New decades, like presidential inaugurations, have a certain hopeful flavor, a hint of fresh things to come. But new decades, like new presidencies, are deceptively old. On history’s continuum, little is resolved neatly at the clicking of 09 to 10. We in the so-called Age of Hope and Change know this. Nowhere is this so clear as when looking at America’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and considering how it is we got here.
This week, the talk about the wars centered on numbers, as President Obama issued the order for 30,000 additional troops to be deployed to the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan by the end of May, bringing the total number to almost 100,000. The addition is less than what General Stanley McChrystal, senior commander of US and NATO forces, recommended (40,000), and more than Vice President Biden had hoped.
A CBS News poll last month found that just 37 percent of Americans support sending more troops to Afghanistan.
The additional troops are part of a White House strategy to keep out Al Qaeda and prevent Taliban insurgents from toppling the Afghan government. It includes securing Afghan population centers where the Taliban is now strong, and weakening the Taliban enough so Afghan forces can take charge on their own.
Top officials have told both Afghanistan and Pakistan that without their cooperation and collaboration, the American effort will fail. But Pakistani officials have countered that most insurgents are on the Afghan side of the border, and “that putting as many as 30,000 additional American troops into Afghanistan would only drive more Taliban fighters into their territory,” according to New York Times coverage on November 29.
Once an advocate for aggressive American involvement in Afghanistan, Biden has become one of the most cautious voices in Washington about the troop surge; the New York Times called him “Mr. Obama’s in-house pessimist on Afghanistan” in October. The Vice President has suggested that instead of using US troops for protection and combat, they should focus on training Afghan forces to take over.
Biden is not alone in suggesting other means of winning the war. There is already a program to lure would-be Taliban fighters with US- and Afghan-funded jobs, by developing projects directed by Afghan tribal leaders. The plan is modeled after a similar one in Iraq that aimed to win over Sunni tribal leaders, and that has been credited with contributing to the decline of violence in that country. In Obama’s address on Tuesday, the president gave lip service to US support of Afghan “ministries, governors, and local leaders that combat corruption and deliver for the people” as well as “areas—such as agriculture—that can make an immediate impact on the lives of the Afghan people.”
Still, speaking at Brown University in November, Times journalist David Rohde B’90 painted a grim, complex picture of the effect the American effort is having on the ground in that country.
“Obama is hated more than Bush by hardline Taliban captors,” Rohde said, because the president is seen as “more aggressive” for increasing troop levels and advocating drone strikes. Among the Afghans and Pakistanis with whom Rohde spoke, there is “mistrust” of the US. For this reason, Rohde—who was careful not to take an explicit political stance—said that “consistent, patient” work is needed in the region if the US is to succeed.
WAR BY NUMBERS
Numbers have become the preferred tools to explain, plan, protest, and defend the Afghan and Iraq Wars. As 2010 rolls in, nearly 10 years will have passed since the start of a new American political era. It was defined by a controversial, unpopular presidency, an unprecedented degree of executive secrecy, and a marked, grim shift in national mood that followed September 11, 2001. The US launched Operation Enduring Freedom against the Taliban in Afghanistan less than a month later. That war is still not over. But it was not long before the Bush Administration had shifted focus: seven years will have passed since the invasion of Iraq in March 2003.
And so the numbers accumulate. As the decade changes, close to $230 billion will have been spent in Afghanistan, according to the National Priorities Project, a non-profit research organization that analyzes how federal money is spent. It costs about $1.3 million each year to keep a single American soldier in Afghanistan, as reported by the US Congressional Research Service. Since 2001, five times the number of Afghans and Pakistanis have died fighting the Taliban as Americans have, according to Rohde; 928 Americans and 1,530 coalition troops have died in Afghanistan since 2001, according to iCasualties.org. It has been five years since Afghanistan’s first election of Afghan President Hamid Karzai (the legitimacy of whose reelection came under at times violent question this year).
Meanwhile, close to $740 billion will have been spent on Iraq. Of that, $53 billion has gone for relief and reconstruction, as reported by the Times. Since 2003, 4,284 American toops have been killed and 30,182 wounded (according to GlobalSecurity.org); an estimated 94,279 to 102,879 civilians have died (according to Iraq Body Count; Iraq’s Human Rights Ministry reported at least 85,000 civilians dead as of October, exempting casualties during the initial US invasion). There are currently about 120,000 US troops still in Iraq. The second Iraqi parliamentary elections are slated for this January, though that date now “might slip,” in the words of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, due to disputes in the Iraqi parliament among minority Sunnis, Kurds, and majority Shiites over an election law.
ARCHAEOLOGY OF KNOWLEDGE
All these numbers don’t add up to our understanding the wars, whose reality continues to elude us. It is incredibly difficult—maybe impossible—to accurately present the state of Iraq and Afghanistan; to learn of and describe every death, birth, vote, success, and failure; and to grasp the comprehensive meaning for and effect on the US military, the American public, and the invaded countries’ citizens. Clearly, it is not the numbers that inform us, but the analysis, the descriptions and details, the context and questions.
At times, the questions we ask—or should ask—can seem overwhelming. What strategies work in each country, how many troops should be deployed how quickly, is aid money working, how soon can we withdraw, how safe are we in each country, are we doing more harm than good, are we encouraging terrorists rather than thwarting them, how can sectarian violence be stemmed, how many more deaths and dollars can the US afford, has one war detracted or distracted from the other, how are we taking care of the veterans (and their families) who return, have the wars crippled the ability of the US to address its own pressing domestic problems: such questions are now habitually asked, and for good reason.
The events in Afghanistan and Iraq belong to an ongoing story, one that is almost a decade old, and that will require reporters and analysts for at least another. There are now certain givens. The Bush Administration once said that the Second Iraq War would be a swift operation. Like other wars, our 2003 invasion and subsequent occupation have been neither swift nor clean.
And there is more that we’ve accepted. Over the course of the decade, the separate political and social conditions in Afghanistan and Iraq have joined one conversation. They have become tied to the same global interests, the same national insecurities, the same assumption of democratic duty. September 11, 2001 provided the unifying language to justify (against all logic) the spinning together of Afghanistan and Iraq into one war: the so-called, too-late-questioned ‘War on Terror.’ The Bush Administration was guilty of public deception, word-smithing, and fear-mongering, and many in the media were guilty of lack of curiosity and skepticism that is integral to their profession. America’s national interests in both countries went from new at the start of Bush’s first term to unquestioned at the start of Obama’s. Today, lament we may about ongoing human and financial costs of both wars, but few Americans wonder if Afghanistan is, as Obama said, really a “war of necessity.”
Recent articles in Harper’s and Mother Jones ask whether Afghanistan and Iraq are really “too big to fail,” and why they should remain at the top of US international priorities. There is a lot of momentum behind history. Andrew Bacevich, a retired US army officer and professor of international relations at Boston University, wrote in an essay republished in November’s Harper’s that a president can “recast our image of reality”: “Long after his departure, remnants of that image linger and retain their capacity to beguile.” Bacevich asks, “What is it about Afghanistan, possessing next to nothing that the United States requires, that justifies such lavish attention? In Washington, this question goes not only unanswered but unasked.”
Whether Bacevich is right that the Afghan War is “not only unnecessary” but “impossible,” and the Iraq War “utterly needless,” is debatable. Certainly, such a view is unpopular, and it ignores a lot of practical, uncomfortable moral issues. Rightly, Obama’s speech on Tuesday recalled “why America and our allies were compelled to fight a war in Afghanistan in the first place.” Whether or not we decide that Afghanistan or Iraq or both should be top priority in American foreign affairs, it is crucial that it be a conscious decision. We must remember to ask and reexamine why they are priorities, to self-scrutinize periodically. A new decade affords one such chance.
In June 2002, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld spoke at a NATO press conference. Asked to explain what he meant when he said “the situation” in Iraq was worse than the facts showed, his famous answer was that there are no “knowns,” only “known knowns,” “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns.”
“Each year we discover a few more unknown unknowns.” It was a skillful response, typical of the truth-evading rhetorical gymnastics of the Bush Administration, and it was, in its way, brilliant. In his view, most foreign policy decisions are made based on the known knowns and the known unknowns, but Rumsfeld believed that it was smartest to make decisions based on all three. To go to war based on unknown unknowns—this was how preemptive war became justified.
There are still unknown unknowns, but they are—forgive me—known unknown unknowns. In other words, we know that they exist, but we don’t know what they are, exactly. The best we can do is to keep looking for them, by being relentlessly curious, skeptical, and open-minded.
Journalism—the production and consumption of news and news analysis—is a major part of this. There are roadblocks to reporting the truth, of course. Limited access to government information, sources, and regions narrow the frame around the picture of the wars that we come to know. So do language barriers, fewer field correspondents, and a floundering newspaper industry. Insufficient skepticism when reporting sources and complacency when asking questions narrow the frame still further.
A study by the Project of Excellence in Journalism published in November 2007 described a discouraging state of journalists’ access to sources, freedom of movement, and personal safety in Iraq: “Most journalists, eight out of ten, feel that, over time, conditions for telling the story of Iraq have gotten worse, not better.”
Rohde, who has reported extensively on Afghanistan and Pakistan, is no stranger to the perils of war reporting; last year, the Times reporter (and Indy alumn) was held for seven months by Taliban captors in Pakistan. At his November talk at Brown, Rohde spoke of the “need for more reporting in the field than ever” and “for objective reporting.” He lamented a trend in shrinking investment in foreign reporting on the ground, for which he said there is “no replacement.” In his view, the press is “an institution to hold governments accountable.”
The mainstream press was criticized for too readily following the White House line in the lead-up to the Iraq War and for abandoning coverage of Afghanistan when the nation’s attention was diverted. In a separate interview, Rohde said he thought war reporting today “is very strong…stronger than people think.”
Rohde said that the “biggest danger isn’t that the government is somehow stopping people from reporting,” but that “it’s more that there’s too few journalists and they’re so overworked that they don’t get other perspectives.”
He added, “To be honest, [some] journalists get lazy and don’t seek out more than the official quotes and viewpoints.”
This is a common weakness not singular to the journalism profession. Other Americans, too, get lazy.
Obama spoke in his inauguration speech about a return to “curiosity.” However we feel about the 30,000 troop surge, it is irresponsible to throw up our hands and let someone else form an opinion—not even now, nearly a decade later, when many are war weary. To be curious is the most important thing Americans can do about the Afghan and Iraq Wars. It is not a political position, in support of or in opposition to any policy or strategy. Rather, it is a political lifestyle—a patriotic duty, like voting. It is active. It excavates. It is an act of love and respect for the human beings in our country and in the countries that America has the power to affect.