Returning to Afghanistan - Finbarr O’Reilly - Tuesday 1/9

Returning to Afghanistan
Finbarr O’Reilly
Tuesday 1/9

Groundhog Day syndrome.  You know, when every day feels like it happened yesterday and maybe last year at this time and tomorrow promises no escape.  

The news from Afghanistan has that Groundhog Day persistence…the government may fall apart even before scheduled parliamentary elections, which the government isn’t ready to execute…yes, I do believe we have been here or somewhere very close before.

Terrorist attacks that kill a few or a dozen or more still occur on a daily basis, in small, somewhat isolated towns, and in big cities like Kandahar and the capital Kabul.  Usually Afghan police, who are easier to target, or military posts or convoys.  Recently in Kabul, terrorists got into a building under construction next door to where the Afghan Intelligence Service does its training.  Security services say they killed the terrorists before they could kill any intelligence officers, although they did lose an intel colleague that very day in a provincial town.  The big break from Groundhog Day repetitions here is that now, in addition to Taliban militants, there are killers representing the Islamic State.  And yes, they do kill one another, probably as often as they kill government forces, much less American troops or their allies.

‘Twas ever thus, meat-grinder of war in Afghanistan chews up Afghans almost exclusively, and the casualty counts among government police and soldiers had been steadily growing until – the lights went out – what are supposed to be open statistics on personnel in Afghan government service, including deaths and injuries have been declared secret.  The US military says it’s the Afghan government’s call.

Could be, but here’s the net-net of this sudden secrecy: “The Afghans know what’s going on; the Taliban knows what’s going on; the U.S. military knows what’s going on,” says John F. Sopko, the American Government’s special inspector general for Afghanistan. “The only people who don’t know what’s going on,” he says, “are the people paying for it.”

Hey man, he’s talking about us, the American citizens paying for the latest escalation in the US military commitment to Afghanistan, more troops, more aggressive use of armed drones and special forces night raids.  The Trump Administration goal here is to reverse gains by Taliban insurgents and compel them to agree to peace talks.

This sounds to me like an impossible goal being set for a losing team.  The gains in territorial domination or denial the Taliban and Islamic State units are achieving might be reversed with a bigger and better-trained Afghan Army, half of the announced Trump strategy.  The problem is that other half, the stepped up use of drone attacks and commando raids to force the Taliban, at least, to a peace negotiation.  Living under the un-ignorable buzz of drone surveillance, and seeing or hearing about the damage the drones can do or enable makes most people fervently hate the people in charge of the drones.  And, by and large, night raids, unless they surgically remove someone everyone in the community hates, and sometimes even what they do, make communities reject the outsider-raiders, and the government that licenses them.

As for compelling the Taliban to surrender and sue for peace…this ignores two realities.  One is that the home team almost always assumes, almost always successfully, that sometime, however far in the future, the visiting team, the invaders, will go home.  And they’ll still be there.

Here’s the other, we’re talking about Afghanistan, where the home court advantage defeated Alexander the Great and every other outside force for 2000 years.  Putting a horrible hurt on Afghan fighters and the innocent civilians who live near them has never compelled anything except a dedication to resist.

Everything about the announced White House strategy proclaims: It’s Groundhog Day.  With bad weather ahead.



Finbarr O’Reilly is the co-author of Shooting Ghosts, a deep and intense book about O’Reilly’s friendship with Marine Sgt. Thomas Brennan, which included, early on, O’Reilly photo-reporting Brennan’s wounding by an exploding Taliban RPG shell.  O’Reilly spent 12 years as a Reuters correspondent and staff photographer based in West and Central Africa and won the 2006 World Press Photo of the Year. His coverage of conflicts and social issues across Africa has earned numerous awards from the National Press Photographer’s Association and Pictures of the Year International for both his multimedia work and photography, which has been exhibited internationally. Finbarr spent two years living in Congo and Rwanda and his multimedia exhibition Congo on the Wire debuted at the 2008 Bayeux War Correspondent’s Festival before traveling to Canada and the US. He embedded regularly with coalition forces fighting in Afghanistan between 2008-2011 before moving to Israel in 2014, where he covered the summer war in Gaza from inside the Strip. He is a 2016 MacDowell Colony Fellow and a writer in residence at the Carey Institute for Global Good, a 2015 Yale World Fellow, a 2014 Ochberg Fellow at Columbia University’s DART Center for Journalism and Trauma, and a 2013 Harvard Nieman Fellow




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