“You have to make a value judgment,” Kaplow said when asked about Obama’s apparent decision to send more troops to Afghanistan while setting a time frame for withdrawal. “Some people might question what America’s priorities are, given all the other problems we face. But I think we have to give it a serious try to keep Afghanistan from descending into a black hole.”
The 46-year-old Kaplow, who began reporting from Iraq for Cox Newspapers in 2003 and was Newsweek’s Baghdad bureau chief when the magazine closed the office in September, compared Obama’s strategy for winding down American involvement in Afghanistan to the so-called “surge” of additional forces in Iraq ordered by President Bush in 2007.
“I didn’t know if the surge would work then, but it did,” said Kaplow. “It was a sort of a Hail Mary pass that was something worth trying, and I think it’s worth trying in Afghanistan. It’s a situation where we’ve got to try to keep Afghanistan from disintegrating. I think there’s a moral responsibility not to leave them in the lurch.”
Asked if the war in Iraq, which has cost more than a trillion dollars, killed more than 4,350 American troops and wounded more than 31,500 Americans was worth it, Kaplow responded, “That’s not a call I want to make.”
And while Iraq is “a much freer place” than it was under Saddam Hussein, it is still “a very dangerous place,” he said. “It’s everything it was before [the U.S. invasion], just on a lower scale. The level of violence is much lower than in 2007, but still wouldn’t be tolerated in any other country.”
Kaplow said there are constant reminders that the progress made in Iraq “is fragile and reversible,” and that if elections scheduled for January are delayed, as many expect, it will be a significant setback.
“Iraq is not a done deal yet,” he said.
Kaplow, who was interviewed while visiting his parents in Falls Church, Va. (his father is former network TV correspondent Herb Kaplow), said there were about 100 bombings, shootings and other acts of violence every week in Iraq when he left Baghdad in September, compared to some 1,500 such incidents in 2007.
“There’s a lot of violence and corruption and a bad human rights situation in Iraq, but it will be a country that stays intact. It’s going to be a violent place with a lot of corruption, but if it stays together as a country, and if the oil keeps flowing, American policymakers will think that’s good enough.” Noting that Iraq has got the world’s third largest oil reserves, “All the foreign oil companies are salivating to get in there.”
Kaplow added, “What we did in Iraq was make a lot of deals with local militia and tribal chiefs, some of them very unsavory, but they controlled the area. And even though the central government was dysfunctional and corrupt, and still is, I think that’s probably where we will go in Afghanistan by making deals with warlords so they won’t provide refuge to al Qaeda or others who want to attack Americans. The bad part of that is that when you do that, you’re giving up on the liberal and democratic ideals that American stands for.”
In one of his final dispatches for Newsweek, Kaplow wrote that as American troops complete their withdrawal from population centers and prepare for total withdrawal from the country by the end of 2011 while handing over security duties to Iraqi Army units, American troops and diplomats often use the phrase “Iraqi good enough.”
“The term expresses their resignation -- realism, they’d call it -- about the limits of what America can accomplish in Iraq…‘Good enough may not live up to Americans’ hopes for Iraq, but at this point, it describes the place we’re likely to leave behind in 2011 – if things stay on track.”
Kaplow said he has no complaints about Newsweek, even though it let him go, but he is concerned that so few American and foreign media organizations no longer have people based in Iraq. “Everybody is cutting back in Iraq, but they’re not building up in Afghanistan to the levels they had in Iraq.”
Sporting an expensive Swiss watch given to him by one of Newsweek’s Iraqi employees as a farewell gift, Kaplow said he feels “fortunate” that he was not killed or wounded while in Iraq. “But I also feel fortunate that I was there, and even though there were times that I couldn’t move around much, I could still get a lot of information by just being there.”
A graduate of Duke University, Kaplow served two-and-a-half years in the Peace Corps in Guatemala, where he learned Spanish, and says he plans to write a book about his experience and look for work as a foreign correspondent in Latin America.