The Forgotten War has been remembered lately. After being relegated to the back pages for the better part of a few years, Afghanistan has lately become a regular topic in the nation’s leading papers, spurred on by an upcoming presidential election, an increase in American casualties, and a new commitment by the Obama administration. Continued fighting between the Taliban and American troops has provided a steady drumbeat of articles about skirmishes and rising U.S. deaths. But the past week has also seen some major stories, which, if occasionally flawed and not always consistent with each other, have served to crystallize some key issues and bring important questions into focus.
Yochi Dreazan and Peter Spiegel of The Wall Street Journal had one of the two big Afghanistan stories Monday, a
write-up of an interview with Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who is now overseeing the war effort. The interview may have been part of a media blitz McChrystal is undertaking as he prepares a strategic review now slated for early September—he was recently joined a Los Angeles Times reporter for a ride-along in a helicopter, and also gave an interview to USA Today—but the Pentagon was not pleased by the Journal’s front-page headline: “Taliban Now Winning.” The Journal may have overstepped a bit by creating the impression that those words came from McChrystal’s mouth, but there’s plenty in the story to back up that conclusion—including the news that the U.S. is redeploying its forces after an earlier decision left residents of Kandahar, a major southern city, vulnerable to the Taliban.
On another subject, though—the number of additional troops that President Barack Obama and his military advisors may seek for the conflict—the Journal story is less inflammatory than a pair of articles that came out Tuesday. According to Dreazan and Spiegel, McChrystal said he hasn’t yet decided to request any forces beyond a previously-planned buildup that will bring troop levels to a new high of 68,000 by the end of 2009; if he does seek additional support, 10,000 further soldiers is floated as a possibility. But yesterday, the Times of London reported that Anthony Cordesman, one of McChrystal’s advisers, was calling for up to an additional 45,000 troops, which would push the total number of American soldiers over 100,000; another 30,000 troops from NATO and other allies are also in the country. (In an op-ed in the same publication, Cordesman did not use a specific number, but called for three to nine new brigades, each of which may have up to 5,000 soliders.) At McClatchy, reporters Nancy A. Youssef and Warren P. Strobel took things a step further, asserting in the lede to their story yesterday that McChrystal himself would be “requesting some 45,000 additional U.S. troops in Afghanistan,” with additional civilian workers added in for good measure. It’s not clear yet whether there’s anything to this figure—at The Washington Independent, Spencer Ackerman takes a skeptical view—and if the number turns out to be unfounded, we may soon be seeing more pushback from the Pentagon.
There’s no quarreling, though, with Monday’s other big story, a James Risen New York Times piece that broke the news that U.S. soldiers will now be authorized to kill about 50 drug traffickers who provide material support to Taliban insurgents. This is the sort of scoop that adjusts the timeline on a bit of information rather than unearthing something held under wraps—the report on which Risen’s article was based was publicly released (PDF) Tuesday—but it’s still a heck of a story, one that highlights how, seven years into this conflict, the U.S. is still grasping for an effective counternarcotics strategy. A Pentagon spokesman quoted in the piece is at pains to note the targets are “terrorists with links to the drug trade,” rather than any old drug-dealers—which presumably means that Ahmed Wali Karzai, the younger half-brother of Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai and a man widely believed to be profiting from the drug trade, is not one of the targets.