John Leo
The journalism award for earliest detection of a U.S. quagmire in Afghanistan probably should go to AP reporter Kathy Gannon, filing from Pakistan only a week after the twin towers fell. "History is not encouraging," she elucidated. "Now it may be the United States' turn to try a foray into the Afghan quagmire."

Gannon's quagmire alert caught other journalists a bit behind the curve. Most were still busy interviewing former Soviet soldiers on the folly of fighting in Afghanistan, since the Afghans beat the Russians and the British and held up pretty well against Alexander the Great. But reporters are quick to detect any breakthrough, so the Q-word blossomed impressively throughout journalism until the whole crop suddenly wilted around Nov. 13.

Apparently irritated that the war hadn't been won in the first three weeks, Maureen Dowd of The New York Times took to inserting the Q-word into one column after another. In The Washington Post, James Hoagland assumed that we were already deep in the big muddy, starting an October column by arguing that "The U.S. road out of quagmire in Central Asia ultimately passes through the U.N."

Reporters even began showcasing the Q-word in conventional interviews with defeatist Russians, thus combining two promising journalistic trends. ("To think that another superpower would repeat our mistake and get into a quagmire is incredible," a Soviet officer turned novelist moaned to The Miami Herald.)

At press conferences, reporters asked quagmire questions of Donald Rumsfeld and Pakistan president Pervez Musharraf. When they did, of course, they got answers keeping the word quagmire in play. Even when the word wasn't mentioned, many reporters took the oportunity to toss it in anyway. "The precedent Rumsfeld didn't mention, of course, was the quagmire of Vietnam," wrote a reporter for the Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch.

The whole point of using the Q-word is obviously to suggest that Afghanistan is another Vietnam. Even without the word, journalists couldn't resist linking the two wars over and over. "Bush has bungled the challenge," Jacob Heilbrunn opined in the Los Angeles Times. "The Vietnam syndrome has gained a new virulence." A computer search turned up 7,772 print, radio and TV references to both Vietnam and Afghanistan since Sept. 11.

John Leo

John Leo is editor of and a former contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report.

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