June 2, 2011, Forward Operating Base Pasab, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan
A colonel tells me my fifteen-minute interview with the general is at the end of the day. That is, if he has any time after visiting a nearby school the Taliban previously shut down, followed by an in-depth briefing from all US commanders in southeast Afghanistan.
Frankly, I’m not all that keen on doing it, but when the opportunity arises to talk to Gen. David Petraeus, commander of all NATO forces in Afghanistan, I know I can’t turn up my nose. My editors really want it. Petraeus is a name most readers recognize from the Iraq war and in the minds of some he’s the 21st century Gen. Patton.
Not mine, but some.
Personally, I don’t much like talking to “top brass” like Petraeus. Their answers are too polished. Everything they say is a well-rehearsed sound bite that puts positive spin on even the most dire of situations.
Part of me can’t blame him for trying to put a sunny sheen on the war, especially after the whole Gen. McChrystal/Rolling Stone debacle that got his predecessor canned for speaking his mind in front of a reporter after too many highballs.
But unlike free-wheeling, hip-shooting McChrystal, Petraeus is more akin to the CEO of a large corporation who will say anything while imploring the shareholders -- in this case, the American public -- to hang in there for the promised upswing in the company’s fortunes even though the stock is currently taking a colossal dump.
That’s why I see no real value in talking to Petraeus. It’s not like he’s going to give me anything remotely resembling an honest assessment from his top-rung vantage point. And certainly not in fifteen minutes at the end of a busy day.
Also, it really irks me how the top brass are treated. Generals are received like rock stars. And Petraeus, being the big cheese of the whole Afghanistan enchilada, is like Mick Jagger with a chest full of medals. When he first arrived at Pasab the first thing I noticed was how his handlers and hangers-on all sported glazed looks of infatuation when watching the general or even talking about him.
I usually have no interest in that malarkey. Most of my stories are about soldiers doing the actual fighting. Sure, I’ll throw in a quote from the brigade commander or the occasional major just so my editors think they’re getting a “well-rounded story.” But for the meat of my reporting, I stick to one rule: keep it to captains or lower. Young officers, enlisted and the Afghans are the ones out here doing the real day-to-day fighting. They know a hell of lot more about how the war is going.
Knowing I’m betraying my principles, I spend a few minutes silently pouting while gathering up my body armor and cameras.
Stop whining, you baby! There’s no getting around it.
I tag along with Petraeus and his entourage to the nearby school, a handful of rooms packed with boys learning lessons by rote repetition scrawled on dusty, smudged blackboards. The general is congenial while talking with the teachers and students. He shakes hands with the youngsters and asks them through his interpreter if they enjoy going to school. I try to find something to take away from this sideshow for my article, but get nothing worthy of inclusion in the small space I’ll be allotted for this piece in the newspaper. I snap a few frames of Petraeus walking outside with the director, but the mid-day sun is too bright, and my photographic skills sorely lacking, for me to get a decent shot.
Afterward we head back to base, where the briefing room is prepared for a meeting of all the top commanders in southern Afghanistan. In front of every seat is a styrofoam box containing a crab salad sandwich, apparently a favorite of Petraeus. The food has been sitting out for a couple of hours, I’m told, in anticipation of the general’s scheduled arrival hours earlier. I push aside the container in front of me.
I’ve already had diarrhea this month, thank you very much.
While everyone settles in, one of the general’s aides informs me that I can sit in on the meeting, but am strictly forbidden from taking notes. However I notice a fellow civilian situated next to Petraeus with a notebook open and already scribbling. When I inquire who she is and why she can cover the briefing and I can’t, the young major rolls his eyes, the apparent lone dissenter among his horde that hasn’t drunk the Petraeus Kool-Aid.
“That’s Paula Broadwell. She has special access,” he says, adding that she is working with the general on his memoir.
At first I’m irked that I can’t include anything from this high-level briefing in my story, but after a few minutes of listening to commanders drone on about their successes in this highly volatile part of the country, I let go of my anger. The way they describe how effective they’ve been in suppressing the Taliban threat over the last few weeks makes me wonder what any of us are doing here. According to their progress reports, this war is all but in the bag.
Wait, if that’s the case, can we all go home?
There’s no denying that the addition of thousands of troops in Kandahar has forced the Taliban out of their traditional strongholds. But it’s a “Whack-a-Mole” victory at best. Knock the Taliban down in one area, they pop up in another. The Taliban gets its ears pinned back here in Zharay District, they scurry across the Arghandab River to Panjwai District and set up shop there. The commanders present their successes to Petraeus as decisive blows that will rid Afghanistan of the Taliban forever, or rather, just long enough to keep them from mounting large-scale attacks on US forces (other than the occasional truck bomb at the gate of a base, IEDs, and sniper fire, and of course the occasional insider threat from Taliban infiltrators into the ranks of the Afghan Army, resulting in the slaying unsuspected NATO soldiers who are training the Afghans to take over this hot mess when they eventually leave).
If NATO forces leave as scheduled in a few years from now, it’s going to be up to the Afghan forces to keep the Taliban from returning to power, a dicey proposition for a well-trained and well-equipped army, let alone one composed of new recruits who are often ill-equipped. Of course, none of this comes up during successive reports to Petraeus about how well everything is going.
Just as I find myself nodding off amid the seemingly endless self-congratulations, the briefing ends. The general’s minder walks me over to a raised platform where Petraeus, several inches shorter than I, has positioned myself so I’m looking up to him. I’m told I have the fifteen minutes promised, no time for extended pleasantries. I pull out my recorder and get right into it with questions about the recent increase in violence in the south, which coincides every year with the return of the warmer weather. Spring and summer are the fighting seasons in Afghanistan. Come October, the mountain passes become snowed in, forcing both sides to put off most of the hostilities for sunnier days. I’ve got myself geared up to hit the general with some tough questions about the seeming resilience of the Taliban this fighting season and the continuing challenges US and NATO forces face while training their Afghan counterparts to one day bear the responsibility for all of Afghanistan’s security on their own.
“While we have a spring offensive going, the Taliban also has a spring offensive and we have seen the Taliban try to carry out sensational attacks and in some cases successively,” the general tells me in a carefully practiced tempo without halting for a breath, likely rehearsed to make it difficult to ask any follow-up questions. His cadence is steady and determined like a locomotive. Petraeus is said to run ten miles every morning, so he’s got the lungs to go on for several minutes, eating up half my allotted time with one question. When he finally finishes his answer, I can barely recollect the specifics of what he just said.
Jesus! This guy is going to do some damage in Washington once he’s done here.
I try to counter his rhetoric with more a targeted question that requires a specific answer, hopefully one that begins with a “yes” or “no.”
“If the victories since the arrival of thousands of additional American troops have been so substantial, can a drawdown of US forces be expected in the near future?” I ask, hoping Petraeus will give me something I couldn’t copy from a press release.
“The recent progress here is fragile and reversible,” he starts out, a recent sound bite I’ve read him spew to other reporters.
He continues with more of the same regarding the handover of security responsibilities to Afghan forces and a scheduled drawdown of US troops later this summer. I try to interject mid-stream, asking about the possibility of troops staying on in particular provinces where the Taliban are most entrenched. For a moment, he stares me down for having the audacity to interrupt him mid-pontification, then continues at a quicker pace, seemingly anticipating my eagerness to get into another topic.
I ask him about the death of Osama bin Laden just weeks earlier. I don’t want to, but my editors requested it specifically. Al Qaeda isn’t really a factor to the fight in southern Afghanistan and hasn’t been for a long time. But generals and Washington like to keep the al Qaeda narrative a feature of the Afghanistan story so Americans still think they are a threat over here, thus justifying the ongoing fight against the Taliban and other militant groups in Afghanistan, which frankly the US didn’t give two shits about, even while the Taliban was harboring bin Laden. That is, until September 11, 2001.
“We want to ensure that Afghanistan does not become an attractive alternative to them for, again, a safe haven in which they might plot attacks such as those of 9/11.”
With that, my allotted time with him is up. I hastily toss in another inquiry about Afghan police forces, to which he replies at length without really answering my question. Afterward, I listen to it three times and can’t make headway of what the hell he meant, even though I nodded throughout his answer.
I berate myself for dropping the ball.
I feel dirty and duped. Even worse, I’m embarrassed I squandered the opportunity, even if I didn’t want it. Petraeus handed me my ass in that interview, using his apparent Jedi-like ability to ramble at will while I sat in stupefied silence like some slow-witted lackey guarding the gate at Jabba the Hutt's pleasure palace, letting Luke Skywalker saunter right on into the throne room.
I write up my notes, but it's neither pleasant nor easy. Despite having little to really “report,” I’m slowed by a flu-like sickness that’s been creeping up on me in the last couple of days. A chill comes over me even though it’s 100-plus degrees this time of year. By the time I finish the story I’m near death, shivering and sweating while hacking up a lung. After I email it to my editor, I drag myself to my tent, crawl onto my cot, and zip my sleeping bag up to my neck hoping to doze it off.