Over the last few years, castigating the media for its failure to examine the case for war in Iraq, simply accepting the Bush administration's facts and rationales, has become something of a cottage industry. You might think, given the fuss over Iraq, that the media and its critics would be zealously examining our stepped-up efforts in Afghanistan -- one of the most extraordinary, difficult, and costly ventures of American foreign policy. But, for the most part, they are not.
Only in the last few months have public figures questioned the case for war in Afghanistan. Recently, Harvard scholar Rory Stewart and 9/11 Commission head Lee Hamilton have asked whether the war is worth U.S. blood and treasure. And no less than General Stanley McChrystal reportedly admitted that U.S.-led forces may be losing -- or at least not winning.
For the Iraq war, the media was charged with not seeking out and publicizing the worries of the academics, policy analysts, and others deeply skeptical of urgency of the threat and the Bush administration's stated casus belli. Later, it was accused of overlooking the wider story by embedding reporters in the operations of military units once the war began and focusing attention on tactics and human-interest stories. Now, the United States is building a nation-state in Afghanistan and changing the national-security priorities in Pakistan -- whose people overwhelmingly dislike the United States. By and large, the media is not asking those basic and critical questions of Afghanistan.
On Afghanistan, there are few stories of mid-level officials disputing the administration's view of the situation and the U.S. policy approach. For instance, few questions have been asked about the consequences or the morality of the United States urging Pakistan to displace two million in the Swat Valley in order to attack militants using air and artillery. Editorialists tend to be either quiet on the Pakistan-Afghanistan question, or strongly supportive of American efforts. Strategy is almost never questioned. Media watchers seem more interested in determining whether the press is soft or hard on U.S. President Barack Obama. Until a recent uptick in coverage, the number of television minutes and front-page stories had dropped precipitously. And, the American media still has little regular presence in Afghanistan; most well-known columnists visit courtesy of the aircraft of senior American military and diplomatic officials.
Why the lack of rigorous examination of American efforts in Afghanistan for the past eight years? The Afghan war began with a vengeance shortly after 9/11. The United States and its allies quickly destroyed the Taliban regime, drove al Qaeda and the Taliban to remote Pakistan border areas, and cobbled together something of a state. American attention then turned to Iraq -- leaving Afghanistan forgotten. The media has barely covered how, exactly, the Taliban succeeded in restoring a fighting capability with safe havens in Pakistan and support from sympathetic Pashtuns.
This is not to say that Afghanistan is a "forgotten war" in Washington. The Obama administration came to the Afghan war with the perspective that it, not Iraq, was the real battle of importance to the United States. Al Qaeda was there and the terrorist group was a real, existential threat to the American homeland. The administration declared its priority in Afghanistan to be to destroy al Qaeda -- the most persuasive way of maintaining public and congressional support for a much enlarged, highly uncertain venture. It is pounded home repeatedly. It is, in the current parlance, a war of necessity -- not of choice.