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Driving 'Em Mad In Afghanistan

Andrew Exum, a former ranger, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security, and the blogger Abu Muqawama has an interesting post about his appearance in Bob Woodward's book Obama's Wars.

He was in Afghanistan advising Gen. McChrystal on his assessment of the situation there when he noticed a pattern on the streets of Kabul, here's how Woodward described it:

The Toyotas raced around Kabul. The drivers honked their horns rather than step on the brakes, madly changing lanes, swerving through traffic and accelerating at every opportunity. The theory was that erratic driving reduced the chances of a roadside attack. Afghans who didn't jump out of the way could be plowed down. After one of the SUVs ran a bicyclist off the road, Andrew Exum, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security and a former U.S. Army Ranger, asked the driver, "What are you doing, man?"

"You can't be too careful. Could've been a bomb, sir," was the response. But this kind of commute left Afghans on the street visibly angry. The team could see how an emphasis on force protection was causing the coalition to lose the Afghan people. Exum wrote a one-pager for McChrystal about aggressive driving and armored vehicles entitled "Touring Afghanistan by Submarine."

A U.S. Army soldier rides inside a mine-resistant vehicle, or MRAP, on Friday, June 27, 2008. MAYA ALLERUZZO/AP hide caption

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MAYA ALLERUZZO/AP

Exum, on his blog, has a fascinating and telling clarification of that quote.

All of that is true. But the title of that one-pager actually referred back to another dynamic — one that Woodward writes about a page earlier. The way in which I saw NATO/ISAF vehicles travel around Afghanistan bothered me in two ways. The first way is mentioned above: I saw NATO/ISAF vehicles driving around Afghanistan as if we were the sovereign authority and not in Afghanistan on behalf of the sovereign authority, the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. We needed to behave as if we were the invited guests of the Afghans rather than some occupying power. But more than that, the experience of traveling around Mazar-e-Sharif — a largely secure city in northern Afghanistan — in an armored German vehicle, whereby I could only observe Mazar and the Afghans themselves through a narrow two inch by four inch slit of bullet-proof glass, really bothered me. It was, as Woodward writes, as if I was seeing Afghanistan through a periscope. And if this was how most German soldiers were seeing Afghanistan, I had no confidence that any of them really understood what was going on in northern Afghanistan at a time when the provinces under German responsibility were noticeably worsening. (And it wasn't just the Germans. In Wardak Province, for example, a U.S. commander insisted on us traveling in an MRAP ... 200 meters.)

And that is something that has limited American understanding of the wars both in Iraq and Afghanistan. I remember once asking a general to drop me off on the street in Baghdad. I had spent the day with him traveling around the city, and wanted to get out before we entered the Green Zone because of the incredible hassle of all the security I'd have to go through to get out. But when I told them I'd hope out of the MRAP where we were, the general and his staff were shocked. They'd never even heard of an American hopping out on to the streets. Even when I pointed out the NPR car that was going to pick me up they almost didn't let me out. Viewing a war through a periscope indeed.