The Inverted Afghan Success Story

by Joshua Foust on 3/2/2011 · 1 comment

There is a routine pattern that’s emerging in coverage of the war in Afghanistan: front-load a story with happy-talk about local militias and how successful the U.S. has become, then in the last few paragraphs quote actual Afghans who say the moment the U.S. leaves everything will change, the Taliban will come back, and nothing will have improved.

This has been going on for some months now, at almost every major American newspaper. I recently covered Carlotta Gall doing this exact thing, but it seems the Washington Post is not immune from it either. From a story about Marjah:

Fears of Taliban retribution had until recently made those living in Marja skittish to be seen with Americans. But an increasing number of residents are now cooperating with the Marines, joining neighborhood watches paid for by the U.S. military.

By having villagers patrol their own neighborhoods in groups under the command of a district police chief, the Marines say they are bringing a sense of formal government to a previously lawless rural area – a slow but necessary step for an eventual exit by forces in the U.S.-led coalition.

Awesome, the war is being won one block at a time! But twenty-one paragraphs into the story, we see this:

Some in Marja suspect any bond between the people and the government will vanish once the Marine presence fades. Similar forms of community policing that date back to 2006 have struggled in a country where warlords and other powerful patrons have been a more commanding presence than national or local government.

“As soon as the Marines leave Helmand province, the people will fight the government,” said Commander Sarwar, an ethnic Tajik in the Afghan National Police.

Anyway, as I said, this is a routine pattern to stories. Most people—including commentators, think tankers, and policymakers—rarely read beyond the first few grafs of a story, and almost never onto the second page. Yet that, where locals, including Afghan security officers, say the whole house of cards will crumble the moment the heavily-armed, money-chugging U.S. presence goes away, is where the real crux of the story is. These places are secure for now, with thousands of Marines and bags of cash (the Economist recently reported the Marines in Marjah are distributing $500,000 every ten days, which is outrageous and extremely damaging to the local economy), but the moment it goes away, so too does all this progress.

Our success, in other words, is hollow. And no one seems to want to report on it. Media FAIL.

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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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{ 1 comment }

RCS March 2, 2011 at 7:32 pm

It is hardly surprising that we are quick to back militias who appear to allow Afghans to “take security into their own hands”. In the case of Marjeh however, one (of many) major issues that has yet to be resolved is land rights. Quite simply, much of the area is considered government owned land, but, until Operation Moshtarak, was land for squatters. It is very likely that many of the security issues from within Marjeh stem from the fact that people have no idea what GIROA’s stance on land rights is…will they take it back or not? Thus, one way to look at it is these militias are simply protecting their assets by A) either hoping GIROA decides to let them keep their land if they provide their own security or B) that they are simply preparing for an inevitable ISAF withdrawal and don’t trust GIROA. Our desire to mirror image the Awakening in Iraq may be distorting our view of reality – particularly as to the consequence of arming groups who profess they simply want security…

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