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On Afghanistan, We Know a Distraction When We See It

When it comes to Afghanistan, Richard Holbrooke wants to get technical, but only when it suits him.

This morning, the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan went on NPR's All Things Considered to take umbrage with reports, including Brave New Foundation's latest Rethink Afghanistan video, that the Afghanistan War today supplanted Vietnam as the longest war in American history. He said, in part:

Just to be technical since I spent three and half years of my life in Vietnam, and we were taking casualties, and then I read the date that makes the longest war and I think to myself 'Gee, that's funny. I was in Vietnam a year and half before they started the war, according to these new journalistic reports.'

...They are dating the war from the Gulf of Tonkin incident. And that simply isn't right.

I'm not surprised that a member of the executive branch would want us all to believe that a little thing like actual congressional authorization for the use of military force is a "technicality." But the simple fact remains that Afghanistan is the longest war in U.S. history if you measure from the moment that Congress authorized the use of force to the withdrawal of the last combat troop.

Now, I realize that any discussion about Vietnam is invested with an incredible amount of emotion, and that people feel very strongly about their understanding of the conflict. Many people strongly insist on alternative measurements for the length of the conflict, and many of these other measures have some validity. We could argue about this all day. That's the point.

Holbrooke would much rather this discussion get bogged down in "technicalities" than address the real issue: the Afghanistan War isn't making us safer, it's not worth the cost, and Holbrooke and the administration have absolutely no plan to end it. Holbrooke put this cluelessness on display when he told a Center for American Progress panel audience in 2009 that he's got a very simple measure for success in that country:

"In the simplest sense--the Supreme Court test for another issue--we'll know it when we see it."

As you may know, that's a reference to a Supreme Court justice's standard for determining whether or not a picture is pornography.

Holbrooke's desire for technical academic precision on war extends only as far as a P.R. battle. When it comes to finding the right policy in Afghanistan, apparently the standard is whatever turns him on.

Here's what Holbrooke doesn't want you to talk about:

President Obama announced his first troop increase on February 17, 2009. We've since tripled the number of troops in Afghanistan, with more on the way. Administration officials, including Holbrooke, have repeatedly stated that the rationale for our continued and escalating military action is to combat terrorism and protect the U.S. from terrorist attack. But by that measure, the Afghanistan War is a miserable failure. The Department of Homeland Security says that, "the number and pace of attempted attacks against the United States over the past nine months have surpassed the number of attempts during any other previous one-year period." Violence in Afghanistan is up almost 90 percent, and insurgent gains outstrip coalition gains. We're in another familiar swamp in another unfamiliar country.

Holbrooke's tirade was an attempt to shift media focus to an academic argument about how we measure the length of a war, rather than the total failure of a brutal, costly policy that's not making us safer. We know a distraction when we see it, Dick.

I, for one, would love it if Holbrooke applied some of that hunger for technical academic precision to the question of how we end this war and bring our troops home.

Had enough? Join Rethink Afghanistan on Facebook and help us end this costly, brutal war.