Gauging Obama’s “Af-Pak” Experts

by Joshua Foust on 5/24/2009 · 3 comments

(This week I’m guest-blogging for Spencer Ackerman, who introduced me very amusingly. This is my first post for him.)

My friend Alex Strick van Linschoten, who is one of the only independent journalists living in Kandahar full-time, posted a review of Bruce Riedel’s book, In Search of Al Qaeda: Its Leadership, Ideology and Future. Riedel is a high-profile, very respected foreign policy wonk, and recently headed up President Obama’s “Af-Pak” (God how I hate that term) review. Which is why Alex’s comments are so interesting:

The most puzzling feature of this structure – out of which he explains his conception of al Qaeda – is the inclusion of Mullah Omar as a fundamental feature (a full one quarter of the narrative) of al Qaeda. The authors of these comments have not read an account of al Qaeda to date which makes a claim as bold as this for the role that Mullah Omar played. Nor have we heard any claims that Mullah Omar was involved (to whatever level – Reidel is frustratingly unclear) in the planning or strategic decisions that lead to 9-11. This in itself is not evidence to support a claim, but the authors have been engaged in Afghanistan and in research on the issues relating to jihadism and Islamism for at least eight years and we had not previously heard this claim.

Alex is perhaps being overly cautious. While Riedel is certainly respected, and has a background rooted in the CIA, that’s no indication of any particular depth of knowledge—indeed, in his many biographies (the Brookings Institution lists his expertise as “Counter-terrorism; Arab-Israeli issues; Persian Gulf security; India and Pakistan,” which is another way of saying “almost everything”) there’s no reason to think he has special access or expertise that many other people don’t. In fact, I’ll take it a step further: the CIA in particular has a lousy history of allowing their former analysts to publish books (say, by “Afghanistan chief” Gary Schroen) that are laden with so many easily-checked errors that one wonders if they ever consulted maps while serving.

Not to knock Riedel specifically. But his invocation of Mullah Omar—the former mujahideen fighter who didn’t make a name for himself until he strung up a Kandahari warlord by the neck for raping a teenaged girl in 1994—as a key player in al Qaeda, which, if Larry Wright is to be believed, wasn’t involved in Afghanistan until years later… well, I mean, surely he’d provide some proof, yes?

Alex further complains, “Bold and new allegations are not backed up by credible sources (or, in some cases, any sources) and the reader must simply trust Reidel.” Which is nice, but… well, I mean, he’s no Nazif Shahrani. Hell, if Shahrani made some of these claims—like the Kathmandu hijacking (which is fertile ground for many conspiracy theories) was a dry run for 9/11—without any evidence, I’d wonder why I should trust him, as well.

Which might be pointing at a deeper problem within the entire Afghanistan policy arena: the reliance on reputation, instead of argumentation, to draw conclusions. In Riedel’s case, I could easily see the tight interweaving of the Taliban and al Qaeda as serving a grander purpose—say, the justification for President Obama’s new focus on Afghanistan as the major front in the War on Terror—but without any real basis for saying so, I’m left to wonder… why bother?

Actually, Bruce, why bother? If you’re going to add so much to the discussion this late in the game, please have a reason for saying it. Because it just might be true, and if it is, I’d like to know for certain.

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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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TCHe May 24, 2009 at 3:38 pm

While it’s only scientifically prudent to challenge conventional wisdom, this is much at odds with everything known about AQ, 9/11 and the Taliban.

Which ist that Omar wasn’t exactly happy about the idea because instead of “luring“ the US into a war it would – according to UBL and az-Zawahiri – surely lose, he figured the reaction would have a rather negative impact on his government.

Transitionland May 25, 2009 at 1:07 am

Joshua, you ARE cantankerous. Most of the time, that’s a good thing. However, I think the rest of the Afghanistan-watching blogosphere is a bit scared of you. I certainly am. I’m just glad that my blog has a readership of, like, five, and is thus not high profile enough to ever warrant a “oh dear god, I didn’t think this level of human stupidity was possible, but here’s proof it is”-type remark.


Joshua Foust May 25, 2009 at 8:53 am

Transitionland I don’t hate everyone. I read your blog, and I don’t comment on it because it’s not insipid. Now, Ackerman isn’t insipid either, but he’s also a good sport. And he’s zinged me before, too.

Hell, especially when I write about Central Asia, people zing the living piss out of me because I’m not as buried in the subject matter.

I don’t know what I’m saying, aside from people should just do their homework and not assume that reading a book makes you an expert on the subject.

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