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5 important things to know about the Afghan endgame

simon wallace

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN - SEPTEMBER 27: A group of young men poses for a picture near ruins of Jangalak industrial complex on September 27, 2010 in Kabul, Afghanistan. The Jangalak industrial complex was known to be one of the country's largest factories until the civil war tore it apart. Today, the ruins are used as a place where students come to study, children play after school and for other random activities. (Photo by Majid Saeedi/Getty Images)

Irving Howe (the New York socialist) once wrote “Blessed New York Times! What would radical journalism in America do without it?” The newspaper was, to be sure, a tool of the bourgeois but a tool that reported the news with unequalled comprehensiveness. Read it and, ideology aside, you became the possessor of a full range of facts, dates and events. I had a similar feeling this weekend reading the Times coverage of the Afghanistan war.

Journalism is changing—this we know—but on the eve of (depending who you talk to) a cataclysm for old journalism or its reinvigoration the American paper-of-record still puts out an impressively thorough and relatively exhaustive edition, if politically problematic for a progressive. Contrast this to the newly redesigned Globe and Mail whose editor, John Stackhouse, told Toronto Life that “it’s fine for a typical news story to be 600 to 800 words… Most readers aren’t going to read more than that.” Anyway, I digress. This is supposed to be about Afghanistan.

It’s shocking how little we actually know, and how little what we do know tells us. Journalists, or should I say the organizations that employ them, have largely abdicated their responsibility to report the war in ways that allow readers to secure a nuanced understanding of what exactly it is that Western militaries are doing in south-central Asia. The Swat valley, Provincial Reconstruction teams, human interest stories all make an appearance in the Canadian press but little effort is made to draw connections or attempt some sort of synthesis. If there ever were a time for bold reporting, this is it. There are, of course, bright spots. Re-enter the Times.

First, if you have time, read this article. It deals with one aspect of the war that is, I think, neglected: namely the strategy that NATO is pursuing. In short, Western forces are adopting a hyper-aggressive posture to demoralize anti-occupation forces prior to NATO’s withdrawal. Knowing this, in addition to what we already know (that free societies cannot be ushered in under the aegis of an imperialist gun, etc.), will perhaps allow us, like Irving Howe, to develop more incisive, accurate and compelling critiques that will inspire dramatic democratic change. Here are five important points to note about the conflict in Afghanistan today, noted by the Times and Wired:

1) The current strategy. Canada, amongst other nations, is in the process of evacuating its military personnel from the region having declared that a decade-long commitment to the war is sufficient. The United States, the main antagonist in the war, has thus been required to shoulder more of the burdens of occupation. It, too, however, is maneuvering for an endgame. The Times:

“Since early last year, when President Obama took office, the overriding objective of American policy has been to persuade the Taliban to abandon any hope of victory. It was to make that point that 30,000 additional troops were sent here…the strategy has been to break the Taliban’s will, to break up the movement, and to settle with as many leaders as are willing to deal.”

2) The way to effect that victory

“In the past several months, General Petraeus has loosed an extraordinary amount of firepower on the Taliban insurgency. Special operations forces are now operating at a tempo five times that of a year ago, killing and capturing hundreds of insurgents each month. In the same period, the number of bombs and missiles aimed at insurgents has grown by half. And General Petraeus has launched a series of operations to clear insurgents from the southern city of Kandahar.”

3) This was done before.

“That strategy looks a lot like the one that brought General Petraeus success in Iraq in 2007 and 2008. With Iraq engulfed in apocalyptic violence, American field commanders reached out to nationalist-minded guerrilla leaders and found many of them exhausted by war and willing to make peace. About 100,000 Iraqis, many of them insurgents, came on the American payroll: The Americans were working both ends of the insurgency. As they made peace with some insurgent leaders, they intensified their efforts to kill the holdouts and fanatics. The violence, beginning in late 2007, dropped precipitously.”

4) With long term success?

“Awakening leaders and security officials [in Iraq] say that since the spring, as many as several thousand Awakening fighters have quit, been fired, stopped showing up for duty, or ceased picking up paychecks. During the past four months, the atmosphere has become particularly charged as the Awakening members find themselves squeezed between Iraqi security forces, who have arrested hundreds of current and former members accused of acts of recent terrorism, and Al Qaeda’s brutal recruitment techniques.”

5) The return of shock and awe?

“Last month, NATO attack planes dropped their bombs and fired their guns on 700 separate missions, according to U.S. Air Force statistics. That’s more than double the 257 attack sorties they flew in September 2009, and one of the highest single-month totals of the entire nine-year Afghan campaign.”

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