Foreign and Defense Policy, AfPak

NBC not telling the truth about the war in Afghanistan

Despite progress in Afghanistan over the past three years, a majority of Americans see the war in the country as unwinnable, and about two-thirds believe the U.S. should not be at war there. There are many reasons support for the war has declined sharply in the past years. Afghanistan has already surpassed Vietnam as the longest war in U.S. history, with nearly 2,000 deaths and thousands more wounded. It is no longer the “good war” and President Obama speaks about Afghanistan only about once a year.

But the main reason the American public has lost hope in the Afghan mission is due to the generally negative coverage of the conflict by the media. While major media outlets regularly report on the Taliban attacks, rights abuses, the drug trade, religious extremism, cultural malpractices, corruption, and other problems in Afghanistan, they seldom report on the progress made in the country, such as the success of the surge in southern provinces, progress in size and quality of Afghanistan’s security forces, and improvement in the country’s economy, health and education. Some alarmist journalists even sensationalize the problems to depict the situation to be much worse than reality.

A good example is last week’s news story by the NBC News’ foreign correspondent Ali Arouzi, entitled “Karzai: a ‘prisoner in his palace’?” Almost every statement in this piece is factually inaccurate and misleading. Here is an excerpt:

Afghanistan seems as fragile as ever. There is a sense that with the U.S.-led NATO draw-down expected in 2014 the country could slip back into some of its darkest most socially-restrictive and violent days. Most Afghans you speak to in Kabul or outside of the capital fear that their country will once again be overrun by the Taliban or be engulfed by a civil war… Almost every province that immediately surrounds Kabul is firmly in the hands of the Taliban: Logar, Wardak, Parwan, Kapisa, Laghman, and about 70 percent of Nangarhar are Taliban controlled, according to locals, and they all border Kabul. I recently traveled to Charai Qamber, a small village just about five miles southeast of Kabul’s city limits, to speak with locals and find out what they think of the security situation… I spoke to a man named Babur… He spoke with contempt about America but seemed to be fond of Iran and Pakistan. Not a good sign for winning hearts and minds… We tried to travel to Parwan province – its borders are just about six miles outside of Kabul. But because it is controlled by the Taliban, we only reached the outskirts…

This gives the readers the incorrect impression that the Afghan capital is besieged by the Taliban and is on the verge of collapse – as one reader asks: “What did the troops DO FOR 10 YEARS?? If only a few miles from Kabul is controlled by Taliban — what did they all die for?”

In reality, none of the mentioned provinces are “firmly in the hands of the Taliban.” In the past three years, the insurgent groups have significantly been weakened in provinces around Kabul and the Taliban’s influence is limited to only a few remote districts. To say that 70% of Nangarhar, the third largest populated province in Afghanistan, is controlled by the Taliban is absurd. Major tribes in Nagarhar, such as Shinwari, Mohmand and Jabarkhel, are supportive of the government. Interestingly, the reporter claims his information comes from “locals”, but later admits he had not traveled outside Kabul for security reasons.

It is also ludicrous to say Parwan Province is “controlled by the Taliban.” The Bagram Air Base, the largest U.S. military base in Afghanistan, is located in Parwan. There are dozens of national and international NGOs operating in the province and dozens of foreigners travel between Kabul and Parwan on a daily basis. Moreover, most Afghans are not “fond of Iran and Pakistan,” and they see neighboring countries responsible for the unending wars in their country. It was because of the fear of neighbors’ influence that a gathering of 2,000 Afghan tribal leaders from across the country last November voted unanimously in favor of a strategic agreement with the United States, which will allow thousands of American troops to stay in Afghanistan beyond the 2014 withdrawal timeline.

Afghanistan is a vital national security issue for the United States. And the media is doing a disservice to the public by not reflecting the truth about the war.

5 thoughts on “NBC not telling the truth about the war in Afghanistan

  1. I don’t disagree that media coverage can play a big role in public opinion. But here are the facts about the Afghanistan war: 2,000 U.S. troops dead, $570 billion taxpayer dollars spent, and as of two years ago there were less than 100 al Qaeda members in Afghanistan. And yet there are still 90,000 U.S. troops serving there.

    The reason Americans want to end the war is that it is simply not worth the high price we are paying.

  2. The United States did not turn Afghanistan into a catastrophe.

    Prior to 9/11, the only significant U.S. involvement was with regard to opposing the Soviet invasion. That Afghanistan had a series of bad leaders under Soviet influence prior to the Soviet invasion, or that Afghanistan suffered under Soviet occupation, or that Afghanistan further collapsed after the fall of the government the Soviets left behind, or that the Taliban regime that emerged out of the chaos of the Afghan civil war was draconian are not, in any way whatsoever, the fault or responsibility of the United States.

    In the wake of 9/11, the American public did not give their enthusiastic support to operations in Afghanistan because they were concerned about the welfare of Afghans. We gave support because we wanted the severed heads of the mostly-Arabic (non-Afghan) terrorist group that had attacked us and that was holed-up in Afghanistan and Pakistan. All of this brouhaha of propping up the Karzai regime and trying to sort out Afghan internal politics is baggage added by busy-bodies after the fact. It has nothing to do with why the war was entered into by the U.S.

    Afghanistan has had its opportunity. It is evident that there is insufficient interest among the Afghan people for the kind of country that the West is trying to develop there. It has nothing to do with whether or not we let the Kumbaya COIN types do enough Joan Baez stuff or whether our forces should have been more aggressive. It has nothing to do with the validity of Western tactics or doctrine. The reason Afghanistan remains a disaster is the behavior of the Afghans themselves.

    Finally, the security of the West is not dependent upon prosperity and peace in Afghanistan. The cause of 9/11 was not Afghan backwardness. In 2006, AQ attempted a set of attacks that was to use liquid explosives on airliners. The Taliban had long since been deposed in 2006 and Western forces were in Afghanistan at that time. If Afghanistan becomes as normal as Kansas, that won’t stop the threat of Islamic terrorism. If Afghanistan remains an ongoing catastrophe, that won’t create the next big attack. It is largely irrelevant.

    • Mr. Mark,

      I’d suggest you read Steve Coll’s Ghost War and your opinion will change. Yes, it was the Soviets and their Afghan puppets that were responsible for the 1980s war there, but we also played a part. Our and Saudis’ money went to the most extreme jihadi groups. With our money, young Afghan children were taught extremism, jihad, and how and why to kill the infidels. Most of those young Afghans are now part of the Taliban. And the infidels are now not the Soviets but us. After the Soviets’ dissolution, we had a moral and strategic responsibility to help bring peace to the country. But we abandoned them to the mercy of extremists we supported and our Pakistani ally.

      And you’re wrong that Afghanistan doesn’t matter to our security. That we haven’t suffered another 9/11 is because we went there and stayed there to defeat them. If we leave prematurely now, the Taliban and al Qaeda will reestablish their bases there and plot against us as they did before 9/11. We will also face a more Taliban-ized Pakistan.

      Afghanistan will not become a Switzerland. And no one has that objective either. But we can create sufficient stability there so the Taliban and al Qaeda won’t return and local forces can defend their country on their own. And that objective is achievable.

      • I’ve read Coll’s book. It’s okay. My opinion is not changed. No, Afghanistan’s catastrophe is not our fault. I don’t even recall Steve Coll making such an assertion in his book (maybe he did, but I don’t remember it). If he did make such an assertion, then I disagree with it. Have you read any of the material from Lester Grau?

        Your assertion that we haven’t suffered another 9/11 because we “went there and stayed there to defeat them” is incorrect. As I stated my earlier comment, AQ has continued to attempt further attacks, as evidenced in the 2006 airliner plot. Furthermore, all key leaders in AQ captured since 9/11 have been captured in Pakistan, not Afghanistan.

        The Taliban are not AQ and AQ are not the Taliban. Among the various groups referred to collectively as “the Taliban” not all are of the Mullah Omar brand. It is not a monolithic enemy, but a fractured, shifting semi-coalition of opportunists. I don’t believe that most of the third-tier periphery of these groups (people who transport and emplace IEDs and the like) are ideologically committed to any notion of global jihad, but rather: 1. Get paid or otherwise compensated, and 2. Want Americans and Kabul out of their immediate area.

        I do not view the Taliban as a threat to the U.S. homeland (though the longer we are engaged against them, the more likely that is to change). Al Qaida, and its Salafist affiliates ARE threats to the U.S. homeland. To conflate the Taliban and AQ is a mistake.

        I think that many people assume that if there are so many allegedly smart people, with so much experience, in such high ranking positions in our government who advocate for conducting nation-building in Afghanistan that there really must be some important relationship between COIN in Afghanistan and defeat of AQ. I don’t accept that assumption. I think that the fascination with COIN in Afghanistan among senior leaders in our government comes from several sources:

        1. People with lots of education and who have very noble, earnest, good intentions, but who do not understand the situation. To clarify, understanding is a higher level on the cognitive hierarchy than knowledge. Many of these senior leaders and their advisors can recite facts, figures, and concepts from briefings, books, discussions, and training they have received, but they don’t really know WHY things are the way they are.

        2. Professional ambition and pride – the “can do” attitude – of driven, hard-working leaders and experts who want very badly to find something challenging to work on and who want to get a check in the GO column. The problem is they have not considered that this task might be doable.

        3. I’m not from the tinfoil hat set, and I’ve been both a Soldier and an employee in the defense industry (though not at the same time), but there is a lot of money being made by various firms and individuals from large scale operations in Afghanistan. That money motivates those narrow interests earning it to seek political and professional influence in support of continuing the effort in Afghanistan.

        4. Especially in the early years of the fighting in Afghanistan, I suspect that American politicians were concerned that a low-key counterterrorism campaign against Islamist foreign fighters in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and around the rest of the world would not have sufficient visibility to the American people to make it look like the government was really “doing something.” So, I think those politicians were more supportive of a big, highly visible COIN effort than common sense called for.

        I’m not opposed to killing and capturing terrorists bent on exporting Jihad to the U.S. I do not, however, see the COIN effort in Afghanistan as a necessary contribution.

  3. Ahmad,
    Factual misrepresentations notwithstanding, your concern doesn’t get at the heart of the issue. The problem isn’t that there’s a lack of national will, the problem is that no one even knows what success means in Afghanistan. People talk about “stability”, but what’s your metric? Already (according to the GAO), 90% of GIRoA revenues come from donors, mostly from us. Honestly, that last 10% mostly comes from us too, it just means they’re taxing Afghan contractors paid by the US Gov’t. The fact is that Afghanistan has no ability to finance a modern state, because the country can’t produce any goods or services of value, and they have little in the way of natural resources. The day we stop propping up GIRoA is the beginning of the end, they won’t be able to pay for 400k security personnel–they simply can’t create the revenue. The argument that we need to stay there to keep out Al Qaeda is in effect a mandate to “stabilize” every failed state on the planet…having deployed to Afghanistan twice, I’d have to pass. Afghanistan is no more vital to our national security than the dozen or so other failed states, right now it’s only vital because we’re there.

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