Thursday, November 5, 2009

Yes, Geoff, it's a serious question

This exchange took place during Geoff Morrell's press briefing yesterday. (You've got to sort of fight through the garbled question, but you get the idea.)
Q As far as Afghanistan war is concerned, many, many think tanks are having discussions and also assessments, are bringing high-class experts, including Wesley Clark and others. What they are saying is that including President Obama and secretary of State and secretary of Defense -- that at peak of -- center of terrorism is not Afghanistan or enemies are not Afghanistan but in Pakistan. But why the war is going on in Afghanistan?

MR. MORRELL: Well, this, I mean -- I mean, are you serious? Is this a serious question?

Q That's what they are saying -- really, why they are fighting the war --

MR. MORRELL: We're fighting in Afghanistan because we were attacked from Afghanistan on 9/11. I'm not going to go re-litigate the history of why we're in Afghanistan at this hour.
Well maybe you ought to, dude.

Obviously we all understand why the war isn't happening in Pakistan: that country has a government that is capable of preventing us from operating on its territory (or that would, at the very least, object to something like that). Afghanistan does not. So terrorist safe-havens and ungoverned territory and blah blah blah. But the fact of the matter remains that those who are responsible for the 9/11 attacks are IN PAKISTAN. Al-Qaeda is currently based IN PAKISTAN. The major threat to South Asian regional stability is IN PAKISTAN.

Can we stop dealing in facile cliches like "we're fighting in Afghanistan because we were attacked from there"? Yeah, we were attacked from there, so we fought there. In 2001-2002. And then the guys who attacked us weren't there anymore. So why are we still fighting there?

There are good answers to this question. There are even good twenty-second answers that can be given in a press conference. Maybe try this one on for size: "As the President made clear during his speech back in March, our goal is to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to prevent their return. Abandoning Afghanistan to the Taliban, who lest we forget were the state sponsors of the same al-Qaeda terrorists who killed 3,000 Americans just eight years ago, would allow terrorist organizations the freedom of movement and material resources they require to strike at Americans around the world. We're not going to permit that to happen."

Seriously, I don't even buy this and I came up with it in about ten seconds. So maybe stop being so effing glib and acknowledge that not everyone is quite so willing to accept your first principles and Ethical Appeal.* I know you can't be laying all this out every single day, but it's a well-intentioned question and it deserves a serious answer. Yes, mouthpiece of the Defense Department, it is possible for someone to be seriously curious about why we're fighting a war in a separate country from our main enemy.

*(To better make sense of this little bit of rhetorical cunning, see David Foster Wallace: "What the Ethical Appeal amounts to is a complex and sophisticated 'Trust me.' It's the boldest, most ambitious, and also most distinctively American of rhetorical Appeals, because it requires the rhetor to convince us not just of his intellectual acuity or technical competence but of his basic decency and fairness and sensitivity to the audience's own hopes and fears." And dude, consider this: maybe we're not so convinced of all that when it comes to our government.)


  1. And roger. Good post Gulliver.

  2. Also, people 'tuning in' may be, and likely are, on a different learning curve (Hey, remember where I was when I first started commenting around here? About where I am now. Drat, forget that example!) and saying stuff over and over and over HELPS TO MAKE THE POINT. Also, ALL CAPS.

    Well, that's my method as a sometimes teacher, my poor students....

  3. Good post, plus points for the DFW quote.

  4. Anon @ 3:47 -- You could fairly say that I'm a David Foster Wallace fanboy. Just in case you jokers thought I only read books about counterinsurgency...