To describe columnist Robert Novak as an ultra-partisan Republican hack would be accurate, if overly generous. So I had a hard time taking this column of his at face value: U.S. is lost in Afghanistan Chicago Sun-Times 05/31/04.
Novak is the creep who helped the White House slime operation to "out" Joseph Wilson's wife Valerie Plame as an undercover CIA agent. John Dean, Richard Nixon's former White House counsel, has written about the Plame leak in Worse Than Watergate (2004):
The methodology - that of planting a nasty leak - is not new, but enlisting the news media as criminal co-conspirators is a breathtaking bit of bravado. Like their stagecrafting and image control, they [the Bush White House] have pushed dirty tricks into a new dimension.
... Planting (or leaking) this story about Valerie Plame Wilson is one of the dirtiest tricks I've seen in lowball/hardball politics. When the American Prospect wrote that "we are very much into Nixon territory here," it was an understatement. I thought they played dirty at the Nixon White House, but this is worse for two reasons. Nixon never went after his enemies' wives, and he never employed a dirty trick that was literally life-threatening. Anyone in the White House with sufficient access to this information had to be sophisticated enought to realize that revealing the identity of a covert agent placed not only her life in danger but also the lives of those with whom she had worked in foreign countries. In fact, covert agents' names are seldom provided even to the president, not to mention his staff.
Several other reporters refused to go with the story because it was obvious that it was a matter of political revenge directed at Joseph Wilson, not a news story in which his wife's undercover role was an issue. Novak was slimy enough to go with it. He probably isn't criminally culpable under the law, though the leakers are. But it shows you that partisanship overrides news judgment for Novak in even an exceptionally dirty partisan trick like this.
So why is Novak sounding "off the ranch" on Afghanistan?
Afghanistan constitutes George W. Bush's clearest victory since the terrorist attacks of 9/11. The Taliban regime has been overthrown, eliminating al-Qaida's most important base. But the overlooked war continues with no end in sight. Narcotics trafficking is at an all-time high. If U.S. forces were to leave, the Taliban -- or something like it -- would regain power. The United States is lost in Afghanistan, bound to this wild country and unable to leave.
The situation in Afghanistan, as laid out to me, looks nothing like a country alleged to be progressing toward representative democracy under American tutelage. Hamid Karzai, the U.S.-sponsored Afghan president, is regarded by the U.S. troops as hopelessly corrupt and kept in power by U.S. force of arms.
I've mentioned Novak in connection with the Afghan War before. He was the questioner who elicited Rummy's 2001 sneer at the Geneva Conventions for being "some convention," and to say that it didn't bother him that our Northern Alliance allies were murdering prisoners of war in cold blood.
Now, the part I just quoted is that kind of thing that, if it's written or said by a Democrat, brings howls of phony outrage from the rabid war fans, who accuse it of being "an attack on our soldiers" or "undermining the war effort" or "giving aid and comfort to the enemy." Now, Novak may well have done the latter by facilitating the criminal leak about Valerie Plame, who had been working on "weapons of mass destruction" for the Agency.
But his statement about the state of the Afghan War is an unexceptional description of the situation there, and will be no surprise to anyone who's bothered to follow the all-too-few articles on that war for the last two and a half years. The question is what agenda Novak is promoting with this.
He claims his sources are "hard U.S. fighters who are committed to the war against terrorism but have a heavy heart" over the state of the Afghan War. But since Novak is such a hack, it's worth noting that even though he refers to his sources as though he's been talking to soldiers that have been directly involved in Afghanistan, he doesn't precisely say that. So "hard U.S. fighters" could well refer to Pentagon ideologues, in uniform and out. Paul Wolfowitz? Novak's pal Rummy? Christian General Boykin?
Now, I wouldn't take anything as fact just based on Novak's "reporting" (stenography is probably a better word for it). But he uses a 17,000 number for US troop strength in Afghanistan, which would be the largest figure I've seen. We're slowly escalating the troop presence there.
Novak seems to be complaining that US forces are there in order for Bush to make a show that he is seriously trying to capture Osama bin Laden. He claims that the "men in the field" think the effort to find the chief mastermind of the 9/11 attacks is "a helpless [sic] cause." But how many command or bureacratic levels above the actual "men in the field" that report came from is hard to say. This part makes it sound like a criticism of Bush and a plea to just shut the operation down.
But I suspect the real point of the piece is this part near the end:
They are also hamstrung by senior officers who may be expert in conventional warfare but are at a loss to understand American troops who are far closer in style to Lawrence of Arabia than George Patton. The special operations soldiers and junior officers have a low opinion of Lt. Gen. David W. Barno, the U.S. military commander. ...
It is a strange war, with the JAGs -- Judge Advocate General military lawyers -- given a hand in military decisions. My sources tell of commanders, despite credible intelligence of enemy forces, calling off air strikes on the advice of JAGs. This is the kind of restraint the U.S. military has experienced starting with the Korean War, when as a noncombat Army officer, I knew our forces had their hands tied behind their backs.
In other words, he's making a plea for more indiscriminate killing of civilians and a free hand for the use of torture. His complaint that the military isn't focused enough on counterinsurgency is one that many others have made. But as we see in the part just quoted, his idea of counterinsurgency is more indiscriminate air strikes. In fact, there were few good bombing targets in Afghanistan to begin with. Using air power carefully is especially critical in guerrilla war situations.
I don't know exactly what Novak is promoting here. It just looks very strange to me.