The release of Tim Burton's new blockbuster movie, Alice in Wonderland, is days away. The timing could not be more appropriate. Lewis Carroll's ironically opium-inspired tale of a rational person caught up inside a mad world with its own bizarre but consistent internal (il)logic has now surpassed Vietnam as the best paradigm to understand the war in Afghanistan.
The war in Afghanistan, as we have written here and in Military Review (pdf), is indeed a near replication of the Vietnam War, including the assault on the strategically meaningless village of Marjah, which is itself a perfect re-enactment of Operation Meade River in 1968. But the callous cynicism of this war, which we described here in early December, and the mainstream media's brainless reporting on it, have descended past these sane parallels. We have now gone down the rabbit hole.
Two months ago, the collection of mud-brick hovels known as Marjah might have been mistaken for a flyspeck on maps of Afghanistan. Today the media has nearly doubled its population from less than 50,000 to 80,000 -- the entire population of Nad Ali district, of which Nad Ali is the largest town, is approximately 99,000 -- and portrays the offensive there as the equivalent of the Normandy invasion, and the beginning of the end for the Taliban. In fact, however, the entire district of Nad Ali, which contains Marjah, represents about 2 percent of Regional Command (RC) South, the U.S. military's operational area that encompasses Helmand, Kandahar, Uruzgan, Zabul, Nimruz, and Daikundi provinces. RC South by itself is larger than all of South Vietnam, and the Taliban controls virtually all of it. This appears to have occurred to no one in the media.
Nor have any noted that taking this nearly worthless postage stamp of real estate has tied down about half of all the real combat power and aviation assets of the international coalition in Afghanistan for a quarter of a year. The possibility that wasting massive amounts of U.S. and British blood, treasure, and time just to establish an Afghan Potemkin village with a "government in a box" might be exactly what the Taliban wants the coalition to do has apparently not occurred to either the press or to the generals who designed this operation.
In reality, this battle -- the largest in Afghanistan since 2001 -- is essentially a giant public affairs exercise, designed to shore up dwindling domestic support for the war by creating an illusion of progress. In reporting it, the media has gulped down the whole bottle of "drink me" and shrunk to journalistic insignificance. In South Vietnam, an operational area smaller than RC South, the United States and its allies had over 2 million men under arms, including more than half a million Americans, the million-man Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), 75,000 coalition troops, the Vietnamese Regional Forces and Popular Forces (known as "Ruff-Puffs"), the South Vietnamese police, the Civilian Irregular Defense Groups (CIDG) and other militias -- and lost.
Yet the media is breathlessly regurgitating Pentagon pronouncements that we have "turned the corner" and "reversed the momentum" in Afghanistan with fewer than 45,000 men under arms in all of RC South (including the Afghan army and police) by fighting for a month to secure a single hamlet. Last year this would have been déjà vu of the "five o'clock follies" of the Vietnam War. Now it feels more like the Mad Hatter's Tea Party. "How can we have more success," Alice might ask, "when we haven't had any yet?"
So here we are in the AfPak Wonderland, complete with a Mad Hatter (the clueless and complacent media), Tweedledee and Tweedledum (the military, endlessly repeating itself and history), the White Rabbit (the State Department, scurrying to meetings and utterly irrelevant), the stoned Caterpillar (the CIA, obtuse, arrogant, and asking the wrong questions), the Dormouse (U.S. Embassy Kabul, who wakes up once in a while only to have his head stuffed in a teapot), the Cheshire Cat (President Obama, fading in and out of the picture, eloquent but puzzling), the Pack of Cards army (the Afghan National Army, self-explanatory), and their commander, the inane Queen of Hearts (Afghan President Hamid Karzai). (In Alice in Wonderland, however, the Dormouse is "suppressed" by the Queen of Hearts, not the White Rabbit or the Cheshire Cat, so the analogy is not quite perfect.)