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Michael O'Hanlon Wants The Media To Write Sunnier Headlines About The Endless War In Afghanistan

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Brookings Institute senior fellow Michael O'Hanlon provides Politico with a lengthy Afghanistan War lamentation, though it's not the sort of lamentation you might expect from Americans who watch a foreign war which began when some of its current participants were ten and eleven years old spiral ever onward with no end in sight. O'Hanlon allows that the war is, "admittedly, endless" and filled with peril, and says that "insurgents penetrat[ing] inner security barriers within Kabul" to pull off spectacular attacks are among the "plenty of things to worry about in Afghanistan." But what if journalists agreed to just have a sunnier disposition about all of this? That's all that Michael O'Hanlon is asking: always look on the bright side of life. Maybe even stare at it!

Here's how O'Hanlon begins:

Newspaper readers on Sept. 14 awoke to sobering headlines about Afghanistan. For some, they probably conjured up memories of Vietnam and the Tet offensive — as they were undoubtedly intended to.

An attack in inner-city Kabul by insurgents armed with small arms and rocket-propelled grenades killed several — but no Westerners or Afghan leaders — and resulted in the death of all the attackers within hours, primarily at the hands of Afghan security forces.

I'm sure that's precisely what those insurgents intended -- to maximize and synergize the media impact of "sobering headlines" by "conjuring up memories" of the Tet Offensive. What it successfully stirred in O'Hanlon was a complaint that too much emphasis was placed on a skeptical examination of whether "the North Atlantic Treaty Organization-U.S. plan for handing over more security responsibility to Afghans in coming years and question how the attackers could have planned this without collusion from insiders within the government or Afghan security forces." O'Hanlon says that this is "nonsense" and that the people who wrote those "headlines" (whoever they are, he cites no source) got the story "wrong."

So what is the problem with the people who wrote these headlines, anyway? O'Hanlon instructs us that "the U.S. media does have tendencies to reach a certain level of malaise about the wars" (for some reason!) and "a certain distrust of government," and so "this can make some collectively tend toward a more negative bent than the facts warrant."

"It happened in Iraq in 2007," O'Hanlon says, "It could happen again if journalists and editors are not careful." Oh! Watch yourselves, journalists!

So, what constitutes getting the story "right" in O'Hanlon's estimation? It's difficult to say. From the moment O'Hanlon beseeches the reader to "Consider the facts about what happened in Kabul on Sept. 13," he offers up a lot of what sounds like pretty dispiriting news: the dramatic attack was mounted by "less than a dozen insurgents" who snuck weapons into Kabul and penetrated the aforementioned "security barriers." "One would, of course, hope that they would have been stopped earlier," O'Hanlon offers, but stopping them sounds like a tough chore: "Many thousands of cars and trucks move in and out of Kabul every day ... U.S. law enforcement and border patrol forces would be hard-pressed to stop such movement -- as we prove every day in our inability to stop similar flows of U.S. weapons into Mexico and drugs into the U.S."

Which sort of sounds like an argument in favor of bringing some of these guys home to help out with that!

Where's the good news though? O'Hanlon says that the insurgents could not get closer than a kilometer to the Embassy compound, which is something. But mostly, O'Hanlon seems upset that the particular quality of the Afghans that were killed did not make it into newspapers:

Yes, they tragically killed brave, lightly armed Afghan police in the process. But there is an encouraging story here too—yet again, the Afghan forces stood and fought for their country.

Why didn’t that message come out of the stories? Indeed, Afghan security forces continue to suffer high casualties in this war. Still, they also continue to keep serving, and keep fighting in defense of their fellow citizens and their nation.

I don't know why this "message" didn't "come out of the stories" because he hasn't cited the stories which have so offended him, but am I supposed to be "encouraged" that Afghan security forces "continue to suffer high casualties in this war?" I'll take O'Hanlon's word that these Afghans are valorous and self-sacrificing. Would that they were alive!

Beyond that, it seems that the straw men who wrote these straw headlines in their straw newspapers have sinned by not making it clear that things are merely terrible in Afghanistan, as opposed to some sort of full-on horror show. The "desertion rates in the Afghan army and police," according to O'Hanlon, are "high," but "they are lower than before, and they have not been so high as to prevent a continued growth and improvement in the caliber of the Afghan security forces." So: whoever wrote something discouraging about the desertion rates should know that those rates are much less not-good than they previously were.

And Kabul itself, while "hardly safe," is, in O'Hanlon's estimation, "not particularly dangerous by the standards of strife-torn lands." In his brief Zagat's guide to "strife-torn lands," he says Kabul "is probably safer than Baghdad — and not notably worse than Islamabad or Mexico City or Cape Town." I guess you kind of have to take his word for it, since this is not something you'd want to run out and check for yourself.

Experiencing semi-spectacular attacks like Tuesday’s, at the rate of two to three a year, is hardly a failure for a country that remains at war.

Isn't the whole "remaining at war" part a component of the "failure," though? And are no points deducted for attacks and engagements that fall short of "semi-spectacular"? These are just some questions I have, but I have to set them aside for O'Hanlon's big point:

There are plenty of things to worry about in Afghanistan. There are plenty of problems for enterprising journalists to dig up — and these correspondents continue to do us a collective service when they report accordingly, as is the norm.

But their power of the pen is so enormous, that when they get it wrong, it is important to hold them to account. That goes for all of us — including people in think tanks of course. The stakes are too high to allow otherwise.

It's really hard to read that as anything other than a call to the media to go out and ritually sugarcoat the bad news ("Sure, desertion rates are high, but they could be super-duper high!"), if not downplay the downside entirely. After all, if O'Hanlon was serious about holding someone to account, then he would do that! But again, in two pages, O'Hanlon never names anyone who's guilty of "getting it wrong."

Actually, I take that back. He does name someone: "people in think tanks." So, tell me, Michael O'Hanlon, how much did the Brookings Institution dock your pay for being relentlessly wrong about the Iraq War?

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