Spinning the War in Afghanistan

One has to wonder why after eight years of near-total silence, the media has suddenly, gushingly fallen in love with covering the war in Afghanistan. A plausible response is that prior to 2008, the Iraq war consumed most of our attention, leaving Afghanistan relegated to second place. Right around the time of the 2008 presidential election, however, the Afghanistan war received a makeover -- thanks in large part to the efforts of the Democratic Party -- and emerged in the media as the chosen war, the people's war, the "necessary" war.

The media has tacked again, and now the war in Afghanistan, so far from being called a war of necessity, is sinking into a "quagmire" of Vietnam clichès. Newsweek came out to announce this in an article from December of last year. The article, "Obama's Vietnam," disclaims at the outset that Afghanistan-as-Vietnam is a bad analogy, and, without a hint of irony, goes on to argue that Afghanistan is indeed becoming an "eerie echo" of our never-forgotten war in Asia.

The spearhead of this line of reasoning is that Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai, is corrupt and that his government is "incapable of defeating the insurgency." This is a line lifted straight out of the Media Field Manual for Defeating the Vietnam War - an unwritten guide of ethos and talking-point tactics used by the press from the mid-1960s to very successfully, "brilliantly," (as they would say about a Vietcong field general) end that war politically just as the US was winning it militarily.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai is in the cross-hairs of today's media. Karzai makes an easy target as he's surrounded by corruption and lacks the funds and structures to govern to America's high standards of continuity of law and transparency of process. As such, Mr. Karzai has conveniently been "repackaged" as latter-day version of Ngo Dinh Diem, the South Vietnamese leader who was overthrown in a coup that was openly backed by prominent American journalists like David Halberstam of the New York Times and his cohort Neil Sheehan of UPI and later the Times as well.

Mr. Karzai now becomes the American dummy-puppet who was "installed" by the US, who is supported by the US, who, this line of thinking goes, owes his very existence to the US. This view is deeply flawed. In fact, the truth of the early history of the war in Afghanistan lies in its opposite.

The Only Thing Worth Dying For, which is released this week, reveals the extent to which Mr. Karzai installed the US in Afghanistan, not the other way round. The book, by journalist Eric Blehm, is a war chronicle of one of the first major US stands in Afghanistan, which occurred in the Taliban-held south of the country. A group of Green Berets called ODA 574 (Operational Detachment-Alpha) was dropped in behind enemy lines weeks after 9/11 to link up with a then-unknown Pashtun leader named Karzai.

According to Blehm, who presents a faithful recording of the experience of ODA-574 from first-hand accounts of the surviving members of the team, the American Special Forces unit was tasked with a ridiculously difficult mission: fomenting a rebellion in the Taliban's south. The book details how the group of 11 men managed to pull this off, in part because of the strength of their training and the unique ability of Special Forces teams to craft strategy-minded plans while on the ground.

But, according to Blehm and Jason Amerine, the then-commander of ODA-574, none of this would have been possible without Karzai. It was Karzai who, after the battle of Tarin Kowt, emerged as the only tribal leader in the south to lead a successful uprising against the Taliban:

Overnight, Hamid Karzai's credibility in the Pashtun belt was established. Reports came in of villages throughout the south taking down the white flag of the Taliban and replacing it with the black, red, and green vertically striped Afghan flag, now recognized as Karzai's battle flag.

It was just two days later, according to the book, when key regional powers, most notably Pakistan and Turkey, began to signal that Karzai should head the new Afghan government. The suggestions were received by James Dobbins, US special envoy for Afghanistan at that time, with surprise: he'd never heard of Karzai until that moment.

Karzai was never an American puppet. On the contrary, he had traveled to the US as early as 2000 to warn Congress about the looming danger of Afghanistan-based terrorism. He had also warned the Clinton administration in 1998 that indiscriminately dropping bombs on Afghanistan in response to terror attacks on American assets would disastrously result in radicalizing the population, or at least giving the Taliban and Islamist groups a serious domestic boost. And, of course, he was right.

But this view of Karzai doesn't fit into the Afghanistan-as-Vietnam jigsaw puzzle that much of the media is trying to cobble together. The New York Times has been a major mover of this story - just as it was the prime outlet for drastically false stories about South Vietnam's Diem government massacring Buddhist monks.

The Times has reported strongly on Karzai's brother, who, according to the newspaper, is a drug lord on the CIA's payroll. Whether this is true or not (the Times used anonymous sourcing, particularly for the latter report), is somewhat irrelevant - it takes only a quick perusal of news reports on much-praised world leaders who, by this same standard, would have been guilty by filial association but emerged ethically unscathed in the press.

Mr. Karzai, who has never been linked to corruption, has been re-crafted by the media as a corrupt, politically toothless warlord. This is the view of him required if we are to believe, as much of America was led to believe between 1964 and 1975, that no matter what the US does, we cannot win in Afghanistan because our in-country ally is just as bad as our enemy.

But with 30,000 additional troops heading to Afghanistan, the time is critical for a correct rendering of the dynamics of the war. Much more than armor, guns, boots, and MREs, those troops, if they are to have any chance of succeeding, must be supplied with a firm belief in the possibility for success, and that such success is regarded as both desirable and valuable to the American people for whom they're fighting.