A December 9 article in the Wall Street Journal began with the following sentence: "After touring bases in eastern Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that he was confident the war strategy was working, rejecting doubts that have been voiced by some inside the administration as the White House finishes work on a review of the campaign."
"There is no doubt the security climate is improving," Gates told a press conference in Kabul.
Two days before, Army General David Petraeus told reporters, "We've made important progress in recent months, both on the ground and psychologically, because we've demonstrated that ISAF and Afghan security forces can take away areas that mean a great deal to the Taliban." Petraeus, who noted that he had spoken with "elders in a remote Afghan village," reported that U.S./NATO forces had stopped the momentum of the Taliban in many parts of the country, and even reversed it in important areas. He said these included Helmand Province and Kandahar Province in the South.
"All of these operations have been really hard-fought, with some really tough casualties," Petraeus said. "The enemy will fight when you take away something that matters to him."
These statements are not presented as casual or off-the-cuff comments. They are meant to be taken as assessments of the effectiveness of U.S. strategies and operations in what is now the longest continuous military operation in the country's history. But our middle and high school children would receive very poor grades for such a presentation. Can the possibility of a peaceful future for Afghanistan really be reduced to heavily armed U.S. troops trying to "take" territory away from the Taliban? What rubbish.
In an effort that is costing hundreds of billions of dollars, and that has risked the lives and mental health of hundreds of thousands of American men and women, how can it be adequate for Secretary Gates to simply arrive in Kabul, meet with "commanders in the field," and reflect their take on things?
As an Afghan Government Minister said to me recently in Kabul, "Where is the research? The difficult self-analysis?"
If the U.S. had the kind of independent press that an actual democracy depends upon, it would reject this ‘assessment' as structurally flawed, overly simplistic, and self-serving. They would ask hard-to-answer questions. Instead, by and large, the statements are printed as matters of fact.
I am at a loss to find evidence to support their rosy assessment of the "campaign." Shouldn't U.S. military commanders be asked to reconcile their conclusions with the fact that violence in Afghanistan is at its highest level since the U.S. invasion in 2001? Shouldn't they have to explain what "success" means when violence is spreading to once peaceful parts of northern and western Afghanistan?
On the same day that General Petraeus gave his press conference, the American Chamber of Commerce opened an office in Kabul. U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry, attended the celebration. In his speech before the press and assembled guests, Eikenberry momentarily lost his balance and found himself straying a little too close to certain uncomfortable truths. "Afghanistan still is a country that . . ." he began, and then caught himself. "Although great improvements have been made in the last seven or eight years in building the infrastructure that can facilitate commerce: roads, power, access to water -- it is a country that still remains challenging."
If U.S. officials and military commanders find it uncomfortable or inconvenient to be frank about both the "challenges" faced in Afghanistan and the failures of the U.S./NATO war, Afghan people do not. In October, during a three-week fact-finding delegation to Afghanistan with the group Voices for Creative Nonviolence (www.vcnv.org), I heard repeatedly from people that the U.S. war is a failure. In Kabul, Afghan Members of Parliament told our delegation that "security in the country is worse every month" and that "U.S. support for a corrupt regime" is part of the foundation upon which insecurity rests.
We spoke with a businessman who said, "We have forty-three countries (with the ISAF) in Afghanistan trying to achieve peace through guns and bombs. Who decided that human beings are incapable of negotiation and reconciliation?"
The Afghan government minister told us "the ISAF effort is a complete failure," worse for Afghanistan than the Russian invasion and occupation. "The U.S. leadership," he said, "needs to be educated properly, but they don't want to learn. When I meet with members of the U.S. Provincial Reconstruction Teams, they think they know better than Afghan people. They act exactly like Russians."
Like General Petraeus, I too visited remote Afghan villages. In one mountain village, a seventeen-year-old woman said, "We hear a lot about the U.S. supporting the rights of women, but it is all tongue, all talk. Where are the results?"
Like Petraeus, I also spoke with elders. A local businessman, reminding us that the U.S. CIA supported the formation of Al-Qaeda, said "Every dog has its owner. The U.S. once owned Al-Qaeda.
"Thirty years of war," he continued, "have hurt us . . . destroyed our lives. What do we have to show at the end? Nothing. The world says it is helping us. How? By sending bombs?"
He commented specifically about the U.S./NATO operation in Kandahar, the largest military operation of the nine-year war and the one on which claims of progress are most heavily premised. "Karzai and McChrystal visited Kandahar" before the start of "Operation Hope and 94% of the elders said they preferred negotiation with the Taliban to armed confrontation." This number is taken from a U.S. Army poll conducted in areas NOT under Taliban control. In that same poll, 85% of respondents regard the Taliban as "our Afghan brothers."
What is the point of conducting such a poll if you have no intention of considering the results? By extension, what is the point of the "December Review," due to be announced on Monday, December 13?
Anyone who suspects that the U.S. military cannot effectively "review" itself can take advantage of an opportunity to talk with people in Afghanistan and to listen to a "People's Review" of the war. This opportunity is being offered by the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers, a group of Afghan boys and young men who live in a remote and mountainous village and who will be available for conversations via skype all day on December 19th (to participate, write to firstname.lastname@example.org).
In General Petraeus' comments last week, he emphasized that the "counterinsurgency math" was finally beginning to add up. By this he meant that the increase in U.S. troops is proving to be a decisive factor in the war. Our delegation spoke about this with a woman from Kandahar, where the U.S. military strategy of "taking land" from the Taliban includes bulldozing homes, schools, and agricultural infrastructure (http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/afghanistan/101109/afghanistan-war-us-bulldozes-villages-final-offensive). "Thirty thousand?" she asked. "They can bring thirty million. It won't matter, if they aren't working for peace."