There are two massive debates going on in this country right now. One is health care insurance reform. I’ve spent a lot more time on it than the other: Afghanistan.
To that point, there was a striking documentary by Richard Engel called Tip of the Spear that aired in relative purgatory last Saturday night on MSNBC. It should have aired on NBC. In prime time on Tuesday night. It’s online and worth watching, at least a segment or two if you’re strapped for time. In addition to the recent feature on Gen. McChrystal on 60 Minutes, it adds useful context to the issue.
It follows a group of soldiers in the Korengal Valley, a 30-square mile area with a mere 150 servicemen. The area has been nicknamed the Valley of Death because of its barely passable topography and deft Taliban presence. It’s much, much harder than Death Valley Rally. Its terrain is worse than the Aggro Crag.
The focus narrows on a remote outpost called Camp Restrepo, an apparent strategic high point in the area, manned by 20 guys. The conditions and supplies (aside from tons of mortars) leave something to be desired, but the guys are hardcore. They average a firefight with Taliban insurgents about 1.5 times a day. This includes the story of the soldier who ran to his post during a firefight in his “I Love NY” boxers.
On one day, Engel follows a troop as he heads out into the hills to a town, to be seen by Taliban. He’s live bait. He’s hoping for an ambush. The plan is to be attacked! This will lure hostiles, so that his American comrades can pop out of hiding and turn the tide. It’s utterly brave.
Engel has been in Iraq and Afghanistan (not to mention Beirut and other hotspots) as much as any journalist in the last eight years. He’s Chief Foreign Correspondent for NBC, but he splits most of his time between embeddings in the Middle East and returning home to talk in-person about his exploits and books.
What is also worth noting is that I can’t really tell from the program where Engel stands on the war. It shows the exertion and difficulty, the tooth-and-nail progress, juxtaposed with the sacrifice and the effect on the homefront, particularly with the sadness, but not anger, a mother feels at her son’s death from friendly fire.
No contest: it’s not an easy call to put Americans at risk in this situation, when it had once seemed the threat had mellowed. This isn’t WWII.
Yet, Afghanistan offers a challenge to those who complained for years that we shouldn’t be in Iraq, by rationalizing instead we should go after the people who attacked us and harbored them. Today, many of them are saying we should leave Afghanistan. Are these people hypocrites now?
A surge is not a sure thing. It wasn’t one in Iraq either. Afghanistan lacks an army on par with Iraq’s, literacy is a problem for organizing there, and there are conflicting reports over the Taliban’s reception in the country. Due to their isolation, as Engel puts it, “Most Afghans have no idea who they are” in the world and in this conflict.
Plus, somehow our adversaries there are amazing, tenacious fighters. They know the land and their ability to maneuver it in sandals is surreal. Didn’t we know this from Charlie Wilson’s War?
Furthermore, we’re falling well short of goals within the government’s infrastructure. The country’s never been conquered, and I’m not sure it ever will be in the conventional sense. Still, there was a big chunk of time when its inhabitants didn’t actively plot to kill us.
We’re quietly already sending 13,000 support troops (not combat, but engineering, medical, and intelligence, etc.).
But the troop debate is not the sole hot-button issue. The Afghan government is crazy. I mean, like crazier than Balloon Boy’s family.
Smart people warn us of the dangers of sending more troops before the political dust settles and we have assurances that the leader will act in his country’s best interest. In addition, the Taliban may be just as against President Karzai’s tainted government as it is for its fundamentalist narrow-minded views, serving as a haven for Al Qaeda, and keeping girls home from school.
Now there is word that a runoff election is likely after the comically corrupt election held in August. If you think George W. Bush or Al Franken got away with one, don’t even start. Oh lawdy lawd, the fraud! I mean, it was like the Phantom Poll Booth over there.
This runoff has the potential to add a level of credibility to the government, and give a fair chance to Karzai opponent Abdullah Abdullah (“ullah, ullah, eh, eh, eh,” word up Rihanna). He’s seems like a promising guy for us with more pro-Western tastes.
The outcome is important but won’t be settled for many weeks, which may push President Obama’s decisions on military objectives and troop commitments back even further, even as some think the debate has gone on long enough already.
An alarming article reports that the Taliban and Al Qaeda have much closer ties than they did eight years ago, and that White House officials are minimizing warnings about the risks of adopting a limited strategy focused on Al Qaeda.
Perhaps then, on the heels of that, it should come as no surprise amid the car bombs in Pakistan, that just yesterday, a determination has been made that the Taliban and Al Qaeda are cooperating to topple Pakistan, a much larger country (180 million vs. 30 million).
I don’t consider myself a hawk, but I’m not sure we can plan to wind things down amid all this information. It’s challenging, but how do you leave when this region, which sowed the seeds of 9/11, is more fertile than ever?