Don’t We Deserve Real War News?

A suicide bomber killed more than 30 government employees on Monday in Kunduz Province – a northern city in Afghanistan which, until recently, had been relatively safe from Taliban influence and the raging war in the south. 

Less than a week before, the district governor of the neighboring Chardara district was assassinated. Last Friday, a car bomb killed nine people at a checkpoint in the eastern province of Khost. On Sunday, Taliban fighters blew themselves up in a Kabul Bank branch in Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan, killing 38 and wounding scores more. The dead had been mostly soldiers and police officers, collecting their pay.   

The month of civilian bloodshed follows a string of high-profile bombings in Kabul, the relative calm and safety of which is typically used as a metric for the effectiveness of the Karzai government and its Afghan National Army (ANA), which now has complete responsibility for security in the capital city. On Jan. 12, a suicide bomber blew up a minibus carrying government workers. It followed an attack on Afghan soldiers in the city in December, which occurred on the same day as an attack on police in Kunduz. 

On Valentine’s Day, a suicide bomber blew up the entrance to a mall in downtown Kabul popular with local Afghans, killing two guards and wounding more. Two weeks earlier, the Taliban took responsibility for a blast at a supermarket popular with westerners, killing eight – including children — though the target was a former Blackwater security chief. With that attack, the Taliban sent this message:  

"The government’s claims that the Taliban has lost attack capabilities inside Kabul are baseless propaganda and we will keep attacking, particularly in Kabul." 

It’s wintertime in Afghanistan, and the Taliban appears to be using this time to prove that, contrary to a well-orchestrated positive press campaign here in the U.S., it is not "losing momentum," but is continuing to advance and intimidate Afghans in places that, up until the recent military "surge" in the south, had enjoyed a certain level of calm. By attacking government workers, governors, police and military, they are scratching away at the thin veneer of legitimacy that President Karzai holds in the north, while U.S. and NATO forces continue to struggle for its own legitimacy – and control over security — in the mostly Pashtun south. And, according to the UN, the country’s security is at its lowest level in four years and two-fifths of the country is inaccessible due to violence.

Meanwhile, politically, things are looking a little dicey for democracy downtown. According to Thomas Ruttig, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, President Hamid Karzai has activated his own Special (Election) Court against the wishes of parliamentarians, some of whom actually hoped to change things when they were elected back in September. Instead, the court is moving to seal all the ballot boxes of the disputed September 2010 election, and last week reportedly used strong-arm tactics to intimidate members of the Afghan Independent Election Commission into turning them over. Critics say Karzai is seeking to overturn the election of new MPs unfavorable to his rule and may be using the court to nullify the lower house before it is convened.  

Of course, with the media’s short attention span now directed on the revolution sweeping the Middle East (one foreign policy story at a time, please!), the military’s Message Machine is cranked into full gear, virtually crowding out all of this icky news of suicide blasts in the north and the complete lack of progress on the corruption front in Kabul, much less the ever-present knowledge that it’s been nine years and the World’s Greatest Military is still using terms like "reversing momentum" and "long hard struggle" against an amorphous insurgency employing old Soviet AK-47s and makeshift IEDs.  

"I believe they have been beaten," charged Marine Gen. Richard Mills last week, of the insurgency in southern Helmand province, adding that "(the population) turned on the Taliban," and "they certainly have lost the momentum they had." 

The exact words have been used, to varying degree, on an increasing basis, since the more obviously sober update (.pdf) the Pentagon dutifully handed congress in November. If we were to think that his report was reflective of reality, then everything that Gen. David Petraeus and Co. has said about the war since should be suspect. And it’s no coincidence that the new confidence they have been exuding is just in time for Sen. Rand Paul and the Tea Party budget wars, and most importantly, the President’s reiteration of the dreaded July troop withdrawal.  

That July timeline is fast approaching and has been roundly disparaged by the military community, though officials won’t say so outright. They let their surrogates do that on cable TV and in congress (that’s what the CODELs are for). The military will likely have major control over the number of troops that are ultimately withdrawn, and if they can convince the American public and their paymasters in congress that victory is just around the corner, the so-called withdrawal date could be made insignificant, and the resources will continue to flow into Afghanistan for the indefinite future. In so many words, the military wants runs things its way, as its been doing all along – be dammed the evidence of failure and futility all around. 

To accomplish this, the military has been engaged in one of its specialties – hosting its Message Force Multipliers (sympathetic politicians and defense analysts, former military brass and think tankers) in the war zone for brief dog-n-ponies, and then, duly educated, shoving them back into the U.S., in front of cameras and at the top of op-ed pages to tout the "successes"  of the U.S./NATO counterinsurgency in Afghanistan. 

"We have turned the momentum very significantly in the south," asserted Ret. Gen. Jack Keane, co-architect of the 2007 Iraq Surge and close ally of the COINdinista crowd, which has seen its star dramatically dim since their plans to turn Afghanistan into a perfect case study from Petraeus’ vaunted FM 3-24 (Army/Marine Corps counterinsurgency field manual) folded like a wet hand of cards. 

Sounding every bit the automaton, Keane told Fox News on Monday that "we’ve taken out their (Taliban’s) logistical infrastructure… the people are now aligned with us…we are in the very places they used to be…I’ve looked at this very closely. I’m convinced this momentum has changed in our favor," And the zinger? "It is not reversible." 

This press-perfect interview followed an op-ed in Sunday’s New York Times by none other than John Nagl (a.k.a. the "Johnny Appleseed of COIN) and Nathaniel Fick, president and CEO of the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) respectively. After pointing out that Fick had recently (and briefly) toured Afghanistan (presumably with aforementioned Gen. Keane), the two launch into nothing less than a MFM tour-de-force called "The ‘Long War’ May be Getting Shorter": 

The shift is most obvious on the ground. The additional 30,000 troops promised by President Obama in his speech at West Point 14 months ago are finally in place and changing the trajectory of the fight.

One of us, Nathaniel, recently flew into Camp Leatherneck in a C-130 transport plane, which had to steer clear of fighter bombers stacked for tens of thousands of feet above the Sangin District of Helmand Province, in southwestern Afghanistan. Singly and in pairs, the jets swooped low to drop their bombs in support of Marine units advancing north through the Helmand River Valley.

Half of the violence in Afghanistan takes place in only 9 of its nearly 400 districts, with Sangin ranking among the very worst. Slowly but surely, even in Sangin, the Taliban are being driven from their sanctuaries as the coalition focuses on protecting the Afghan people in key population centers and hubs of economic activity, and along the roads that connect them. Once these areas are cleared, it will be possible to hold them with Afghan troops and a few American advisers — allowing the United States to thin its deployments over time… 

War skeptic Joshua Foust, who on Tuesday reviewed the new HBO documentary, The Battle for Marjah, cringed at what seemed to be a last gasp of these COINdinistas. In a take-down of the Sunday op-ed, Foust said it raised "more questions and answers," relying too heavy on inputs (30,000 boots on the ground; "Afghan troop strength increasing"), while glossing over the outputs, utilizing shopworn "body count" metrics, and a lackluster nod to cleaning up corruption (a commission has been set up to tackle the problem?

From Foust: 

This op-ed is so riddled with logical and even factual errors it’s difficult to power through what it’s really trying to say, aside from "WIN."  It is insulting: a mishmash of slogans and posturing pretending to be analysis, based on one guy’s week-long adventure tour in General Petraeus’ hip holster. As such, it is also deeply misleading about the real challenges facing the war, and its prospects for success. We can do better. 

But it is all part of a campaign, one that Gareth Porter meticulously noted last week involves the skewing of reality. In his Inter Press Service (IPS) report Feb. 14, Porter charges that the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) actually lowballs the number of existing Taliban fighters – at Petraeus’ behest, because "(Petraeus) did not want any official estimate of the insurgency’s strength that would contradict his claims of success by Special Operations Forces in reducing the capabilities of the Taliban in 2010." Read full story here

Another front in this message war is the elusive Afghan security forces themselves. One of the given primary metrics of success has always been the standing up of equipped and capable indigenous security forces. As in Iraq, the numbers have been slippery, and the performance in the eye of the beholder. To Lt. Gen. William Caldwell’s eye, everything is going rather swell. "Afghans continue to answer the call to serve their nation. Like the American ‘Greatest Generation,’ this group of more than 79,000 and growing Afghans will be changed by their experience in the Afghan army and police, which will, in turn, allow them to become leaders of their communities."  (Consequently, we may never know what to believe from Gen. Caldwell again, thanks to Rolling Stone writer Michael Hastings, who broke a story this week in which Caldwell has been accused of ordering a team of Army psy-ops specialists "to manipulate visiting American senators into providing more troops and funding for the war.")

So the question is, which "Afghans," much less what "nation" is Caldwell talking about? The vast majority of the Army recruits are still non-Pashtun (the ethnic group that represents upwards of 45 percent of the country and resides mostly in the south and is the most resistant to the central regime). Beyond that, Karzai is barely holding together the "nation" under a corrupt government that seems to only have the most tenuous control over Kabul and not much else without the aid of his elaborate patronage network and international forces. 

 However, notes Foust, "(Caldwell) doesn’t actually address the performance of the ANSF. Put differently: he’s described building a widget (e.g. a functioning security sector) but hasn’t actually said whether it performs its functions or not." There’s plenty of emerging evidence that things on that front are simply a mixed bag, including a interview last week by Afghan Interior Minister spokesman Zemarai Bashari, who suggested that guys aren’t being fully trained in the rush to bring warm bodies onto the lists. "Four-week or two-month trainings provided to police forces is not enough at all," said Bashari.  

Meanwhile, efforts to arm local fighters a la Sons of Iraq are getting even worse reviews, beginning last summer with reports from GlobalPost reporter Jean MacKenzie who highlighted the uncertainty of the military’s plans for building local militias. Then, just this week, the Associated Press reported similar perils with the current Afghan Local Police program. 

And what about the violence in Kandahar, the crown jewel of the recent Afghanistan ISAF surge and measure for our success or failure in the war? That too, seems to depend on whom you ask. A glowing feature on successes in Marjah was published just this week by McClatchy reporter Saeed Shah, saying that with the occupation of 2,000 Marines, peace has finally come for this town (village? city?). Reporting on the same place, however, The Guardian says the peace is fragile, that the locals armed and deputized by U.S. forces to "protect" their neighborhoods are constantly on the verge of turning on each other, and on the Marines, if they haven’t so already. 

Which story of this war wins out will depend in part on whether the mainstream media decides to do its job and question the official line when this becomes a full-on debate this summer, and whether independent media like Antiwar.com, Registan.net, IPS and others keep pointing out the dramatic differences between the military Message Machine bubble and what is being reported on the ground.

Read more by Kelley B. Vlahos

Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for FoxNews.com and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.