Michael's Dispatches

Af-Pak Reporting

19 August 2008

Michael Yon

By now, no credible person denies the dramatic success that continues to manifest itself in Iraq. No doubt, there will be years of political dramas ahead for that country, and when they occur, we will blame ourselves for them, as is our habit. Americans have a tendency to blame ourselves nearly everything from wildfires to genocidal wars on the other side of the globe. And what we don't blame ourselves for, others will. Some might see our ability to take initiative and shoulder responsibility as naiveté. I think it's one of America's greatest strengths.

Many people around the world see America in decline. As someone who travels a great deal, I see the opposite. America is just getting started. Yes, we face enormous challenges and dangerous enemies. But the soul of our country, the initiative of our people, and the depth of the collective intelligence are all far stronger than our critics, and even many Americans, imagine. Al Qaeda thought that America would fall to her knees after 9/11. They were wrong. Today we hunt them like jackals.

Of course, the Iraq war has led some to think that the United States has committed a tragic imperial overreach. Saddam Hussein was an evil tyrant, a truth widely accepted by the international community. Yet the international community can do little about evil tyrants. They leave that up to us, complaining when we do nothing and criticizing when we take action.

However history finally judges him, President Bush will be remembered for two decisions. In 2003, he invaded Iraq. And in 2006, he did not surrender.

Whether or not the first decision was right seems difficult to answer definitively without falling back onto ideological bias, partisan politics, or wishful thinking. Reasonable people likely will disagree about that decision for as long as the event is remembered. If Iraq falls apart or again becomes a tyrant state, then Bush was a brash, imperialistic President invading a sovereign nation without cause, who made things worse and spent lots of money and lives in doing so. If Iraq becomes a stable and prosperous nation even vaguely similar to the United Arab Emirates or Qatar, then most fair-minded people likely will judge Mr. Bush as a little-understood visionary who paid a moderate price to dramatically improve an important region of the world.

But few reasonable people who have been paying attention can disagree that the second decision was correct. In January 2007, one prominent Senator predicted that the Surge would only deepen the sectarian conflict in Iraq. "I am not persuaded that 20,000 additional troops in Iraq is going to solve the sectarian violence there: In fact, I think it will do the reverse."

Now it's difficult to tell exactly what Senator Obama thinks about the Surge, for each remark he makes on the subject seems to veer in a different direction without ever actually going anywhere.

Please remember all those politicians and journalists who insisted that splitting Iraq into three parts was the only way. Meanwhile, those of us who were actually in Iraq kept insisting that the idea of splitting Iraq was ridiculous. There is no substitute for being on the ground over a sustained period.

History will show that after five years and more than four thousand American lives, we have proved that we never planned to steal Iraq's oil. To see a real war for oil, one need only look at what Russia is doing in Georgia. Vladimir Putin's Russia is reminding the world how much it needs America.

Sure, we made mistakes in Iraq, and we will continue to make mistakes in the future—there, in Afghanistan, and anywhere we dare to venture. But if we didn't try, the world would quickly turn to chaos and tyranny. The world is filled with extremely powerful weapons, and criminal-minded leaders who would use those weapons against any weaker nation who has something they want. America is the only country on Earth with power, will, and good intentions (at least, most of the time). That is why we are the indispensable nation.

Today, through perseverance, military courage, and increasingly smart strategy and politics, the Coalition has won the war in Iraq. Iraq has a chance to emerge from its bloody past. Having new BMWs and Mercedes bought with oil money does not make a country modern. Yet Iraq now has the chance to lead their people into the promise of a new life, and inspire their neighbors toward positive change.

What Iraq does now is largely up the Iraqis. They will have dramas, for which the world likely will blame the United States. But ultimately, the Iraqis now control their own future. This is what freedom means. It's not easy, and nothing's guaranteed. But at least the Iraqis have got a serious chance. If the Iraqis have the intelligence and will to seize the day, they will emerge as a powerful force in the Middle East with close ties to the West.

Looking back on the Iraq war, for all the attention the media paid, their reporting was anything but balanced. The outcome of the war was being negatively affected by irresponsible journalism, some of which was intentionally misleading. We truly could have lost the Iraq war due in large part to journalistic travesties. That we won the war despite the media demonstrates just how great our soldiers are. And let’s never forget the price that the British and others paid, like the Poles, and even the Georgians.

An unintended consequence of the Iraq war was that we ignored Afghanistan/Pakistan, where things only got worse. Now many are calling Af-Pak "The Good War," but let's see how long that lasts. Our NATO allies hide behind the sturdy legs of the United States and Great Britain, who do most of the real fighting in Afghanistan, just as they did in Iraq.

Now that media attention is turning back to the Af-Pak war, let's hope that the sum of their reporting will be more informed and less biased than what came out of Iraq. If the Iraq model is followed again, the Western politicians will say whatever is expedient, bending to popular pressure created by the media, many of whom understand the bending of truth better than Einstein understood the bending of light.

Meanwhile, the press will meander around like a herd of buffalo, occasionally stampeding in unison off a cliff, and taking public perception with them to the jagged rocks below.

My recent month-long walk in the Himalayan Mountains served as a buffer between Iraq and Af-Pak. We won the Iraq war, and now it's down to relatively sporadic violence and the arguments about what we should do with all of our troops and enormous amounts of gear still remaining. Little doubt, many of those troops will soon be in Afghanistan. But if there was not enough firsthand reporting from Iraq, there promises to be even less in Af-Pak. This front likely will not end as quickly, or as neatly, as Iraq. It could take decades. And we could still lose.

I have just left Nepal and landed in Bangkok, en route to Kabul. My plan is to spend some time in Afghanistan, head back over to Iraq in late September, then possibly return to Afghanistan before the year's end. In any case, I plan to keep my boots in Iraq and Afghanistan through the U.S. elections.

The last time I headed to Afghanistan, I spent far more money than I earned. Folks just didn't seem to care about that war. I am willing to stick it out, and have already proven that willingness in Iraq, but I simply will be unable to do so without generous reader support. These days support is scant. Folks seem to think I got rich off Moment of Truth in Iraq (I didn't). There will probably be no independent journalists who spend more than a month or so in Af-Pak during any given year. Same with the mainstream reporters I know. This means there will be almost no firsthand reporting from the Af-Pak battlefields, and less than a trickle comes to today. If readers want me there, I'll commit, but reader support is absolutely critical. I can't do it without you, and your support is needed TODAY. I should be in Afghanistan later this week.

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