Stop the Ambulance Chasers!

Knowing a lot about Iraq doesn’t help you much in Afghanistan

Now that the war in Iraq is won, according to journalist-bloggers like Michael Yon, we can expect to see a virtual horde of journalists and pundits descending on America’s other war—the one in Afghanistan—seeking continued employment as instant experts on every conflict the U.S. military chooses to fight.

Yon, for example, has decided the good news out of Iraq means he will be moving on to cover the military in Afghanistan. But Yon is only one of a growing number of journalists who are vacating Iraq in order to focus on America’s so-called “good” war, now in its eighty-ninth month. This is something Finnish journalist Jari Lindholm predicted on his blog this past summer:

With [U.S. General David] Petraeus now running the show from Tampa, the U.S. and NATO will intensify their information operations, launching a counter-narrative, which will include the “they’re stepping up” theme already tried and tested in Iraq, and will inevitably try to brand all opposition forces “al-Qaeda”.

This will not require much effort, as most journalists relocated from Iraq to Afghanistan will know very little about the country and will gladly consume any nuggets of upbeat information thrown to them by the revitalised OEF and ISAF press centers.

This process is already in place. Many of the U.S. Army warrior-scholars who wrote the Counterinsurgency Field Manual (also called FM 3-24) are now glaring down on an Afghanistan that is suddenly the incoming administration’s new focus. These men—they are almost all men, and highly educated, lest that be forgotten—all built up their experience with counterinsurgency in Iraq. It is a perfectly reasonable place to learn such a thing, since it was counterinsurgency on a scale not seen since Vietnam. Iraq became a think tank of sorts for gauging the efficacy of tactics and strategy.

But that think tank effect does not exist in Afghanistan. As the years drag on, long-term watchers of the country see each incoming Army Division make the same mistakes and host the same gee-whiz embedded reporters (last year it was about how great paved roads are). Many reporters, such as Anna Mulrine and Philip Smucker, seem to write the same five articles about tribal society and the military’s brave attempts to engender Coalition support there every time they go on Afghan embed-tours—and have been doing so since 2001. In the interim, both were busy covering Iraq along with the same foreign correspondent crowd.

The current meme du jour is the idea of “arming the tribes” to fight the Taliban. One year ago, when British forces in the south propsed this, Major General Robert Cone, who was in charge of training the Afghan National Police, resoundingly rejected the idea. In 2006, Sher Mohammad Akhunzada, the former governor of Helmand province (where the British attempted their 2007 outreach) recruited several hundred tribesmen to provide security for the province. Within months, that tribal force, along with similar forces in Uruzgan, Kandahar, and Zabul, defected to the Taliban. Other attempts to raise tribal militias to fight the insurgency in Kunar and Kapisa have been failures (pdf) as well.

In other words, the previous attempt to begin a “Sons of Afghanistan” force (a play on the “Sons of Iraq” tribal militia movement) backfired in a major way—before the idea had even been tried in Iraq. This sort of context is missing from almost all coverage of the current policy debates over the future of America’s involvement in Afghanistan.

The way “arming the tribes” is being handled, by both the military and the press, has distorted the public discussion of the idea. Context-free media reports present a misleading picture of what the program actually is, and of its previous catastrophic failures. Similarly, the vast majority of top-level military thinkers gained all of their experience in Iraq, not Afghanistan—which is fine, but their discussions of how to move forward also seem to lack that same context.

For example, U.S. General David Petraeus, the new commander of CENTCOM, the military command responsible for both Iraq and Afghanistan, seems convinced that arming the tribes is a great idea. Gen. Petraeus is an incredibly smart man—as reported countless times, he wrote his Princeton dissertation on counterinsurgency, and his ideas about counterinsurgency as commander of U.S. forces in Iraq have helped conditions there improve over the last two years. But as Spencer Ackerman recently reported, the current push to arm tribal militias in Afghanistan seems out of step with those who are closest to the country. In December, it seemed the preference for tribal militias was overriding the concerns of both General David McKiernan (who openly expressed skepticism of the idea in October), the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, and Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who just three weeks ago was similarly critical of the idea.

None of this means that arming the tribes is necessarily the wrong idea. And it is to Gen. Petraeus’ great credit that he has backed away from the thought that ideas and tactics can be exported from Iraq to Afghanistan. Nevertheless, the discussion of how to proceed in Afghanistan is increasingly dominated by thinkers and soldiers who made their names in Iraq, and the theme of exporting good ideas from Iraq into Afghanistan is almost universal in their op-eds, speeches, and magazine profiles. That doesn’t mean their ideas are necessarily wrong; it just means they seem not to have done enough homework yet to be controlling U.S. policy. But, it seems the journalists who cover them (with a few notable exceptions) haven’t done their homework, either. The result (for now, at least) is a very public discussion about repeating a failed policy—surely the one thing Afghanistan does not need.

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Joshua Foust is a military consultant. He is a contributor to PBS Need to Know, a contributing editor at Current Intelligence, and blogs about Central Asia and the Caucasus at