Quick Hits on the AF

by Joshua Foust on 3/23/2009 · 11 comments

  • Dig the arrogance: Karzai isn’t work out well, so let’s undermine his government and the very democratic process we say we support to install a new official we find more amenable. Those silly “votes” we’re all up on? Yeah, not so important. Assuming this is true — it is, notice, a Julian Borger column. But it is also this petty “review” the Obama administration has drawn up, which so far hasn’t resulted in anything new or constructive.
  • I really wish people would abandon the word “surge.” It is not descriptive (all increases are surges!), has way too much political baggage, and doesn’t describe what’s happening in Afghanistan. That being said, I’m glad the British are bringing more civilians to the fight, though this time I hope they can comport themselves a bit more honestly.
  • Swat, Bajaur, and Kunar: inextricably linked?
  • A polisci professor at GMU thinks negotiating with the Taliban is a bad idea.
  • Myra McDonald notes that the debate over negotiating with the Taliban has changed from “if” to “how.” I don’t know about anyone else, but I find that rather dangerous. ++Cheers for groupthink in the new Hope and Change American polity, though!
  • Myra also wrote an interesting analysis on this, though I would dispute her point that “analysts” are monolithic in seeing a need to negotiate right now.
  • Holbrooke speaks, Bleuer mocks.
  • Did you see this interview with David Kilcullen? I did too, though I’m curious how he arrived as his knowledge of Pakistan and “the tribes.”

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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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Chris Mewett March 23, 2009 at 12:31 pm

Did you see this interview with David Kilcullen? I did too, though I’m curious how he arrived as his knowledge of Pakistan and “the tribes.”

Take a look at his book and you’ll get some idea.

All due respect, but there’s a certain point where all the Af-Pak experts yelling “these policy guys JUST DON’T GET IT” ceases to be useful. This is essentially what all the terminological criticism amounts to (you know, the whole “listen, we need to talk about qawm, not tribes” thing).

What is your specific criticism of the sentiments expressed by Kilcullen in the interview, or of his broader ideas? There’s plenty to talk about, but this sort of dismissal based on purported ignorance just strikes me a bit like snark.

Chris Mewett March 23, 2009 at 12:34 pm

I guess I should also note here that I do plenty of complaining without offering solutions, and plenty of “that guy is dumb,” so it’s not like I don’t understand the draw. Not trying to be a d-bag, just wondering if there’s a point of marginal utility in the campaign to discredit all those who aren’t regional experts.

myra macdonald March 23, 2009 at 5:56 pm

Josh, just to be clear, I didn’t say that the United States needed to talk to the Taliban “right now”, but that it does need to talk to them (which you might argue is a statement of the obvious, since in the end you always have to talk to insurgents if they represent a sizeable proportion of the local population).

Also I deliberately avoided using the term “moderate Taliban” which seems to be confusing the whole discussion. Certainly none of the analysts I spoke to subscribed to the notion of there being “moderate Taliban”; rather they said that the insurgents will need to be included in any political settlement. The split they talked about was between the Afghan insurgents (including the Taliban) and al Qaeda.

In that sense, the Eurasia piece you quoted seemed to be missing the point.

As for it being a dangerous point to make now, time-sequencing is difficult in such a publicly debated war. If for example, the United States were to say “we will have to talk to the Taliban, but not right now”, would that not amount to the same thing?


Christian March 23, 2009 at 7:06 pm

RE: “All due respect, but there’s a certain point where all the Af-Pak experts yelling “these policy guys JUST DON’T GET IT” ceases to be useful. This is essentially what all the terminological criticism amounts to (you know, the whole “listen, we need to talk about qawm, not tribes” thing).”

Qawm is a concept that covers changing patterns of loyalty and strategic identity shifts. Qawm can be tribe (seldomly these days) but it can also be many other things, or a combination thereof. Tribe is just one of many options subsumed within the concept of qawm. It is most definitely not about terminology/semantics. The broad assortment of anthropologists, historians and political scientists, native and otherwise (and none of them post-modernist deconstructionists), who stress qawm, can be found here.

Chris Mewett March 23, 2009 at 7:28 pm

Christian — I should have explained myself more clearly: I don’t mean to suggest that the the entire distinction between “tribe” and qawm amounts to semantics; in fact, the very fact that I understand that it does not is down to readings recommended by both you and Joshua (to include the post that you’ve linked).

What I mean to say is that just because someone like Dave Kilcullen uses the word “tribal” in an interview about Afghanistan, doesn’t seem like reason enough to dismiss him as completely ignorant of the complexities of Afghan social structure. I recognize that I’m perhaps putting words into Joshua’s mouth here (or at least interpreting his words in a more aggressive manner than he means them), but at a certain point I start to wonder if it’s useful to criticize those who are making a good-faith effort to understand the situation and give useful policy prescriptions simply because they speak or write in a way that is fit for mass consumption.

I’d just ask whether there’s anything about Kilcullen’s writings that suggest that he’s the sort to quickly slap an ill-fitting analytical framework from one war or culture onto his study of another. It’s always going to be easy to object that people don’t really understand Afghanistan — and like I said before, I’m as guilty of this as the next guy, and with half the expertise — but is there anyone out there who does understand it?

Just the same, thanks for writing.

Christian March 23, 2009 at 7:54 pm


As for Kilcullen, I don’t read his stuff often ( and I haven’t skimmed his book yet) so I couldn’t say.

An example of someone who often writes and speaks “in a way that is fit for mass consumption” would be Barnett Rubin (in regards to governance and reconstruction). But he can strongly back up everything he says (or get into specifics) for an “expert audience” quite well. Many others just can’t do that.

Chris Mewett March 23, 2009 at 8:40 pm

Agree on Rubin — that’s a high standard to aspire to!

Joshua Foust March 23, 2009 at 10:48 pm


For once, I wasn’t complaining about qawm or something. Notice how I said “Pakistan.” I was referring to his specific argument that OBL will be either killed by U.S. forces (unlikely), or that he’ll be captured by “the tribes” and paraded around on TV and accused of committing crimes against Islam.

That last bit makes me wonder just how much he actually knows about these people, because it is a ridiculous thing to even dangle about as a possibility.

That’s all I mean. Please, continue arguing about how awesome Barnett Rubin is 🙂

Chris Mewett March 23, 2009 at 11:11 pm

I’ve got to admit, I sniggered a little bit when I imagined a wild-eyed Pashtun, Koran in one hand and an AK in the other, turning up in Peshawar with a flex-cuffed bin Laden and asking “do you know where I can find the International Criminal Court?”

Doug March 25, 2009 at 6:19 am

ref: Kilcullen. He’s probably being his usual bruque self. I was talking to a mate who worked alongside him in Baghdad and his take was” “Dave doesn’t really have a lot of personal skills … he’s a brilliant analyst though.”

“Tribes” does sound simplistic, but to me it read like an off-the-cuff remark – did he need to describe ethnic loyalties / affiliations in detail to the NYT audience? Note also his reference to TE Lawrence and ‘the tribes’, that’s DK’s paradigm.

Doug March 25, 2009 at 6:22 am

Washington Post audience, that would be…

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