In the Arena

India and Pakistan and Afghanistan

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Glenn Greenwald has now joined several Swampland commenters in asserting that I somehow raised a “new” argument for the Afghan war escalation over the weekend when I wrote that pulling out of Afghanistan would exacerbate tensions between India and Pakistan, empower the more extreme elements of the Pakistani military, perhaps leading to an Islamist coup and certainly removing whatever restraints the Pakistani military has had in supporting its Afghan Taliban clients. Greenwald, inimitably, goes on to assert that I’ve been spoon-fed this “new” rationale by my “hawkish government sources” in the Obama Administration.

First of all, there is absolutely nothing “new” about this argument. It is well known to most people who have been following this story carefully; I’ve referred to it more than a few times. In fact, candidate Barack Obama raised it more than a year ago, in this interview with me, several weeks before the 2008 election, when he placed the Afghan war in the context of the regional struggle between India and Pakistan and proposed a special envoy to sort it out, paying particular attention to the problem at the heart of the controversy–Kashmir. (This comment was front-page news all over the subcontinent. The Indians were so adamantly opposed that India had to be dropped from Richard Holbrooke’s official brief when he became the special envoy to the region–proof of the volatility of the issue.)

Second, I don’t know where Greenwald gets his information about how I go about my work; indeed, he does this often with mainstream journalists he disagrees with. The assumption is, if we disagree with him, we must be either (a) lazy or (b) prostitutes.

Over time, it has become clear to me that he has no idea how actual journalists do what they do–I mean, people who report as opposed to people who merely opine, as he does. So let me explain how I came to write what I did on Sunday.

In this case, my reporting started with the Obama interview and then proceeded with two visits to Afghanistan and two visits to Pakistan in the past year, many discussions with U.S. diplomats…and lots and lots of reading. The visits to Pakistan were especially valuable: it was there that I gained a much clearer view of how the Pakistanis perceived this situation (their exaggerated sense of the Indian threat borders on paranoia). I’ve also had many conversations with U.S. military sources, but none that I can recall about the India-Pakistan relationship–I’ve pretty much stuck to the military situation on the ground in Afghanistan when talking to Pentagon sources; in recent months, as regular readers know, I’ve had a running dispute with senior military officials abouts why they chose to put troops in Helmand province as opposed to Kandahar, in contravention of counterinsurgency doctrine. It’s a serious strategic mistake that enabled the Taliban to gain strength in the key Pashtun population center.

Over the past few weeks, especially since Obama’s West Point speech, I’ve been struck by the narrowness of the Afghan discussion–by the President and the press–and felt that it might be a service to readers to review the regional issues here. That’s why I wrote what I wrote over the weekend.

But it’s interesting: over the course of 2 years of blogging, I’ve learned that most people really don’t understand why journalists write what they write when they write it. On that larger point, Greenwald is sometimes right–journalists don’t always do what they should. They can be lazy or inaccurate; more often, it’s not so much a matter of being spoon-fed by sources as the opposite–cynicism has become the default position, there isn’t enough independent thinking and analysis going on. Sometimes, believe it or not, the President–even a terrible President like George Bush–does the right thing and should be commended for it. The press latches onto minutiae (is the President too over-exposed etc etc), sees too many trees without giving the context of the forest. But we often do our jobs very well–at times, brilliantly, at the risk of life and limb. (I’m not talking about occasional visitors to war zones like me, but people like Dexter Filkins of the Times, Pamela Constable of the Post and dozens of others, who actually live in difficult places and who’ve helped educate me when I’ve traveled to their regions.)

Greenwald only acknowledges good journalism when he agrees with it; he never acknowledges a thoughtful or responsible position taken on the other side. It’s all a manichean cartoon–no, actually, it’s all a court case: he’s standing at the plaintiff’s bar, fighting against the comfortable and the powerful–except for comfortable and powerful trial lawyers. Well, bravo. Sometimes there is call to do that. But usually, when dealing with public policy issues, it’s more complicated than a court case. And on an issue like Afghanistan, complicated doesn’t even begin to describe it. Those who would have us retreat need to take every aspect of the situation into account, just as those who would have us stay. I believe that in this case the President went through the exercise, carefully considered every option, and made his decision–a grudging decision–in honorable fashion. I agree with his decision, although I’m not sure that I’m right to do so; I certainly don’t denigrate those, including some I know in the military and the Administration, who disagree–not even those who make their arguments carelessly, as George McGovern and Glenn Greenwald have. They may, in the end, be right.

Update: More Greenwald, though he’s backpedaling a bit now. He’s concerned that the regional strategic concerns that I’ve described are a secret casus belli on the part of the Obama Administration. That’s rather melodramatic. What’s actually happening here is…diplomacy. It would be indelicate for the Administration to talk about its fears that Pakistan will trend toward an Islamist takeover if we leave–because the Administration doesn’t want to rile or insult the Pakistanis (although Bruce Riedel, who led the first Obama Afghan review, has said so very publicly, both to me and in an article in the National Interest). It is also impossible to speak publicly about Kashmir because the Indians go berserk whenever we do so (as the Indians did, when Obama mentioned Kashmir in the interview with me cited above).

As I said, these are matters of diplomacy, not intelligence. They have nothing to do with the sort of government secrecy that so concerns civil libertarians like Greenwald. Indeed, the argument I laid out is not considered news in the foreign policy community; I felt the need to repeat it in order provide some context for the Afghan decision. I also believe that the Administration could have done a better job in providing that context. But the President–or any of his top officials–would be foolish to comment on it, since that would work at cross-purposes with our diplomatic mission in the region.

As for those commenters who believe that this disagreement with Greenwald is somehow rude or over-the-top, or unnecessary, you should have seen previous exchanges between us. I think we’ve both been fairly well-behaved so far and that our readers have benefited from this discussion.

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