Mar 1 2009

Act Now, Think Later in Afghanistan

Media support for 'surge' comes without a real plan

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/The U.S. Army

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/The U.S. Army

“Afghanistan cannot be saved from the Taliban by military means alone” (Boston Globe, 1/5/09), goes a common corporate media line. “Force alone will not defeat the militants,” editorialized the New York Times (11/21/08). “Troops alone won’t do that job,” wrote Time’s Mark Thompson (3/2/09).

With U.S. or allied forces responsible for 39 percent of the 2,118 civilians killed in 2008 (a 40 percent increase in civilians killed from 2007), according to U.N. human rights monitors in Afghanistan (UNAMA, 1/09), it’s a rather obvious conclusion at this point—more than seven years into the war—that killing innocents at an escalating pace won’t win the hearts and minds of Afghans. Yet Thompson added, “More soldiers are needed, if only to stop the grim litany of bad news from Afghanistan getting worse.” How, exactly, sending nearly 17,000 additional troops would accomplish that, he did not say.

In fact, no one really has—not even top U.S. military officials. As independent journalist Gareth Porter noted (Inter Press Service, 2/20/09), President Barack Obama was prepared to send the full 30,000 additional troops requested by Gen. David McKiernan, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, but decided on the lower figure after McKiernan was unable to give him a “coherent answer” as to what he planned to do with them. According to NBC News blog Deep Background (2/4/09), in a meeting with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Obama asked, “what is the end game [in Afghanistan]?” A Pentagon official told NBC’s Jim Miklaszewski, “Frankly, we don’t have one.”

Despite this lack of any real plan, media have applied surprisingly little scrutiny to the idea of a “surge.” Extra! looked at every piece appearing in the Nexis database on the editorial and op-ed pages of the New York Times, Washington Post, L.A. Times and USA Today, in the two main newsweeklies (Newsweek and Time) and on the three network Sunday talkshows (ABC’s This Week, NBC’s Meet the Press and CBS’s Face the Nation), from Election Day (11/4/08) through March 1, 2009, that expressly addressed potential escalation of U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan. (Otherwise unrelated stories with passing references to the question of troop escalation were excluded.)

Newspaper editorials (13) and op-eds (21) accounted for the majority of the survey; the newsweeklies ran a total of eight articles. The topic was raised only five times on the networks’ Sunday talkshows. All told, there were only 47 stories on the subject. Thirty-one of those endorsed troop escalation, while only 11 opposed a military solution. (Two op-eds—USA Today, 2/24/09; New York Times, 2/4/09—opposed a “surge” but argued instead for other military options, such as increased aerial bombings and covert operations; three pieces were neutral on troop escalation.)

The Washington Post featured nine op-eds, the most of any outlet; seven supported some kind of military escalation. The paper also ran five editorials on the issue, with four endorsing military escalation and one (2/22/09) offering a neutral assessment. A Post op-ed by former USAID official Mark Ward (12/26/08) summed up the most typical media position:

Nearly every observer of Afghanistan, from the most senior U.S. military officers to Washington think tank analysts and everyone in between, agrees that stability in that country demands a multi-pronged approach involving the military, diplomatic efforts and economic assistance.

Of course, “everyone in between” the U.S. military and Washington think tanks leaves out a whole lot of observers—including all of those from Afghanistan itself.

While the New York Times op-ed page published three pieces opposing a “surge,” two in favor and one (2/4/09) suggesting other military options instead, the Times endorsed troop escalation in all six of its editorials during the study period. (Three of these—11/16/08, 11/21/08, 2/20/09—also acknowledged a need for at least some non-military action.)

One editorial in particular captured the essence of the media conversation: “There isn’t a lot of time,” warned the Times (2/20/09), asserting that Obama “had no choice but to send another 17,000 troops while commanders and diplomats try to come up with a strategy to stop the bloodletting and to try to block the Taliban from recapturing the country.” By the twisted logic of the Times editorialists, coming up with a “strategy to stop the bloodletting” before the dramatic escalation of the number of troops sent to a conflict is simply unthinkable.

A few members of mainstream media—most prominently the New York Times’ Bob Herbert (1/6/09), Andrew Bacevich (Newsweek, 12/8/08) and Newsweek’s John Barry and Evan Thomas (2/9/09)—saw a more complicated situation, one in which a clearly articulated justification for military escalation has yet to be established. USA Today’s only editorial during the study period (1/26/09) also stood in opposition to the dominant media theme, concluding: “The United States’ most repeated military mistake is to lead with its troops and think through the consequences later.”

Only two articles in Extra!’s study argued for a troop pull-out from Afghanistan: Bacevich’s Newsweek piece and a USA Today op-ed by Ralph Peters (2/24/09), a former Army officer and current member of the paper’s board of contributors. Under the headline “The Mendacity of Hope,” Peters ranked four U.S. options. In the “best” option going forward, according to Peters, the U.S. and NATO can draw down forces by two-thirds while maintaining a “mother ship” at Bagram Air Base to continue the aerial bombing campaign: “Stop pretending Afghanistan’s a real state. Freeze development efforts. Ignore the opium. Kill the fanatics.” One has to wonder about the nature of our media discourse when one of the two voices that called for troop withdrawal was also one of the most bloodthirsty.

Daniel Ward is a graduate of New York University and a former FAIR intern.