Always Turning the Corner in the Afghan War

Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution is what you might call a part of part of foreign policy elite, constantly churning out op-eds and TV-ready soundbites about current and pending US wars, and generally being taken seriously. 

And today, on the Washington Post‘s op-ed page (1/3/14), you can find his byline under the (print edition) headline: “Three Reasons for Optimism on Afghanistan.” To the usually hawkish O’Hanlon, the gloomy assessment of the Afghan War “requires rebuttal,” because there is a “case for hopefulness on Afghanistan.”

This sounds familiar–and it definitely should have sounded familiar to Post editors, since the paper has run a stream of very similar pieces from the same author. “Don’t Give Up on Afghanistan” was the headline of his Post op-ed back in July (7/12/13), which argued that problems with the Afghan government are “no reason for the United States to threaten to pull the plug on all it has invested in Afghanistan.” And, O’Hanlon stressed, “Virtually all other Afghan political leaders I know very much want the international community to stay.” (What do Afghans who aren’t “political leaders” have to say? A recent poll commissioned by the US State Department found only 40 percent were looking for a presidential candidate who would keep foreign troops in their country–New York Times, 12/29/13.)

Or in February (2/10/13), when O’Hanlon wrote in the Post that outgoing NATO commander John Allen’s tenure “brought stability and steady progress to the mission in Afghanistan,” and was a time that  “should give hope to those depressed about the war effort.”

In a June 3, 2011, column, O’Hanlon wrote that “evidence is mounting that our military strategy is working–and rapid troop drawdowns this summer and fall are not consistent with the plan.” He added that “the Afghanistan campaign is on a much better track.”

On June 26, 2010, O’Hanlon’s column was headlined “Reasons for Hope on Afghanistan”–not to worry, the reasons back then were different than the reasons to be optimistic today. O’Hanlon explained that critiques of the Afghan War “paint only part of the picture, and they are often more wrong than right unless they are presented with greater nuance.”

And in 2009 (11/16/09), O’Hanlon wrote a piece headlined “A Blue Line in Afghanistan: Police Give Reason to be Optimistic.” He explained that “little attention is being paid to a promising dimension of our efforts to foster reform–a much better approach to building the Afghan police force.” That effort is “a key reason there should be more hopefulness about our mission.”

This record isn’t as laughable as, say, Tom Friedman’s famously predicting–for nearly three years–that the next six months would tell whether the Iraq War would be a success or not (FAIR Media Advisory, 5/16/06). But it is certainly curious that the Post thinks it necessary to print so many stay-the-course op-ed pieces on the Afghan War by the same person–while public opinion continues to drift away from that position.

O’Hanlon was a key advocate of the Iraq War; once that looked bleak, he co-wrote an op-ed for the New York Times (“A War We Just Might Win,” 7/30/07) that attempted to argue the US troop “surge” was bringing victory within reach. The piece was treated–bizarrely–as the work of Iraq War critics who reluctantly backed an escalation of the conflict (Extra!, 10/07)

And O’Hanlon has been clear that he views marshaling US support for a longer Afghan War as important. In one of his other Post columns (7/10/12), he wrote, “We need to reestablish our leverage with clear, credible and consistent messaging from US and international voices.” O’Hanlon is certainly doing his part–thanks to whoever keeps publishing him at the Washington Post.

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