All About Afghanistan

The press rediscovers the other war in a big way

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.

Speaking of Karzai, The New York Times Magazine recently carried a nearly 10,000-word piece on the president, who’s increasingly unpopular but remain the favorite in the upcoming Aug. 20 election. While the Times Magazine should be credited for devoting so much space to a challenging topic, Elizabeth Rubin’s article probably has more detail on Karzai’s old political feuds than the typical reader will want. Still, a convincing and dispiriting picture of the president emerges—in the bits of his interview with Rubin that make it into the piece, Karzai comes across as more than a little paranoid, not to mention self-deceving, self-pitying, and self-defeating. In a bid to strengthen his position, a separate New York Times story reported last Friday, Karzai is systematically cutting deals with powerful warlords, including those from rival ethnic groups. He certainly can’t count on support from American officials, who, as Joshua Partlow writes in The Washington Post, are seeking to create a more prominent role for a rival of Karzai who displays “a more technocratic bent.”

Growing concerns about Afghanistan’s leadership won’t do much to bolster public support for the war effort, which shows signs of faltering just as the Obama administration prepares to implement a new strategy. A CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll found last week that support for the campaign “has hit a new low.” Fifty-four percent of respondents opposed the war, with only 41 percent in favor, and support was concentrated among Republicans. With the public still more focused on health care and the economy, elite opinion may be the more important indicator, but there are cracks showing on that front, too. An Indianapolis Star op-ed by Lee Hamilton, one of Washington’s wise men, created blogosphere buzz Monday with these closing comments:

Strategically, there are two broad and fundamental questions to be answered. First, how will our departure impact our regional and security interests over the next decade and longer? And second, is this type of war really the best use of American power and resources in today’s world?

Those questions are important, and it was disappointing to see an influential figure like Hamilton, in an opinion piece, raise them but not try to answer them. Still, as long as this sort of press coverage keeps up, we may all be in a better position to answer them ourselves.

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