Morning Omission

In remarks introducing a story by Jackie Northam about Afghanistan on Morning Edition today, NPR host Renee Montagne noted in passing that in late 2001, after the September 11th attacks, U.S. Special Forces “spearheaded the overthrow of the Taliban” in Afghanistan. The phrase struck me as odd, not least because it sounded like it was taken right out of a White House or Pentagon press release.

There is no doubt that U.S. Special Forces were instrumental in our efforts in Afghanistan in 2001 and 2002, and the quibble I have with Ms. Montaigne’s phrasing does nothing to diminish that fact. But I was under the impression that events took a very different turn than Renee Montagne suggests.

In late 2001 we had, perhaps, routed the Taliban, but we certainly had not overthrown them. We had them on the run. We were killing them in large numbers and capturing them. They were killing us, too. We were making headway against them, but we had not yet vanquished them, which is what the word overthrow suggests — and is intended to suggest. And now, as numerous reports (some of them on NPR) have made clear, the Taliban have regrouped and are, in some places, stronger than ever before — particularly on the mountainous border region with Pakistan.

Even the White House press people are tempering their language nowadays, preferring to speak, instead, of “helping the Afghan people defend their freedom against the Taliban,” as one recent White House briefing puts it: the Taliban, in 2008, are still a force to be reckoned with, an enemy against whom the Afghan people, with our assistance, must remain vigilant. And in our efforts to help the Afghan people safeguard their freedom, or rout the ragtag bands of fighters, or kill and capture those who give safe haven to terrorists — however you want to describe it — we are still losing American lives in the fight against the Taliban.

I am sure that if pressed Renee Montagne and the news editors at NPR would be quick to admit all of this. But in a single word during this morning’s newscast, Ms. Montagne has made a historical muddle of our current situation — not just in Afghanistan, but here at home and around the world. For what happened between the routing and regrouping of the Taliban is, of course, the story of a great strategic blunder: Iraq. The diversion of our forces from the fight in Afghanistan not only weakened our military efforts against the Taliban and interrupted the pursuit of al Qaeda; it also squandered the good will we had around the world after September 11th and plunged us into what is now coming to be seen as a criminal enterprise.

I’m not sure I would even go so far as to say that we “overthrew” Saddam Hussein. We ousted him from power, captured him and killed him. But in neither Iraq nor Afghanistan can we honestly declare our mission accomplished, no matter how much we, or the Renee Montagne and her colleagues at Morning Edition, might wish it so.

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