bumbling in afghanistan

There’s a story
in this week’s _Newsweek_
describing a recent U.S. military
operation called "Mountain Sweep." U.S. Special Forces
have been in Afghanistan for months, growing beards, gaining the
trust of villagers, establishing a human conduit through which flows
a steady stream of intelligence about weapons caches and the movements
of Taliban and Al Qaeda soldiers. This is what Special Forces are
trained for, and they do it slowly, quietly, steadily and well.

However, certain message-conscious parties in the White House and
Pentagon have been getting impatient. A picture of a Green Beret
with a scruffy beard activated alarms in the PR department, at which
point administration officials heeded their spinners and issued
a notice that American forces would henceforth appear shaven and
tidy: better subjects for the camera.

The second act of meddlesome idiocy took place recently, with operation
Mountain Sweep. Impatience for photogenic victories has grown, and
pressure has been applied, from Rumsfeld downward. Into villages
where Special Forces had established fragile rapport with the populace
strode soldiers from the 82nd Airborne, kicking down doors, frisking
women (a horrendous insult to a Muslim), terrifying and radicalizing
men. It’s a "sweep" operation designed to clear the area
of enemy fugitives. Special Forces troops were horrifiedat the tactics
and, remarkably, have spoken out to _Newsweek_ and other media
outlets about the self-defeating effects of the operation. It’s
worth reading the


Isn’t this exactly the sort of civilian meddling–overruling the
judgments of NCOs on the ground–that is lamented by all sides with
regard to Viet Nam? Is the desire for short-term, high-profile PR
victories (in support of building a case for invading Iraq) running
a war, to our long-term detriment?

If a Democratic administration blundered around like this in a
war, the conservatives would call out the ditto-head attack dogs
in droves to decry interference by non-soldiers in battlefield strategy.
However, as Josh Marshall has pointed
, the Democrats and the press seem invested in the myth of
competence that surrounds this administration, despite evidence
like this. Bush’s people are given a free ride.

With Rumsfeld, a man who has no experience on the ground during
warfare, trying to be a Hard Ass from the safety of his office,
we might gain a few boxes of Kalishnikovs and a few nice thirty
second segments on CNN, but we will do so at the expense of the
trust of people who could give us much more. Being a Hard Ass, incidentally,
will get you the same results with the domestic Muslim population:
a few flashy arrests and subsequent chilled silence from average
mosque-goers. Being a Hard Ass is almost always self-defeating in
the long haul, but I guess it makes for nice gestures and sound
bites in the Age of Television.