The Idiocracy Factor 

How U.S. ignorance helped doom the Afghan War

NEW YORK—Americans' lack of knowledge about Afghanistan is virtually limitless.

During my 2001 trip, where I covered the Taliban defeat at the Battle of Kunduz for the Village Voice and KFI radio, I met a British reporter who offered a prescription for American military action. "If the average American cannot identify three cities in a country," he suggested, "the U.S. should not invade it."

Given that the average American doesn't know his or her state capital, much less three cities in, say, Canada, this would transform us into a pacifist society overnight.

The Afghan war document trove leaked by WikiLeaks has prompted many to ask: Why didn't the media question the war against Afghanistan before now?

People like Ahmed Rashid, the Pakistani journalist who wrote Taliban, tried repeatedly to get the world to pay attention to a different take. Pakistan, not Afghanistan, was the real danger in the region. In Afghanistan, the Karzai government was underfunded and overcorrupt and widely considered illegitimate. The United States sent in troops to shoot and bomb when they ought to have delivered construction equipment to build the infrastructure necessary to form a coherent state and viable Afghan economy.

Rashid wrote books. Wonks bought them and read them. I wrote books. Ditto. But it didn't make a difference.

In 2001, CBS correspondents sent to cover the invasion flew straight to Pakistan, only to get stuck there because the Khyber Pass was closed. (Anyone familiar with the region knew that.) I had a brief discussion with the network about my plan to go in via Tajikistan. A producer told me I would never make it. "The mountain passes are already snowed over," he said confidently, looking out his window at Manhattan traffic. "There's 6 feet of snow there." I made it. No snow. Not a single flake.

I left the country Aug. 1, and expect to be in Afghanistan for a month, beginning on or about Aug. 13. Accompanied by fellow cartoonists Matt Bors and Steven L. Cloud, I'm going to take advantage of new satellite technology to upload a new kind of daily war correspondency to my blog ( and a half-dozen newspapers: a recounting of the day's events in comic form. I'll be going to the most remote parts of the country--the northern and western villages and towns that see few if any visits by Western reporters.

Pitching papers on this project has proven that little has changed since 2001. Editors and producers are still clueless. Among some of the more priceless responses I've gotten:

"Do they take American Express there?" (No credit cards. Cash only.)

"How about if you call us and pitch us if you see something interesting?" (No phones.)

"Do you speak Pashto?" (No, but neither do Afghans in the north or west.)

"You'd be safer if you were embedded." (U.S. troops are the main target. Embedded reporters get hurt more often than independents. And of course it's impossible to be objective, or speak freely with locals, when you're traveling with soldiers.)

But nothing speaks louder than the lack of interest in this project by the vast majority of media outlets. They'll keep talking about Afghanistan--but they won't put up the bucks to find out what's really going on.

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