I have just returned from 10 days traveling around Afghanistan — along with retired Army Colonel Pete Mansoor and former Army Ranger Andrew Exum — at the invitation of General David Petraeus. Upon our return, all of us have published articles laying out our findings. Pete and I, for example, wrote an article for the Los Angeles Times laying out the progress that our troops have made as well as the challenges still posed by bad governance and Pakistan sanctuaries. Rather than engage in a respectful discussion of our analysis, some overly excitable critics of the war effort have chosen to impugn our fact-gathering methods, suggesting that we have somehow been duped by the wily Petraeus into thinking that the war is going better than it actually is.
There is always a danger of drawing incorrect conclusions based on a 10-day visit — but that danger is even greater if, like many who opine on Afghanistan or Iraq, you never visit the country at all. (Or, like so many congressional delegations, spend only 24 or 48 hours in-country.)
The record will show that I have hardly been an unalloyed cheerleader for military efforts in either country — but nor did I ever conclude, as did so many others, that the situation was hopeless. In the case of Iraq, I may have been overly optimistic in my early assessments, as many were; but by 2006, I was writing that we were losing the war, much to the consternation of some conservatives — and I said so face to face with President Bush in the Oval Office in September 2006 (which didn’t make him happy). In 2007, I saw a turnaround and wrote that we were starting to win at a time when the conventional wisdom was that there was no way we could win. I think my trips to Iraq and Afghanistan have been invaluable in helping me to assess the situation, even if (like everyone else) I don’t always get it right.
I approach all such trips with great intellectual humility and do not claim to have greater expertise than I actually have. I just report what I see, and try to put it in the context of my close, ongoing study of the war effort and of previous wars. I would not by any stretch claim that 10 days in-country tells me everything I need to know; I always leave humbled by the limits of my understanding.
But on the other hand, I also get a better overview of conditions than many soldiers/civilians who spend longer periods of time in-country because they tend to stay in one small area, thus developing deep knowledge of that area but remaining aware of what is happening elsewhere. (Some soldiers — known as “Fobbits” — never leave their Forward Operating Bases at all.) Also, those who are actually deployed don’t generally keep personal tabs on what is happening after they leave — unless/until they prepare for another deployment — whereas the advantage that think tankers have is that we can keep traveling fairly regularly to examine progress or lack thereof. Read More