Reading tea leaves in Afghanistan

 In Afghanistan

The LA Times ran a great OpEd yesterday highlighting that, as much as the Pentagon would like to convince you otherwise, assessing “progress” in Afghanistan is up to interpretation — kind of like reading tea leaves. For instance, on the “success” of driving the Taliban out of Kandahar:

“Yes, we’ve made gains against the Taliban around Kandahar,” a minister and former Kandahar governor told me recently. “But it takes 18,000 men for a single district. We can’t sustain that.”

And there have been other costs. As troops moved into rural districts the Taliban had held, they built dirt roads right through farmers’ vineyards and orchards. I saw the results when I went to visit a friend’s family land. Debris had been shoved into an irrigation channel that once watered the whole village, razor wire had been looped across a road, and buildings where families dry their grapes to make prized raisins had been destroyed.

There were good tactical reasons for inflicting such damage. Many of the buildings had been booby-trapped by the retreating Taliban, or they obstructed the troops’ lines of sight. But the local economy, already one of the most threadbare on Earth, has been badly hurt. Compensation money was paid out, but still, success against the Taliban came at great cost to residents.

They are left with the question: What now? If their grapevines or fruit trees dry out, what should they plant? If insurgents offer poppy seeds, should they accept? And what about the Afghan soldiers who stole the furniture out of the blown-up buildings? Villagers can’t take them to court because the judicial system is deeply corrupt. So who can give them recourse? A sense of justice? Maybe the Taliban.

And this doesn’t help clarify matters:

The aggressive efforts by some to spin perceptions of Afghanistan have grown unseemly as well as dangerous. I’ve seen dissent disappear from interagency documents. I’ve heard officials tell public affairs officers to pressure reporters about their stories.

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