War Is Peace, and Other Orwells at the Journal

by Joshua Foust on 4/29/2008 · 4 comments

Bret Stephens at the Wall Street Journal has a novel theory about Afghanistan:

Are we “losing Afghanistan,” as people like John Kerry seem to think? Sunday’s attack illustrates a point, made to me by Brig. Gen. Mark Milley of the 101st Airborne Division, that “security is perception” – meaning that not only must the streets be safe, but people must believe them to be so. By that token, a spike in suicide bombings and kidnappings suggests Afghanistan is considerably less secure today than it was three or four years ago. It also suggests Afghanistan’s ostensible weakening can be used as a political alibi to accelerate troop withdrawals from Iraq.

But after a week spent shuttling between Kabul, Kandahar and Nangarhar province (in sight of Tora Bora), I found the notion of “losing Afghanistan” to be, at a minimum, overblown. Afghanistan has 34 provinces. Twenty-nine of them are more or less at peace, more or less better off than they were six years ago, and more or less governed by someone their own people can live with.

Wow, a whole week “shuttling” between three big cities? There is no way he left the Jalalabad, or Kandahar city limits. And I was unaware John Kerry was the only person out there saying we’re losing Afghanistan—rather, I was under the impression it was also prominent high-level officials, politicians of both parties, and basically every single country expert on the planet who was worried that our efforts in the country were going downhill. Alas—in Stephens’ world, it’s all just a sour grapes ploy by the guy who lost to George W. Bush a couple of years ago.

But Stephens’ sins run deeper. He gets “Pashtunistan” wrong (it’s more than Kandahar, Helmand, Uruzgan, and Zabul), he thinks Musa Qala is a sterling example of how we’re winning, and he thinks the insurgency is “more akin to FARC than to Iraq’s Mahdi Army.”

Of course, realizing that FARC has been systematically undermining the Colombian government for over three decades using money derived from narcotics smuggling seems to have slipped his mind. As does his history of Gul Agha Sherzai, and the ups and downs of poppy cultivation in Nangarhar (and its ultimate effects). And the nature of actual insurgencies, especially when they’re driven from cities and into the countryside—precisely the movement the Soviets fought so monstrously to prevent.

In Stephens’ view, the Taliban’s shift in tactics from broad, battlefield confrontations—which they always lost—to asymmetric tactics such as suicide bombings, IEDs, and assassinations, is a sign of weakness. Does this scan? This was the argument used in Iraq to say the insurgency was in its “last throes”… in 2004. Instead, Musa Qala is just one of the many districts retaken or systematically attacked by the Taliban. Missing in Stephens’ formulation of how the Taliban are losing is Arghandab, Panjway, Zhari, Chora, Deh Rawod, and others I am probably forgetting.

Sadly, it is obvious when a reporter tries to disguise his adventure tourism as a reporting trip. It’s just… normally they do a better job of hiding just how tightly they were handled by the PAO. Even when a pesky assassination attempt delays your flight home.

But my question to Stephens is: if the war in Afghanistan is going so damned well, why didn’t he go on his trip without a military escort?

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Admiral April 29, 2008 at 4:59 pm

More righteous indignation leveled at those who see something more than the chaos argued for on this blog. He didn’t say everything was going damned well, he asserted that the notion that the notion of “losing Afghanistan” was “overblown” (at a minimum). That is a far, far cry from the words you keep trying to put on these people’s mouths.

Joshua Foust April 29, 2008 at 5:24 pm

Not quite, “Admiral.” Stephens’ invocation of John Kerry, rather than, say Defense Secretary Robert Gates, NATO head Jaap de Hoop Sheffer, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, scholars like Barnett Rubin or Carl Robichaud, or even local journalists such as Mohammad Fakim or Alex Strick van Linschoten tells me he is filtering the fight there through a strictly partisan lens. In doing so, he also distorts Afghanistan’s history (whether by choice or ignorance I can’t say) and writes off a serious attack on the President—which killed several people, let us not forget—as nothing more than a delay for his flight home.

All this, on a single week long embed shuttling between cities hundreds of miles away. Given the status of transportation in Afghanistan, he couldn’t have spent more than two days in each location. How can you possibly gauge independently how well a war is going from that? You cannot. He let the military feed him a narrative, and he repeated that uncritically.

If, on the other hand, he had spent his time interviewing local Afghans apart from his handlers and still came to the same conclusion, I’d give it more heft. When the British embeds in the south (Helmand, mostly) report good news, it is worth considering. Despite their similar emplacement with military units, they’re at least on the ground long enough to get a sense of how things are going, and a sense for cutting through the B.S. official source sling about.

If you’re going to declare a situation is going other than the universally accepted wisdom, you have to come up with more than a few days’ interviews on a brief jaunt through a conflict zone. Stephens’ work doesn’t pass basic muster on that count.

Jim April 29, 2008 at 10:26 pm

“Sadly, it is obvious when a reporter tries to disguise his adventure tourism as a reporting trip.”

Heh. I’m jealous of these people.

“normally they do a better job of hiding just how tightly they were handled by the PAO.”

Yeah, this is the key point here, and I couldn’t agree more.

The other big thing is just looking at the trend lines. Are things getting better, or worse? I’d say things are trending worse, for sure. And what does history show us about foreign powers in Afghanistan? Nothing good, for sure.

Joshua Foust April 29, 2008 at 10:54 pm

Yeah, I can’t deny I’m jealous of the ability to just pick up and spend a week or two reporting from these places, then get paid to write about it afterward. But while such trips are funsies for the reporter, they’re annoying as hell to the rest of us who would just like honest reporting of what’s going on. And when they waste it like Stephens did, the frustration goes deeper, like how could you have blown it like that?

I think David Axe achieved this quite nicely in his trip to Afghanistan. His visit was clearly steered a bit by the PAOs, but he also did a great job of breaking out of that and offering an independent, and locally relevant, perspective on what’s going on. He wrote daily journals of what was going on PLUS many more pieces in various news outlets—in ten days. A much more impressive feat.

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