Commentary Magazine


Topic: Rajiv Chandrasekaran

Bringing Afghans Over to the Coalition Side, One Tribe at a Time

There has been much loose talk about the possibility of reaching a high-level peace deal with the Taliban. No such effort is likely to succeed, at least not in the short run, because the Taliban do not yet feel defeated. In any case, high-level Taliban leaders, safely ensconced in Pakistan, have no incentive to give up a fight in which their foot soldiers are suffering while they enjoy shelter and subsidies from the Pakistani regime. But lower-level deals to bring tribes over to the side of the coalition are likely to prove more fruitful — just as they did in Iraq.

The Marines have just announced one such deal in Sangin, the most kinetic district in all of Afghanistan. The Marines have lost 29 men since taking over this district in Helmand Province this past summer; Britain lost some 100 troops there in prior years. Now the governor of Helmand has reached an agreement with the Alikozai, one of the main tribes in the area, to stop attacking the coalition forces and the government of Afghanistan in return for development assistance, permission to form their own security forces, and the release of an Alikozai prisoner.

As this Washington Post account by ace war correspondent Rajiv Chandrasekaran makes clear, this deal is the result of the Marines’ aggressive actions and also their willingness to seize political opportunities. A prior attempt by the Alikozai to reach out to the British in 2007 was rebuffed, and the Alikozai went back to fighting with the Taliban.

The dynamics changed [Chandrasekaran writes] when the Marines replaced British forces in summer 2010. They increased the tempo of offensive operations and struck back harder at the all of the insurgents, including the Alikozai. In mid-October, a Marine reconnaissance battalion swooped into the Alikozai area and conducted a blistering barrage of attacks that commanders estimate killed more than 250 insurgents.

“That convinced the elders,” said one senior Marine officer involved in the operation. “They began to see the handwriting on the wall.”

This is how counterinsurgency is supposed to work. By applying pressure on the insurgents and safeguarding the local population, a security force can change the dynamics on the ground and convince opportunists — who always make up the majority of any population — that their long-term interests lay in allying with, rather than resisting, the government. Economic aid can sweeten the deal, but what is going to make the most difference is a change in the security situation, which is what the Marines have been accomplishing by dint of hard and costly combat.

One should not make too much out of this arrangement, which may yet collapse — as have other tribal deals in Afghanistan. It may also be the case that the tribes in Afghanistan are now so weak, after decades of warfare and migration, that they do not have the power to effectively resist the Taliban. But this could also be the start of something big, possibly even a “Helmand Awakening” that will wrest this province out of insurgent hands, just as Anbar Province was wrested out of insurgent hands in 2006-2007.

There has been much loose talk about the possibility of reaching a high-level peace deal with the Taliban. No such effort is likely to succeed, at least not in the short run, because the Taliban do not yet feel defeated. In any case, high-level Taliban leaders, safely ensconced in Pakistan, have no incentive to give up a fight in which their foot soldiers are suffering while they enjoy shelter and subsidies from the Pakistani regime. But lower-level deals to bring tribes over to the side of the coalition are likely to prove more fruitful — just as they did in Iraq.

The Marines have just announced one such deal in Sangin, the most kinetic district in all of Afghanistan. The Marines have lost 29 men since taking over this district in Helmand Province this past summer; Britain lost some 100 troops there in prior years. Now the governor of Helmand has reached an agreement with the Alikozai, one of the main tribes in the area, to stop attacking the coalition forces and the government of Afghanistan in return for development assistance, permission to form their own security forces, and the release of an Alikozai prisoner.

As this Washington Post account by ace war correspondent Rajiv Chandrasekaran makes clear, this deal is the result of the Marines’ aggressive actions and also their willingness to seize political opportunities. A prior attempt by the Alikozai to reach out to the British in 2007 was rebuffed, and the Alikozai went back to fighting with the Taliban.

The dynamics changed [Chandrasekaran writes] when the Marines replaced British forces in summer 2010. They increased the tempo of offensive operations and struck back harder at the all of the insurgents, including the Alikozai. In mid-October, a Marine reconnaissance battalion swooped into the Alikozai area and conducted a blistering barrage of attacks that commanders estimate killed more than 250 insurgents.

“That convinced the elders,” said one senior Marine officer involved in the operation. “They began to see the handwriting on the wall.”

This is how counterinsurgency is supposed to work. By applying pressure on the insurgents and safeguarding the local population, a security force can change the dynamics on the ground and convince opportunists — who always make up the majority of any population — that their long-term interests lay in allying with, rather than resisting, the government. Economic aid can sweeten the deal, but what is going to make the most difference is a change in the security situation, which is what the Marines have been accomplishing by dint of hard and costly combat.

One should not make too much out of this arrangement, which may yet collapse — as have other tribal deals in Afghanistan. It may also be the case that the tribes in Afghanistan are now so weak, after decades of warfare and migration, that they do not have the power to effectively resist the Taliban. But this could also be the start of something big, possibly even a “Helmand Awakening” that will wrest this province out of insurgent hands, just as Anbar Province was wrested out of insurgent hands in 2006-2007.

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Turns for the Better in Afghanistan

Rajiv Chandrasekaran, the Washington Post‘s well-respected foreign correspondent, had a lengthy dispatch on Sunday about Nawa, a district in Helmand Province, that has largely (but not completely) been pacified by the Marines and their Afghan partners. He concedes that Nawa, which I have visited twice (and he has visited five times), is a remarkable success story: “It is undeniable that Nawa has undergone a remarkable transformation since the Marines swept in, and it represents what is possible in Afghanistan when everything comes together correctly.” But he goes on to argue that “the changes in this district are fragile and that much of what has transpired here is unique rather than universal.”

I agree that the changes are fragile; not even the most starry-eyed optimist could possibly believe that the Taliban will be vanquished overnight. But I am less persuaded that what is transpiring in Nawa is unique. Chandrasekaran focuses on the high troop-to-population ratio, the large amount of economic aid poured in, and the competence shown both by Afghan security forces and by the district governor.

Granted, all that is true, but similarly favorable conditions exist, or are being created, in a number of other key districts being targeted by coalition forces. Sure, Nawa is doing well, but so too are Garmsir and Lashkar Gah in Helmand. Even Marjah, a notoriously difficult fight at the beginning of the year, has taken a turn for the better recently. Similar strategies are being employed with Kandahar, and although those operations aren’t as far along, they too are moving in the right direction.

No one would claim that all Afghanistan is going to become one big Nawa, but nor should Chandrasekaran suggest that it’s impossible for other parts of southern Afghanistan to take a Nawa-like turn for the better.

Rajiv Chandrasekaran, the Washington Post‘s well-respected foreign correspondent, had a lengthy dispatch on Sunday about Nawa, a district in Helmand Province, that has largely (but not completely) been pacified by the Marines and their Afghan partners. He concedes that Nawa, which I have visited twice (and he has visited five times), is a remarkable success story: “It is undeniable that Nawa has undergone a remarkable transformation since the Marines swept in, and it represents what is possible in Afghanistan when everything comes together correctly.” But he goes on to argue that “the changes in this district are fragile and that much of what has transpired here is unique rather than universal.”

I agree that the changes are fragile; not even the most starry-eyed optimist could possibly believe that the Taliban will be vanquished overnight. But I am less persuaded that what is transpiring in Nawa is unique. Chandrasekaran focuses on the high troop-to-population ratio, the large amount of economic aid poured in, and the competence shown both by Afghan security forces and by the district governor.

Granted, all that is true, but similarly favorable conditions exist, or are being created, in a number of other key districts being targeted by coalition forces. Sure, Nawa is doing well, but so too are Garmsir and Lashkar Gah in Helmand. Even Marjah, a notoriously difficult fight at the beginning of the year, has taken a turn for the better recently. Similar strategies are being employed with Kandahar, and although those operations aren’t as far along, they too are moving in the right direction.

No one would claim that all Afghanistan is going to become one big Nawa, but nor should Chandrasekaran suggest that it’s impossible for other parts of southern Afghanistan to take a Nawa-like turn for the better.

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Our Best Ally in Afghanistan: the Taliban

The Washington Post has a pair of stories that illuminate both the challenges and the potential in the fight against the Taliban.

First the good news: in one part of Daikundi province in southern Afghanistan, the locals have risen up against the Taliban and pushed them out of town. The residents of the town of Gizab, about 100 miles north of Kandahar, got sick of the Taliban’s oppressive presence. Post correspondent Rajiv Chandrasekaran writes:

The spark for the rebellion was ignited in mid-April, after Lalay [a storekeeper with one name] received $24,000 in compensation payments from the Afghan government to distribute to the relatives of a dozen villagers — six of whom were members of his extended family — killed by a Taliban-planted roadside bomb. A Taliban commander told him to hand over the money, saying it was against Islam to accept funds from the government. “If it is haram” — forbidden — “for me, then it is haram for you,” Lalay recalled replying.

The insurgents did not relent. They detained his brother and then his father, a tribal leader in the village. It was then that Lalay decided to plot the revolt.

Before long, the villagers were in a full-fledged firefight against the Taliban. There aren’t many coalition troops in Daikundi, but they asked for help, and Australian and U.S. Special Operations soldiers answered the call. The revolt against the Taliban has since progressed:

Lalay’s force has now grown to 300 men. They conduct foot patrols and operate checkpoints in and around Gizab. The revolt also has spread to 14 neighboring villages, each of which has a 10-man defense squad.

The Special Forces detachment that had been based to the north has since moved to Gizab, where its members are training the local defenders and watching over them to prevent any other extrajudicial killings.

Insurgent attacks and intimidation have ceased. “There are still Talibs in the mountains, but they’re in hiding,” said Lalay, who wears a bandolier slung over the shoulder. “They don’t dare to come outside and fight us.”

That’s the good news. The bad news is the continuing sloth and ineffectiveness of the Afghan police charged with patrolling Kandahar. Post correspondent Ernesto Londono reports that American MPs are getting frustrated with the Afghans they are supposed to be mentoring. In a nutshell, they don’t want to patrol, but they do want to take bribes. Such frustrations are nothing new, of course; they recall the difficulties in Iraq in improving police and army performance. That process is just starting in Afghanistan and needs time to mature.

But as the revolt in Daikundi reminds us, our best ally is the Taliban. Their very heavy-handedness and repression alienates the population. The key is to be able to take advantage of that alienation by helping the Afghan people to secure themselves — something that growing numbers of American troops should be able to help with, just as they did in Iraq.

The Washington Post has a pair of stories that illuminate both the challenges and the potential in the fight against the Taliban.

First the good news: in one part of Daikundi province in southern Afghanistan, the locals have risen up against the Taliban and pushed them out of town. The residents of the town of Gizab, about 100 miles north of Kandahar, got sick of the Taliban’s oppressive presence. Post correspondent Rajiv Chandrasekaran writes:

The spark for the rebellion was ignited in mid-April, after Lalay [a storekeeper with one name] received $24,000 in compensation payments from the Afghan government to distribute to the relatives of a dozen villagers — six of whom were members of his extended family — killed by a Taliban-planted roadside bomb. A Taliban commander told him to hand over the money, saying it was against Islam to accept funds from the government. “If it is haram” — forbidden — “for me, then it is haram for you,” Lalay recalled replying.

The insurgents did not relent. They detained his brother and then his father, a tribal leader in the village. It was then that Lalay decided to plot the revolt.

Before long, the villagers were in a full-fledged firefight against the Taliban. There aren’t many coalition troops in Daikundi, but they asked for help, and Australian and U.S. Special Operations soldiers answered the call. The revolt against the Taliban has since progressed:

Lalay’s force has now grown to 300 men. They conduct foot patrols and operate checkpoints in and around Gizab. The revolt also has spread to 14 neighboring villages, each of which has a 10-man defense squad.

The Special Forces detachment that had been based to the north has since moved to Gizab, where its members are training the local defenders and watching over them to prevent any other extrajudicial killings.

Insurgent attacks and intimidation have ceased. “There are still Talibs in the mountains, but they’re in hiding,” said Lalay, who wears a bandolier slung over the shoulder. “They don’t dare to come outside and fight us.”

That’s the good news. The bad news is the continuing sloth and ineffectiveness of the Afghan police charged with patrolling Kandahar. Post correspondent Ernesto Londono reports that American MPs are getting frustrated with the Afghans they are supposed to be mentoring. In a nutshell, they don’t want to patrol, but they do want to take bribes. Such frustrations are nothing new, of course; they recall the difficulties in Iraq in improving police and army performance. That process is just starting in Afghanistan and needs time to mature.

But as the revolt in Daikundi reminds us, our best ally is the Taliban. Their very heavy-handedness and repression alienates the population. The key is to be able to take advantage of that alienation by helping the Afghan people to secure themselves — something that growing numbers of American troops should be able to help with, just as they did in Iraq.

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Where’s the Support for U.S. Civilians in Iraq?

In recent years there has been a welcome outpouring of love and admiration for American troops. It has been common to hear, “I may not support the war, but I support the troops.” A commendable sentiment, but why doesn’t it extend to civilians who have risked their necks in war zones?

I was struck by Jim Dwyer’s snarky New York Times column about my Council on Foreign Relations colleague Dan Senor, who is contemplating a run for the U.S. Senate in New York. There are plenty of reasons for a liberal columnist to disagree with the conservative Senor on matters of policy, but Dwyer chooses instead to launch a very personal attack on Senor’s service in Iraq as chief spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority during 15 tumultuous months from the spring of 2003 to the summer of 2004. Dwyer sneers: “As Iraq was entering its bloodiest days, Mr. Senor was a prophet and cheerleader for the Bush administration, his daily messages seemingly disconnected from the country that was imploding outside the American headquarters in Baghdad, known as the Green Zone.”

Echoing Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s book Imperial Life in the Emerald City, he goes on to describe the Green Zone “as heavily populated by Republican loyalists” — like Senor — “who brought little experience to the towering task of restoring Iraq to any semblance of normalcy after the invasion.”

Granted, Ambassador L. Paul “Jerry” Bremer and his senior aides, including Dan Senor, were not well-prepared for the task of governing Iraq. Nor did they have adequate resources for the task. But that was hardly their fault. Blame lay in the senior levels of the administration and the military, where there was an appalling lack of planning for the post-invasion phase of the Iraq operation. Troop numbers remained grossly inadequate despite Bremer’s pleas for more help.

Bremer & Co. made mistakes of their own (who wouldn’t?), but they were not wrong about everything or even most things. Some of their projects — a new Iraqi constitution, for example — have been standing the test of time. Some of the worst decisions — disbanding the Iraqi army and purging too many Baathists — seem to have been dictated from Washington. Whatever the details, there can be no doubt that Ambassador Bremer and his aides did the best they could in an extremely challenging, dangerous, chaotic environment.

Did Dan Senor put a positive gloss on events? Of course. That was his job. He was the official spokesman. Maybe Jim Dwyer would have preferred that he join the press corps in daily bemoaning Iraq’s woes, but that wasn’t what he was paid to do. His job was to give the official CPA line, and in the process try to calm and improve the situation rather than simply pointing out the numerous deficiencies that were being (for the most part accurately) exposed by the news media.

To read Dwyer and others, you would think that being sent to Iraq was akin to an all-expenses paid holiday in the Bahamas. In fact, it was a dangerous assignment that was, with some heroic exceptions, for the most part avoided by experienced Foreign Service officers who generally opposed the decision to go to war. The largest group of people volunteering to go, aside from those in uniform, were a bunch of young conservative idealists like Senor. Their dedication and idealism reminds me of young liberals who were inspired by JFK to join the Peace Corps in the early 1960s.

Scott Erwin, a former Council colleague, was one of them. A onetime White House intern, he postponed his senior year in college to work for CPA — an assignment that ended on June 2, 2004, when he was shot four times in an ambush that killed two Iraqis who were in the same car. He survived but others didn’t. Even the Green Zone, while safer than the surrounding areas, was hardly a pocket of tranquility. It was a constant magnet for rocket and mortar attacks that frequently landed in the embassy parking lot and killed a number of employees over the years. It was generally safer to be on one of the giant Forward Operating Bases, where most Americans in Iraq, troops and contractors alike, were garrisoned.

We should be celebrating those who volunteered to serve in the Iraq war, whether they wore a uniform or not — not demeaning their service to score political points.

In recent years there has been a welcome outpouring of love and admiration for American troops. It has been common to hear, “I may not support the war, but I support the troops.” A commendable sentiment, but why doesn’t it extend to civilians who have risked their necks in war zones?

I was struck by Jim Dwyer’s snarky New York Times column about my Council on Foreign Relations colleague Dan Senor, who is contemplating a run for the U.S. Senate in New York. There are plenty of reasons for a liberal columnist to disagree with the conservative Senor on matters of policy, but Dwyer chooses instead to launch a very personal attack on Senor’s service in Iraq as chief spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority during 15 tumultuous months from the spring of 2003 to the summer of 2004. Dwyer sneers: “As Iraq was entering its bloodiest days, Mr. Senor was a prophet and cheerleader for the Bush administration, his daily messages seemingly disconnected from the country that was imploding outside the American headquarters in Baghdad, known as the Green Zone.”

Echoing Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s book Imperial Life in the Emerald City, he goes on to describe the Green Zone “as heavily populated by Republican loyalists” — like Senor — “who brought little experience to the towering task of restoring Iraq to any semblance of normalcy after the invasion.”

Granted, Ambassador L. Paul “Jerry” Bremer and his senior aides, including Dan Senor, were not well-prepared for the task of governing Iraq. Nor did they have adequate resources for the task. But that was hardly their fault. Blame lay in the senior levels of the administration and the military, where there was an appalling lack of planning for the post-invasion phase of the Iraq operation. Troop numbers remained grossly inadequate despite Bremer’s pleas for more help.

Bremer & Co. made mistakes of their own (who wouldn’t?), but they were not wrong about everything or even most things. Some of their projects — a new Iraqi constitution, for example — have been standing the test of time. Some of the worst decisions — disbanding the Iraqi army and purging too many Baathists — seem to have been dictated from Washington. Whatever the details, there can be no doubt that Ambassador Bremer and his aides did the best they could in an extremely challenging, dangerous, chaotic environment.

Did Dan Senor put a positive gloss on events? Of course. That was his job. He was the official spokesman. Maybe Jim Dwyer would have preferred that he join the press corps in daily bemoaning Iraq’s woes, but that wasn’t what he was paid to do. His job was to give the official CPA line, and in the process try to calm and improve the situation rather than simply pointing out the numerous deficiencies that were being (for the most part accurately) exposed by the news media.

To read Dwyer and others, you would think that being sent to Iraq was akin to an all-expenses paid holiday in the Bahamas. In fact, it was a dangerous assignment that was, with some heroic exceptions, for the most part avoided by experienced Foreign Service officers who generally opposed the decision to go to war. The largest group of people volunteering to go, aside from those in uniform, were a bunch of young conservative idealists like Senor. Their dedication and idealism reminds me of young liberals who were inspired by JFK to join the Peace Corps in the early 1960s.

Scott Erwin, a former Council colleague, was one of them. A onetime White House intern, he postponed his senior year in college to work for CPA — an assignment that ended on June 2, 2004, when he was shot four times in an ambush that killed two Iraqis who were in the same car. He survived but others didn’t. Even the Green Zone, while safer than the surrounding areas, was hardly a pocket of tranquility. It was a constant magnet for rocket and mortar attacks that frequently landed in the embassy parking lot and killed a number of employees over the years. It was generally safer to be on one of the giant Forward Operating Bases, where most Americans in Iraq, troops and contractors alike, were garrisoned.

We should be celebrating those who volunteered to serve in the Iraq war, whether they wore a uniform or not — not demeaning their service to score political points.

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Obama’s Afghan Incoherence

Amid the (much justified) focus on the administration’s mishandling of the underwear-bomber, this Washington Post article, which appeared the day after Christmas, hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves. It focuses on the administration’s mishandling of Afghanistan. Reporter Rajiv Chandrasekaran reveals a deep disconnect between certain politicos in the White House, on the one hand, and, on the other, the military and Defense Department, regarding what exactly our policy toward Afghanistan is. The West Point address was supposed to settle all that, but it only added to the confusion. Chandrasekaran writes:

Members of Obama’s war cabinet disagree over the meaning of his pledge to begin drawing down forces in July 2011 and whether the mission has been narrowed from a proposal advanced by McChrystal in his August assessment of the war. The disagreements have opened a fault line between a desire for an early exit among several senior officials at the White House and a conviction among military commanders that victory is still achievable on their terms.

The most obvious confusion surrounds the 2011 deadline that was opposed by Generals McChrystal and Petraeus as well as by Secretary of Defense Bob Gates but was pushed by Vice President Joe Biden and the president himself. Both supporters and opponents are rushing to put their spin on the policy:

Gates, appearing on NBC’s “Meet the Press” the Sunday after the speech, said that perhaps only “some handful or some small number” would be withdrawn. Biden, during his MSNBC appearance last week, said a chart showing an increase in U.S. deployments this year would be “coming down as rapidly over the next two years.”

Both men can’t be right. The only one who knows for sure which is correct is Obama himself and he isn’t saying, perhaps because he is leaving his options open. But by putting the deadline out there at all, the president is fostering the view among our friends and allies in the region that we’re on the way out. Only he can refute that impression, and to date he hasn’t. That, in turn, makes it much harder for the troops to get the job done.

Then there is the confusion over exactly what our troops are doing. Apparently some White House officials think that they have circumscribed the troops’ mission so that McChrystal won’t be doing full-spectrum counterinsurgency — which is the only way to win (a word the president refuses to use). The article notes that Biden told MSNBC: “The strategy has fundamentally changed. This is not a COIN strategy.” But McChrystal is still planning to carry out a counterinsurgency in the east and south — and rightly so.

Which leaves the entire world wondering what exactly we’re up to. The Post account includes this telling quote:

“Is the surge a way of helping us leave more quickly, or is the timeline a way to help win support for the surge?” asked a senior Democratic staff member in Congress. “Which is the strategy and which is the head-fake? Nobody knows.”

Unfortunately, I’m not sure Obama himself knows which is the strategy and which is the head fake. He seems fundamentally ambivalent about the war in Afghanistan — as he is about the war on terror and most other military endeavors — and that ambivalence is reflected in the form of policy incoherence.

Amid the (much justified) focus on the administration’s mishandling of the underwear-bomber, this Washington Post article, which appeared the day after Christmas, hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves. It focuses on the administration’s mishandling of Afghanistan. Reporter Rajiv Chandrasekaran reveals a deep disconnect between certain politicos in the White House, on the one hand, and, on the other, the military and Defense Department, regarding what exactly our policy toward Afghanistan is. The West Point address was supposed to settle all that, but it only added to the confusion. Chandrasekaran writes:

Members of Obama’s war cabinet disagree over the meaning of his pledge to begin drawing down forces in July 2011 and whether the mission has been narrowed from a proposal advanced by McChrystal in his August assessment of the war. The disagreements have opened a fault line between a desire for an early exit among several senior officials at the White House and a conviction among military commanders that victory is still achievable on their terms.

The most obvious confusion surrounds the 2011 deadline that was opposed by Generals McChrystal and Petraeus as well as by Secretary of Defense Bob Gates but was pushed by Vice President Joe Biden and the president himself. Both supporters and opponents are rushing to put their spin on the policy:

Gates, appearing on NBC’s “Meet the Press” the Sunday after the speech, said that perhaps only “some handful or some small number” would be withdrawn. Biden, during his MSNBC appearance last week, said a chart showing an increase in U.S. deployments this year would be “coming down as rapidly over the next two years.”

Both men can’t be right. The only one who knows for sure which is correct is Obama himself and he isn’t saying, perhaps because he is leaving his options open. But by putting the deadline out there at all, the president is fostering the view among our friends and allies in the region that we’re on the way out. Only he can refute that impression, and to date he hasn’t. That, in turn, makes it much harder for the troops to get the job done.

Then there is the confusion over exactly what our troops are doing. Apparently some White House officials think that they have circumscribed the troops’ mission so that McChrystal won’t be doing full-spectrum counterinsurgency — which is the only way to win (a word the president refuses to use). The article notes that Biden told MSNBC: “The strategy has fundamentally changed. This is not a COIN strategy.” But McChrystal is still planning to carry out a counterinsurgency in the east and south — and rightly so.

Which leaves the entire world wondering what exactly we’re up to. The Post account includes this telling quote:

“Is the surge a way of helping us leave more quickly, or is the timeline a way to help win support for the surge?” asked a senior Democratic staff member in Congress. “Which is the strategy and which is the head-fake? Nobody knows.”

Unfortunately, I’m not sure Obama himself knows which is the strategy and which is the head fake. He seems fundamentally ambivalent about the war in Afghanistan — as he is about the war on terror and most other military endeavors — and that ambivalence is reflected in the form of policy incoherence.

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More Hollywood Iraq Madness

Yet another Iraq movie started shooting this week. This one is a fictionalized version of the book Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone. Director Paul Greengrass is one of the most impressive talents working in film today, and he’s secured Amy Ryan, a likely Oscar winner for Gone Baby Gone, and Greg Kinnear to star with Matt Damon. Ryan plays a New York Times reporter, and the apparent point of the movie is that the Army is making a huge mistake by staying holed up away from the Iraqi public in the heavily fortified Baghdad Green Zone.One of the many problems you face when you make a movie about Iraq is this: it takes years to put a movie together, by which time you can bet that whatever you are saying will be outdated. Since the Surge, for example, the Army no longer sticks to its Green Zone-think. And anyway, the armchair generals who have been offering their wisdom to actual military officers since day one keep contradicting themselves. An excellent example is No End In Sight, which has won a shelf full of awards for Best Documentary of 2007. The movie argues at length that the American forces made a huge mistake by keeping inside the Green Zone, and offers up as an example of what they should have done the tale of the U.N. official Sergio Vieira de Mello. It’s true that Viera de Mello operated within a much more open and welcoming site. It’s also true that he was promptly killed by a bomb. To add insult to it all, the book on which the Greengrass film is based was written by a Washington Post man, Rajiv Chandrasekaran, yet it’s a Times reporter who is a lead character. If there’s anything the public likes less than an antiwar Iraq movie, it’s a movie about how wonderful journalists are.

Yet another Iraq movie started shooting this week. This one is a fictionalized version of the book Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone. Director Paul Greengrass is one of the most impressive talents working in film today, and he’s secured Amy Ryan, a likely Oscar winner for Gone Baby Gone, and Greg Kinnear to star with Matt Damon. Ryan plays a New York Times reporter, and the apparent point of the movie is that the Army is making a huge mistake by staying holed up away from the Iraqi public in the heavily fortified Baghdad Green Zone.One of the many problems you face when you make a movie about Iraq is this: it takes years to put a movie together, by which time you can bet that whatever you are saying will be outdated. Since the Surge, for example, the Army no longer sticks to its Green Zone-think. And anyway, the armchair generals who have been offering their wisdom to actual military officers since day one keep contradicting themselves. An excellent example is No End In Sight, which has won a shelf full of awards for Best Documentary of 2007. The movie argues at length that the American forces made a huge mistake by keeping inside the Green Zone, and offers up as an example of what they should have done the tale of the U.N. official Sergio Vieira de Mello. It’s true that Viera de Mello operated within a much more open and welcoming site. It’s also true that he was promptly killed by a bomb. To add insult to it all, the book on which the Greengrass film is based was written by a Washington Post man, Rajiv Chandrasekaran, yet it’s a Times reporter who is a lead character. If there’s anything the public likes less than an antiwar Iraq movie, it’s a movie about how wonderful journalists are.

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