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War Fever at the Times: A Five-Day Log

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These things occur by stealth, but not by chance. Plenty of reports of the Afghanistan war, the jihadists in Pakistan, U.S. bombing and efforts at rebuilding and the uncertain morale of our troops have appeared on the front page and elsewhere in recent weeks in the New York Times; yet not until the long pause of the administration over General McChrystal's request for a major escalation did the newspaper of record show what the pressure of its desires could amount to.

When five days pour forth a lead story on the way "a coordinated assault" of the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Pakistan has caused a grave risk to American interests; a lead about the serious counter-offensive mounted by Pakistan; a flash suitable for any date but run as a lead concerning the heroin trade of the Taliban ("Vast Network Reaps Millions from Drugs"); the launching of a serial memoir by a reporter "Held Captive by the Taliban," which will extend to five parts; a flattering stoic-soldier profile of General McChrystal in the Times Magazine; a Pakistan follow-up suggesting that Pakistan's army's now fights well but is "meeting strong resistance" from the Taliban and cannot win without help; a sequence of three stories by different hands, tracing with approval the acquiescence of President Hamid Karzai in calls for a run-off (the very agreement the administration made a precondition for expanded American commitment); two op-eds over three days by military men not of the highest rank, urging escalation; and a reckless "scoop," dotted sparsely with random and often anonymous interviews regarding the supposed discontents within the armed forces at the length of the administration's pause -- when all this is the fruit of five days' harvest at the Times, the conclusion draws itself. The New York Times wants a large escalation in Afghanistan. The paper has been made nervous by signs that the president may not make the big push for a bigger war; and they are showing what the rest of his time in office will be like if he does not cooperate.

A few highlights.

The Rohde Memoir. Every reader must be glad for David Rohde's safe return. This emotion easily passes into anger that he was ever captured and a craving for revenge against those who caused his suffering. Rohde's treatment is chaste and non-political. The thought recurs that he is trapped in a savage place; that Americans are doing some harm but trying to do much good--a truth his captors fail to understand. The double-spaced, tabloid-like format to which the Times has committed this serialized terrorist captive memoir is a notable departure from house style. The coordination of its release with the crush of war stories elsewhere in the paper lends a big-picture factuality to the memoir and a poignant urgency to the reporting.

Taliban = Drugs = International Evil. Eric Schmitt's October 19 report on the Taliban commerce in drugs is an old story. The force of updating it now is to counter any suggestion that the Taliban may be somehow splittable; that those who joined it as a resistance organization and not from fanaticism may relent if Americans leave part of the country in peace. Profiteering from drugs is many people's idea of radical evil--far worse than killing 90 innocent persons as collateral damage in order to assassinate one guilty one. Abject cowards, not honest nations, make peace with warlords who are also drug lords.

Lieutenant Colonels Want War. A peculiar pattern to set, but the two op-eds are almost identical. In the Week in Review, on October 18, Lewis Sorley, a retired army lieutenant colonel, adds his name to the list of those who believe the Vietnam war was on the way to being won at the time the U.S. decided it was lost. William Colby, the CIA officer in charge of the rural "pacification" program, and General Creighton Abrams who in 1968 became commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam, discovered that what was needed was to re-train native Vietnamese forces, to institute more on-the-ground counterinsurgency operations and fewer air attacks, to create an effective central government, to create and support sympathetic local governments, to build the economy, to improve security, to control the borders, and to maintain political support at home. (These are Sorley's categories almost verbatim.) He concludes with an apothegm for the president--"When you're cooking up a more perfect Union, sometimes you've got to break some eggs"--apparently innocent of the provenance of this saying in apologetics for Stalin's mass killings of Russian peasants and political enemies: "You can't make an omelet without breaking eggs." Whether Sorley's endorsement of rural pacification includes approval of the notorious Phoenix Program and its 25,000 assassinations, the op-ed does not make clear. And the Kissinger-Nixon decision to make the secret "incursion" into Cambodia in 1970, and to institute the bombings and mass destruction that brought in the regime of Pol Pot--was that a case of too much concern with border security, too little, or the right amount?

On October 20, the Times followed up the advice of the retired colonel with advice from an active lieutenant colonel, Glen Butler, the director of operations and training for the Marine Corps Base in Hawaii. Colonel Butler suggests that a way to obtain useful, honest, and uncensored help with American strategy in Afghanistan is to ask the fighting men. Do they want more troops alongside them to assist their mission? Or would they prefer to have fewer comrades in the fight? And in either case, why? Colonel Butler believes that the soliciting of frank opinions from American troops on the ground, without, of course, any imbalance from social pressure, would yield a practical wisdom that is wanting in the counsels of the president.

Dexter Filkins on the Long War. The magazine profile by the Times's best combat reporter walks a careful walk between a show of questioning and a resolute admiration of the undefeated warrior. "Success takes time, but how much time does Stanley McChrystal have?" The article transmits McChrystal's view that the answer lies in the hands of a president who is a detached and maybe an ill-equipped settler of such questions. "I took this job," McChrystal is quoted as saying, "because I was asked to take it, and because it is very, very important." The portrait covers the general in action, both in combat and at the work of "pacification"; and the lineaments it reveals are of manly assertion at an admirable far edge: "With his long and gaunt face and his long and lean body, McChrystal looks almost preternaturally alert-coiled, hungry. . . .He pushes himself mercilessly, sleeping four or five hours a night, eating one meal a day. . . . As McChrystal drives himself, he sometimes affords little tolerance to those who do not." His possible error is to expect others to perform as strongly as himself. McChrystal's training at West Point is mentioned and his service as head of Joint Special Operations Command--an assignment Filkins speaks of as "secretive" without a hint about the nature of the operations. General Petraeus is interviewed, and vouches for him. McChrystal's implication in the false story put out by the armed forces concerning the death of Corporal Pat Tillman is briefly referred to, but Filkins's inquiry terminates with an ambiguous remark by McChrystal: "I certainly regret the way this came out." The strategy outlined by Vice President Biden and others, which calls for the U.S. scaling back its on-the-ground commitment, Filkins quietly puts down as "an attractive argument." Attractive: that is, apt to be favored by people who do not drive themselves very hard. The only person Filkins consulted for the case against escalation was the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, Richard Haass. It is a hard call, says Haass, and he adds vaguely: "It's not self-evident that doing more will accomplish more." Filkins at this point says he "pitched McChrystal's counterargument to Haass"--if the U.S. leaves Afghanistan, Al Qaeda will return and use the country as a base to attack the U.S.--and had no trouble setting Haass back on his heels. Throughout the article it is the man of war who is seen to have conviction. Filkins closes with a stretch of neutral dialogue, the effect of which is to indicate how important and how difficult patience is.

The Pause Makes our Officers Angry. The Times's disturbing "military memo" of October 20 was written by Elisabeth Bumiller, a reporter not mainly associated with this kind of work. On the rise within the military itself, she reports, are "frustration" and "anxiety" with the president's delay. An unnamed retired general asks the question of many generals in many wars, "Are we having the rug pulled out from under us?" The reason for ascribing much weight to such an indeterminate authority at just this moment is not disclosed in the article; but Bumiller pursues unembarrassed her citation and summary of comparable sources; the last word from a named source comes from Michael O'Hanlon, a think-tank symbolic analyst whose particular qualifications remain obscure, whom the Times brought to prominence in the summer of 2007 as an impartial endorser of the "surge" in Iraq. O'Hanlon speaks patriotically, far from the scene, in the parlance of war politicians: "McChrystal has troops out there who are risking their lives more than they need to." Closer in, Nathaniel Fick, a former infantry officer in the Marines, says in a remark as ambiguous as McChrystal's on Pat Tillman: "The thunderstorm is there and it's kind of kind of brewing and it's unstable and the lightening hasn't struck, and hopefully it won't."

Have reporters at the New York Times forgotten how to track an evasive statement with a direct question? When Fick speaks ominously of a storm that is coming, does he refer to the situation in Afghanistan or, as the immediate context implies, the mood of military officers toward the president himself? And if he means the latter--allusion to a "volatile brew" a few lines further down seems to clinch that sense--exactly what thunder has he been hearing? What statements of doubt that border on a displeasure that the military may exhibit in other ways? And what will the lightning be? A military revolt against civilian command of the armed forces? General McChrystal went far toward insubordination in leaking to Bob Woodward the exact character of his request for a troop increase. The Times, with this puzzling, insubstantial, but provocative story, almost begs him to go further.

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