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December 29, 2010

The White House's Growing 'Credibility Gap' on Afghanistan
Posted by Michael Cohen

A couple of months ago I wrote an article for Foreign Policy that argued only the US military is optimistic about the situation in Afghanistan. I noted that the apparent disconnect between public statements by the military and pretty much everyone else in Afghanistan is "increasingly bringing into question the very credibility of U.S. military statements about military progress in Afghanistan." 

Since then, things on this front have only gotten worse and the credibility gap has extended from the Pentagon to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. In recent weeks, the Obama Administration has followed the military's lead by putting out a number of optimistic statements about the war in Afghanistan that, as difficult as it is to say, are misleading the American people about the actual security situation in Afghanistan.

First there was the White House's Afghan Strategy Review, which made the following assertions:

in Afghanistan, the momentum achieved by the Taliban in recent years has been arrested in much of the country and reversed in some key areas.

The surge in coalition military and civilian resources, along with an expanded special operations forces targeting campaign and expanded local security measures at the village level, has reduced overall Taliban influence and arrested the momentum they had achieved in recent years in key parts of the country. 

In Afghanistan last month, President Obama said

"Today we can be proud that there are fewer areas under Taliban control and more Afghans have a chance to build a more hopeful future."

And Secretary Gates was even more specific:

"As a result of the tough fight under way, the Taliban control far less territory today than they did a year ago."

Nowhere in the review, and as near I can tell, the remarks of Gates and Obama is it reflected that in many parts of the country the security situation has actually deteriorated or that Afghan civilian deaths have increased significantly over the past year.

In fact, the statements above are contradicted by a litany of facts that offer a far more pessimistic view on the progress of the war. In fact, over the past week or so there have been several major pieces of evidence that demonstrate the extent to which the US military and now the White House are misleading the American people about the tenuous security situation in Afghanistan.

First the Wall Street Journal reported on a UN report about security in Afghanistan:

Internal United Nations maps show a marked deterioration of the security situation in Afghanistan during this year's fighting season, countering the Obama administration's optimistic assessments of military progress since the surge of additional American forces began a year ago.

In the October map, just as in March's, virtually all of southern Afghanistan—the focus of the coalition's military offensives—remained painted the red of "very high risk," with no noted security improvements. At the same time, the green belt of "low risk" districts in northern, central and western Afghanistan shriveled considerably.

The U.N.'s October map upgraded to "high risk" 16 previously more secure districts in Badghis, Sar-e-Pul, Balkh, Parwan, Baghlan, Samangan, Faryab, Laghman and Takhar provinces; only two previously "high risk" districts, one in Kunduz and one in Herat province, received a safer rating.

Today, McClatchy reports on the findings of the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office and in particular its reporting on deterioration in northern Afghanistan: (I heard similar things from their representative in Mazar in September):

"Absolutely, without any reservation, it is our opinion that the situation is a lot more insecure this year than it was last year," said Nic Lee, the director of the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office, an independent organization that analyzes security dangers for aid groups.

While U.S.-led forces have driven insurgents out of their strongholds in southern Afghanistan, Taliban advances in the rest of the country may have offset those gains, a cross section of year-end estimates suggests.

Insurgent attacks have jumped at least 66 percent this year, according to the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office. Security analysts say that Taliban shadow governors still exert control in all but one of Afghanistan's 34 provinces.

"I can't understand how they can say it is more secure than last year," said Hashim Mayar, the acting director of the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief, an umbrella group that represents more than 100 Afghan and international aid groups working in Afghanistan. "Insecurity has extended to some parts of the county that were relatively safe last year."

Perhaps most damningly, a recent Pentagon report to Congress drew similar conclusions:

The insurgency’s capabilities and operational reach have been qualitatively and geographically expanding, as evidenced by a greater frequency and wider dispersion of insurgent-initiated attacks; however, that spread is being increasingly challenged by the ISAF surge forces conducting operations.  Despite the increase in ANSF and ISAF capabilities to counter insurgent attacks, the insurgents’ tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) continue to evolve in sophistication.  In addition, the insurgency continues to inhibit the expansion of a legitimate Afghan Government through an effective shadow governance process that provides dispute resolution, rule of law, and other traditional services in a number of areas.  

Keep in mind, this is a Pentagon report - and it appears to directly contradict the words of the President and the Secretary of Defense. 

So what you have is a mountain of evidence indicating that the security situation in Afghanistan is worsening; that in particular, insurgents are making serious in-roads in the north and west of the country and putting once secure regions in greater risk; even as the US is putting greater pressure on Taliban insurgents in the South and East. 

While it may be factually correct for Obama and Gates to suggest that the Taliban "control" less territory than they did before the surge this is a highly dubious claim since the Taliban's effectiveness is not really defined by territory as much as it is the ability to intimidate and influence the population, exert its influence in local communities and spread instability. This is a fact that is almost certainly understood by our military commanders in Afghanistan.

The simple fact is that the Administration's efforts to put a more positive spin on the increasingly tenuous security situation in Afghanistan is to gloss over the truth. Perhaps the most important story of the past year in Afghanistan is that even with the inclusion of more than 30,000 more US and NATO troops the security situation has worsened dramatically.

Now one can argue that this is a means to an end; a first stop on the road to progress. I don't find that personally credible, but it's certainly a legitimate argument for the Administration to make.

But it's quite another thing to play down the deterioration around the country; to cherry-pick improvements in areas of the country inundated with US troops as a reason for overall optimism; and to provide the American people with a decidedly one-sided and incomplete view of the war in Afghanistan. This, unfortunately, is what the White House and the military are trying to do. 

To be blunt, it's becoming increasingly difficult to take anything the White House or the military says about the war in Afghanistan seriously.


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To be blunt, it's becoming increasingly difficult to take anything the White House or the military says about the war in Afghanistan seriously.

Let's be even more blunt. They're liars.

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I am a great fan of this blog but I must be blunt. I am somewhat confused. This piece makes it seem as though the fact that the White House is cherrypicking information about Afghanistan is somehow a new phenomenon (second paragraph), although in your last line you refer to it being 'increasingly difficult' to take the military and WH seriously, by which I assume you mean presupposes that they have been misleading us all along but that the extent to which they are doing so now exceeds that in the past. Was just curious if you felt that the WH was being honest until now (with the caveat that they may have been ignorant rather than deceptive), or that in principle you accept they have been deceptive all along but that they have now crossed over the line in some way. At the same time, you might also want to think about your characterization of the military as blanket references to the 'Pentagon' appear to be contradicted by the evidence you present. From what you are saying, it seems as though Petraeus' command is 'cooking the books' and supported by Gates in this effort, but that other parts of the Pentagon are providing 'honest' assessments, or at least they are providing more 'critical' assessments. Most importantly though is the timeline of deception and the qualitative aspects of the deception. In terms of timeline, I suspect the WH/Pentagon deception in this Administration (as well as the previous) on Afghanistan (and Iraq) is very longstanding indeed, and therefore should not arouse too much surprise. This is simply due to the nature of the system. As for the qualitative aspects, again I do not see anything too outrageous here. As you are a close observer of this conflict, and are also well aware of the WH's spin on Iraq, surely this is just the same record being played over and over again. What would be much more surprising is if they were honest about the conflict, since dishonesty seems to be the norm. Incidentally, it is also worth mentioning that a lot of this deception is generated as much for an internal audience as it is for an external audience.

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Come on, Michael, a lying government is not exactly novel. Dog bites man. If it were true they would have classified it to keep us from knowing.

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