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The NYT’s Weird Haqqani Silver Lining Story

Today comes the news that “Taliban Fighters Appear Quieted in Afghanistan,” which sounds like a major victory. But in order to receive the information in context, you have to know that the US media throw around the word “Taliban” willy-nilly, referring to any insurgent group in Afghanistan with that moniker. Specifically, this article talks about the Haqqani network, which has not conducted any attack in Kabul in several months. So what sounds like a generic headline, “Taliban Fighters Appear Quieted in Afghanistan,” actually refers to one Taliban in one part of the country.

The Haqqani network is considered one of the more formidable Taliban operating in Afghanistan, and the Administration doesn’t want to trumpet success against them publicly for fear of jinxing the positive news. And there are possible alternative answers – Karzai is paying them not to attack, the Pakistani ISI told them to stand down to get a foothold in future negotiations – other than military force vanquishing the Haqqanis. But if you venture elsewhere in the east, you can tell a story about Taliban infiltration and strengthening. In fact, the same paper touting the Haqqani victory wrote that story yesterday. And the east is where the Haqqani network is thought to have their strongest base.

The point is that, when you have such a disparate network of enemies, you could literally tell a positive or negative story about Afghanistan and the Taliban every day. Kept down to the local level, you can say that ties between the NATO-led ISAF force and the vilagers are growing and the insurgency stalled. Or, you can say that some other strategically insignificant piece of land has proven difficult to leave without consigning the area to Taliban control.

Telling the story in a series of anecdotes is how Vietnam could look like a victory on the reporting sheets of the commanders on the ground without never approaching that. You have to get a bigger picture. And for every Haqqani victory – so tenuous that the military refuses to even call it a victory, and has come up with dozens of alternative explanations for their lack of major attacks in Kabul – there are scores of replacements willing to die to oust the occupiers. And there’s no sense that the Haqqanis even want to hold Kabul – their goal is to sustain a presence in their own land. Why would you even consider the import of a small, lonely victory, in that environment? Why would you consider it a victory over a network that can still do this?

On Dec. 19, Haqqani-linked insurgents armed with AK-47s and grenades opened fire on a bus carrying Afghan army trainers. One attacker ran into the bus and blew himself up, killing five officers and wounding nine others.

UPDATE: Juan Cole has the top 10 myths about Afghanistan in 2010.

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David Dayen

David Dayen