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A lot of the giants have retired, died or been furloughed off. But there are still a few newspaper bylines worth looking for in American journalism. Dexter Filkins is one of them.
Filkins is a top war correspondent for The New York Times, known for his reportage from the field. If you have read a good piece on what it is like to be an Army or Marine grunt under fire in Iraq or Afghanistan, it's likely he wrote it.
So when Filkins takes his skills and turns them to analysis — as in this New Republic review of "The Gamble," a new Tom Ricks book on General David Petraeus and the surge — it's wise to find the time to sit down and read it.
Ricks, of course, is a master in his own right — dissecting U.S. military decision-making. And Filkins, though he differs on a few issues, generally gives "The Gamble" good marks.
While doing so, Filkins ranges far and wide in analyzing the U.S. venture in Iraq. As importantly, he applies the lessons learned to Afghanistan — and raises the crucial question of whether the tactics that worked in Iraq are transferable. This is what makes his essay a must-read. His conclusions are sobering.
"The turnaround in Iraq provides an instructive example," Filkins writes. "It may have taken six years and $1 trillion, but in Iraq the Americans built a state. Iraqi police, soldiers, and security forces number about 600,000: a sure sign of a state. That is a mass — something that the insurgents could join.
"In Afghanistan, there is nothing like this. After eight years of neglect, the Afghan state is a weak and pathetic thing. It is not for nothing that President Karzai's nickname is 'the mayor of Kabul.' At the city limits, his writ ends. Across the border, in FATA, there is almost nothing at all. To this end, the Obama administration plans massively to boost economic development aid in Pakistan, and it is planning on doing the same in Afghanistan. Most significantly, the new administration has promised to increase the size of the Afghan army from its current level of 90,000 to some yet-to-be-determined number — probably in the neighborhood of 240,000.
"This is impressive, but the question today in Afghanistan and Pakistan is whether this is really enough. Only 21,000 additional American troops to rebuild Afghanistan? Again, Ricks's book is instructive. When American military officers launched the surge in Iraq, many of them were deeply skeptical about its chances for success. They tried it anyway, and it worked. And so in Afghanistan, too, we are going to try. But we must beware of facile analogies about surges and awakenings. It is a different world in South Asia. The war in Afghanistan is in its eighth year. Every day Pakistan lurches closer to collapse. Obama's proposals may be too late. Failure is always an option."