Winning the War Against Yesterday: Mike O'Hanlon's Afghan Mad Libs

Eight days ago, the Wall Street Journal published another column promising a "stable Afghanistan" from the Brookings Institution's Michael O'Hanlon. It might as well have been assembled by playing Powerball. O'Hanlon cranks the hopper, opens the little cage and out comes another bromide: "Closer"! "Accomplishing"! "Goals"! "Exit Strategy"!

Oh my God, look at your ticket—you don't even remember entering this contest, but America may have already won.

Three days later, the Taliban rocketed Kabul with strikes on the President's palace, NATO headquarters, the German and British embassies, and the Parliament building. O'Hanlon's response was marvelously fitting. While conceding that the events that happened actually happened, he immediately hand-waved them away: "We must think strategically and not fall prey to an obvious Taliban propaganda ploy."

"Propaganda" is an interesting way of characterizing a coordinated attack on most of the significant buildings in Afghanistan's capital city, while in Pakistan other Taliban forces broke out over 400 prisoners. By these standards, the Tet Offensive might as well be a memo. Whenever Hamas fires Katyushas over the wall at Israel, that's basically just live-tweeting. Yorktown was America's breakup email, and the Treaty of Paris was a big confusing mixtape Britain sent us with both "You Oughta Know" and "Time of Your Life" on it.

What's most interesting about O'Hanlon's response is that a regular purveyor of the back-page opinion of the Wall Street Journal is desperately trying to explain away its front page. His tone and the elisions make a more powerful argument than the soothing balm of anodyne progress reports. The attacks "would be hard to stop frankly in a Western city, requiring as they did only small arms for the most part, so we should hardly be surprised that they can't always be prevented." A fair point, apart from the rockets.

America's gains, meanwhile, always move inexorably toward whatever stated goal we've agreed upon this year. "The [Taliban] attacks," however, "were on balance of only modest effectiveness (at most), and were suppressed almost entirely by Afghan forces." War gracefully slides almost into a leisure activity when your accomplishments are sincere and meaningful and the largest attack on Kabul in 11 years is a dismissible enemy talking point. It's like policy written by the kid on the playground who crowed after winning a game of one-on-one but always called a lot of cheap fouls when you were three points up on him. The Taliban is bullshit, dude; that doesn't even count.

Still, two columns and one once-in-a-decade event might seem like a sin even baseball fans can recognize: it's a small-sample size. (And there are lots of funny samples to enjoy about O'Hanlon. Like this video on his Brookings Institution profile page where, 11 years after 9/11, he's still pronouncing the first name of Ayman al-Zawahiri like it's, "Eyyy Man 'Nice Shot' Zawahiri." For equal measure, he mispronounces the last name too. Or the fact that his latest book is called Bending History in one of those unintentional Orwell-style reveals that could only be matched by George W. Bush deafly writing a book on family values called Bankrupting America.) But this kind of soft-pedaling of enemy gains and reaffirmation of America's mission comprises his default column. Our gains are important, but fragile, and they prove the other guy is losing, whatever it is he just did. Which is why we can't leave. Just give it another Friedman Unit.

Glenn Greenwald broke down this phenomenon nearly five years ago in a litany of quotes on the Iraq war from O'Hanlon and frequent writing partner Ken Pollack. As they downplay criticisms in the present, they often favorably cite some element in the past—which itself was subject to criticism deflected by praise of something preceding it. You can read the quotes in normal or reverse chronology and they manifest like two men in a three-legged race trying to step forward and backward at the same time, instead hopping endlessly in a circle. We must stay the course; we're dizzy and think we're gonna throw up another column.

What's frustrating is how expected this all is. The Brookings Institution—still billed as the "left-wing" think tank by conservative media—is just as much a corporatized centrist disappointment as every other major Washington institution. It's in the imperialism business: selling it, cheerleading it and then excusing it. (Just look at that donor list flush with arms contractors.) Asking Brookings or Michael O'Hanlon for a truly critical appraisal of the American presence in Afghanistan is like asking the people depicted in a Toyota ad for an accurate and critical appraisal for how good Toyotas make owners feel. I've bought you, war; "I love what you do for me!"

It's this constant hum of affirmation that makes indisputably authentic bad news stories come screaming off the page at readers—then also eventually makes them fall silent beneath the drone again. We're scandalized when we learn that drones in Pakistan target what could only extremely optimistically be called "weaponized funerals," but the overall necessity of its program dominates the groupthink, even as it dangerously radicalizes Yemeni al-Qaeda. It's what allows us to be routinely shocked by—and then indifferent toward—new abuses in Afghanistan: a man murdering over a dozen civilians, corpse-pissing and SS banners, Quran burning, and soldiers playing "Dawn of the Dead: The Home Game" or "Real Life Mr. Potato Head" with the grisly parts of former human beings.

And it's the source of that hum that maintains its dominant tone. That mindless buzzing is venerable, authoritative noise. When a whistleblower named Lt. Col. Daniel Davis condemned the war in Afghanistan as a top-down dereliction of duty—in which he "witnessed the absence of success on virtually every level … insurgents controlled virtually every piece of land beyond eyeshot of a US or International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) base"—it made news and disappeared from the radar for two months. Davis is not a "reasonable" establishment voice. (And it's a minor miracle that his classifying a second and more dire appraisal of Afghanistan has kept him from becoming Obama's record eighth whistleblower prosecuted under the Espionage Act.) Testimony like Davis' and desecration of corpses and civilian executions don't control the narrative because those details emanate from the wrong sorts of people.

Nobody wants them to. Brookings knows the score: Republicans win elections on robust war, and Democrats don't lose them if they aren't afraid to seem tough. (If you don't believe that, you can follow Barack's advice and ask bin Laden if Obama is an appeaser.) You can't go wrong calling war straight down the middle. Congress has almost zero interest in dragging a sack of Afghan body parts up the aisle, and they probably have even less in questioning Davis when unmanaged truths might emerge. The sort of person liable to testify is someone like Dave Petraeus' grad school buddy and exernal CIA advisory board member, who can spend the drive to the Capitol dropping nouns and adjectives into the same Murder Libs form he could have safely filled out every week, roughly 480 times since 2003:

The [recent off-script action by our enemies] has been misinterpreted by [name of media or elected official]. While it presents a disappointing temporary setback for [whatever strategy is in vogue at the time], it is not significant compared to [moderate, preferably decontextualized gains] we've achieved in [strategic goal revised downward from more optimistic earlier strategic goal]. In light of our [synonym for progress] regarding [interpretive metric for success], it is essential that we [version of "stay the course"] to protect our [variant on "concrete but still fragile"] accomplishments.

[Personal reminder not to ask Congress for check.]

Image: Jim Cooke, photo by the AP.

"Mobutu Sese Seko" is founder of the blog Et tu, Mr. Destructo?