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WSJ Gets Kabul Wrong

Yesterday I dinged the Financial Times for one of its opinion articles on Afghanistan. Today it’s the turn of its major competitor, the Wall Street Journal. To be sure, the Journal has an excellent editorial today, pointing out what an achievement Thursday’s presidential election is. It will mark the second time that the people of Afghanistan have voted for president since the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001. But far more people are likely to see the sensationalistic and inaccurate headline on the Journal‘s front page: “Taliban Besiege Kabul.”

According to my dictionary, siege means “a military blockade of a city or fortified place to compel it to surrender.” Famous sieges in history range from the siege of Troy during the Trojan War to the siege of Leningrad during World War II. What has occurred in Kabul lately to make anyone think that a siege is going on? Well, on Tuesday the Taliban fired some mortar shells into the center of Kabul that killed no one and then set off a bomb that killed eight people in a NATO convoy. As the Journal notes: “The Kabul attacks make five in the past week for which the Taliban claimed responsibility, killing 15 people and injuring 144.” That’s 15 people killed out of an urban population of perhaps 5 million. You might just as well say that New York City is under siege because there were 523 murders last year and 16,247 felonious assaults—meaning that 10 people a week were killed and 311 injured. In fact, New York is generally considered the safest big city in America, and its homicide rate is among the lowest on record.

Or you could write that Baghdad is under siege because a series of car bombings killed at least 75 people on Wednesday morning. But, again, we know that conditions in Baghdad are actually much better than they have been in recent years and that life is returning to normal—even though it still has a far higher violence rate than Kabul.

To describe what is happening in Kabul as a siege is, quite simply, to redefine siege to the point of meaninglessness. You would think the Journal headline writers—who have already erred recently by putting words into the mouth of Gen. Stan McChrystal—would be more careful.