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Don’t Believe Everything You Read in the Times

It is always dismaying to discover how gullible readers of the New York Times can be. I was interviewed on Sunday night by the BBC regarding a “change of strategy” in Afghanistan. What change is that? Why the change from counterinsurgency to targeted killings. I expressed some incredulity about this supposed shift. Having just returned from Afghanistan, I had heard of no such change of focus. What evidence is there that it’s happening? None that I can find beyond this page-one Times article by Helene Cooper and Mark Landler whose headline claims: “Targeted Killing Is New U.S. Focus in Afghanistan.”

The article claims that the “counterinsurgency strategy has shown little success” — hardly surprising since it has only recently begun to be implemented. “Instead,” the article goes on to assert, “what has turned out to work well is an approach American officials have talked much less about: counterterrorism, military-speak for the targeted killings of insurgents from Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Faced with that reality, and the pressure of a self-imposed deadline to begin withdrawing troops by July 2011, the Obama administration is starting to count more heavily on the strategy of hunting down insurgents. The shift could change the nature of the war and potentially, in the view of some officials, hasten a political settlement with the Taliban. ”

I have no idea what Cooper and Landler mean when they write that “the Obama administration is starting to count more heavily on the strategy of hunting down insurgents.” In fact, Vice President Biden had urged a narrow counterterrorism focus for U.S. efforts in Afghanistan — and he lost the internal administration debate. You don’t need 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan simply to hunt down terrorist leaders. They are there to carry out a comprehensive counterinsurgency strategy that General David Petraeus is now implementing.

As part of that strategy, there has been a shift of more Special Operations forces to Afghanistan and, as a result, more targeted hits on top Taliban leaders. But Petraeus realizes (as did his predecessor Stan McChrystal, a veteran Special Operations commander) what the Times concedes: “Based on the American military experience in Iraq as well as Afghanistan, it is not clear that killing enemy fighters is sufficient by itself to cripple an insurgency.” In fact, it is clear that targeted killings by themselves will not cripple a determined insurgency. That is precisely why it is extremely unlikely that Petraeus will do what the Times reporters claim — shift to a focused counterterrorism strategy.

Informed consumers of the news — especially those in other news organizations who too often take their cues from the Times — should take such supposed “scoops” with a big grain of salt.