Opinion: To surge or not to surge?

Updated on
The World

As Barack Obama’s administration shifts the U.S. government’s focus away from its “bad war” in Iraq and engages its “good war” in Afghanistan, crucial questions are arising about the plan that have yet to be asked.

Unfortunately, the media’s questioning has been reduced to the simplistic repetition of whether the United States should engage in an Iraq-style “surge” or negotiate with the Taliban and resort to its ineffective pre-9/11 strategy of targeted assassinations.

In the run-up to the election — with the surge’s credibility enhanced by pundits like the New York Times’ David Brooks and MSNBC’s Chris Matthews — the belief that a surge would also be the magic bullet for Afghanistan became a basic assumption on which much future media debate would rest. But the validity of the assumptions underlying the media’s support for its effectiveness were never really established.

Writing for the Asia Times online Oct. 1, Anthony Cordesman of the Center for International and Strategic Studies cited what much of America’s media had ignored for 7 years. “A look at the reporting on the overall cost of the Afghan War shows that the U.S. has failed to commit anything like the resources it committed to the war in Iraq,” he wrote.

Cordesman continued, writing that the U.S. then “reacted to the growth of the threat with inadequate resources and funding of the U.S. military, U.S. aid and diplomacy, and Afghan force development efforts.”

But instead of rooting out the bureaucrats, policy-makers, development administrators and private contractors responsible for such an unmitigated disaster, the major media seemed more interested in offering up excuses that focused on Afghan government corruption, or the historical falsehood that the Afghans simply weren’t ready for democracy.

In a Jan. 6, 2009 New York Times column, Bob Herbert rejected any notion of getting to the bottom of the Afghan failure, and opposed a surge strategy.

“Our interest in Afghanistan is to prevent it from becoming a haven for terrorists bent on attacking us. That does not require the scale of military operations that the incoming administration is contemplating. It does not require wholesale occupation. It does not require the endless funneling of human treasure and countless billions of taxpayer dollars to the Afghan government,” Herbert wrote.

Herbert buttressed his attack on the surge with comments from a scathing Dec. 31, 2008 Newsweek article by Andrew Bacevich, a Boston University professor and former Army colonel.

Bacevich has recently emerged as a strong critic of U.S. defense policy. But in surprisingly faulty logic, his argument for abandoning Afghanistan appeared predicated on the discredited canards and skewed assumptions that have already produced disaster in Afghanistan. “[T]he real influence in Afghanistan has traditionally rested on tribal leaders and warlords. Rather than challenge that tradition, Washington should work with it.”

Absent from Bacevich’s analysis was any mention that the U.S. had engineered the transformation of Afghanistan’s tribal leaders into wealthy drug lords in the 1980s. Nor was there even a token appreciation that Afghanistan had no “tradition” of warlords before the United States arrived there, while much of the 20th century saw rural tribal elders accepting modernization and reforms when they understood them to be in keeping with Islamic law.

A Jan. 8, 2009 post by The Nation’s Katrina Vanden Heuvel removed the surge-or-not-to-surge argument one step further from reality by using both Herbert’s and Bacevich’s arguments to buttress her attack.

Our own interviews with members of the U.S. media in Kabul in 2002 revealed enormous frustration with U.S. editors, whose collective efforts to simplify complex foreign policy issues over the last 25 years have left Americans without the language to understand international events. That process left the American public and its leadership uninformed about the U.S.’s lack of a strategic plan for Afghanistan and unprepared for the events that followed.

Whether Obama can get it right in Afghanistan will depend on how the Afghanistan story is framed for the American people. But if they are misled to believe that to surge or not to surge is the only story, the chances of success will look even worse than they do now.

(Paul Fitzgerald and Elizabeth Gould are authors of "Invisible History: Afghanistan’s Untold Story," available from City Lights Books. Find their work here.

For more GlobalPost dispatches on Afghanistan, click here. 

Sign up for our daily newsletter

Sign up for The Top of the World, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.