Last week, I was installing some Velux heat-deflecting windowshades (I live on the top floor, and it gets hot in the summer) and had Anne Will (g) on in the background. The Anne Will show can be compared to the Sunday morning talk shows in the U.S. Will broadcasts late every Sunday evening after the popular Tatort crime series. 4-5 million Germans watch the show regularly. The Sunday late-neight talk show is kind of a traditional franchise — Will took over the host's job from Sabine Christiansen in 2007, but kept the show's format and design largely the same.
The topic that night was the German engagement in Afghanistan. This has been high-profile news in Germany lately, given the German casualties that have been flown back from there recently. High-ranking German politicians, including Defense Minister Karl-Theodor von Guttenberg, have given speeches at the soldiers' funerals, and have made headlines by calling the Afghanistan conflict a 'war' and promising that the soldiers' sacrifices will not be in vain.
Germans media critics and commemtators love to lob grenades at this political talking-heads show, for all the usual reasons. But from an American perspective, the array of political opinions represented on the average Anne Will show is stunningly, refreshingly broad. The Afghanistan show, for instance, featured two outspoken opponents of the Afghan war, journalist Roger Willemsen and Left Party honcho Gregor Gysi. The debate got extremely lively (g), with pro-war panelists accusing Willemsen and Gysi of effectively favoring the Taliban.
Nevertheless, Willemsen and Gysi held their ground. Willemsen once had supported the reconstruction aspect of the mission, but argued that the increased militarization of the engagement was counterproductive and wrong. Gysi questioned the entire enterprise. When asked whether he thought the recent soldiers' sacrifices served a purpose, he basically said 'no'. He defended himself against the accusation that he was downplaying the soldier's bravery by reminding the viewers that he never supported the policy that sent them into battle in the first place. He also pointed to the insidious danger of promising to give meaning to soldiers' sacrifices — it leads to endless conflict, as further troops are thrown pointlessly into harm's way to try to salvage something, anything that can be called 'victory.'
And speaking of endless conflict, Gysi and Willemsen went on, what has the west to show after years of fighting? The security situation is still volatile, the current leadership of the country is hopelessly corrupt, and there is no obvious path either to improvement or disengagement, given the German government's current rhetoric. These are some perfectly good reasons, they reminded the viewers, why 70% of Germans want their troops out of Afghanistan. The other guests spoke of the need to improve the security situation to further 'stabilize' the country and provide breathing space for 'reconstruction', but Gysi and Willemsen kept hammering back with the simple question: after almost nine years of occupation, what is there exactly left to try that hasn't been tried? Where is the bold new plan that promises to actually bring stability to this notoriously ungovernable country? And if there actually is such a plan, why wasn't it put into place long ago?
In short, it was much closer to a real debate on the war in Afghanistan than anything you will ever see on American prime-time television. Every second sentence out of Gysi and Willemsen's mouth would have been enough to end the political career of a mainstream Democratic or Republican politician. Whatever you think of Gysi and Willemsen (both have a long and controversial history that I won't go into here), their arguments were clear, and most of their points were rewarded by enthusiastic applause by the studio audience, who were by no means all card-carrying leftists. And the counter-arguments they faced were pretty weak tea. The elephant in the room was the simple fact that Western troops have been in Afghanistan for almost nine years and still face powerful and growing opposition. This state of affairs could last indefinitely.
I was reminded of the show by this new report from the Pentagon on Afghanistan:
The new report offers a grim take on the likely difficulty of establishing lasting security, especially in southern Afghanistan, where the insurgency enjoys broad support. The conclusions raise the prospect that the insurgency in the south may never be completely vanquished, but instead must be contained to prevent it from threatening the government of President Hamid Karzai.
The report concludes that Afghan people support or are sympathetic to the insurgency in 92 of 121 districts identified by the U.S. military as key terrain for stabilizing the country. Popular support for Karzai's government is strong in only 29 of those districts, it concludes.
U.S.-led military operations have had "some success in clearing insurgents from their strongholds, particularly in central Helmand," the report said. But it adds: "The insurgent tactic of re-infiltrating the cleared areas to perform executions has played a role in dissuading locals from siding with the Afghan government, which has complicated efforts to introduce local governance."
The insurgency has easy access to fighters, small arms and explosives for roadside bombs, the report notes, giving fighters a "robust means" to sustain military operations.
"A ready supply of recruits is drawn from the frustrated population, where insurgents exploit poverty, tribal friction, and lack of governance to grow their ranks," the report said.
The report also notes that insurgents' tactics are increasing in sophistication and the militants have also become more able to achieve broader strategic effects with successful attacks. The Taliban continue to use threats and targeted killings to intimidate the Afghan population.
Every day these wars continue, more people are killed and maimed — whether psychologically or physically — on both sides. Here's a wrenching interview with a Army Specialist Ethan McCord, who came upon the aftermath of the 2007 Apache helicopter attack investigated by Wikileaks:
McCord: I have never seen anybody being shot by a 30-millimeter round before. It didn’t seem real, in the sense that it didn’t look like human beings. They were destroyed.
Wired.com: Was anyone moving when you got there other than the two children?
McCord: There were approximately two to three other people who were moving who were still somewhat alive, and the medics were attending to them.
Wired.com: The first thing you saw was the little girl in the van. She had a stomach wound?
McCord: She had a stomach wound and she had glass in her eyes and in her hair. She was crying. In fact, that’s one of the reasons I went to the van immediately, because I could hear her crying. It wasn’t like a cry of pain really. It was more of a child who was frightened out of her mind. And the next thing I saw was the boy…. He was kind of sitting on the floorboard of the van, but with his head laying on the bench seat in the front. And then the father, who I’m assuming was the father, in the driver’s seat slumped over on his side. Just from looking into the van, and the amount of blood that was on the boy and the father, I immediately figured they were dead.
So, the first thing I did was grab the girl. I grabbed the medic and we went into the back. There’s houses behind where the van was. We took her in there and we’re checking to see if there were any other wounds. You can hear the medic saying on the video, “There’s nothing I can do here, she needs to be evac’d.” He runs the girl to the Bradley. I went back outside to the van, and that’s when the boy took, like, a labored, breath. That’s when I started screaming, “The boy’s alive! The boy’s alive!” And I picked him up and started running with him over to the Bradley. He opened his eyes when I was carrying him. I just kept telling him, “Don’t die; don’t die.” He looked at me, then his eyes rolled back into this head.
…We’re sorry for the system that we were involved in that took their father’s life and injured them. If there’s anything I can to do help, I would be more than happy to.
…Now, as far as rules of engagement, [Iraqis] are not supposed to pick up the wounded. But they could have been easily deterred from doing what they were doing by just firing simply a few warning shots in the direction…. Instead, the Apaches decided to completely obliterate everybody in the van. That’s the hard part to swallow.
…I don’t think that [the] big picture is whether or not [the Iraqis who were killed] had weapons. I think that the bigger picture is what are we doing there? We’ve been there for so long now and it seems like nothing is being accomplished whatsoever, except for we’re making more people hate us.
If the U.S. had a functioning public sphere, this interview would have been broadcast live on national television, rather than a website whose stock in trade is tech gadgetry news such as: "Racing Game for iPad uses iPhones as Controllers".