Are We Winning or Losing in Afghanistan?

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To follow up on Mark’s Afghan update, we are in a strange phase of the war right now where news accounts–sometimes within the same outlet in the same week–paint contradictory pictures of whether we’re winning or losing. A few days ago we were hearing that peace talks with the Taliban were growing more serious, in part because we were decimating their leadership. Now we’re hearing that the Taliban is doing more or less fine, thank you very much.

Bear in mind that this recent tone of optimism comes in advance of a December White House review of the war effort, and also soon after the arrival in Kabul of General David Petraeus, who has a proven knack for winning over the media. That doesn’t mean it’s false, but it provides some context.

Anyway, two posts worth reading on this subject come from longtime Afghan war skeptic Michael Cohen and CNAS’s Andrew Exum, who writes an irritated open letter to the Washington Post (which has generally done great reporting on the war):

Dear Sir or Madam:

As one of your readers, what in the world am I supposed to make of an article in yesterday’s newspaper claiming that the United States and its allies are kicking the holy crap out of the Taliban, and another article today that claims that, no, actually, U.S. and allied operations are not having much of an effect at all on the Taliban’s ability to conduct operations?…

Can you see how this is confusing?… Here’s a radical proposition: why don’t you direct your reporters to pool their sources, work together, and write an article that highlights the conflicting assessments rather than write two articles taking each set of sources at face value? Because I shouldn’t forget to read the newspaper one day and miss the news that we’re winning. Or losing.