What About that NIE?

by Joshua Foust on 10/9/2008

Forgive me if I don’t place much stock in the NIE about Afghanistan. While I agree the country is in a “downward spiral” (were the authors big NIN fans or something?), that in itself isn’t much of an insight. Here’s where I think it goes wrong:

The classified report finds that the breakdown in central authority in Afghanistan has been accelerated by rampant corruption within the government of President Hamid Karzai and by an increase in violence by militants who have launched increasingly sophisticated attacks from havens in Pakistan… Beyond the cross-border attacks launched by militants in neighboring Pakistan, the intelligence report asserts that many of Afghanistan’s most vexing problems are of the country’s own making, the officials said.

“Charlie” found this plausible, and therein lies the rub—counterinsurgency theory without local knowledge doesn’t amount to much, as you run the risk of badly misunderstanding the social dynamics in play.

For example, a weak central government isn’t necessarily all that bad according to scholars who specialize in the region. In his chapter in The Taliban and the Crisis of Afghanistan, M. Nazif Shahrani even goes so far as to argue that Afghanistan does best with its traditional arrangement of a weak central government, though he also notes it is typically backed by foreign patrons.

Both of these dynamics, which are common to all the rulers of Afghanistan in the 20th century, work against the typical objectives of a counterinsurgency. Which means that even if we Petraeusize Afghanistan, we might be going about it in the entirely wrong way.

Food for thought as you read the news coverage.


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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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