Needlessly Sensationalistic

by Joshua Foust on 3/4/2009 · 2 comments

The main features of Kapisa Province discussed in this post, hastily hacked together from a probably-inaccurate AIMS map. The Panjshir river is the squiggly blue line. Please click to enlarge.

BAGRAM AIR BASE, AFGHANISTAN — I’ve become almost permanently uninterested in reporting on Afghanistan. Reading these accounts describes a country and a people I have never visited or met… and I am there right now, spending time outside the wire. As a case in point: where has The Guardian’s Julian Borger been?

From the air, the Morales-Frazier firebase looks like it has been etched on to the bare rock. It sits at the bottom of a long, deep valley full of insurgents and stands between them and a new road being built under the Taliban’s nose.

The French army has a long history of holding the fort in far-flung and unforgiving corners of the world, and this bleak, forward-operating base fits that tradition perfectly. Seven hundred troops, mostly mountain infantry, have been sent here to make good President Nicolas Sarkozy’s pledge that France would to do more here in more dangerous places.

Task Force Tiger, as they call themselves, took over late last year from a single US rifle company that had made no progress in uprooting the Taliban and its allies from the Pashtun villages. The building of the road, designed to bypass the morass of Kabul and allow trade and traffic to move quickly from the east to the north, would not have been possible before the French arrived.

Ouch. Let’s take this point by point.

Point: “the Morales-Frazier firebase”
Counter-point: It has not been a “firebase” for months.
Why? Two possibilities: Firebases are more exciting that FOBs, or Borger didn’t care to learn the difference.

Point: “a long, deep valley full of insurgents”
Counter-point: The Nijrab? Afraid not. Afghanya? Not really. Tagab? Yes. M-F sits in the Nijrab, however.
Why? Is going there scary? In his mind it probably is.

Point: “stands between them and a new road being built”
Counter-point: Uhh, no. The “new road” is being built north from Sarobi. Borgen’s geography would mean the insurgency is in Kohistan—to the north. The opposite is true.
Why? Maps are confusing.

Point: “this bleak, forward-operating base fits that tradition perfectly.”
Counter-point: FOB M-F is a 45 minute drive away from Bagram, and a ten minute helicopter ride. It has a pizzeria, two bars, several free espresso machines, and a 24/7 Internet cafe. It is neither “far flung” nor “unforgiving” nor “bleak.”
Why? I don’t know. Are all places in Afghanistan automatically far flung and bleak because they’re not London?

Point: “a single US rifle company that had made no progress in uprooting the Taliban”
Counter-point: Don’t tell Old Blue. This badly mischaracterizes the challenges of operating there.
Why? Sources matter, and doing one’s homework is hard.

Point: “The building of the road… would not have been possible before the French arrived”
Counter-point: Right. The U.S. started the road in 2007, more than a year before the French took over.
Why? Who can tell any more? I would guess Borger probably sole-sourced his background, and this is what happens when you’re lazy.

That’s just three paragraphs. I know and like the guys in TF Tiger, and I know and like both COL Spellmon (who is not stationed at M-F, but is at Bagram), and the MAJ (unnamed for now, as I don’t have permission to mention him) who runs the U.S. sections of M-F. But Borger’s coverage of their efforts is just silly in most places. His quotes from the officers themselves make sense, as they know what is going on. But where does he get things like this?

The Afghaniya valley, the main battlefield, remains hostile territory for foreigners, and not even the Afghan army has outposts up there. In any case, we have been flown in and then away again after a couple of hours in Nato helicopters. It’s enough time for a French briefing, a quick mortar demonstration – not enough to canvass the neighbourhood.

Afghanya is nothing of the sort. My colleagues wander around there routinely without body armor and nothing happens. It is just east of FOB M-F, and while there is sometimes some combat, it is nothing compared to the relative morass of both Tagab and Alisay, both of which are further south. As I mentioned above, I am actually finishing a paper examining the last four years of operations in Kapisa, and this is a pretty poor description of the area.

But the maps show that the progress so far has been slow and limited. The French have ventured only about 15km up the valley, less than a fifth of its length. And this is winter; the real fighting season has yet to begin. There is already intelligence that the main body of insurgents is working its way back from its winter haven in Pakistan.

That would put them in Pachaghan. The jagged scar that is Afghanya in the southwest half and Pachaghan in the northeast is only about 20km long. If the French have pushed 15km up the valley, they’ve made a lot more progress than I’ve heard about. But even if they have, that would mean they’ve pushed about three-fourths up the valley, not one fifth. This is very easy to see from maps, though given the other geographical missteps Borger is leaving the impression he never consulted one.

On the other hand, the breathing space won by the French has allowed work on the road to begin along the lower reaches of the Panjshir river.

See above. Work on the road began way before the French arrived (there were SF units repairing the road in bits and pieces from 2005 onward), and this conveniently ignores the years of American work in the area that has created the conditions for more intensive construction.

Slides and short videos show smiling French soldiers providing food and clinics, while the villagers express gratitude to the foreigners. This is not supposed to be the end result. The French mission statement explicitly states that they, like the other Nato troops here, are supposed to “enhance Afghan government credibility”. Their achievements may serve to underline the relative impotence of Hamid Karzai’s deeply unpopular cabinetin Kabul.

Well, then we might as well give up and go home. What a truly silly thing to say—and it is obvious that Borger did not interview any actual Afghans before assuming their reactions based on his own biases. What an arrogant man.

Spellmon insisted that the high profile of the French in the presentation was only “a function of where the camera was pointed”.

“We try to put [local officials] up front and try very hard to stay out of the camera and in the background and to put the Afghan government out front, because that’s what we want to do – to build people’s confidence in the government and the services,” the US commander said.

To some extent, the growing confidence and expanding role played by the Afghan army may go some way to achieving that end. Afghans in general have high regard for their armed forces. But the “surge” of western forces anticipated here will inevitably dilute the Afghan role. It carries within it the seeds of both success and failure.

That’s all he’s got: quibbling over a camera angle to try to make it look bad. He might also want to do his homework on the troop “surge” (argh, hate that term). The vast, vast majority of the 17,000 troops coming into Afghanistan are going south to Kandahar, Helmand, and maybe Nimroz. As far as I know, none are slated to head into TF Tiger’s area. I know this because I asked the Americans and French when I was up there last month. It’s not hard to figure out.

Julian Borger is lazy, and needlessly sensationalistic. There are lot of issues in Kapisa, and especially down the Tagab. He doesn’t seem to have gone there or talked to people who do. Instead, he went to a relatively quiet area in the North-Central part of the province and tried to make it sound daring. I suppose that’s his right as a writer. But that doesn’t make it real, or informative, or accurate.

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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 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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Jason Monhollen April 14, 2009 at 4:11 am

Afghania was extremely hostile when I was there through July 2008. There was a single US PLATOON of about 35 men at Morales Frazier, not a company. They went on two patrols a day and engaged the enemy about every two to three days. Mullah Anwar, a Taliban commander, was killed during one of the fire fights. If your colleauges wander around Afghania without body armor then it has changed a lot since I was there. On Sept 9th of last year 3 US Marines and an intepreter were killed by an IED there. I was in a 6 hour fire fight on 21 April of last year while going to conduct a civil affairs mission there.

Jason Monhollen April 14, 2009 at 4:16 am

The only way to really change the area is to hold it with a constant presence. The sweep the valley and then go back to the fire base technique doesn’t work. The Taliban comes back at night and terrorizes the people. The PA NG at Morales Frazier just wasn’t enough to hold a valley. They fought well though. They were there for about 5 months and engaged the enemy many many times with not a single KIA. Only one had to be sent back due to wounds, and he is much better.

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