Afghanistan Piece Goes Astray

Otherwise-decent AP story misses a couple of points

With the world waiting for President Obama to announce his new plan for Afghanistan tonight, the AP offered a dispatch from Kabul Monday relaying the fears of officials in Afghanistan and Pakistan who worry Obama may be looking too eagerly at those “exit ramps.” (As the national-security team at McClatchy reported a few days ago, those concerns are present among some American officials, too.) It’s an interesting piece that takes a welcome look at the views of people beyond our borders, but goes slightly astray in a couple different ways.

First, there’s the analogy to Iraq:

Much of the relative success of the Iraq surge was that it changed perceptions — convincing both insurgents and government leaders alike that the U.S. would stay as long as it took to achieve its goals. That emboldened many Iraqi Sunnis to break with al-Qaida — a move that was a turning point in the war.

There’s an ongoing dialogue about whether it’s appropriate to compare the Iraq surge to the forthcoming escalation in Afghanistan in any case. But, if the “break with al-Qaida” referred to here is the much-discussed Anbar Awakening, this paragraph mixes up the history.

The Awakening was underway in September 2006. The surge wasn’t announced until January 2007, and the integration of additional troops occurred over the following five months or so. As Marc Lynch recently wrote in the course of taking apart a Washington Post op-ed that entirely ignored the Awakening, the surge “probably helped to consolidate” gains from that initiative, “and to spread the initiative through the urban areas.” But the surge built upon the opportunity created by the Awakening—not the other way around.

The very next paragraph of the AP story is probably technically correct, but not especially meaningful:

Afghans have a historic aversion to foreign occupation, but the repressive Taliban have little appeal to Afghans outside the rural areas dominated by ethnic Pashtuns. Still, Afghans tend to back whomever is winning.

The first statement is a variation on the theme, which has cropped up periodically over at least the last decade, that Arabs/Muslims/Afghans etc. are proud people who don’t much care for invading armies. Which is true… but also applies to, basically, everyone in the world. No one enjoys a foreign occupation. As for the idea that Afghans “tend to back whomever is winning”—it’s a little hard to know what to make of that, but it seems to mean that success tends to attract supporters. Which, again, is not so specific to Afghanistan. (The bit in the middle, about the limited appeal of the Taliban outside Pashtun areas, is on point.)

None of this really undermines the main point of the article, about the concerns of Afghan officials, and as President Obama seeks to address those worries while simultaneously assuaging Americans who are growing impatient with the war, he does face a daunting task. But it’s best to get the details right—and on that score, there’s some room to quibble here.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.