I Am Marginally Anti-Non-Escalation

by Joshua Foust on 1/15/2009 · 7 comments

Alex Thurston, who blogs at friend-of-Registan.net-The Agonist, has teamed up with a group of progressives to argue against the Afghan Surge at Get Afghanistan Right. Indeed, one of his big posts is about taking down what he calls “pro-escalation” arguments. He and I struck up a friendly rapport, so I’m going to respond to his, and several of his cohorts’ ideas. The title of this post summarizes my argument, so let’s get right to it.

For one, let’s drop the “E” word. It is technically correct, but also very deliberately chosen to invoke Vietnam—no matter what John Kerry says, they’re fundamentally different fights. For another, let’s stop pitying the Afghans, as Sanjar asks.

Taliban might be irrational or inarticulate but that doesn’t make them stupid. If Taliban were stupid why can’t the Nato prevail; it doesn’t take much to play the stupid. Afghans, in general, are seen as backward and poor while Nato soldier in his fully isolated camp continue to live a life of home, some unaware which country they are serving in. The soldier is nice as his nature commands to be, to the people he pities. This attitude goes back all the way to Nato’s system, policy and any future strategy. The aid system they have devised is pitiful. Until the west abandons this mindset of inferioriting and pitying Afghans the insurgency seem to persist; taliban won’t be understood; an unknown enemy is hard to beat. Western soldiers patrolling urban streets or country orchards lack any sense of connection with ordinary Afghans; they don’t need to understand Afghans, as Estonians or any other eastern Europeans are not understood by British or Germans, they need to be respected and taken on equal terms.

This is a sin committed, in different ways, by both the pro- and anti-escalation crowd. As I just wrote earlier, Afghans are a proud and independent people, and babying them does no one any favors.

That being said, for an escalation to be effective it must be different in some way from the status quo. Much like Barnett Rubin (whose essay in the current issue of Boston Review contains an beautifully written overview of the cultural challenges that remain), if the U.S. military-diplomatic complex was pursuing the same policies it had since 2001, I would see much reason for pessimism. And, much as my other writings on the subject have said, there needs to be a lot of troops, and they need to have a very definite tasking beyond the current set of “do whatever the BCT feels like.” Simply adding new troops without addressing the mission doesn’t address the problems in Afghanistan, and I agree with the non-escalation crowd that it very might make things worse.

However, change is in the works. Cheap-sounding buzzwords like “human terrain” are actually indications of much deeper thinking about applying socio-cultural frameworks to intelligence and counterinsurgency operations—a development so new people still don’t quite know what to call it or how it might be implemented. There are even several competing, similar programs at work in Iraq and Afghanistan, all of which show a lot of promise in helping the U.S. learn how to fight the wars as they are and not as they should be.

Leaving aside the many reasons the Afghanistan mission remains a good one (see my CJR essay on the topic here, or this much longer post and comments here to avoid a tedious rehashing), “escalation,” or increasing troop levels to an appropriate, rather than the currently inadequate, level, is riddled with problems. It must accompany a shift in U.S. policy, away from the snag-and-bag night raids that turn far more people against us than it nabs terrorists. It must accompany a radical departure from the FOB mentality and involve dispersing units into the countryside and into the community. And it must accompany a radical departure from the utterly failed counternarcotics campaigns of the last 7 years.

I support the idea of adding more troops to the mix. But only if they’re used properly. Otherwise, it really will become throwing away good money after bad.


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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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{ 7 comments }

Reverend Doctor January 15, 2009 at 1:57 pm

BTW the link to the Mitre report is broken. If you’re into reading about how bureaucrats think computational models can be applied to culture. Which I am not.

Nathan January 15, 2009 at 8:28 pm

I’ve repaired the link.

Joshua Simeon Narins January 16, 2009 at 6:08 pm

I’ve heard lots of talk about “human terrain” but I’ve yet to hear WORD ONE about a practical application.

Our goal is not to defend ourselves from attack, but to prevent the (circa 500 BC Greek culture level) Pashtana from being the insular, backwards people they remember being.

If extra-terrestrials came down and kept beating the shit out of us and bombing us and killing anyone who violently resisted their imposition of whatever-their-history-and-culture-tells-them-is-good-government, I would root for the Earthlings.

I can’t see how I can do otherwise here.

tim russo January 17, 2009 at 8:54 am
Jeff Hess January 18, 2009 at 7:16 am

Shalom Joshua,

Please tell me more about what:

“Cheap-sounding buzzwords like “human terrain” are actually indications of much deeper thinking about applying socio-cultural frameworks to intelligence and counterinsurgency operations—a development so new people still don’t quite know what to call it or how it might be implemented. There are even several competing, similar programs at work in Iraq and Afghanistan, all of which show a lot of promise in helping the U.S. learn how to fight the wars as they are and not as they should be.”

looks like.

B’shalom,

Jeff

Joshua Foust January 18, 2009 at 10:55 am

JSN: Are you really rooting for the Neo-Taliban? Cause that’s how what you wrote reads.

Tim: thanks for the links back, and I think you and I agree.

Jeff: thanks for the comment. For one example, the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency is working on a way to systematically “map the human terrain” so that counterinsurgents can understand the social environment in which they work. Max Boot has also written about the challenges posed in navigating the human terrain of war theaters. There are a lot of attempts to do this, whether in the Marine Corps or the Army.

But it’s also a new concept. At its oldest, near I can tell, the systematic mapping of people in the military is maybe entering its 3rd year. So it’s not even really had a chance to prove itself, either.

Thanks a lot for commenting, guys!

Joshua Simeon Narins January 27, 2009 at 4:46 am

Mr. Foust,

Let’s say you and I are in a bar, and we find out that the guy standing next to us is bad. Does that mean I would root for you as you beat the crap out of him? Whoops! You accidentally killed the 4 year old girl standing next to him. Are you confused why I want you to stop?

We both agree that the neo-Taliban are among the least civilized peoples on Earth, however noble, or even generous, some of their philosophy might be. It appears as if only one of us believes we can keep killing them until they act otherwise.

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