An Audience of One

An Audience of One

By Richard Reeves - November 14, 2009

LOS ANGELES -- Most of what you read, see and hear about Afghanistan is not meant for you. The words, optimistic and pessimistic, right and wrong, all the leaks, all the numbers of troop estimates, costs and polls are aimed at an audience of one: the president.

It is very hard to get to chat with any president. But any president has to know what is in the big three of American newspapers (or their Web sites): The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal. And those papers right now are filled with shouting and whispering to President Obama. The latest shout, a big one, is the leaking to the Times of cables to the State Department from the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, who also happens to be a former military commander of American troops in the country.

That would be ambassador and former general Karl Eikenberry, who told the president that there might be no point in sending more young men and women in uniform to win an unwinnable war in a vast country largely ungoverned or governed by unfathomable corruption. Eikenberry's "classified" words were obviously meant as a countermove designed to check the "classified" request for 40,000 more American troops by the current military commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, leaked to The Washington Post last month.

That is the way the game is played and always has been in Washington. I once asked President Bill Clinton whether he got more critical information from daily Central Intelligence Agency reports and briefings or from reading the Times. "From the Times," he answered. "Although occasionally the CIA and the other intelligence agencies are ahead on timing."

For people like me, who believe we should get out of Afghanistan ASAP, the Eikenberry report surfaced in the nick of time -- just as Obama appears ready to make long-term strategy decisions about our military involvement in Afghanistan. What is going on there is a civil war, a political war, and we have learned time and again that all the firepower in the world cannot stop people who want to destroy each other on their home territory. The Afghans have been in those unforgiving mountains for thousands of years, and they will be there for thousands more after we leave. So it does not really matter when we go.

Besides, our own people at home want us to get out, even if the war is being fought by a volunteer army, and to most Americans that means it is like another National Football League game. Our soldiers are professionals putting on a television show, same as the warriors of the NFL.

"All the polling I've ever seen," said William Schneider of CNN, "tells me one thing: Americans hate political wars. They want to win or get out."

Schneider and I were together at a forum called "Obama's Afghanistan: The Media and the War," sponsored by the Center on Communication Leadership at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California. He went on to say: "We're talking now about persuading the population rather than destroying the enemy. That is the definition of a political war. We are taking sides in another country's civil war."

That message should have gotten through to presidents who ran the war in Vietnam, or it got through too late.

Another panelist, retired Gen. Wesley Clark, the former NATO commander, put it this way: "More troops mean more casualties, which means less public support."

Morton Abramowitz, who was director of the State Department's intelligence bureau in the 1980s when we were training and supplying the mujahedeen fighting and defeating Soviet occupiers in Afghanistan, offered more than a little insight into what is happening now in the same place and sometimes with the same people: "First, we would not be there or in Iraq if we had a draft and people were worried about their children. Second, can anyone tell me why it takes so long to train Afghan soldiers. The Taliban seems to have no trouble training them in a few weeks."

I hope the audience of one is listening to words like that and has the political courage to break his own campaign promises about saving Afghanistan. Save them from what, themselves?

Richard Reeves

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