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In an Afghan Hole? Dig Deeper

Joel Bleifuss

Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s trash talking and his subsequent sacking by President Barack Obama is a sign: America’s foreign policy elite is starting to realize the United States has lost the war.

Like a hapless crew on a foundering ship, those holding the reins in the Afghan war have begun to scramble for reputation preservers. And they are scarce.

Maj. Gen. Bill Mayville, McChrystal’s chief of operations, told Rolling Stone’s Michael Hastings: It’s not going to look like a win, smell like a win or taste like a win.”

Like a hapless crew on a foundering ship, those holding the reins in the Afghan war have begun to scramble for reputation preservers. And they are scarce.

One person whose reputation may survive is Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry who last November warned that the United States will become more deeply engaged here with no way to extricate ourselves.” In Rolling Stone, McChrystal scoffs at Eikenberry’s pessimism: Here’s one that covers his flank for the history books. Now, if we fail, they can say, I told you so.’ “

Others are not so lucky.

On June 22, the day after he first read the Rolling Stone article, Obama said U.S. strategy is determined entirely” by two criteria: the first is whether it ultimately makes this country safer,” the second is whether it justifies the enormous … sacrifice that those men and women are making over there.”

OK, if the war in Afghanistan is winnable, Obama must tell how it will be won. If victory is impossible, as Mayville and other experts assert, Americans deserve to know how fighting a futile war makes their country safer.

Second, if the war is a mistake, how does continuing the fight justify” the sacrifice soldiers have already made? How is the death of one soldier who died in vain justified by the death of a second … a thousandth?

Part of the reason we aren’t getting straight answers is that the mainstream press plays along with the administration’s we-can-win-in-Afghanistan fantasy.

Listen to the establishment press in the wake of the McChrystal kerfuffle.

On June 24, a New York Times editorial advised: Reports that some State Department officials are also advocating a swift deal with the Taliban are worrisome. [How so?] … Mr. Obama needs to do a better job of explaining why [the war] is so central to American security. [Why is it?] More important, he and his aides have to do a better job managing it. [By doing what?]” Enlighten us, Gray Lady.

On June 24, Time magazine’s Mark Halperin fawned: Obama turned what could have been a crippling blow into one of the strongest moments of his presidency to date.”

In a June 23 interview with National Public Radio, Times executive editor, Nancy Gibbs, explained her magazine’s special function: The discipline has always been, not what do you cover, but what do you not cover. It has always been an exercise in ignoring things … in saying, That’s not important enough.’ ” Judging from Halperin’s analysis of the McChrystal affair, Time has determined that what is important enough” is how the selection of Gen. David Petraeus will play in the Beltway, not whether the substantive policies guiding the United States in Afghanistan are doomed to fail. 

A senior adviser to McChrystal told Rolling Stone: If Americans pulled back and started paying attention to this war, it would become even less popular.”

But how are they to learn what is going on? Digesting empty New York Times editorials? Waiting for Nancy Gibbs to decide what deserves to be ignored?

Americans have made enormous sacrifices for this war in Afghanistan. They deserve honest answers from the president and from the press.

Joel Bleifuss, a former director of the Peace Studies Program at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is the editor & publisher of In These Times, where he has worked since October 1986.

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