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The New York Times Hypes the Afghanistan War, Again

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The New York Times just published a story under the headline, "Coalition Forces Routing Taliban in Key Afghan Region" that could not include more Pentagon talking points if it were written by General David Petraeus himself. In both the broad outline of the story and in the particulars, the Times conveys a deceptive picture of the state of the conflict and obscures the continued deterioration of the situation in Afghanistan. The available facts simply do not support the assertion that U.S. and coalition forces are "making 'deliberate progress' and have seized the initiative from the insurgents."

The gist of Carlotta Gall's article is that U.S. operations in Kandahar are shattering the Taliban as the U.S. strategy there begins to bear fruit. Though the article is heavy on talking points from NATO spokespeople and anecdotes from troops, we are given only one concrete measure of "progress" in this article:

Lt. Col. Rodger Lemons, commanding Task Force 1-66 in Arghandab, said he had seen insurgent attacks drop from 50 a week in August to 15 a week two months later. That may be because of the onset of colder weather, when fighting tends to drop off, but Colonel Lemons said he felt the Taliban was losing heart.

But here's the problem: According to the Afghan NGO Safety Office (.pdf), armed opposition group attacks all across Afghanistan increased between August and late September.

ANSO AOG Initiated Attacks, Q3 2010

And, in Kandahar City, the insurgent attack rate continues to follow a general upward trend:

Screen shot 2010-10-21 at 1.37.24 PM

The daily attack rate [in Kandahar] has grown from 0.1 in Week one to 2.8 per day by Week 35 suggesting that the elements of OP HAMKARI undertaken so far are not degrading the AOG ability to conduct attacks. Field reports suggest that the Taliban retain up to 4,000 fighters inside the city and continue a wide-spread campaign of intimidation, targeted assassination and the widespread deployment of IEDs against Police and Military targets.

Further, the area continues to become more hostile for civilians. The International Committee of the Red Cross says that the number of war-related injuries being treated at local hospitals is spiking.

Someone please explain the progress to me again. I can't find it.

This gem from Gall's article is particularly rich, emphasis mine:

Unlike the Marja operation, they say, the one in Kandahar is a comprehensive civil and military effort that is changing the public mood as well as improving security.

That sounds vaguely familiar, doesn't it? Why, it's almost like this is exactly how U.S. officials described the Marja operation at the time. Here's one General David Petraeus, interviewed back in February:

"But Petraeus sought to put the [Marjah] offensive in a larger context, saying that it's "just the initial operation of what will be a 12- to 18-month campaign."

"We've spent the last year getting the inputs right in Afghanistan, getting the structures and organizations necessary for a comprehensive civil-military campaign," he said.

You can find this language about Marjah from Petraeus, General McChrystal, and others in countless other places, including this transcript of Petraeus' remarks from April and again in the Senate Democratic Policy Committee talking points, "Progress Toward Turning the Tide in Afghanistan." Yet, somehow, Gall and the rest of the media seem to just give the Pentagon a free pass to keep dredging up the same tired talking points without questioning their reemergence. She relays to the reader that Kandahar will be different than Marjah because it will be a "comprehensive civil and military effort," without providing the reader context that this is exactly the same language that the military was using to sell the Marjah operation.

Throughout the article, Gall practically drools over a "new" rocket system employed in Kandahar, the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS), and uncritically passes along General Nick Carter's praise for this weapon:

"Yet residents say that the Taliban have been stunned by fast-paced raids on their leaders and bases. In particular they talk with awe of a powerful new rocket that has been fired from the Kandahar air base into Panjwai and other areas for the last two or three weeks, hitting Taliban compounds with remarkable accuracy.

"In an interview, General Carter said the weapon the Afghans saw was most likely the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, or Himars, a relatively new multiple rocket system. "They are extraordinarily precise; they are accurate to a meter," he said."

The article lacks any mention of the last time the HIMARS made the news, back in February, when U.S. forces in Marjah killed a slew of civilians with it, after which the HIMARS was briefly suspended from use in the country . From ISAF's own statement on the incident:

Two rockets from a High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) launched at insurgents firing upon Afghan and ISAF forces impacted approximately 300 meters off their intended target, killing 12 civilians in Nad Ali district, Helmand Province today.

Let's just ignore the fact that these "new rockets" with "remarkable accuracy" have been in the field for years and were the munitions involved in highly publicized civilian casualty events... those rockets are just bad ass, aren't they? I mean, it "curls and turns in the air as it zooms in on its target"! AMAZING! The war is over!

This is the problem with the obsession with "precision" weapons: They are frequently imprecise, and they are only as good as the judgment of the wielder. That's why the first 50 "precision" strikes of the Iraq War all failed to hit their intended targets. So pardon the pun, but it's particularly galling that the Times would pass along this bit of merchandising for the war industry without doing so much as a Wikipedia search to just see if maybe General Carter is blowing smoke in your face.

This latest burst of war propaganda is depressingly transparent, and it insults the intelligence of the American people, most of whom see past the smoke screen and oppose the war. We know that the war in Afghanistan isn't making us safer, and it's not worth the cost. It's imperative that we end this conflict now, before it corrodes our national interest further. Doing so would be much, much easier if the media in this country would do their job and question authority, rather than uncritically passing along easily disproved spin from their handlers in Afghanistan.

If you're tired of the Pentagon spin and ready to see this brutal, futile war end, join Rethink Afghanistan on Facebook and Twitter.