War of Words in Afghanistan

An Afghan Air Force service member stands in the doorway of a hangar on July 3, 2010 in Kandahar, where members of the Afghan military are being trained by the U.S. Air Force on proper maintenance of aircraft, piloting skills and English language training. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

An Afghan Air Force service member stands in the doorway of a hangar on July 3, 2010 in Kandahar, where members of the Afghan military are being trained by the U.S. Air Force on proper maintenance of aircraft, piloting skills and English language training.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Thousands of fresh American troops are heading for Kandahar, but what it is that they will be doing is hard to say.

The military insists this isn't an offensive or a battle, or even an operation. They prefer to call it "Hamkari," a local word meaning co-operation.

It is only the first phase in the larger, erm, event (I would say operation but, you know ...) dubbed Omeed, or Hope.

Yes, Hope. No "Operation Hope," just Hope.

When I first came to Afghanistan, military missions had names like Operation Champions' Sword or Tip of the Spear — now we're at Hope? Is that's all that's left in the Afghanistan mission?

It's hard to fire up the troops with a battle cry that comes down to "Keep your fingers crossed."

We journalists are now left without a verb to hang Hamkari on. One photographer started a list of military-approved verbs. So far he has: Process, initiative, objective. My colleague, Ben Plesser, invented one we're more comfortable with: the "noffensive."

This war of words is no laughing matter. The U.S. military is sending more and more troops into Afghanistan, but insists on portraying every mission as an Afghan initiative, despite the fact the Afghan government has no initiative. It's no secret that Afghan President Hamid Karzai's family has deep seated, shall we say, "interests" in Kandahar that might be interrupted if law and order were to take hold here.

So, American planners here started torturing words to make a military offensive sound like neighborhood barbecue.

I'm writing this from Kandahar's police station number 6, an isolated sun-baked building where an American military police squad spends a few days every week living in bare, hot rooms and eating out of a box.

They're here to mentor the Afghan police, which sounds hope-ful, but they are patrolling the streets of Kandahar, the Taliban's hometown, where things can get "offensive" pretty quickly.

There are more American troops in Kandahar than ever before. They are here to take back this town from the Taliban. No one expects the Taliban to lay down their guns and a get in the spirit of Hamkari.

What's going on in Kandahar is an offensive — possibly the most critical offensive in Afghanistan since the battle of Tora Bora.

By declaring that the word offensive is, itself, offensive, military and civilian planners have demonstrated the conflicted nature of the mission here.

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