“As a media production advisor in General Petraeus’ Counterinsurgency Advisory and Assistance Team,” Brian McLaughlin begins his essay at the Small Wars Journal, “I can again contribute to winning in Afghanistan.” What follows is remarkable: a series of disjointed anecdotes of single things working, along with Mr. McLaughlin’s admission that almost none of them really work out, have been generalized to other areas, or show any indication of expanding in scope, pepper with assurances that these things actually give us cause for hope in the country.
Kabul is vibrant with construction and business activity, indicating hopefulness. I have met many young Afghans who have started businesses and several Afghan-Americans and other expatriates who have come to participate in the growing economy. Even the film industry is sprouting. I have visited ten film companies in Kabul alone – their skills ranging from rudimentary to world class – though few are profitable.
If it’s not obvious by now, judging Afghanistan by Kabul is like judging the United States by Manhattan: it is a uniquely dense, prosperous, dynamic place in the country. A building boom in New York, which is still ongoing, tells us nothing of what is happening to people in Oregon, Idaho, Indiana, Georgia, North Carolina, or Maine. Similarly, talking to a bunch of unprofitable movie studios in Kabul—seriously, where do they get their money?—tells you precisely nothing about what’s going on in Badakhshan, Nimroz, Nangarhar, or Herat. What Mr. McLaughlin is describing here is the profiteers off the reconstruction boom, in particular the USAID funding of media programs. That isn’t “reconstruction,” per se.
Filming of agricultural projects in the comparatively hostile province of Paktika gave me much optimism. Canals and flood barriers had been built by the residents – over half a mile of canals in one community. In another village, in exchange for 100 meters of canal funded by the U.S., the village was required to provide 30 meters – instead they built 400! Where these projects have been implemented, we have seen clear shifts from locals favoring the insurgents to actively helping Afghan and coalition forces. Equally importantly, the villagers learn to make things better on their own. It is inspiring to see such success. Admittedly, the results in Paktika are not yet being replicated in other provinces.
(Emphasis mine.) I hate to be like this, but country bumpkins in the backwoods of Paktika probably can’t count, aren’t literate and so can’t read plans, and actually know how to dig ditches already. Leaving aside the obnoxious paternalism I bolded—aren’t those villagers just precious, Mr. McLaughlin, whatever would they do without white people teaching them to dig holes in the ground?—there’s no indication here of how paying people to dig ditches results in driving support for the government. When last this was attempted on a mass scale in Helmand province in 2005, for example, the result was the precise opposite. More recent experiences from Marines in the area bear this out: there is a universal concern about the dependencies you create by paying poor people to do work they normally do for themselves. Small wonder this “success” isn’t being replicated elsewhere: because it’s nothing of the sort and has failed everywhere else.
Yes, insurgent attacks are at a historical high. Yet, in the first three months of this year, 3,000 insurgents were killed or captured. Another 700 have reintegrated into society and 2,000 were in the process of doing so (only a handful of whom return to the insurgency). In the last ten months, 900 insurgent leaders were killed or captured. In total, that amounts to about a quarter of the insurgency eliminated in recent months. And, this was all before bin Laden was killed, decapitating the movement and depriving it of a large source of funds.
This is, basically, all untrue. Using documents provided by Task Force 435, which handles detainee operations, Gareth Porter just reported that 90% of those Taliban Mr. Mclaughlin brags were captured were actually released soon after because they were not, in fact, Taliban. “Task Force 435 commander Adm. Robert Harward confirmed in a press briefing,” Porter wrote, “that 80 percent of the Afghans detained by the U.S. military during the entire year to that point had been released within two weeks.” Even if they all were Taliban—which the commanders in-theater are on record admitting is not accurate—that would still apparently have no effect on the actual insurgency since, as Mr. Mclaughlin concedes, “insurgent attacks are at an all time high.”
We could do this paragraph by paragraph but it would be futile. Spinning the war this hard strays, in my opinion, from mere enthusiasm and interpretation into outright dishonesty. It requires, as I’ve noted before, a willful and deliberate rejection of the facts of the war and the reality in which it is being waged, where all setbacks are temporary and without consequence and all successes, no matter how small or unrepeatable, are evidence of our impending victory. In a way, it is the worst way to express the military’s can-do-ism, but it is also the end result of a decade of concerted propaganda efforts from the Pentagon, where the present is always evidence of success while the past is always evidence of failure—even if it was reported as success at the time.
This has to stop. PLEASE, ISAF, stop this. It is worse than insulting. It has begun to border on the actively mendacious.