When Optimism Is Not Warranted

by Joshua Foust on 11/18/2008 · 6 comments

It is telling that the Army’s Counterinsurgency (COIN) Field Manual, FM 3-24, was written by people with no knowledge or understanding of Afghanistan. It is similarly telling that guys with a lot of Iraq experience, like John Nagl and General Petraeus, use their Iraq experience to assume that they can take the lessons they learned there and apply them in Afghanistan because COIN is universal. In fact, in an interview for NPR today, Nagl does precisely that:

After spending a week in Afghanistan on invitation from top U.S. military commander Gen. David McKiernan, retired Army Lt. Col. John Nagl says he saw “a new spirit” of determination from the U.S. to stamp out the insurgency…

“If he gets all of those things that he requested, with the understanding of counterinsurgency that he and his command have, this is a war that we can turn around,” Nagl says. “I don’t think we’re winning right now, but I think that we can win this war. … The question is whether we can give them what they need to accomplish this job.”

Nagl says he believes the U.S. needs to double its American troops from 30,000 to 60,000 in Afghanistan. He also says the Afghan National Army needs to grow from 70,000 to 250,000. That may mean getting more help from the international community.

The question is whether the U.S. has the troops to fight the war, and Nagl says he is not sure…

This is the epitome of the Green Lantern Theory of Geopolitics, expressed so ably by Matthew Yglesias. It states that the U.S. can do literally anything in the universe, so long as it has the will to do it. By Nagl’s count, this means 30,000 American troops to the country when the Pentagon struggles to find 2,500; and tripling the number of Afghan troops to a number whose monetary cost will exceed the country’s total GDP. Just like that.

And then Nagl wants to use “economic incentives” on the natives—just like what worked in Iraq (the “Sons of Afghanistan,” he wryly called them). This, apparently, is all we need to do—as if we haven’t been trying that for years—so long as the new President can mobilize the U.S. for war and no one starts to question the costs of tossing in money and troops without the first idea of how to use either. Tactics matter.

That’s the trick—Nagl still demonstrates zero understanding of the country he’s discussing, and has developed a knack for using his military-funded tours of the capital to issue generic COIN platitudes… and reporters eat it up because he’s a COIN expert who works at a think tank that feeds experts into the Obama administration.

Be Patient, he reminds us. Luckily, Nagl has a great and respectable comrade-in-arms: Ann Marlowe.

“The security situation is better than it was when the 82nd Airborne left in April. I am satisfied.” So says Haji Doulat, the 63-year-old subgovernor of Mandozai, one of the 12 districts of Khost Province. He has worked hard with American troops to develop this rural farming community of 120,000…

Good governance is an essential part of progress. Mr. Doulat is considered the best of Khost’s subgovernors by U.S. commanders. On a national level, much that’s gone wrong is the fault of Mr. Karzai’s wavering and often incompetent government… Victory in Afghanistan — defined as the time when we can pack up and leave Afghans to govern and defend their own country — will come. It will take patience, however.

Just like that: patience! Nevermind the bombings and assassinations—we’ve built a lot of schools in Khost over the past 75 months, so we’re winning! Of course, those schools get bombed, but that’s just liberal propaganda because the troops are in the districts. That Haji Doulat fellow is a regular in Marlowe columns—last time we saw him, during Ms. Marlowe’s previous attempt to declare victory even as the major U.S. FOB in Khost suffered hours of coordinated attacks, Ms. Marlowe was bragging about how Doulat’s family runs a “successful contracting business” that doesn’t take any bribes from bad people, and how much the troops have to “massage Doulat’s not inconsiderable ego” and “reward him for his competence and honesty,” in a way that isn’t at all like taking bribes from the good guys.

Then again, Ms. Marlowe is diametrically opposed to Mr. Nagl on the topic of negotiating with the Taliban margins—she thinks it would betray “it’s Meenas” and isn’t needed anyway because we’re really secretly winning in Khost and people who don’t think so might as well just be British.

Sigh. Does anyone else feel better about our prospects of winning the war?

Update: Where the hell does Marlowe get her data? Leaving her continued insistence on Khost having “a million people” (the 2003 census put it at less than 500,000), she claims the subgovernor of Mandozai (sometimes called Islmailkhan, after the town that houses the district center) is Haji Doulat. Problem: Xinhua reports from November 15, 2008, that the subgovernor is Daulat Khan Qayumi (another BBC Monitoring Service translated report identifies Qayumi as the district subgovernor in mid-July). Reuters identified the sub-governor as Qayumi in March. Twice.

What could explain this? “Haji” (spelled “Hajji” by people who, you know, know better) is a term of respect for some men who have made the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. It is also a quite racist term used by some U.S. military personnel to describe Islamist extremists. Daulat (Doulat) Khan Qayumi (or Qayoumi) is his actual name; considering Marlowe’s obsessive refusal to consider anything someone not wearing a uniform has ever said, I really don’t know if I can trust she learned the good sub governor’s name from one who respected him. And why not ever say his real name?

I just don’t get it.

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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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Transitionland November 18, 2008 at 8:14 pm

Ann Marlowe is bashing Greg Mortenson now: http://www.forbes.com/opinions/2008/11/18/afghanistan-pakistan-schools-oped-cx_am_1118marlowe.html

He’s a “naive”, “solitary do-gooder.” His accounts of Afghanistan are “hysterical” and his book is “very anti-military.” He doesn’t devote enough space in his book to criticizing the Taliban, and we should find that suspicious.

She concludes with: “Greg Mortenson has done much fine work, but by larding his account with so much anti-military nonsense, he does not only American soldiers but also the people of Afghanistan a grave disservice. Hundreds of thousands of the children of the Pashtun belt here owe their education to the U.S. Army. Its efforts here need to be expanded and supported. And young Americans who want to help the children of Afghanistan probably can do so best by joining the group that’s doing the most for them–the U.S. Army.”

Yes. That is how she concludes.

Joshua Foust November 18, 2008 at 8:20 pm

Well isn’t she prolific. You do realize that STILL isn’t providing reasons for optimism, right?

I like how she doesn’t get a single freaking thing about a) Mortenson’s work (which is very much in the territory of Afghanistan), or b) Afghanistan (for example: no one, not even the Central Statistics Office, says Khost has a million people—she made that number up out of thin air). Good thing she gets column inches in Forbes and the WSJ. Sigh.

steve November 18, 2008 at 10:01 pm

i heard that nagl interview on NPR and was underwhelmed.

Patton November 18, 2008 at 10:09 pm

The Most High Exalted FM 3-24 says something along the lines of “if it works here, it probably won’t work there”, which Nagl should know, and hopefully does. As for Ms. Marlowe, I remember a line from the great Lewis Black that I think applies to her: “I wonder, where can one find a drug that would make one so delusional?” She mentions that Mortenson doesn’t seem to criticize the Taliban very much, but as I recall from the book, he didn’t exactly cheerlead for them, either. He made a point of getting women educated, not something that would endear him to the Taliban. And why not focus on the teeny-tiny villages? I.e., the ones that get absolutely no attention from the central government. And to finish, the whole thing reminds me too much of a stuffy Victorian era British gentleman going on about “demned savages” who “ought to be grateful for our civilization” or some such blather. And if that’s what we’ve lowered ourselves to, I’m going to see about getting on a one way trip to Mars with some Martians. Anal probes can’t possibly be worse than that tripe.

Joel Hafvenstein November 22, 2008 at 1:18 am

Minor aside on the Haji/Hajji thing: some of us choose to go with the less literal transliteration because it reads more cleanly in English — depending on typeface, the double j – i combination can be almost unreadable.

When I wrote about my colleague Habibullah, I referred to him as Haji Habibullah throughout because that was all the Afghans ever called him — I don’t think I once heard “Habibullah Noorzai” come out of their mouths. Many Afghans, not just racist outsiders, regularly use the honorific and skip the tribal name.

I agree with your broader points on pundits who resort to platitudes and distortions to give a sunnier picture of Afghanistan (and US military performance) than is warranted.

Joshua Foust November 22, 2008 at 2:54 pm

Joel, you’re right about the naming thing. Another reader gently chided me that everyone knows Hajji Doulat as just that. My worry came into play for a few very specific reasons:

1) Hajji is ALSO a racist term used by soldiers;
2) Marlowe has a history of uncritically repeating anything the military says and attacking those who either question it or have different points of view; and
3) Marlowe never did what you did, that is, name him and then explain that “Hajji” is an honorific

So, I really don’t feel bad questioning her account. But it is good to know about Mr. Doulat.

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