The other week, Michael Cohen wrote a probing article for the New Republic, in which he discussed the weird state of affairs we are in. After noting the “pervasive gloom” when talking with literally everyone who is responsible for understanding the place, Cohen noted there was one exception. “To hear it from U.S. military spokespersons,” he wrote, “one would think that corners are being turned, lights are being glimpsed at the end of the tunnel, the U.S. and NATO are making steady progress against the Talban and important advances are being made.”
This is an important contrast. To read the news dispatches from Afghan and Coalition officials, the Taliban in Kandahar are being routed. It’s a tricky thing to swallow: despite the presence of veteran Carlotta Gall, we have all the trappings of a normal puff-piece about the super-awesome military: reversed momentum, pinky-swears that this time, promise, it won’t be like Marjah, and declarations of victory following the established Taliban tactic of slinking away under the slightest military pressure.
It’s one of many reasons I’m so deeply skeptical of the current effort to reach out to the Taliban and begin negotiations. I wrote about some of these doubts for my column this week at PBS:
The last four years have seen a slow, but accelerating, deterioration in the tenuous security gains of 2002 and 2003 — broad areas the country once considered safe, like the northern provinces, are now incredibly violent. The south, where aid workers could live openly, is now so bad that westerners fetch $200,000 in abduction ransom. By almost every measure, the Taliban are winning — despite the massive assassination campaign begun under Gen. David Petraeus (who brags of the hundreds of “senior leaders” killed or arrested, to negligible security gains). It is unreasonable under these circumstances to show up at a negotiating event and expect them to renounce a thing: they have the advantage.
Yet we do precisely that. But it isn’t just with negotiations and with offensives to “clear” an unwelcoming Kandahar where the U.S. seems beset with magical thinking and a complete disconnect from ground conditions. As we learned on Tuesday, the CIA is stricken with it as well. I have a piece up at the AfPak Channel discussing it:
Given the intensity of the CIA’s operations in Pakistan — which by all accounts have increased dramatically under President Obama — it is appropriate to question the reliability of the intelligence the CIA is using. We don’t know how well the agency’s sources’ intelligence is cross-checked against verifiable data. If the al-Balawi incident in Afghanistan is any indication, it often isn’t… In the case of the CIA, when seemingly every check and balance against hasty or ill-considered action breaks down, we know even less. This makes it difficult for analysts, agents, and outsiders to have any confidence in the government’s ability to wage war properly.
Indeed. I get the sinking feeling that we really have no idea how things are going. As Cohen pointed out, the military is persisting that everything is awesome and we’re winning, while every single empirical measure we know of says the opposite. What is really going on in Afghanistan? Until the press stops willingly playing along in the DOD’s “messaging” campaign against the American public, we will never know really know.