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Meanwhile, In Afghanistan...

Anyone favoring more troops and a full-blown counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan should read David Finkel's book, "The Good Soldiers." It might not change your opinion about the strategy -- but it will at least bring to life what it's actually like on the ground when you're "nation-building" in a hostile place crammed with IEDs. It ain't pretty. [Here is the pdf for McChrystal's assessment suggesting a new strategy in Afghanistan.]

I was at a book party for Finkel last night (he's a Post colleague), and he told us that the battalion he covered, the so-called 2-16, had deployed again to eastern Baghdad. We were sipping wine in a leafy suburb on a perfect equinoctial Sunday evening; those soldiers are in a hellhole.

On the way to the party I saw a Walter Reed medical van -- virtually a hospital on wheels -- racing with siren blaring through downtown Silver Spring. Who was inside? What happened? Where? What's that soldier think we ought to do?

I'm glad that there are people smarter than me who can figure this stuff out.


This weekend I had a chat with Eric Simons, a young journalist who has written a book titled "Darwin Slept Here." [Wow, cool website. Need to get me one of those.] Eric filled me in on what younger journalists are reading and listening to these days (it's important that I get briefed like this since I still consider Norman Mailer to be "edgy"], and he told me about something called Radio Lab that he strongly endorses as excellent science journalism. Here's Eric by email:

"... some links to some of my favorite RadioLab episodes -- I listen to these over and over again. The first 20 minutes is usually the best. You can listen to them without downloading at these links. (Or put them on your iPod Touch.)

"First: Musical language. Show asking the question, what is music?

"Second: Yellow Fluff. The first segment, after a brief intro, is about Mendeleev and the periodic table of the elements.

"Third: Stochasticity. (An entire show titled "stochasticity.")

"Finally: The Ring and I. This one's different -- just Jad, and it's about Wagner, and the Ring opera, and not science. But it's got great writing, great production, really catchy music, and real emotion in it."

[I dunno about you but I'm canceling my appointments so I can listen to the Stochasticity show.]

By Joel Achenbach  |  September 21, 2009; 10:08 AM ET
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: The Most Earth-Like Planet
Next: Boris Yeltsin's Pizza Run


The IED problem is horrible and getting worse. These hellish little devices represent a grotesque form of warfare for which there is, as of yet, no really good response. But here's one insight. More billion dollar bombers aren't going to help.

Posted by: RD_Padouk | September 21, 2009 10:47 AM | Report abuse

Radio Lab looks great, although the direct streaming is, alas, not permissible at work. Still, the idea of downloading these onto an MP3 Player sounds great. That way I can listen to Words of Science while analyzing data. How meta would that be?

Posted by: RD_Padouk | September 21, 2009 10:51 AM | Report abuse

I was musing this morning while reviewing the headline about Afghanistan and the "need" for more troops -- otherwise the "mission" will fail. And the "mission" is what, again? What are the parameters? Do the powers that be (or who were -- footnote: Bush Administration) understand that every outside country (or, if you will, "power") has *never* "won" in Afghanistan? It all brings to mind the time-honored definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result. And then there's the issue of the horrific treatment of women and girls -- which is a world-wide issue, of course, but certainly things are mighty grim for women and girls in Afghanistan.

What is our mission? Is it to find and capture/kill Osama bin Laden? I think that ship sailed so long ago, he's either dead already or is certainly being hidden/protected by a whole lot of people.

Is it to insert and establish Western democracy in Afghanistan? *Expletive!* We can't even do that here!

What is our mission? What does "winning" mean in a non-testosterone-laden definition? If we "win" who else wins? If it isn't women and girls, then there is no "win" ... ever!

Please copy and paste and click on all wars. See whatcha get.


Posted by: -ftb- | September 21, 2009 11:03 AM | Report abuse

I'll repeat John Oliver's great line from The Daily Show the other night...

"Afghanistan is the gold standard for quagmires."

Posted by: -TBG- | September 21, 2009 11:11 AM | Report abuse

If I had my wishes for Afghanistan, I'd rescue all the women and girls and take them to a place where they could create their own society and flourish, away from the corruption and hellishness and war that's all they have ever known. Yeah, a pipe dream.

Posted by: slyness | September 21, 2009 11:21 AM | Report abuse

The mission, in theory, is to cow the Taliban into submission. They support and enable al Queda, and having a Taliban-run country gives al Queda a free hand to organize, train, and proseletize their retrograde form of Islam. Of course part of the irony of all this is that we supported a lot of these guys against the Russians, and they learned a lot of their tactics from us. I'm coming around to the notion that it's time to wind down the occupation and leave the Afghans to their own devices, with the proviso that we, under UN authorization, can monitor what goes on in the country and use whatever force is necessary against al Queda threats that may emerge. All the rest is socio-poltical issues that we are not going to solve.

Posted by: ebtnut | September 21, 2009 11:27 AM | Report abuse

Huh. I've been listening to Radio Lab on the local NPR station for years.

Not religiously, but I've had more than a few Driveway Moments. It think it's quite good, though some may have to take some time getting used to to the quirky production.

Wish I had something helpful or useful to say about Afghanistan, but I really don't. Experts are working on it, and God bless 'em.


Posted by: -bc- | September 21, 2009 11:32 AM | Report abuse

You've got a lot more faith in "experts" than I do, bc. (See "Best and the Brightest, The.")

Experts in science and technology is one thing, but experts in foreign affairs and international policy is another thing entirely. I literally cannot remember the last time those "experts" got it right on any major scale. I just ran through about 20 major events in my mind and couldn't find a single win. And I'm trolling as far back as the Eisenhower administration. I may have to settle for the Korean War, the Atom Bomb and Lend-Lease.

Posted by: curmudgeon6 | September 21, 2009 11:42 AM | Report abuse

I have lots of RadioLab sitting in my iPod, waiting for me to diligently listen to it. My brief experiences with RL make it a chore I do not anticipate with joy. I find the production to be far too enamored of the fun things you can do with mixing sound together (an example: composing a statement of fact out of many people saying the same thing, using one word spoken in each voice). These tricks can be productive, but for my ears and my brain, they are used far too often, so that they are distracting and irritating. I know that the content is good, which is why I have retained them; I like Robert Krulwich's reporting; I may even come to like RadioLab if I just give it more of a chance. For now, however, it's not something that I can look forward to.

Posted by: ScienceTim | September 21, 2009 11:49 AM | Report abuse

That does sound irritating, ScienceTim.

Such tricks would be hard for anybody with even the slightest hearing impairment or auditory processing disorder to follow for more than a few seconds at a time.

Posted by: Wilbrod_Gnome | September 21, 2009 11:53 AM | Report abuse

A lot of "wins" in international affairs are that the major events were successfully avoided.

Posted by: LostInThought | September 21, 2009 12:27 PM | Report abuse

I think there's a lot to be said for LiT's point: my preference regarding international affairs is for it to be something that I don't need to think about. Success accrues to those moments when I don't have any interest in what's going on, because there is no major event. Similar to a successful school board or a successful city council, both of them being phenomena that are woefully rare in the DC metro area. Wouldn't you rather be in one of those areas where nobody knows who's on the school board or the town council, because nobody needs to know?

Posted by: ScienceTim | September 21, 2009 12:36 PM | Report abuse

Hey Good Afternoon!!!!

I had this 7 or 8 inch remainder of sourdough baguette in the fridge. It was driving me nuts. What to do? Seemed hard, but I thought it might have a few breaths left. Well, I couldn't decide what to do. Could I somehow turn it into pizza? Or, bruschetta? How about both at once?

I created an olive oil based dressing with herbs and garlic, pepper, a bit of Louisiana hot sauce for kick. Sliced the bread in half and placed the halves into a pan crust down. I spread the dressing on the bread. Then, I took some tomato sauce that is we have on the stove and which has been cooking down slowly since yesterday and spread that on the bread. Followed by some thin slices of mozzarella and then some pepperoni slices.

Into the oven at 400 for about eight minutes and voila!!!

Give me your tired loaves...

I have just finished off my little lunch while listening to a bit of B-52s


Has anybody seen a dog dyed dark green
About two inches tall, with a strawberry blond fall;

Sunglasses and a bonnet
and designer jeans with appliques on it?
The dog that brought me so much joy
Left me wallowing in pain


Now, back to your very complex discussion.

Posted by: russianthistle | September 21, 2009 12:47 PM | Report abuse

Events "successfully avoided" because of expert advice: Vietnam; Cuban Missile Crises; pulling out of Iraq after 100 hours in 1991; trading arms for hostages, invading the wrong country in 2002 (and still being there seven years later); invading Afghanistan without an end-game and getting dragged into a quagmire (see "Gold Standard of"); the Bay of Pigs; utter foolishness in dealing with Cuba for half a century; arming Saddam Hussein all those years; inability to handle North Korea over the past 8 years (abandoning the Clinton plan, which seemed to be working); letting OBL escape out the back door of Tora Bora becasue Rumsfeld (the expert's expert) couldn't get off the put and send in the troops the CIA begged for to seal of the gap; incorrect analyses of Hamas and other events in the mideast; the list goes on.

No, the fact that we haven't blown ourselves up isn't due to the wise, clear thinking of experts in foreign affairs. C'mon, you can't seriously defend the overall record of "successes" of American foreign policy over the past half century.

(I *can* think of a handful of successes-- but they were usually the result of NOT listening to the experts, but rather doing something else, case in point, the Cuban Missile Crisis.)

Posted by: curmudgeon6 | September 21, 2009 12:51 PM | Report abuse

Now, now, Myudge, I think that there are several of your examples that could be countered, specifically: trading arms for hostages; invading the wrong country in 2002; invading Afghanistan without an end-game; letting OBL escape. Those are situations in which credible non-biased experts publicly analyzed the situation and predicted results, but were ignored by the self-appointed "experts" whose expertise was defined by political position rather than hard work and experience. We KNEW that trading arms for hostages was bad, which is why it was against the law when North did it (even though he "got off on a technicality" = "no rational jury could be found that didn't already know all the evidence"); we KNEW Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11 (at least, I recall knowing it, and arguing vigorously against the invasion), but we followed the political hacks; the guys who made credible predictions for Iraq and Afghanistan were deceived internally or fired for disagreeing with company policy; and the actual experts were uniformly aghast when the self-appointed "expert" (Rumsfeld) forded the situation completely. Admittedly, there were people who claimed expertise and who were stupid and wrong. You have to give a pass to the actual experts on these ones, however -- if we had followed their advice, there is at least a solid chance we would be in a much better position today.

Posted by: ScienceTim | September 21, 2009 1:02 PM | Report abuse

The thing about Afghanistan and Pakistan area is that so many truly bad things could happen if the Taliban were to become resurgent. Things involving nuclear weapons, India, and horrible human rights abuses. So the right approach really isn't self-evident.

Posted by: RD_Padouk | September 21, 2009 1:19 PM | Report abuse

We are paralyzed by the inevitable outcome, if we leave. We seem to hold out hope that something we do will change that inevitable outcome... or improve it.

Leaving isn't the factor that causes inevitable things to happen. Arriving was the problem. In Afghanistan, possibly the extended mission may have actually added to the problem.

Beyond being against the occupation of both Iraq and Afghanistan on principle, I doubt that we can invest in any fruitful improvements to either country's post US period that could overshadow the increased damage by lengthening our occupation.

At best, we have our finger in the dike.

Posted by: russianthistle | September 21, 2009 1:20 PM | Report abuse

May I just say Terminal 5 @ JFK is a wonderful place, particularly because of the free Wi-Fi?

And I've not backBoodled, so excuse me if I'm repeating anyone's earlier warning about the dead-tree version of the "rescuing the orphaned uranium" article -- It was HORRIBLY laid out, entire sentances (if not large portions of paragraphs) missing. *SIGH*

*using-the-reflective-vest-and-red-flashlights-just-like-the-runway-folks Grover waves* :-)

Posted by: Scottynuke | September 21, 2009 1:25 PM | Report abuse

Lance Cpl. Christopher Balthazar--graduated just last year from a local high school, he would have turned 20 on Wednesday. Died Sept. 3:

Lance Cpl. Travis Babine--too young to have had a serious girlfriend. Died Aug. 6.:

Army Staff Sgt. Clayton Bowen--IIRC, his parents sent power tools to Afghanistan to help build bettr shelter for the troops. Wish I could find the URL for the earlier article--Sig Christensen reported it, I believe. Died Aug. 18.

Posted by: laloomis | September 21, 2009 1:31 PM | Report abuse

Obama should figure our best interests in the region. I suspect I am not qualified to even know the answer to that; so much is classified. What are we willing to accept; what is unacceptable? If the barbarous treatment of women is unacceptable, how do we square that with the U.S. of 1845, for example? If we had time machines, would we have to declare war on our own past? How much heroin is okay in the world? How much do we deliberately not look in dark corners?

And did anyone notice how Iraq is turning into a regime exactly as brutal as Saddam's was?

Posted by: Jumper1 | September 21, 2009 1:37 PM | Report abuse

I would just like to thank Mudge for reminding me, a Boodle or two back, of the phrase "a mug's game." I was trying to recall that phrase recently, but could not remember to whom this sort of game was supposed to belong. Now I have been reminded, and I am the better for it!

Posted by: ScienceTim | September 21, 2009 2:06 PM | Report abuse

I should call my Dad, plan to have dinner together soon. I've successfully completed basic training :)

Have a very happy day all.

Posted by: LostInThought | September 21, 2009 2:08 PM | Report abuse

New kit...about Yeltsin and Pizza, of all things.

Posted by: curmudgeon6 | September 21, 2009 2:28 PM | Report abuse

LiT, is that dinner *out?*


Posted by: -bc- | September 21, 2009 2:28 PM | Report abuse

So far McChrystal hasn't demonstrated he's got the chops to do the job. Calling for more troops is a no-brainer. And if Obama doesn't go along, well, the army can blame any failure on him. And already some brass in the Pentagon are spitting at Obama for daring to take the time to think it through.

Afghanistan isn't ready for nation-building. It runs against the fracture zones of local power-balancing strategies. The government is corrupt, but "corruption" is how you do business and stay in power when power is personal and institutions are weak. So we've got to figure out how to stabilize the security situation given the realities on the ground, or begin trimming our goals, which may include withdrawing from some part of the country and using the local rivalries to collect intelligence and make sure that havens for the Arab Islamicist terrorists don't open up.

You've got to think from politics to security, not the other way around. McChrystal (forgive me if I get this wrong) seems to push that off as the responsibility of other agencies of the US government; they're supposed to come in and fix up the politics to create the context in which his COIN project will work.

Some in the military are charging the COIN has gone from a strategy for use in specific circumstances to Army dogma and orthodoxy. (see the various critiques of Colonel Gian P Gentile.)

Posted by: j2hess | September 21, 2009 4:20 PM | Report abuse

Creating chaos or order in a place like Afghanistan is easy if you are willing to resort to terror. The problem is that the US is unwilling to use that tactic against civilians in general.

We will never win in Afghanistan. The politicians who opine about turning power over to a properly trained national army are blowing smoke. Fidelity to tribe is much more important to an Afghani than fidelity to nation. When that is your raw material thinking you can build a strong national army is an exercise in fantasy.

Posted by: edbyronadams | September 22, 2009 8:20 AM | Report abuse

From Afghanistan:

This is the raw material from which we expect to create a modern nation state. Uh huh.

Posted by: edbyronadams | September 22, 2009 8:37 AM | Report abuse

oh man, i have such a hard on for radiolab. it is easily my favorite NPR show. the "Sleep" episode is one of my favorites.

Posted by: Egadman | September 23, 2009 5:39 PM | Report abuse

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