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So Dark the Conn of Afghanistan

Our normal beat is the Middle East in general and Israel in particular. A very large percentage of Conn Hallinan's pieces concern Israel in part or in whole. We believe that he exhibits a profound animus towards Israel.

In the April 9, 2009 Berkeley Daily Planet Hallinan published a piece, “The Afghan Rubrik’s Cube,” that has nothing to do with Israel, and which does not come to any distinct conclusion with which we or others might disagree.  We can only get from the piece a vague sense that Hallinan wants the U.S. to leave that country.  If that is what he is trying to say, we may actually agree with him.  Even though we have no love of the Taliban, and hate it when people blow up rare Buddhist statues, we too are queasy about the place.  If Al Qaeda would only promise not to return maybe we should leave. 

Two more factoids and then we will begin to have some fun.  First, we have no particular expertise when it comes to Afghanistan.  All we know is what we read in the papers.  Second, Hallinan’s article is chock full of statistics and quotes that we can test.

So now the challenge.  We picked at random seven passages from his article where we would have no a priori reason to suspect foul play.  We will attempt to fact check Hallinan.  Did he quote people accurately and within proper context?  Did he get his statistics right?   We are not trying to disagree with him on matters of opinion.  We merely want to test whether Hallinan is an honest, reputable, and accurate reporter.

Passage #1: “As former British Foreign Service officer Rory Stewart argues, ‘when the decision to increase the number of troops in 2005 was made, there was no insurgency.’”

Here is the full paragraph from which the Stewart quote was taken:

When the decision was made to increase troops in 2005, there was no insurgency. But as NATO became increasingly obsessed with transforming the country and brought in more money and troops to deal with corruption and the judiciary, warlords and criminals, insecurity in rural areas and narcotics, it failed. In fact, things got worse. These new NATO troops encountered a fresh problem — local Taliban resistance — which has drawn them into a counterinsurgency campaign.

By selecting his quote carefully, Hallinan implies causation.  The added troops caused the insurgency.  Reading the fuller quote, you can see that Stewart did not intend to state simple cause and effect. 

Moreover, if you read the full NY Times op-ed, you will see that Stewart is not arguing that the mission is wrong, merely that it needs to be properly executed and placed within a fuller regional and strategic context:


Passage #2: “As Brig. Gen. Mark Carleton-Smith, Britain’s top military officer in Afghanistan, bluntly told the Sunday Times, ‘We’re not going to win this war.”

We asked ourselves whether this was the full quote or taken out of context.  Here, in fact, is the full quote (

Carleton-Smith, commander of 16 Air Assault Brigade, which has just completed its second tour of Afghanistan, said it was necessary to “lower our expectations”. He said: “We’re not going to win this war. It’s about reducing it to a manageable level of insurgency that’s not a strategic threat and can be managed by the Afghan army.”

Once again, Hallinan selects his quote from a larger context leaving a false implication.  Hallinan wants us to believe that if we cannot win this war, then surely, we are going to lose.  Reading the full quote, we learn that Carleton-Smith is merely arguing, in complete accord with classic counter-insurgency theory, that full victory generally takes decades, but that functional victory can be defined as simply reducing the threat to an acceptably low level such that the local military can handle it.

Passage #3: “According to the Congressional Research Service, Afghanistan has cost $173 billion and is on track to eventually cost $1 trillion.”

Here is Hallinan’s source:
The $173 billion was not for Afghanistan alone, but for Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) of which Afghanistan is part.  To date, OEF has encompassed six separate operations:  Afghanistan, Philippines, Horn of Africa, Trans Sahara, Kyrgyzstan, and Pankisi Gorge.

The trillion dollar figure cited by Hallinan is made up of whole cloth.  To be sure, according to this report, Iraq, Afghanistan and the Global War on Terror together will cost more than $1 trillion.  The report does not break out a separate figure for Afghanistan, but it might reasonably be assumed that it is the smallest leg of the three, and would amount to far less than $1 trillion.

Passage #4:  “The 2005 surge not only revitalized the Taliban, it spread the war to Pakistan and created the Pakistani Taliban that has driven the Pakistan Army out of the Swat Valley and most of the Northwest Territory and Tribal Regions. This border war has killed some 1,500 Pakistani soldiers, innumerable civilians, and cost Islamabad at least $34 billion.” 

We have no idea from where Hallinan got this $34 billion number.  Hallinan cites no source.  But something seems amiss.  How could impoversihed Pakistan spend $34 billion?  Sure enough, it turns out that Pakistan’s entire annual military budget is vastly less than $34 billion.  One source gives it as $4.3 billion in 2005 (, while Wikipedia lists Pakistan’s 2008 military budget at $7.3 billion.

Passage #5: “Back then [2005] the Taliban controlled 54 percent of the country. Today that figure is 72 percent and rising.”

By placing this right after the Stewart quote in #1 above, it is implied that Stewart is the source.  He is not.  Think about these numbers for a moment.  Such precision regarding such a mushy concept as “control” raises suspicions from the get-go.  What definition of control was employed?  Does the Taliban control a town if its mayor is Taliban, or just if the Taliban is given money to go away?  If Hallinan had said t hat the Taliban had controlled half and now they control three-quarters of the countryside, we would still want to know his source, but we would allow that these are approximations.  But how could anyone be sure that in 2005 the exact figure was 54% and not, say, 51% by day and 55% by night?  And did the Taliban control 54% of the geography or 54% of the population?  If this is calculation is geographic does the 54% allow for the fact that mountainous regions have more acreage per square mile than flat regions?   Students of topography would do the calculations in three dimensions.  Thanks to reader, Henry Norr, we have finally located the source of these figures and the reason for the misunderstanding.  The misunderstanding comes from Hallinan’s use of the word “control.”  The study in question did not claim to measure control and never used the word.  Once again, Hallinan has deceived us.  The study in question attempted to measure areas of Afghansistan that recorded one or more Taliban attacks per week.  Simply because there is a roadside bombing somewhere does not mean that the Taliban control the countryside in question.  By the same reasoning, the Palestinians controlled Israel during the intifada and al Qaeda can be said to control Shiite Sadr City now.  The study can be found at:

Passage #6: “And, ominously for the allies, a poll of Afghans shows a significant rise in anti-occupation sentiment, with a majority now supporting a negotiated end to the war, even if that means a coalition government that includes the Taliban.”

Here we were in a quandary.  Where do we begin to look for a no name poll?  Reputable journalists would cite the exact poll, as in “according to a NY Times/CNN poll of so many people, conducted on such and such a date with a margin of error of ___% …”  But not Hallinan.  What methodology was used?  Did the Taliban allow this poll to be taken in the 72% of the country that Hallinan says they control?  Or, was it a poll covering only the other 28% of the country?  If it covered the entire country, did the Taliban accompany the pollsters door to door, or was it a poll conducted by telephone?   If the latter, what proportion of the population even has telephones?  As it happens reader, Henry Norr, was able to come to our aid again, providing us the source that Hallinan would not (we called him twice, but he refused to return the calls).  His source was ABC News/BBC/ARD poll which was based on in-person interviews with a random national sample of 1,534 Afghan adults from Dec. 30, 2008 to Jan. 12, 2009 (which would have been impossible if the Taliban controlled most of it as Hallinan falsely claimed). The results have a 2.5-point error margin.  It can be found at  This is a long and complicated poll.  Hallinan cherry picked a single factoid and took it out of all context.  Yes, “64 percent of Afghans say the government should negotiate a settlement with the Taliban in which they’re allowed to hold political offices if they agree to stop fighting. But among those who support negotiations, most by far, seven in 10, say talks should occur only if the Taliban stop fighting first.”  And the public has other apparent preconditions that would in effect kill any deal with the Taliban.  For example, “this poll finds continued broad support for women’s rights, which were denied under the Taliban. Ninety-two percent support girls’ schools and 91 percent favor women voting.”  So, who are the good guys and who are the bad guys in the eyes of the Afghans: “Fifty-nine percent think the Afghan government is making progress in providing a better life for Afghans, 75 percent express confidence in its ability to provide security and stability, as many express confidence in their local police, and nearly as many in their provincial government.”  And as for the Taliban, ”the resurgence of the Taliban is a key element of the public’s alarm: “Fifty-eight percent of Afghans see the Taliban as the biggest danger to the country, measured against local warlords, drug traffickers or the U.S. or Afghan governments.” 

In summary, everywhere we look with Hallinan we find deceit.

If Hallinan ever returns our call, we will have one more question regarding this quote:

Passage #7: “Afghanistan seems to have a deranging effect upon its occupiers.” 

Hallinan seems to want the U.S. out of Afghanistan.  We just idly wonder whether Comrade Hallinan felt the same way when mother Russia was the occupier?  We’re guessing--and it is only a guess--that an examination Hallinan’s prolific paper trail will reveal that back in the 1980’s Hallinan supported the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.   Bonus points to anyone who would care to go back and look.

Finally, we are posting this piece in two places on this website.  Obviously, under So Dark the Conn of Hallinan, but also under Is This Journalism.  Our reason is simple.  At bottom, the real villainy here is Becky O’Malley’s.  She is the editor, yet she seems unable or unwilling to do even the most rudimentary editing and fact checking.  She intentionally publishes Hallinan’s misstatements of facts simply because his radical ideology matches her own.  In doing so she delegitimizes her newspaper, and frankly brings disrepute upon Hallinan as well.



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