My friend Alex Strick van Linschoten (see here, for example) has an excellent post over at the magazine I sometimes contribute-edit, Current Intelligence, in which he picks apart, bit by bit, the five broad themes of how General Petraeus spins the supposed progress of the war in Afghanistan.
Petraeus isn’t alone, alas—he has a lot of help from willing journalists all too eager to push the line that the war is about to be won. Look at this video of a one-off Farhad Darya concert in Lashkar Gah:
Why, from that video you’d never know that just a few days earlier a car carrying 11 people was struck by an IED in that very same city, killing five and grievously wounding several more. While that video didn’t rise to, say, ABC News’ bizarre obsession with Afghan night life, it was of a similar bent: a single event, with tightly controlled security, does not a trend make. Yet it is reported as such.
Just so we’re clear: Lashkar Gah is not a safe city. Not by a long shot. By my informal count—a quick perusal of Google News—in the last month, 8 police officers have been killed in Taliban bombing attacks, along with at least a dozen civilians and several soldiers. It is, by almost any measure, horrifically violent.
But what of other cities in Afghanistan? Outgoing Senior NATO civilian Mark Sedwill wants us to know:
He told Newsround: “Here in Kabul and the other big cities (in Afghanistan) actually there are very few of those bombs.
“The children are probably safer here than they would be in London, New York or Glasgow or many other cities.”
Kabul has borne the brunt of the war in Afghanistan and although the security situation there has improved of late, it is still deemed a dangerous place to live.
He has, of course, been roundly criticized for being so tone deaf. Literally every NGO objected, especially Save the Children, which noted Afghan children do not, in fact, lead happy, carefree, charmed lives the way they do in Kensington, Flatbush, or even the Gorbals (if we want to go there). By every meager way we have of tracking crime in Kabul, in fact, it is a significantly more violent, capricious, and unpleasant place than almost any bad neighborhood in New York, London, or Glasgow.
This sort of clueless on Sedwill’s part shouldn’t come as any surprise, however. Alex and I have been tracking the Pentagon’s brazen attempts to spin the war into a success for years—including year after year of that old magical new solution we try every year, the tribal militia.
Understanding the country has never been a prerequisite for thinking you can fix it, however. This is a problem of both the pro- and anti-war crowds—ignorance and affect drive the discussion, not knowledge or understanding.
The same is true of the leaders of the war in Afghanistan as it is for those who advocate for or against it. It’s difficult to muster the energy to address it anymore—the avalanche is so constant, so voluminous, that even thinking about it causes me to sink into resignation and despair. That our top general—the most COINiest of all COIN generals in all the COIN—has retreated into clichés and platitudes is just par for the course.
Until actual thinking replaces magical thinking—in Kabul, in London, in and in Washington—I see no reason to pay very close attention to this war any more. It is lost. And our leaders refuse to consider why.
Parting Thought: Has anyone else noticed that the media now compares Afghanistan to how it was under the Taliban, rather than to how it was in 2002? In 2008, when it was still okay to note the military had no idea what it was doing, journalists used to contrast the deteriorated security with how much safer the country was in 2002-5. Yet now, years later, when security is substantially worse in every way, now, it’s merely better than it was in the 1990s under Taliban suzerainty. That is spin at its finest—and its appearance in a news story is probably a marker indicating you should ignore everything else that reporter writes as evidence.