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Bored to Death in Afghanistan (and Washington)

If nobody told you otherwise, you could easily believe that almost every breaking Afghan story came from some previous year of the war.

| Thu May 19, 2011 6:55 PM EDT

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

One day in October 2001, a pilot for Northwest Airlines refused to let Arshad Chowdhury, a 25-year-old American Muslim ("with a dark complexion") who had once worked as an investment banker in the World Trade Center, board his plane at San Francisco National Airport. According to Northwest's gate agents, Chowdhury writes in the Washington Post, "he thought my name sounded suspicious" even though "airport security and the FBI verified that I posed no threat." He sued.

Now, skip nearly a decade. It's May 6, 2011, and two New York-based African-American imams, a father and son, attempting to take an American Airlines flight from New York to Charlotte to attend a conference on "prejudice against Muslims," were prevented from flying. The same thing happened to two imams in Memphis "dressed in traditional long shirts and [with] beard," heading for the same conference, when a pilot for Atlantic Southeast refused to fly with them aboard, even though they had been screened three times.

So how is the war in Afghanistan going almost 10 years later? Or do you think that's a non sequitur?

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I don't, and let me suggest two reasons why: first, boredom; second, the missing learning curve.

At home and abroad, whether judging by airline pilots or Washington's war policy, Americans seem remarkably incapable of doing anything other than repeating the same self-defeating acts, as if they had never happened before. Hence Afghanistan. Almost 10 years after the Bush administration invaded Afghanistan and proclaimed victory, like imam-paralyzed airline pilots, we find ourselves in a state that might otherwise be achieved only if you mated déjà vu with a Mobius strip.

If you aren't already bored to death, you should be. Because, believe me, you've read it all before. Take the last month of news from America's second Afghan War. If nobody told you otherwise, you could easily believe that almost every breaking Afghan story in the last four weeks came from some previous year of the war.

Headlines from the Dustbin of History (Afghan Department)

Let me explain with seven headlines ripped from the news, all of which sit atop Afghan War articles that couldn't be newer—or older. Each represents news of our moment that was also news in previous moments; each should leave Americans wondering about Washington's learning curve.

* "Pentagon reports 'tangible progress' in Afghanistan": Here, the headline tells you everything you need to know. Things are going remarkably swimmingly, according to a recent congressionally mandated Pentagon report (which cost a mere $344,259 to produce). How many times in recent years has the military claimed "progress" in Afghanistan, with the usual carefully placed reservations about the fragility or reversibility of the situation? (Oh, and how many times have US intelligence reports been far gloomier on the same subject?)

* "Afghan violence rises amid troop surge—Pentagon": The information that led to this headline came, curiously enough, from that very same upbeat Pentagon report. As the Reuters piece to which this headline was attached put it: "A surge of US troops into Afghanistan has dealt a blow to the Taliban insurgency, but total violence has risen since last fall and is likely to keep climbing, the Pentagon said on Friday in a new assessment of the war as it approaches its 10-year mark." This spring, insurgent attacks have reportedly been up about 80% compared to the previous year, which might be more startling if the rise-in-violence piece weren't a longtime staple of Afghan War reportage.

Are you bored to death yet? No, then I'll keep going.

* "Audit: Afghans don't know how many police on rolls": The news embedded in this headline is that a recent audit by the US special inspector general for Afghanistan has found that some of the $10 billion a year being poured into training, building up, and supplying Afghanistan's security forces is undoubtedly missing-in-action. The IG reports that "the country's police rolls and payrolls cannot be verified because of poor record keeping," which means that the numbers "for all practical purposes become somewhat fictitious." Put another way, the US and its coalition partners are undoubtedly paying "ghost" policemen.

This story could be paired with a recent Reuters piece, "Pentagon's rosy report of Afghanistan war raises questions," which points out that, despite the billions of dollars and years of time invested in mentoring Afghanistan's security forces, "there are currently no Afghan National Police units that are able to operate independently." In addition, even that recent "rosy" Pentagon report indicates that so many Afghan soldiers are deserting—six out of every 10 new recruits—as to imperil the goal of creating a massive army capable of taking over security duties in the next several years. It has also been difficult to find enough trainers for the program, and given all of the above, experts suspect that the country will not have an effective army in place by 2014.

But here's the thing: such reports about the massive training program for Afghan security forces, the inability of those forces to operate independently, the wholesale desertions continually suffered, and so on have appeared again and again and again over the last years.

* "With bin Laden dead, some escalate push for new Afghan strategy": Here's the only problem with that "new Afghan strategy" reportedly being debated in Washington—it's not new. It's drearily old. In fact, it's simply a replay on the downhill slide of bitter policy arguments in the fall of 2009 involving Washington policymakers and the US military. That was a moment when the Obama administration had set about reassessing Afghan strategy and trying to choose between counterinsurgency ("the surge") and what was then called "counterterrorism plus" (more drones and more trainers, but less combat troops).

Then the debate was narrow indeed—between more (an increase of 40,000 troops) and more (an increase of 20,000 troops). There was never a real "less" option. Today, with almost 100,000 US troops in Afghanistan and despite reports of "war fatigue," even among Congressional Republicans, as well as plummeting poll numbers among Americans generally, the new debate is similarly narrow, similarly focused, and deeply familiar, a kind of less-versus-less version of the more-versus-more duke-em-out of 2009.

Similar arguments, similar crew. Then, Vice President Biden spearheaded the counterterrorism-plus option; today, it's chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee John Kerry, who quickly made the parameters of the "new" strategy debate clear: "I do not know of any serious policy person who believes that a unilateral precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan would somehow serve our interests or anybody's interests. I do not believe that is a viable option."

As in the fall of 2009, agreement among "serious policy people" that there should be a continuing American "footprint" in Afghanistan is set in stone. It seems the only question on the table is how small and how slow the drawdown should be, with the debaters already evidently settling into an agreed upon endgame of 20,000 to 30,000 American troops, special operations forces, and trainers post-2014. Despite the president's promise of significant troop reductions this year, early hints about war commander General David Petraeus's recommendations indicate that as few as 10,000 may be withdrawn, with no combat troops among them (though pressure to increase those numbers is rising).

Not out of your mind with boredom yet? Then I'll keep at it.

* "Accusations of Corruption Rampant in Afghanistan": Here's the thing: you don't even need to know the details of the story that lies behind that NPR headline. Yes, Vermont representative Peter Welsh has called on Congress to investigate Afghan corruption, given the billions the US is squandering there; yes, the Afghan deputy attorney general admitted that he had arrest warrants for various high officials on corruption charges but feared trying to bring them in; yes, headlines like "Afghan war progress at risk from corruption, training lags" are commonplace these days, as are stories about "reconstruction" corruption, protection payoffs to unsavory local warlords or the Taliban, and staggering levels of corruption in and around the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai. But here's the thing: it's been that way for years. Corruption stories—and stories about fighting corruption or the need to force the government of Hamid Karzai to do the same—have been the essential bread and butter of Afghan war reporting for almost a decade.

* "For Second Time in 3 Days, NATO Raid Kills Afghan Child": The New York Times piece under this headline reports on how "NATO" night raiders (usually US special operations forces) killed a 15-year-old boy, the son of an Afghan National Army soldier, sleeping in his family fields with a shotgun beside him. In the incident two days earlier the headline alludes to, another crew of night raiders killed a 12-year-old girl sleeping in her backyard, as well as her uncle, an Afghan police officer. And who's even mentioning the eight private security guards killed in an air strike as May began?

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