Amid all the media excitement over the Todd Akin “legitimate rape” comment—and the skinny-dipping-in-the-Sea of Galilee incident—perhaps the most important press report of the week gained little traction. It was an extensive, enraging and at times moving package presented by the New York Times on the current state (and meaning) of the war in Afghanistan.
On one level it merely followed in the Times’s worthwhile tradition of marking milestones in death counts—in this case 2000 Americans dead—by probing the full tally and publishing several pages of tiny photos of all of the deceased. But this story also had a news hook: the growing number of American troops killed by our own allies, that is, the Afghan security forces.
James Dao and Andrew W. Lehren wrote, “In just the past two weeks, at least nine Americans have been killed in such insider attacks. For the year to date, at least 40 NATO service members, most of them American, have been killed by either active members of the Afghan forces or attackers dressed in their uniforms—already outstripping the toll from all last year. ” They quoted Marina Buckley, the mother of Lance Cpl. Gregory Buckley Jr., a Marine who was death number 1,990, and apparently killed by an Afghan insider: “Our forces shouldn’t be there. It should be over. It’s done. No more.”
Of course, Afghanistan is barely a blip in the current race for the White House, and other contests. Some GOPers have hit Obama on wanting to move too quickly (if you can call that “quick”) to exit, or for announcing a deadline, or maybe for pulling some troops out at a bad time of year which might imperil their comrades.
Now the Times has just posted, online only, a column by Roger Cohen, expressing his response to the paper’s package. It also declares, “No more.”
Cohen opens by quoting Kipling, so you know where he’s heading: If any question why we died / Tell them, because our fathers lied. (Later he turns to lines from the great Wilfred Owen.) The lies go beyond Afghanistan, to Iraq and WMD, but then to “the smaller, no less lethal untruths about how Pakistan was an ally in the Afghan struggle, and global terrorism beatable on the battle field, and nation-building feasible in Afghanistan, and sacrifice in the cause reasonable when half of the United States was off at the mall shopping, and victory always—always—within reach.
“Afghanistan is a country where President Obama appointed an able envoy, the late Richard Holbrooke, only to emasculate him; where the president, Hamid Karzai, has long manipulated Western succor to his private ends; and where the greatest emergent threat comes from Afghans in the uniforms of the security forces America and its allies are training to take over from them in 2014. The country is a bottomless pit of hypocrisies.”
He admits some positive improvements in the country. “But there will be no victory; further gain will be incremental or, more precisely, generational. It is time to go. Countless lives have been needlessly lost. It took nearly seven years from the start of the war for the death toll to reach 500. Then the killing accelerated. The Afghan war is a story of inattention, distraction, carelessness, imprecision, uncertainty, corruption—as well as a chronicle of a NATO alliance where some fight and die and others much less so.”
He then hits the “santized” killing via drones, before concluding powerfully: “The faces of the dead are a reproach to America—a reproach to its numbness, to its leadership over the past decade, its divisions, its obliviousness, its loss of community, its factionalism, its hypocrisy and its broken politics.
“They are a reproach to Europe—to the coddled allies who have not shared proportionately in the sacrifice. And they are a reproach to every one of us who has given far less and looked away.”