Kandahar

Back in July of 2010, TNR asked nine experts to explore what the United States should do next in Afghanistan. In the twenty months since that symposium, much has changed. Tragic developments—such as the downing of a military helicopter that claimed 38 Americans and the recent massacre of 16 Afghan civilians by a U.S. Army Staff Sergeant—have stoked widespread discontent with the current course of action, and have many rethinking their commitments to the mission.

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The horrific and surreal rampage allegedly committed last week in Kandahar by Sergeant Robert Bales, which resulted in the deaths of 16 Afghan civilians, has turned many Americans into amateur psychologists. This is natural: We all desperately want answers for how such a terrible thing could have happened. But the real answers are unlikely to be very satisfying. As a former active duty Army psychologist who spent 27 months in Iraq taking care of soldiers, I can attest that the oldest tropes about warfare are true: Combat is destructive; deployment in a warzone is enormously stressful.

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Edith Wharton is not a writer most of us probably associate with war. With the frosty, treacherous, yet bloodless drawing-room battles of Gilded Age New York, yes. With the stink and smoking gore of a trench on the Western Front, no. And yet there Wharton was in France, for the duration of World War I: working vigorously on behalf of numerous charities and relief organizations, sending dispatches from the front back to American readers, publicly and privately making the case for the United States to join the fight.

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Edith Wharton is not a writer most of us probably associate with war. With the frosty, treacherous, yet bloodless drawing-room battles of Gilded Age New York, yes. With the stink and smoking gore of a trench on the Western Front, no. And yet there Wharton was in France, for the duration of World War I: working vigorously on behalf of numerous charities and relief organizations, sending dispatches from the front back to American readers, publicly and privately making the case for the United States to join the fight.

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There is an old Washington adage that the ultimate “man bites dog” story is one in which a politician tells the truth in public. Chris Matthews pointed out on his show recently that there was something almost uplifting about the response of the new senator from Massachusetts, Scott Brown, who, when asked whether he was demanding changes in the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill to protect the interest of the Boston-based State Street investment firm, replied that, no, it wasn’t just for them.

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Keeping Promises

One truism of counterinsurgency is that securing and winning over the population are the keys to success. So, what do the people of Afghanistan want? In December, ABC and the BBC conducted nationwide polling and discovered that one-third of Afghans said that poverty and unemployment were the biggest challenges confronting them. Another third named rising insecurity and violence. Meanwhile, relatively few Afghans were preoccupied by those issues that many Americans deem to be Afghanistan’s greatest problems.

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On a balmy summer’s day in the village of Hiratian in Afghanistan’s Helmand province, locals found the body of eight-year-old Dilawar hanging from a tree of a small fruit farm. Taliban fighters had accused the boy of spying for the American forces and had kidnapped him, strung him up and left his body to sway in the wind for hours for all to see. The murder was horrifying, yet few villagers would come to the defense of anyone charged with spying for the hated foreign forces. But slowly, the details of the story emerged.

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For those of us who can remember how lonely it was to be in favor of the Iraq war and the hoped-for surge in 2006, reflecting on America’s current travails in Afghanistan—a “fool’s errand” (George F. Will) administered by “well-meaning infidels” (Andrew J. Bacevich)—isn’t nearly so depressing.

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“When you go to protect people, the people have to want you to protect them,” General Stanley McChrystal recently told reporters. “It’s a deliberate process. It takes time to convince people.” The remark, notable for its defensive tone, provides a small but telling indication that things are not going well in Afghanistan. If there were any doubts on that score, Rolling Stone’s profile of the “Runaway General” and his eminently quotable staff have quashed them. The wheels are starting to come off the Afghan Victory Express.

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Earlier this month, the Pentagon released a 151-page report outlining the increasingly grim situation in Afghanistan. The paper highlighted the Afghan government (and its security services) lack of capability; the enduring challenge of endemic corruption and poor governance; and the Taliban insurgency’s ability to maintain influence—often via intimidation—across broad swaths of the country. These challenges have already undermined U.S. military operations in Marjah, and could threaten the upcoming summer offensive planned for Kandahar, the heart of the Taliban insurgency. The entire U.S.

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