitment that finally convinced the Iraqis to wager their lives against a free, if imperfect, Iraq.
Compared to the constant rain of negativity about our chances of success in Iraq, recent reportage on Afghanistan has been almost impossibly positive by comparison. Media voices who blamed the lack of popular support for the GWOT upon George Bush's supposed failure to sufficiently "sell" us on that fight have been strangely silent when faced with a Commander in Chief whose efforts in that regard have been perfunctory (where they can be discerned at all).
We are approaching a critical, if self-imposed, juncture in this forever war.
John Foregainst Kerry became famous for asking, "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?" It is not clear to this Marine wife that our current leadership is committed to winning this fight. And if our commitment is not clear to me, how can it be clear to our allies and enemies?
We are asking a great many people - American, coalition, Afghani - to wager everything they have on the premise that we can prevail in Afghanistan while publicly hedging our own bets. That is not a strategy for success.
On the other hand, it certainly sends a message.
Posted by Cassandra at June 17, 2010 10:12 AM
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I personally think that, for this moment in time, we might all be wrong. Except me, of course. Because that's how I roll.
But seriously - we're trying to establish some modicum of a democracy, or at least a government with some power that is what we consider benign enough in a place where that may not be possible at this point.
We're rebuilding... what?
I have to wonder if our priorities in Afghanistan are wrong, and maybe all we can do is play whack-a-terrorist-mole there for the next 50 years. Maybe that's the best course for everyone, as mercenary as it might sound. Sometimes it's all you can do, I think.
I do think that our blood and treasure expenditure would be significantly less were we to change the mission to reflect that (what I see as) reality there. And while that length of time seems unthinkable and too long, if you look at it in a different light (how long have we had police? They'll always be necessary, right?), some things are just necessary.
I'm rambling now, and I may be way off base. It's possible. But what I do know is that I have sent my husband off a government paid exotic vacation to Afghanistan twice and I'm not seeing and end game that makes it worth the price at this moment.
Also, it's possible I'm feeling the effects of the chocolate ban at my house. Give me a handful of Hershey's Kisses and I might turn into the most rah-rah cheerleader for Afghanistan in Northern Virginia.
Posted by: airforcewife at June 17, 2010 11:55 AM
I have always been pessimistic about Afghanistan. I find myself moreso now. After Tuesday night's speech the President has left me with the view that he has no particular vision, about anything.
To me that's what is missing, a vision. Bush certainly provided one for Iraq, and conspicuously, was silent about one for Afghanistan which was always troubling. Obama seemed to have started off with one but it now appears to me to have been just poltical posturing.
Without a vision, you can't make and execute a plan. Only one person can provide the vision, and I don't think we will see one from this President.
Posted by: Allen at June 17, 2010 12:15 PM
I personally think that, for this moment in time, we might all be wrong. Except me, of course. Because that's how I roll.
You go, girl! :)
... what I do know is that I have sent my husband off a government paid exotic vacation to Afghanistan twice and I'm not seeing and end game that makes it worth the price at this moment.
To be brutally honest, that's pretty much how I felt last August when I learned the joyous tidings of my impending celibacy :p
This last deployment was the hardest I've ever experienced. Not that I generally suffer terribly during deployments either by policy or by happenstance. I refuse to suffer for months on end.
But it was damned unpleasant and it wasn't made more pleasant by the lack of a rational explanation of "why this is all so worth it". In the end, I settled for "Regardless of the end game, we're there now and someone has to look after our Marines."
I can - and did - buy off on that.
What alarms me is that although I happen to believe we can accomplish a limited set of goals (a government sufficiently friendly that it will help rather than hinder our efforts to thwart al Qaeda, at least the trappings of democracy: a beach head if you will rather than a shining exemplar of the blessings of freedom), I doubt our commitment to achieving even these modest goals.
That's hard for this die hard 28 percenter to say.
I supported this war because I firmly believed that we were headed for a global conflict anyway. I hoped that by nipping things in the bud early, we would avoid a loss of life on the scale of WWII.
Now, I don't know what to think. I have no idea what our official goals are, nor what we're willing to do to achieve them. That's not good. There's a huge, gaping chasm between our ostensible goals and the means we have so far employed towards those ends.
Posted by: Cass, Ghetto Atty. Esq. at June 17, 2010 12:24 PM
"How do you ask a man to be the last to die for something that, whether or not it's a mistake (a judgment we will render impossible by sabotaging the effort), is at least something that our political leadership clearly is willing to flip-flop on, thereby wasting all the sacrifice to date?"
I suppose, as always, they rely on the nearly limitless capacity of the servicemen to sacrifice for each other. But it makes me think of the end of "The Dogs of War." ("You're late" -- BANG.)
Posted by: Texan99 at June 17, 2010 12:36 PM
To me that's what is missing, a vision. Bush certainly provided one for Iraq, and conspicuously, was silent about one for Afghanistan which was always troubling.
To be honest I was never troubled by the lack of emphasis on Afghanistan.
My take was that Iraq was always the more urgent and achievable target; thus it made sense to concentrate most of our resources and effort there. But in the mean time we could not really afford to leave Afghanistan wide open. Even if our efforts there weren't sufficiently resourced, we maintained a presence until we could turn our attention to it.
Arguably my biggest beef with this administration is that everything is "his #1 priority".
Posted by: Cass, Ghetto Atty. Esq. at June 17, 2010 12:48 PM
I've often thought that Afghanistan was just too far removed -- physically -- to be susceptible to the Iraq solution. There was always so much we could do to improve conditions in Iraq, and give people a stake in the peace we were trying to build. In Afghanistan's rural and remote regions, that's not the case.
That fact alone seems like it might be the most important in determining whether the mission succeeds.
However, if we go someone else will come behind us. Pakistan, China and Russia are going to want to play for all that mineral wealth. Afghanistan is not a happy country, and I'm glad that I don't live there.
Posted by: Grim at June 17, 2010 12:59 PM
Say we established a legitimate democratic government there tomorrow.
Would that government be able to extend its influence to the remote regions that have harbored the Taliban and al Qaeda in the past?
I don't think so - we don't even have enough helicopters to get people and supplies where they need to be. However, a friendly government with a limited reach would be infinitely preferable to a hostile one that controls the main entry points.
...if we go someone else will come behind us.
Posted by: Cass, Ghetto Atty. Esq. at June 17, 2010 01:08 PM
Isn't that what being a leader of the free world means?
People elected Obama so that he could send cannon fodder to die gloriously for his bank account and PR polls, right?
Posted by: Ymarsakar at June 17, 2010 02:00 PM
"It is not clear to this Marine wife that our current leadership is committed to winning this fight. "
That's the essence of the problem. They are not committed to winning. They are committed to an "exit strategy", i.e., a way to pull out and please the antiwar left that has them by the balls, while finding a way to avoid taking the blame for the inevitable atrocities and loss of influence that will occur immediately afterwards. (Even Obama's gang knows that they can't rely on a compliant media to spike the story, as happened after Vietnam. Too much has changed since then.)
I'm with you in that I don't think a total victory, meaning unconditional surrender by the Taliban, is possible at this time. Our resources are just stretched too thin, and the political support for the kind of total war that it would take to root the Taliban out of the mountains does not exist. Plus, one reason that Bush chose Iraq was that it was a relatively well-educated and prosperous country by the region's standards. Afghanistan, on the other hand, is one of the world's most primitive countries outside of Africa. Obama knows, though, that adjusting expectations downward while reinforcing the committment to the mission will draw fire both from the Left and from parts of the Right, and unlike Bush, he isn't willing to take the heat.
Cass, you mentioned the messages that the various parties are getting from the White House. You left out one: the message that we are sending the enemy. Which is: "Be patient; our leaders will quit shortly, and then you can take whatever you want."
Posted by: Cousin Dave at June 17, 2010 04:22 PM
I remember something the former blogger den Beste said on the night of the election, when the returns came in proclaiming that Obama had won. He made six predictions, one of which was that "we're going to lose in Afghanistan."
I think he's right.
You left out one: the message that we are sending the enemy. Which is: "Be patient; our leaders will quit shortly, and then you can take whatever you want."
No better enemy, no worse friend. *sigh*
Posted by: colagirl at June 17, 2010 05:41 PM
It may be an unintended message, but that's what they hear.
Posted by: htom at June 17, 2010 06:04 PM
I'll add two thumbs up for Colagirl's parting comment too.
Meanwhile, in another reality, the WON practices taking a bow.
Posted by: bthun at June 17, 2010 06:28 PM
Can some of you with a little bit more intimate knowledge of the region tell me if Afghanistan was ever a real State in the first place?
To me it looks like Afghanistan exists simply as the absence anyone else wanting it. It's like the scrawny little kid that not only was the last to be picked on the playground, but was then kicked off as they decided they'd rather go without.
If any place fits the definition of an Anarchy, Afghanistan seems to be it.
Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at June 17, 2010 06:35 PM
The Kingdom of Afghanistan was fairly stable -- certainly by the standards of Central Asia. Until the Soviets decided to overthrow it, that is.
There was some talk back in 2001-2 of restoring the monarchy, but it was quickly drowned in protests about how the US should be on the side of 'democracy, not monarchy.'
Posted by: Grim at June 17, 2010 07:08 PM
Afghanistan really does seem like an offshoot of the Greek colony Baktria.
They got too many... traditions not to see the connections. Women for babies and what not.
Posted by: Ymarsakar at June 17, 2010 08:49 PM
I'm hoping that the recent revelation of all the mineral wealth in Afghanistan will be the impetus to bring them out of the Stone Age.
Posted by: camojack at June 18, 2010 03:39 AM