Afghan past colors journalist's assessment of future
For all of the time Thomas Ricks has spent in Iraq - the former Washington Post reporter has made 14 trips there since the start of the war in 2003 - there are only a few things he really likes about the place.
Midnight stargazing in the vast and empty desert. Tomato sandwiches on fresh-baked Iraqi bread.
And that's about it, Ricks says.
But Afghanistan is a different story. A twinkle-in-his eye story. A lilt-in-his-voice story. When he talks about the years he spent living in Afghanistan as a teenager, he smiles a lot.
Ricks has waxed critical in two books about Iraq, including the 2005 expos Fiasco, which called the war "the greatest foreign policy mistake in American history."
His literary approach to Afghanistan - where he has visited just twice since 2001 - was less direct. His first novel, A Soldier's Duty, was as much an exploration of the relationship between America's military and political cultures as it was an ode to the troubled land where Ricks, whose father was a professor of psychology at Kabul University, lived from 1969 to 1971.
During those years, Ricks learned to speak basic Dari, traversed the rugged Salang Pass on skis and made a goal of visiting every city in Afghanistan with a population of 5,000 people or more.
Ricks snorted at the audacity his mother and father demonstrated in allowing their then-15-year-old son to travel across Afghanistan by himself. "My parents were nuts," he laughed.
On Tuesday at Westminster University, where later in the evening he would lecture on the challenges facing the United States in South Asia and the Middle East, Ricks conceded his fond memories of Afghanistan might be one reason most of his critical focus has been aimed 1,500 miles to the west.
"I've never read The Kite Runner or Three Cups of Tea," the voracious bookworm said of two of the most popular modern stories about Afghanistan, "because I don't want them messing with my own memories of the place."
A trip to Afghanistan in 2002, shortly after the U.S.-led ouster of the Taliban, gave Ricks reason to be hopeful. After 25 years of war and the brutal rule of the Taliban, "the Kabul I knew was still recognizable in some ways," Ricks said. "It was like watching Kabul emerge from the ice."
But today, with American casualties mounting, the U.S.-backed Afghan government proving to be corrupt, international support waning and Taliban forces gaining ground in some areas, Ricks believes the outlook in South Asia is far from hopeful. "Screwed" is the word he uses.
Conventional wisdom suggests the American fiasco Ricks witnessed in Iraq is coming to an end, while the problems in Afghanistan might only be beginning. But the 54-year-old foreign policy expert points out the historic advantages Afghans have in their fight for a safer, brighter future.
Afghanistan, he noted, was once "a secure, vibrant and peaceful country," he said. "Afghans want that back."
And having experienced Taliban rule, Ricks said, most are wary of autocratic rule.
So in lieu of being the democratic beacon President George Bush envisioned when he ordered the overthrow of the Taliban regime, Afghans will settle for "a government that is somewhat corrupt, somewhat abusive and mildly competent," he said.
Still, Ricks admitted he has been wrong before, acknowledging that the U.S. military surge in Iraq - which widely has been credited with stabilizing that nation - was a far greater tactical success than he anticipated, though he maintains that the strategic aims of the operation have failed.
At war, "the hardest thing to see is what is in front of your eyes," he said, invoking George Orwell.
And that's especially true through rose-colored glasses.