General David Petraeus is in Washington, D.C., this week and, as expected, we are hearing claims of success and progress. No matter that we've heard these assertions and predictions before or that our elected representatives, charged on our behalf with oversight, are failing to ask such basic and elementary questions as:
If we are killing and capturing thousands of Taliban commanders and soldiers at record pace, than how is the Taliban still attacking our troops with roadside bombs and assassinating Afghan officials at record levels? Shouldn't there be a commensurate decrease or disruption in the Taliban's operational tempo?
Isn't it possible that the insurgency in Afghanistan is happy not to fight us in the "Clear" phase of our vaunted and well-documented "Clear, Hold and Build" strategy and is, instead, pleased to conduct operations against American troops and the Afghan government in the "Hold" and "Build" phases, where they (the insurgency) have significant advantages?
Over the last couple of years, hasn't anybody in the Pentagon or administration asked the hard questions of what would happen if we add 50,000 troops and tens of billions of dollars to a 30-year-old war in Afghanistan and it doesn't turn out as we hoped? What do we do then?
Where is al Qaeda?
For those charged with oversight there is always a fine line between deference and respect. However, many members of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, motivated by a lack of political and intellectual courage, have clearly chosen to abdicate their oversight responsibility and to elevate our general officers to a near clerical or infallible status and simply defer.
On Tuesday, the same day General Petraeus testified in front of the US Senate Armed Services Committee, I, along with Rolling Stone's Michael Hastings and Professor Robert Pape of the University of Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism, participated in a panel entitled "Afghanistan: A Countdown to July Redeployment" at the US House of Representatives:
During our panel, Michael Hastings offered a quip comparing the public relations efforts of General Petraeus to Charlie Sheen. At first consideration, it is just a wisecrack, but as Will Keola Thomas, an Afghanistan Study Group Fellow, explains quite well, it should be taken quite seriously:
Rolling Stone reporter Michael Hastings on the parallels between the PR campaign of a self-destructive major drug-consuming Hollywood star and General Petraeus' publicity tour for a self-destructive policy in major drug-producing Afghanistan:
"This is the Charlie Sheen counterinsurgency strategy. Which is to give exclusive interviews to every major network saying you're winning and hope the U.S. public actually agrees with you."
But the public isn't buying the spin in either case...
...and both parties need to admit they have a problem and seek help.
Nearly two-thirds of Americans now believe that the war in Afghanistan is no longer worth fighting and close to three-quarters say Obama should withdraw a "substantial number" of combat troops this summer according to a new Washington Post / ABC News poll.
These figures show the highest level of public disapproval yet for the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan. They were released the same day that Gen. Petraeus traveled to Capitol Hill to testify in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee on his first nine months in charge of the war.
One would think that such overwhelming evidence of their constituents' opposition to the war would prod the senators on the committee into asking some tough questions about the Pentagon's claims of success. But in four hours of testimony the senators failed to push back on any of the assertions of progress being made in the stacks of pie charts and bar graphs handed out by Petraeus' staff. For all the accolades and slow pitch questions tossed his way, the general might well have mistaken the senate hearing for softball practice. Here's the link to the C-Span video: Don't watch it while operating heavy machinery.
Petraeus' mantra of "significant" and yet "fragile and reversible" progress was apparently enough to lull his audience into complacency. When it came time to discuss the number of troops that would be brought home in accordance with the July deadline, Petraeus got away with saying he hadn't decided yet. When senators referenced the new poll numbers showing the American public's increasing disagreement with the war it was only to tee-up a canned clarification from Petraeus as to "why we fight."
For his part, Senator Lieberman (I-Conn.) attributed the ongoing decline in public support to the sorry state of the American economy rather than disapproval of the war itself. (Psst...Hey Joe, there's a connection.)
Sen. Lieberman: "we have to remind the American people why we are in Afghanistan, why it's worth it, and that we are succeeding."
If Sen. Lieberman wants to convince the American public that the current strategy is succeeding he would do well to direct their attention away from the testimony given by senior U.S. intelligence officials in front of the same Armed Services Committee just last week.
Gen. Petraeus: "The momentum achieved by the Taliban in Afghanistan since 2005 has been arrested in much of the country and reversed in a number of important areas."
Lt. Gen. Ronald Burgess (Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency): "The Taliban in the south have shown resilience and still influence much of the population...in the east, the Taliban and Haqqani network have suffered numerous tactical and leadership losses with no apparent degradation in their capacity to fight."
Charlie Sheen: "Winning!"
So far the Petraeus/Sheen approach to strategic communications has worked, at least inside the Beltway. Gen. Petraeus has long recognized that the hearts and minds on Capitol Hill were far more important than any that could be won in Kandahar or Helmand. As Michael Hastings noted in his Rolling Stone profile of Petraeus from February:
"One lesson he learned during the surge in Iraq is that it's not what's happening on the battlefield that counts - it's what people in Washington think is happening. As Petraeus wrote in The American Military and the Lessons of Vietnam, his 1987 doctoral dissertation at Princeton, 'What policymakers believe to have taken place in any particular case is what matters - more than what actually occurred.' Success lies in finding the right metrics, telling the right story, convincing the right people we're not losing. The key to victory, Petraeus concluded, is 'perception.'"
But not all policymakers are reciting the mantra of "winning" while ignoring the demands of the American public. Governor Haley Barbour of Mississippi, for one, doesn't need a general to tell him which way the political winds are blowing.
On Tuesday Gov. Barbour broke with his rivals in the Republican presidential primary by suggesting that the U.S. should reduce its presence in Afghanistan while speaking with reporters in Iowa:
"'I think we need to look at that,' he said when asked if the U.S. should scale back its presence... 'What is our mission?' Barbour said. 'How many Al Qaeda are in Afghanistan. ... Is that a 100,000-man Army mission?'"
With three-quarters of the American public calling for a substantial withdrawal of combat troops this summer and no other leading presidential candidates (let alone the candidate currently in the White House) listening to their demands, Gov. Barbour might be the one #winning in 2012.
Tens of thousands of Americans have been killed and wounded in Afghanistan. Tens of thousands more have returned home inflicted with Post Traumatic Stress Disorders or Traumatic Brain Injuries that will burden and tear at families and cause thousands of our veterans to take their own lives for decades. We've spent over $385 billion so far and will spend another $120 billion more this year in the second most corrupt nation in the world. Al Qaeda hasn't been in Afghanistan for almost a decade and our troops are stuck in the midst of someone else's civil war, one that dates back to the 1970s.
It is well past time to reduce our forces, mediate a settlement in Afghanistan, stop allowing billions of our dollars to be stolen by President Karzai's kleptocracy and to go after al Qaeda where they are and how they exist.
Be able to tell your children you didn't just defer and buy into the spin. Do something today to help end this war.
Follow Matthew Hoh on Twitter: www.twitter.com/matthewhoh