Don’t Give Up.

by Joshua Foust on 10/14/2008 · 22 comments

Another piece in the Columbia Journalism Review, this time noting the historical inaccuracies in all the defeatism talk.

Many in the press have begun to declare the war in Afghanistan either unwinnable (off the words of one outspoken British commander) or some cynical exercise in colonialism. David McKiernan, the general in charge of NATO’s International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF) (which oversees security for much of Afghanistan), disagrees, noting that the situation is really not as bad as some make it out to be, and there remain many reasons for hope. While this assessment clashes with the recently leaked National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) that declared Afghanistan was in a “downward spiral,” the general has a point: reports of Afghanistan’s demise are seriously premature.

Good Lord, I almost sound like a neo-con. Heaven help me. On topic comments are welcome, as always.

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– 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 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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Helena Cobban October 14, 2008 at 7:41 pm

Joshua, you write there the cries for withdrawal are silent about who or what would take the West’s place should it withdraw. First of all, your use of the word “cries” there is both illogical (as the subject of that predicate) and imho demeaning to those of us who call for withdrawal/ending of the US-led military project in Afghanistan… It makes us sound ranting and illogical?

But also, I and others are not “silent” about what would take the west’s place. I’ve written a number of times, including in this CSM op-ed that the current US/NATO operation there lacks the essential quality of “legitimacy”. (Not the same as international legality, a thin form of which it enjoys from the UN, ex-post-facto.)

But legitimacy, including crucially in the eyes of the Afghan people. Why on earth would or should the US, a power that’s very distant both geographically and culturally, and NATO (ditto) have control of a pacification operation in Afghanistan? Once you think about it, it really defies logic.

The excessively militarized nature of the US-NATO operation in Afghanistan further disqualifies it. Afghanistan’s (and Pakistan’s) problems of governance are not fundamentally military problems. They are political problems. But the occidarchs have none of the skills required to resolve thorny political problems of this nature.

I have argued (and continue to argue) that the project needs to be taken over much more directly by the UNSC which uniquely enjoys (a) the international legitimacy and (b) the international convening power, to start to address it. Certainly, all of Afghanistan’s neighbors and other big regional powers, including Saudi Arabia, other Muslim powers near and far, and probably also Russia and India, should be actively enrolled into the search for a political solution.

The US is in no position to lead this effort. The UN Sec-Gen can– once the SC directs him to. I note that disorder in Afghanistan directly threatens two of the SC’s five permanent members. They just happen to be the two that aren’t part of NATO… NATO having a role there is a total anomaly, and a throwback to the worst days of European colonial influence.

Joshua Foust October 14, 2008 at 9:05 pm

Helena, your writing is an exception to the general trend I’m referring to.

Umm, my very limited experience with westerners in Afghanistan, including the best polling one can expect of a country nearly impossible to reliably poll, indicates that the U.S. has actually enjoyed a surprising amount of legitimacy since 2001. It is only in the last year that this has flagged, as the U.S., Coalition, and ISAF have been perceived as feckless in the face of a surging Taliban. In the areas the U.S. can control, they enjoy a great deal of local popularity—and elsewhere seem to want an increased U.S. presence.

The UNSC, unfortunately, missed its chance to act. I fail to see how China is threatened by Afghanistan, nor do I see how Russia would care on anything other than a visceral basis about what happens there (the Chechen connection is no longer even what it was in 2002, and more recent statements have indicated they rather enjoy us making their mistakes all over again).

NATO is there because of Article V provisions about the September 11 attacks. It’s really not hard, and it is a tough sell—as I noted in that piece—to call it colonialism. If you remove NATO, you remove Article V, which removes a major reason for France and Germany and Canada and Holland to “sell” the mission to their polities. What’s your alternate solution for increasing support for a UNSC-sponsored mission among these countries?

The deep inclusion of India in Afghanistan is partially responsible for Pakistan’s panic over political developments (the majority is Pakistan’s short sightedness with regards to its relationship with India). That is why it was the ISI, and not the Quetta Shura, for example, that bombed the Indian Embassy.

The UN hasn’t proven itself capable of ending the war in Afghanistan before 2001. I don’t see how it can do anything about it now in 2008. Talking about legitimacy is great—I am unaware of how their legitimacy in the country has changed noticeably since the late 1990s. What is different about now that gives them any greater chance at peacemaking, reconciliation, and development than 1999?

Helena Cobban October 14, 2008 at 11:26 pm

A few quick points:

1. All states in Afghanistan’s general neighborhood have a much stronger stake in peace truly getting built there than do the distant occidarchs. China’s stake is called Xinjiang? (Or East Turkmenistan, depending who you listen to?) Russia’s is its whole Muslim underbelly (not just Chechnya.) The idea that US or other NATO powers are either “uniquely” threatened by chaos in Afghanistan or have a “uniquely” strong stake there is as far-fetched as the idea that these powers are “uniquely” qualified to to resolve its problems.

Btw, China has now bet itself majorly into the stabilization game in Afghanistan with its recently announced $3.5 billion investment in the copper-plus-railroad project in Aynak. Have you thought about the implications– for Afghanistan and for Asian geopolitics in general– of that project?

2. True, the UN has failed numerous times in the past 15 years to do anything useful to stabilize the country. But I would argue that was largely because of US recalcitrance and/or hostility to it playing any effective role anywhere. As the US’s worldwide power diminishes (which is happening by the day right now), I am convinced that Washington will move rapidly to a position of begging the UN to come in in a serious way to help resolve these very serious (and expensive) problems it faces in both Iraq and Afghanistan. At that point, China and Russia will be obliged to come in and be helpful– precisely because their stakes there are so much higher than those of the US or any other NATO country. But they will come in on their own terms, not Washington’s, and it will be part of a worldwide shift of power from the US to the world’s new and rising powers.

3. Washington’s 10,000-mile screwdriver truly doesn’t make any sense as a mechanism for stabilizing Afghanistan and Pakistan. More particularly since it’s such a dangerous and violent power tool.

4. The UN is only as strong, effective, or at a global level “legitimate” as it’s allowed to be by the countries that constitute it, primarily the P-5. During the Cold War it was often hampered by US-Soviet hostility. But then, even after the Cold War its effectiveness was still often blocked: The Clinton administration was certainly wary of giving it too much political clout– and then, under GWB, Washington’s attitude to the UN became one of outright hostility. That relationship will change in the near future, because of the deep shifts in the global balance of power. The result will be a lot healthier for everyone in the world than the recent outbursts of unconstrained US (or US-plus-western-allies) unilateralism…

TCHe October 15, 2008 at 4:41 am

If you may sound like a neo-con, you’re talking sense, which in conclusion means you can’t sound like neo-con.

Anyway, the question is why history is so often forgotten in terms of AFG (and beyond, one might add). Probably because of the same reasons these mistakes were made before. People tend to focus on the now and if something doesn’t look like expected, well, they just move on. No matter if they’re conservative former or reserve officers (I discussed with them on various occasions) or progressive thinkers (I gave up on them, I’ll admit).

Probably another reason could be that writing of the impending failure of the West seems to hit a certain mood right now (and good news sell bad). Of course, that’ll motivate the ACM further which in turn will lead to more negative press …

(A reason I mainly refer to American news coverage on AFG is that the German press seems to be particularly negative on the mission.)

Helena, Joshua is right. The Western forces in AFG generally enjoy(ed) a high degree of legitimacy among the Afghans. Probably more so than the UNSC (Russians, I think, are still a somewhat sensitive topic in a country that’s been invaded by them).

Besides, it’s an illusion to think that those who resent the Western forces would accept the UN. To them the UN ist yet another manifestation of Western (broadly defined, including Russia) interference in the Islamic world.

Oh, and concerning “The idea that US or other NATO powers are either “uniquely” threatened by chaos in Afghanistan or have a “uniquely” strong stake there is as far-fetched” (though I may have gotten you wrong there):
You do remember 9/11, don’t you?

That’s a POV I stumble across on a regular basis: “AFG is so far away, that doesn’t affect us at all”. In an interconnected world however, it does. Pretty much so.

Concerning your high esteem of the UN – well, my rather Realistic view in International Relations has led to me being called “negative” before but I highly doubt any multipolar world-order would make the UN more effective.

Joshua Foust October 15, 2008 at 4:41 am


Don’t get me wrong — I don’t deny that China and Russia have an interest in Afghanistan. I guess my point was Xinjiang wasn’t enough reason for China to take an active role in the 1990s, and post-9/11 the U.S. has kind of taken care of the miniscule Uighur “problem” that had already existed (i.e. the 17 innocent men we refuse to repatriate because of legitimate concerns over their treatment in China).

The copper mine is neat. (Yes I’ve thought of it, btw.) I found Christian Bleuer’s treatment of their engagement persuasive. After asserting that China’s interest in Afghanistan are exaggerated, he argues:

China has, with the investments in Gwadar and Aynak, expressed its further confidence in the government of Pakistan and the ongoing American-led efforts in Afghanistan. It has not, however, put too much confidence in future security in the region. This is just one part of China’s many diverse investments and relationships throughout the world. And China was not the only bidder for the Aynak deposit, and in fact not even the highest bidder. Other companies from Canada, the US and the UK also tendered bids, showing that other corporations foresee a reasonable risk environment. Speculation as to why the Chinese firm was awarded the bid mostly centres on Afghanistan’s desire to diversify its international friendships and specifically to engage with a partner that arguably has the most influence with the government of Pakistan…

And so on. It does indeed give China a stake in keeping a friendly power in Kabul, but they will probably have a friendly power regardless of who “wins” the war.

Lastly, I think we break on a philosophical level. Since its founding in 1945, I have seen little reason place any faith whatsoever in the activities of the UNSC. Its work is so selective, and so prone to failure, I see little reason to put too much confidence in it (the reserved right of any permanent member to veto any action is but one reason behind this). Structurally, I don’t see how it can be considered a comprehensive peace or legitimacy-building institution given its inability to directly control troops or assets—by placing international peacekeeping forces under the control of a certain member country (which is as often the U.S. as it is not), its very purpose is, in a real sense, undermined.

Put in a more polemical way, I’d rather not turn Afghanistan into Rwanda, Eastern Chad, Somalia, Timor, pre-2003 Iraq, Darfur, and so on. Examples of a UNSC taking an active and effective role in settling a major dispute are… what, Korea? How’d that work out? The Gulf War is the only case I can think of off the top of my head. The UNSC is a great debating society, but without all countries being willing to cede a lot of sovereignty to it, it just won’t be an effective replacement for a nationally-led security architecture.

At the moment, that is the U.S. It can easily be someone else, and I share your concern about a relative decline in U.S. power. But that relative decline doesn’t make the importance of American action, or more importantly the American right to action since 9.11, any less real or legitimate.

arkadaş October 15, 2008 at 9:23 am

yes thank you

Helena Cobban October 15, 2008 at 10:18 am

1. Where the UNSC has been allowed to work effectively (and since 1990, the impediment has nearly always been the US), it has done well in peacemaking/peacebuilding. Just because you don’t read a lot about places like Mozambique, Namibia, Cambodia, etc doesn’t mean the UN didn’t do some excellent things there.

2. It is anyway, at a ‘philosophical’ as well as practical level, far better to have an organization that holds to tenets of universality, human equality, and a strong preference for nonviolent over violent means of conflict resolution, than not to have one. The UN can be much, much better than it is, absolutely; and we should work hard to make it so. But at least we don’t have to start from scratch negotiating what such an organization might be, what tenets it should hold to, etc.

3. Check out the role the UN (and new Nobel Peace Laureate Martti Aahtisari (?sp) played in extricating South Africa from Namibia. This could be very similar to how it might help dilute the western hand in Afghanistan.

4. As a more general point w/ respect to your CJR argument, though: You argued that those calling for a US/NATO withdrawal don’t propose (and probably don’t have?) an alternative and therefore the US/NATO role should be seen as the only game in town. I’m saying there is at least one very credible alternative that deserves proper attention.

5. About the western forces having enjoyed broad local legitimacy for several years (though declining v. rapidly now, as you admit.) I am not surprised at all, after all the Afghan people went through for the preceding 22 years that they might well have welcomed western attentions (and massive cash injections) in 2001 and for some time afterwards. But like the US in Iraq or Israel in Lebanon in 1982 such early welcomes do not tell you the whole story that unfolds afterwards. In the case of post-2001 Afghanistan, it seems like the occidarchs had a great opportunity post 2001 to do right by the country at last, after shamefully walking away in 1989. But they did not take that opportunity. History, alas, can’t be scrolled back to the period of the welcome and played again differently. Funny thing about history…

Joshua Foust October 15, 2008 at 5:19 pm

1. Don’t forget to count Russia, China, and even France. Also let’s compare relative force levels to see who objects to what. When the U.S. is in a position to foot the majority of the bill in terms of both money and people, they SHOULD have the right to balk if it doesn’t address a specific national interest. Ditto for Russia, China, and France, all of whom have the obligation to object to UNSC activity that either does not improve or negatively affects their national interests. Which is why the UNSC is, fundamentally, a flawed institution.

2. I like unicorns, too. I also happen to exist in the real world, where the UNSC isn’t changing any time soon.

3. Please explain the parallel between SA/Namibia and the Afghan-Pakistan War. Did South Africa also have a problem with foreign-funded cross-border religious militancy driving a vast illicit drug trade that also propped up a rural economy?

4. Fine. See my first comment, RE your point being an except to the vast majority of coverage.

5. Occidarchs? That’s a new one. It’s even clever, too. You get +10 agility. With regards to legitimacy, I meant recent like 2007 recent (the best data available). It wasn’t as high as 2001. Hell, the U.S. was really popular in Iraq at first, too. If our actions are responsible for our declining popularity, they can be responsible for improving it as well. Repeating 1989 is not one way to try this, however.

noah tucker October 15, 2008 at 6:15 pm

Not to come too late to somebody else’s fight, but I have a hard time swallowing the idea that Russia does or somehow would view security or stability in Afghanistan as a critical threat because of its “Muslim underbelly,” which frankly is an awful phrase on so many levels. Russia was not actively interested in Afghanistan during the Taliban regime, which already was everything we’re afraid of Afghanistan becoming again–why would they take a much more active interest now? And these kind of statements also completely overlook the fact that Russia has some small history of involvement in Afghanistan and frankly I cannot even imagine a scenario that would see Russian peacekeeping troops or military involvement there again–meddling in Tajikistan’s civil war is one thing, sending troops back across the Friendship Bridge is another one entirely. If they’re not going to do that, and if they’re not going to fund anything either, what is their stake that would motivate them to take an active role in a UNSC operation? By not quite the same logic I can’t see how China suddenly becomes convinced that because it has a Muslim population that would like to be independent it should suddenly feel like it has a vital stake in the domestic politics of Afghanistan or Pakistan–it doesn’t seem to think that now, and didn’t feel that way over the past 20 years, why would that suddenly change if they were given some things to vote on in the Security Council?

Just to be clear, I’m not taking any stance by extrapolation on the broader argument here, I just think that there are a lot of assumptions being made about potential behavior of certain actors–Russia in particular–that I don’t see a lot of evidence for.

Russia has had a significant Muslim population for hundreds of years, and to my knowledge it has gotten involved directly in the affairs of a Muslim country–on its border or otherwise (which Afghanistan is not)–only when acting in support of a Communist or “converted Communist” regime (Tajikistan and all the other meddling Russia has done in Central Asia). If others have precedents in mind I’d be happy to hear about them.

Ian October 15, 2008 at 6:51 pm


I think you’re misstating Russia’s participation in Afghanistan after 89. Russia, along with Iran, was one of the major funders and sources of arms for the Northern Alliance. My understanding of their logic was that they did not want a fundamentalist government directly bordering their former territory, the border of which, at least in Tajikistan, was manned by Russian troops.

Re: the possibility of other countries contributing troops, the US didn’t ask/wasn’t entertaining offers from anyone not clearly on “our side” in 2001. Even Iran offered to send a contingent of military trainers, which was turned down (obviously).

@Joshua and Helena,

Clearly you guys are on totally different pages ideologically, so whatever “evidence” you each adduce, your discussion is going nowhere.

noah tucker October 15, 2008 at 7:47 pm

Aha, I had not read about Russia supporting the Northern Alliance actively–did they do this openly, directly, or was it covertly through other parties? Of course there were the border troops in Tajikistan, but that’s not really the same as getting involved. Do you see something that indicated the Russians would have been willing to contribute troops if they had been asked? This was from quite a long time before I started following Afghanistan, so I admit have a lot of catching up to do still.

Ian October 15, 2008 at 8:39 pm

I’m fairly sure that Russia wasn’t trying to keep its support of the NA a secret–Massoud certainly flew around in helicopters that were a Russian donation. Russian aid was also used as a lever at the Bonn Conference to get the NA on board with the agreement.

As for regular troop contributions to a NATO-led effort, not so sure; in fact, almost certainly not. But they did attend a Geneva meeting in March 2002 that was intended to work on the reconstruction of Afghanistan’s security sector, and they claimed in the UN that they offered to help to build the national army and were turned down.

anon October 15, 2008 at 8:41 pm

How about we cut the US military budget by 95% and shut down 700 US overseas military and then come again about what to do in Iraq & Afghanistan?

“The cause of war is preparation for war” – “If you are a hammer, everything begins to look like a nail”.

Militarism is evil. If you havent got that point, you havent even started.

Racism is evil too. What in god’s name is the white man doing invading the country of the brown man, killing him, and controlling his country? The conceit and arrogance is extraordinary.

It may be fitting that Afghanistan could bookend White, European racism, colonialism and militarism. From Alexander the Great to Bush the Dumya, 2500 years of crime and folly, finally brought to an end.

Richard Parker October 16, 2008 at 12:33 am

“reports of Afghanistan’s demise are seriously premature”

Well, Afghanistan has been there for a long time, and will still be there long after the latest bunch of ‘civilisers’ leaves.

I recommend, to anyone who wants the slightest knowledge of Afghanistan:

Flashman: A Novel (Flashman) by George MacDonald Fraser (Paperback – Aug 1, 1984)

CARAVANS by MICHENER A. JAMES (Hardcover – 1963)

– look up the refs on Amazon

Both are fiction, but both tell more about the reality in Afghanistan than any current reporter, anywhere.

Helena’s right. We should get the hell out – now.

But replace the money we’re spending on ‘holding’ Afghanistan using troops’ bodies and large bombs with well-organised aid programmes.

Then they can build Freedom and Democracy, American-style, as they should, by themselves.

If they want to.

I promise to buy a $5 share in Kabul (or Kandahar, or Ghazni, or Herat)’s first suburban shopping mall.

best regards

Richard Parker
Siargao Island, Philippines

Christian October 16, 2008 at 1:22 am

Just FYI, Russia neither funded, donated nor delivered free aid (military or otherwise) to Shura-yi Nazar, Jamiat, Junbesh, or Wahdat. Massoud and Shura-yi Nazar maintain that they paid for everything in business transactions. Though I don’t know if the price was market price or “bro rate.”

Massoud’s helicopter was a massive piece of crap that I assume was left over from the 1980s. The others had even less to do with the Russians.

Though Russia did facilitate the delivery of some free Iranian weaponry and materiel through its presence in Tajikistan.

And as far as “Caravans” and “Flashman” go, they should be looked at as entertainment and not much more. The Michener School of History passes all its students, who then go on to fail at life.

Joshua Foust October 16, 2008 at 4:53 am

Come on Christian, “Caravans” is Ann Rachel Marlowe’s #2 best book about Afghanistan evar, and she should know because she’s embedded with the U.S. Army a few times. Who have YOU embedded with? Exactly.

Ian, I’ve never heard of Russia funding the Northern Alliance, either. In fact, one of the centerpieces of “Ghost Wars” is that Massoud reached out to Europe and the U.S. because Russia wouldn’t fund Jamiat (for example) and Iran was too busy with HiW.

Lastly, I think Helena and I have had a productive discussion, if nothing else then about the differing philosophies about international institutions (even if she does accuse me of having a blindspot). She has a lot of faith in the UN’s ability to “work” and change, while I have practically none. There shouldn’t be anything wrong with establishing both views—more importantly since she does a good job of arguing her case.

Ian October 16, 2008 at 7:13 am


Then maybe Russian aid was a secret until recently, because James Dobbins says in his new book that the only way they (Russia) managed to bring around the Northern Alliance to the Bonn Agreement was the threat that Russia wouldn’t give them stuff anymore. It may be that in early 2001 they had been giving less than back when the NA looked more like a winner, which would explain Massoud’s outreach to Europe. In any case, selling guns to the NA, even at retail, and not to Taliban buyers implies support.

As for the unicorns vs. occidarchs debate–nothing wrong at all with establishing positions. I apologize for my crankiness. And it may have to do with the fact that I believe both withdrawal and escalation could have catastrophic consequences.

By the way, reading back through this this morning, I want to clarify that I don’t subscribe to the “Russia’s Muslim underbelly” rhetoric; but I do think you can’t deny that Russia has a horse in this race.

Ian October 16, 2008 at 7:50 am

Checking the “Russia: Massoud aided by” listing in the index of Ghost Wars, it looks like early on there had been a covert arms delivery arrangement with Russia, which by 2000 had become an overt arms contract.

Christian October 16, 2008 at 7:59 pm

Yeah, I just wanted to note that it was a business deal, not charity.

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Gerald October 22, 2008 at 5:56 pm

I Am Looking For a Book Tittled
Don’t Give Up

Gerald October 22, 2008 at 5:57 pm

I Am Looking For a Book Tittled
Don’t Give Up

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