Your Weekend Insipidity

by Joshua Foust on 12/20/2008 · 9 comments

A roundup of stories out recently that represent especially excruciating analysis or news reporting about Afghanistan.

  • In the last year and a half, Ann Marlowe has reversed most of her positions on Afghanistan without comment or explanation—first Hamid Karzai is our biggest problem and roads solve IEDs, now in the Weekly Standard she tells us it’s all about cops and oh yeah “there is no panacea for IEDs.” Make up your mind lady, or at least stop pretending like you’ve access to some sort of secret knowledge because of your bi-monthly propaganda tours. Or shall we forget that one time you blamed the 101st Airborne for messing up your friend Scottie’s brilliant plans for Khost, until you embedded with the 101st and changed your mind?
  • Reza Aslan thinks the think tank formerly known as the Senlis Council is right in thinking that the one thing that can save Afghanistan is legalizing opium. While I’m sure the Reasonoids would agree, this is pure foolishness—economics and politics determine opium cultivation, not legalization—and without any sort of government in the south or east, legalizing would change little. Focusing on opium focuses on the symptom, not the cause of instability.
  • Mark Sappenfield, who normally does fine work for the CS Monitor, accuses the U.S. of replicating the Soviet Union’s mistakes. This is simplistic, misleading, and draws one to the wrong conclusion—the differences between the 80s and now are what’s important, not the similarities.
  • Thomas Schweich, the curiously unrepentant architect of our disastrous counternarcotics campaign in Afghanistan, now argues that the Pentagon has militarized U.S. foreign policy. Ordinarily, this would be a fine point to make, only his keystone argument is… the DOD taking over the counternarcotics campaign after it was proven ineffective. Ahem.

I’m sure there’s more out there, especially about Pakistan. But it’s too tiring to dig through all the inanity (plus, I have a cold). The point is: there are a lot of people offering their analyses of Afghanistan and U.S. policy in the region. What I think should matter when it comes to credibility is not whether or not a given view confirms your own biases and assumptions—a phenomenon which right now lies at the heart of American punditry—but whether they have a proven record of success or failures. Unfortunately, a lot of column inches are being devoted to proven failures (I don’t necessarily mean the list above, just in general). We are worse off for 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 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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Duncan Kinder December 21, 2008 at 4:10 pm

—economics and politics determine opium cultivation, not legalization—

The point of legalizing opium is not to increase or to decrease the amount of opium being planted. It is to enable someone other than the Taliban to make money off of it – thereby denying them an important revenue stream.

Joshua Foust December 21, 2008 at 4:17 pm

And how, given Kabul’s current inability to reliably tax or regulate “normal” goods, would you suggest it do this with opium? Some form of legalization might be necessary… eventually. But that’s way in the future.

Duncan Kinder December 21, 2008 at 5:30 pm

Because the high price of narcotics comes from the illicit manufacture and transport of these items.

Legalize them and they could be directly provided at much lower cost – thereby diverting revenues from illicit smugglers and manufacturers.

Whether Kabul can or cannot regulate its provinces would be irrelevant or trivially so for many reasons – not the least being that competing, legal, low-cost opium might well be produced in – say – Maryland.

Joshua Foust December 21, 2008 at 5:38 pm

If you’re talking about a global legalization campaign for opium, you’ll need a lot of good luck:

a) good luck doing this on any scale beyond the already saturated pharmaceutical market
b) good luck getting “legalize heroin” on any ballot in the western world
c) good luck dealing with India and Turkey, who have only partially defeated opium trafficking through a controlled legalization scheme for pharmaceuticals
d) good luck coming up with something nice to tell the millions of Afghan farmers whose rural economy you just crashed with no alternative way to buy food

But I mean, otherwise, it’s a stellar plan.

Duncan Kinder December 21, 2008 at 6:01 pm


Due to the likely overflow from the drug war down in Mexico, I and a lot of other Americans are going to need all the luck we can get.

KeithD December 22, 2008 at 9:04 am

I once sent a letter to the DEA in the USA,never got a reply! The letter went along the lines of ‘ Every plant in the world seems to have an insect that just loves to chomp it to bits, hence the use of pesticides. I was wondering if the poppy plant had some kind of pest that just loved eating (& killing) it? Would it be possible to develop something? Then all you would need is to overfly the poppy fields and drop a few insects onto the ground and Voila!, problem over. Is that to simple?

Duncan Kinder December 23, 2008 at 12:24 pm

Speaking of stellar plans, ,according to the NYT:

A drive by the NATO alliance to disrupt Afghanistan’s drug trade has been hobbled by new objections from member nations that say their laws do not permit soldiers to carry out such operations, according to senior commanders here.

The objections are being raised despite an agreement two months ago that the alliance’s campaign in Afghanistan would be broadened to include attacks on narcotics facilities, traffickers, middlemen and drug lords whose profits help to finance insurgent groups.

But with good luck, this will be resolved.

Myra MacDonald December 27, 2008 at 7:23 pm

Joshua, I’m just catching up on your posts and noticed the following from you:

“Mark Sappenfield, who normally does fine work for the CS Monitor, accuses the U.S. of replicating the Soviet Union’s mistakes. This is simplistic, misleading, and draws one to the wrong conclusion—the differences between the 80s and now are what’s important, not the similarities.”

Can you expand? At first glance the similarities seem rather powerful — a war going wrong in Afghanistan, a domestic economy in trouble, and a leader (Obama/Gorbachev) who believes in change.

What are the differences?


Joshua Foust December 28, 2008 at 2:18 pm


Certainly. For one, the ICOS study people love citing is riddled with problems, starting with their methodology. That is the only report people can point to — aside from random, anecdotal accounts — that the Taliban “control” the vast majority of the country. The U.S./NATO controls much of the country by day; the Taliban controls some by night. That is not at all the same dynamic at play.

Similarly, the air war is fundamentally different, and the U.S./Coalition has not adopted the scorched earth policy the Soviets did — we are not lacing the countryside with mines, for example, nor are we deliberately destroying rural communities to force people into cities or refugee camps to enable easier control.

There is a fundamental difference in legitimacy, the nature and support of the insurgency, the geopolitical circumstances of the conflict, and the reasons why the U.S. is failing (i.e. it is not necessarily unpopularity, but our own subsequent mistakes, which is quite the opposite of the Russians).

There are surface similarities, to be sure. But to equate the American campaign with the Soviet one, even on a tactical level, is deeply misleading and draws the wrong conclusions. Again, the similarities are not as important as the differences.

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