Dispatches from FOBistan: Can the Adults Please Start Discussing Afghanistan?

by Joshua Foust on 3/14/2009 · 8 comments

FOB SALERNO, AFGHANISTAN — In the latrines on FOB Salerno, there are truly entertaining signs: about urine color (no matter the color, and therefore level of hydration, drink more water), not putting your boogers on the wall, and so on (I haven’t been able to take pictures yet because it would look damned suspicious). While amusing, those signs are the least of the worries people have here, which range from how to access districts when MRAPs get disabled by IEDs to how the U.S. might put into place long-term stability programs.

Indeed, the thinking out here is rather immediate: how to do this operation, how to understand that local conflict. The discussion back in the United States makes for a marked constrast for its sheer infantilism. I don’t mean stuff like this bizarre Tom Johnson “cable from teh futurez” (if only we had district reconstruction teams!) I mean stuff like these two competing New York Times op-eds by members of the Council on Foreign Relations.

First up is CFR President Emeritus Leslie Gelb. Let’s pick a passage at random. After Gelb declares it impossible to defeat the Taliban (because they’re part of Afghanistan’s largest “tribe,” the Pashtuns), he says:

The more the Taliban set up shop inside Afghanistan, the more vulnerable they will be to American punishment. Taliban leaders must have good reason to fear America’s military reach. Their leaders could be hit by drones or air strikes. The same goes for their poppy fields, from which they derive considerable income. Most important, Mr. Obama must do what the Bush team inexplicably never seemed to succeed in doing — stop the flow of funds to the Taliban that comes mainly through the Arab Gulf states. At the same time, he could let some money trickle in to reward good behavior.

Which tells me Gelb is not just ignorant of Afghan culture and the war as it is now waged, but also of the entire 1990s, which featured President Clinton doing precisely that. Hint hint: it didn’t work. What is most remarkable about Gelb’s op-ed is that, almost point for point, he advocates precisely what the International Crisis Group advises should not be done to fix the Afghan mess. To summarize the ICG’s anti-recommendations:

  • Do not negotiate with jihadi groups, especially from a position of weakness;
  • Do not focus on generalized regional solutions at this time;
  • Do not withdraw;
  • Do not “find the right Pashtun” to do our dirty work;
  • Do not arm the villagers.

The ICG report is definitely worth reading in full (it’s only 20 pages). Quite unlike Gelb, it demonstrates an understanding of Afghanistan and its recent history—something critically missing from almost all of the discussions about the war in the U.S. (The ICG report isn’t perfect, but it is sober and very well argued, and so therefore is worthy of serious consideration.)

Coming from the other side is Max Boot and the Kagans, saying let’s just surge our way into victory. Ignoring the obnoxious tone of people who spent years arguing that Iraq mattered above all now arguing that Afghanistan has suffered from “years of chronic neglect,” they suffer from the classic potemkin problem: an eight-day Petraeus-sponsored tour of the entire country actually tells you nothing about the conflict. In fact, I would argue that their eight days spent traveling from “from Kunar Province on the Pakistan border to Farah Province near the Iranian frontier” left them with an anti-understanding of the conflict, if all they can come up with is a few elders in Khost, of all places, saying they’ll never let the Taliban return.

Whatever Ann Marlowe may have said about this place in the past, let us be certain about one thing: Khost is a dangerous place, and the insurgency here is peaking. It is worse than it was in 2006, 2007, and 2008, and it looks set to become even worse this year.

Max Boot is a great source for overhype (the “defeatist hysteria” line in particular made me grin), and the Kagans don’t exactly have the most sterling of reputations for sober, independent analysis. In fact, all three can be credibly accused of being mouthpieces for whichever General they happen to be interviewing, though that is not at all a knock on the Generals.

What I would like to know is: why can’t any actual adults capable of more than a week-long trip somewhere and some petulant arm crossing actually get analytical pieces run in papers like the New York Times? Why this reliance on people who form rather surprisingly sloppy arguments (Boot and the Kagans never define what victory is, Gelb is very ignorant of the history and regional politics involved)? I just don’t get it. Everyone involved here can do better.

Why Escalation Remains Good
I Am Marginally Anti-Non-Escalation
Jari Lindholm on this exact same topic
CNAS on why “surging” to Afghanistan is actually a bad idea

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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 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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TCHe March 14, 2009 at 8:43 am

I keep asking myself the same thing. My answer: Once you’re on top, cease all efforts. No further need for them.

Sad …

Dan March 14, 2009 at 7:43 pm

Where I differ is that I freely blame the generals for giving neo-con writers the time of day. They lack credibility and general officers should know better by now.

T March 14, 2009 at 11:09 pm

Dan, what is a “neo-con” writer? Is this some formal union that must be muzzled? Or is there some omnipotent judgment panel sitting atop the world categorizing the acceptable and unacceptable authoras? I was under the impression that good leaders lister to multiple points of view, filter them as needed for the mission at hand, then make decisions focused on victory. I really haven’t heard, in my 26 years in the military, that a particular externally-applied. political categorization should immediately disqualify that author’s input from consideration …

Joshua Foust March 15, 2009 at 12:07 am

I actually must side with “T” on this one. It is not Boot and the Kagans’ political stances that makes them unworthy of lavish treatment by the military, but their astounding record — yes, Fred thought of the surge, but he seems to misunderstand what actually happened in Iraq (of which the Surge was a very small part), and for that crowd in particular to gripe that Afghanistan was ignored by the defeatists is a bit jaw-dropping.

Gelb, though, is of a similar cant: his piece ignores not just modern but recent history in the country, apparently not realizing that turning Afghanistan into the 1990s again is actually not really a recipe for a safe America.

This kind of lazy thinking is a problem for both sides of the political spectrum — the neocons do not have a monopoly on it.

Dan March 15, 2009 at 12:48 pm

I’m not going to explain a term that’s in my introduction to international relations texts. It is true that there are no Weberian ideal types in the real world; however, it is safe to classify various thinkers and authors based upon the major themes of their work and the perceptions stemming from peers (broadly defined) who read them.

The very theoretical guide behind certain work has already been shown as disconnected from the greater part of reality. There is a non-reflective nature to Boot and the Kagans that I believe an officer worth their salt should already understand this many years after the fact.

Dan March 15, 2009 at 12:52 pm

That response comes off as much more obnoxious than intended. My apologies for the tone. No apologies for the argument. I believe neoconservatism as a broadly defined set of ideas regarding foreign, and to a lesser extent domestic policy, is well understood. There is no cabal or secret conspiracy-just some of the dumbest smart people around who are very brave with other people’s blood. That’s about as friendly as I can be on the subject.

Dan March 15, 2009 at 2:56 pm

Also (I can’t believe I’m posting three times), I am fully aware that I am conflating my normative argument and the empirical one. Both, however, point to the same conclusion, that the ideology of aggressive Wilsonianism is flawed.

David M March 16, 2009 at 9:56 am

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 03/16/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

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