12.09.09

Renewed Purpose in Afghanistan

The president’s Afghan speech may have been criticized on all sides, but on a recent reporting trip to the country, Dan Rather found soldiers optimistic—and new troops clearly heading into battle with a new strategy.

It’s been a little over a week since President Barack Obama went to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point to outline his strategy for the war in Afghanistan. After almost two weeks on Afghanistan battlefields, in far forward base camps and outposts, I think the debate that’s followed what the president said underscores worrisome trends in how we as a nation are governed and in how we as citizens are informed.

Obama’s speech was criticized from all sides. That was to be expected. There are no good answers to the problems we now face in Afghanistan. Any strategy by its very nature would have flaws. If he had said we were pulling out now, critics would rightly point to the dangers of a failed state in the heart of a very volatile region. If he had committed tens of thousands more troops indefinitely, a different set of critics would have reasonably argued that the cost in lives and treasure would be too great. And anyone who promised success with even such an effort would have been dishonest.

The president’s Afghan speech may have been criticized on all sides, but on a recent reporting trip to the country, Dan Rather found soldiers optimistic—and new troops clearly heading into battle with a new strategy.

The president chose a middle road; some have cleverly dubbed it the “Goldilocks Strategy.” Cynics say it is yet another example of how this president always seeks middle ground. Meanwhile, a “middle ground” on Afghanistan may no longer even exist. After eight years of spending, fighting, and dying and amid the altered political climate in the wake of our 2008 elections, a war that began with near unanimous approval in Congress and the country now plays to fractured audiences in both cases that don’t evenly split neatly along partisan lines.

First of all, it’s important to clarify where we find ourselves today. While the war in Afghanistan has been going on since 2001, and while brave Americans have been sacrificing throughout that time, it would be wrong to contend that we have been waging war for more than eight years. The United States and NATO troops invaded. There were some early successes and, especially in light of a recent Senate report on what happened at Tora Bora, some egregious failures in strategy. From the beginning, the war in Afghanistan never got the attention or resources it needed, especially after the Bush administration shifted the focus to Iraq. What was left behind in Afghanistan was a sense of stasis—a sporadic mishmash of combat and nation building. Combined with an uneven policy toward Pakistan, that laid the groundwork for the current mess.

It would be a mistake to throw up our hands now and say we’ve given it a try and it’s too much, too difficult. Since when were giving up and pessimism parts of our national character? However, we cannot blindly march forward, throwing in billions more dollars and thousands more troops with no conditions or end in sight. We needed a major rethink, and that is what the president said he has done. There can and should be a fair and honest debate about whether his plan matches his rhetoric.

Obama’s Afghanistan Crib SheetOf course, in the days since the speech, there has been plenty of debate, on the cable news channels, on the Sunday talk shows, in newspaper Op-Ed pages, and in congressional hearings. I do not doubt the vast majority of it is sincere, but how much of a factual foundation is there for all these arguments? With some notable exceptions, particularly in the print press, the war in Afghanistan has been woefully under-covered from the start. And when it is covered, it’s too often from the relative safety of Kabul, some other large city, or big base.

Congress has also failed in its oversight. As American policy was adrift in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, where was the tough questioning in the House and Senate? Where were the reports? Where was the enterprising representative or senator on one of the several committees and subcommittees who had oversight of these issues? The reviews that did take place, like the one on Tora Bora, took far too long and were plagued by politics.

And finally, we as citizens should demand better from our leaders, our media, and ourselves. We can be excused for being preoccupied by a host of intervening concerns: the war in Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, the economic collapse, a fierce election cycle. It is also easy to be disengaged when less than 1 percent of us serve in the armed forces. If we’re honest with ourselves, we must admit that while the war has been costly in many ways for our country, few of us have borne that cost personally.

We need a national debate on matters of war and peace, but we need to be informed. Information is the lifeblood of responsible decision making. The New York Times, in a recent, remarkable, in-depth report, chronicled the deliberations of the Obama administration over Afghan policy. What emerges is a thorough review, but that does not mean that the resulting strategy is necessarily correct.

What I felt was missing from the president’s speech was a convincing explanation for how he based his hopes for success. And that surprised me because on my recent reporting trip to American outposts in eastern Afghanistan, I found soldiers and State Department workers optimistic about their ability to bring increased stability to the region and train an indigenous security force. I found a general sense of a renewed purpose at headquarters in Kabul that wasn’t there on my visit a year ago. What was clear is that the new troops were heading into battle with a new strategy. The focus now is on protecting population centers rather than dispensing troops to small forward operating bases in rural areas.

Of course, I can only report on what I saw. Another reporter may focus on the corruption in the Karzai government and determine any plan is doomed to failure. Still a third may focus on the oversight of American aid to Pakistan. The truth is we need as much reporting as we can get and we need Congress, with its power of subpoena, to fulfill its role. The administration must hold the military to account and we must all hold the administration to account.

The United States has made a significant effort to re-engage in Afghanistan. It is time all of us re-engaged as well, and stayed engaged.

To follow Dan Rather’s reporting on Afghanistan look for updates on his show’s Facebook page:  and on Twitter: His reports can be also found on iTunes.

Dan Rather is anchor and managing editor of HDNet’s Dan Rather Reports, which this week, beginning Tuesday night, is airing and investigative report on the problem of private prisons. For 24 years, he served as anchor and managing editor of the CBS Evening News with Dan Rather. His books include The American Dream, Deadlines and Datelines, The Camera Never Blinks, and The Palace Guard.