How US Ignorance Helped Doom the Afghan War

Americans' lack of knowledge about Afghanistan is virtually limitless. Which matters, because the U.S. is at war there. And which explains why the American military is losing its longest war.

During my 2001 trip, where I covered the Taliban defeat at the Battle of Kunduz for the Village Voice and KFI radio, I met a British reporter who offered an amusing prescription for American military action. "If the average American cannot identify three cities in a country," he suggested, "the U.S. should not invade it."

Given that the average American doesn't know their state capital, much less three cities in, say, Canada, this would transform us into a pacifist society overnight.

More appalling than Joe and Jane Sixpack's ignorance about Afghanistan is the doltishness of the official media. If print and broadcast journalists get the facts wrong, how can the public (or the military) be expected to do better? To cite one tiny example, U.S. newspapers routinely refer to the citizens of Afghanistan as "Afghanis." Afghanis are the national currency; the people are Afghans. Dammit.

On a broader level, the Afghan war document trove leaked by WikiLeaks has prompted many to ask: Why didn't the media question the war against Afghanistan before now?

Mostly, U.S. state media didn't want to know anything that questioned the Bush-Obama Administration's official line: 9/11 came out of Afghanistan, we have to prevent Al Qaeda from turning the country into a land of terrorist jungle gyms, and oh, yeah, we should do something about opium and burqas too.

People like Ahmed Rashid, the Pakistani journalist who wrote "Taliban," tried repeatedly to get the world to pay attention to a different take. Pakistan, not Afghanistan, was the real danger in the region. In Afghanistan, Karzai government was underfunded and overcorrupt and widely considered illegitimate. The U.S. sent in troops to shoot and bomb when they ought to have delivered construction equipment to build the infrastructure necessary to form a coherent state and viable Afghan economy.

Rashid wrote books. Wonks bought them and read them, but the political leadership ignored them. I wrote books. Ditto. But it didn't make a difference. It is shocking and disgusting that President Obama listened to people who knew nothing about Afghanistan while ignoring those who do.

Countless personal experiences confirmed my impression that reporters "parachuted in" to cover wars for brief assignments could never deliver the nuanced, detailed, accurate coverage necessary for American leaders and the public to make informed decisions.

In '01 CBS' correspondents sent to cover the invasion flew straight to Pakistan, only to get stuck there because the Khyber Pass was closed. (Anyone familiar with the region knew that.) I had a brief discussion with the network about my plan to go in via Tajikistan. A producer told me I would never make it. "The mountain passes are already snowed over," he said confidently, looking out his window at Manhattan traffic. "There's six feet of snow there." I made it. No snow. Not a single flake.

This reminds me of D-Day. Civil affairs detachments that accompanied the first wave of troops at Omaha Beach brought tons of food to feed French civilians, whom the Allied military believed to be starving. Though hunger was indeed widespread in occupied France, warehouses in Normandy were bursting with food; Allied bombing raids had cut the train lines that carried Norman produce to the rest of France. "Plenty of food," officers wired Eisenhower. "Send shoes."

French feet hadn't seen new shoes for four years.

In 2001 the Village Voice committed to me only after their first attempt to get a reporter "in country" failed. As Dave Barry says, I am not making this up: the poor guy got himself embedded with the Navy. He spent the war on the deck of a ship floating in the Indian Ocean taking photos of cruise missile launches. What part of "landlocked nation" did he miss?

I'm leaving for South Asia on August 1 and expect to be in Afghanistan for a month, beginning on or about August 13. Accompanied by fellow cartoonists Matt Bors and Steven L. Cloud, I'm going to take advantage of new satellite technology to upload a new kind of daily war correspondency to my blog ( and a half-dozen newspapers: a recounting of the day's events in comic form. I'll be going to the most remote parts of the country--the north and western villages and towns that see few if any visits by Western reporters. Why?

Because they see few if any visits by Western reporters.

Pitching papers on this project has proven that little has changed since 2010: editors and producers are still clueless. Among some of the more priceless responses I've gotten:

"Do they take American Express there?" (No credit cards. Cash only.)

"How about if you call us and pitch us if you see something interesting?" (No phones.)"Do you speak Pashto?" (No, but neither do Afghans in the north or west.)

"You'd be safer if you were embedded." (U.S. troops are the main target. Embedded reporters get hurt more often than independents. And of course it's impossible to be objective, or speak freely with locals, when you're traveling with soldiers.)

But nothing speaks louder than the lack of interest in this project by the vast majority of media outlets. They'll keep talking about Afghanistan--but they won't put up the bucks to find out what's really going on.

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