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Some counter-spin on Afghanistan

Last Friday I suggested that one reason we keep slogging along in Afghanistan is the natural tendency for military organizations to portray their own efforts in the most favorable possible light. This tendency is not unique to militaries, of course; most organizations (including universities) prefer to talk about their virtues and achievements and find it harder to acknowedge shortcomings and setbacks.  

In a democracy, it isn't the miltiary's job to decide where and when to fight, or for how long. But they don't like to lose either (which is by itself an admirable trait), and one should therefore expect them to do a lot of spinning, especially in the absence of clear and obvious signs of progress.

With that warning in mind, two sentences caught my eye over the weekend. The first was Secretary of Defense Robert Gates' much-publicized remark to cadets at West Point. His whole speech is well worth reading, but here's the money quote:

In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should "have his head examined," as General MacArthur so delicately put it."

Notice the not-so-subtle implication: if it would be foolish to send a big army into Asia in the future, might we also question the wisdom of having one there now? Or to put it somewhat differently: if the situation in Afghanistan were exactly as it is today but U.S. forces were not present at all, would President Obama be getting ready to send 100,000+ troops there?  I very much doubt it. And if that's the case, then the only reason we are still fighting there is some combination of the "sunk cost" fallacy, misplaced concerns about credibility, overblown fears of an al Qaeda "safe haven," and the usual fears about domestic political payback.

The second sentence that grabbed my attention came at the end of Dexter Filkins' New York Times Book Review piece on Bing West's new book The Wrong War.  Filkins writes (my emphasis):

As ‘The Wrong War' shows so well, the Americans will spend more money and more lives trying to transform Afghanistan, and their soldiers will sacrifice themselves trying to succeed.  But nothing short of a miracle will give them much in return."

Put those two statements together, and they cast further doubt on the positive spin we've been hearing about how the Taliban is on the run, the Afghan "surge" is working, and how we'll be able to start leaving by 2014. I think the latter claim is correct, by the way, but not because we will have succeeded in creating a stable Afghanistan. We'll eventually leave Afghanistan to its fate, but it will be because we've finally figured out that the stakes there aren't worth the effort, especially given the low odds of meaningful success.  It's just taking us longer to figure that out than it should.

ADEK BERRY/AFP/Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt

Are we being spun on the war in Afghanistan? Of course we are.

Rolling Stone magazine has a provocative article on the streets right now, alleging that U.S. commanders in Afghanistan ordered "information operations" specialists to use their techniques not on the Taliban or on Afghans, but to help persuade visiting U.S. politicians to keep backing the war effort. When one of the officers involved questioned the policy, he found himself under investigation in what seems to have been a spiteful act of punishment. (For additional commentary on the story, check out FP's Tom Ricks here.)

Assuming the story is accurate, it's pretty disturbing. But the issue isn't an individual general's overzealous effort to sell the war back home. The real issue is whether any of us can tell how the war is actually going, given that the people closest to the battle have obvious incentives to portray their efforts in a positive light.

Over the past few weeks, there have been a number of prominent stories suggesting -- if guardedly -- that the war effort in Afghanistan is going better than most people think. Not surprisingly, these stories emerge from people who have recently visited the theater under the auspices of the U.S. military, or from U.S. commanders themselves. Yet just today, the New York Times reports that U.S. and NATO forces are now abandoning the Pech Valley, a remote region that was once deemed vital, despite serious misgivings that it will quickly become a safe haven for the insurgency. And the Times story also contains this telling quotation:

What we figured out is that people in the Pech really aren’t anti-U.S. or anti-anything; they just want to be left alone," said one American military official familiar with the decision. "Our presence is what’s destabilizing this area."

So how can you or I tell if the war is going well or not? For that matter, how can Barack Obama be sure that he's getting the straight scoop from his commanders in the field? Even if the military was initially skeptical about a decision to go to war, once committed to the field its job is to deliver a victory. No dedicated military organization wants to admit it can't win, especially when it is facing a much smaller, less well-armed, and objectively "inferior" foe like the Taliban. Troops in the field also need to believe in the mission, and to be convinced that success is possible.

To the extent that they need to keep civilian authorities and the public on board, therefore, we can expect military commanders to tell an upbeat story, even when things aren't going especially well. I am not saying that they lie; I'm saying that they have an incentive to "accentuate the positive" in order to convince politicians, the press, and the public that success will be ours if we just persevere. Indeed, this was one of the key "lessons" that the U.S. military took from Vietnam: Success in modern war -- and especially counterinsurgency -- depends on more effective "information management" on the home front. And this tendency is not unique to the United States or even to democracies; one sees the same phenomenon in most wars, no matter who is fighting.

Regular readers here know that I think our military effort in Afghanistan is misguided and that our overall national interests would be better served by a timely withdrawal. Reasonable people can disagree about that issue, and it is bound to be debated until the day the war ends (and probably for long afterward). But my point today is a broader one: It is nearly impossible for any of us to know for certain exactly how well or badly the war is going. But when we read a story like the one in Rolling Stone, we're entitled to be more skeptical about the good news we're being fed.

ADEK BERRY/AFP/Getty Images.