Probably Missing the Point

by Joshua Foust on 7/8/2009 · 21 comments

Myra MacDonald makes a very keen point in discussing the wars against the Taliban groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan:

Presumably there is an overall gameplan to destroy the effective strength of the Taliban, by winning over the hearts and minds of the local population in both countries by providing security and development; by cutting off the militants’ source of funding by targeting opium-growing areas in Helmand; and by co-ordinating operations between Afghanistan and Pakistan so they can no longer hide by going back and forth across the border.

What is worrying though, is that it does not yet seem clear how that gameplan is meant to fit together.

It’s true, this lack of direction is deeply worrisome. And it extends to all levels of the war effort in Afghanistan: from the Marines going into Nawa, a region famous for its pervasive, industrial-scale opium industry, without any local backup, to the increased robot-bombing of the Tribal Areas, there doesn’t seem to be any point. The Coalition is not fighting against the Taliban as it is, but as they wish it to be, and the region continues its death spiral.

Gilles Dorronsoro has just published a new study about just how badly we’re missing the point, and it’s devastating:

The Taliban are a revolutionary movement, deeply opposed to the Afghan tribal system and focused on the rebuilding of the Islamic Emirate. Their propaganda and intelligence are efficient, and the local autonomy of their commanders in the field allow them both flexibility and cohesion. They have made clever use of ethnic tensions, the rejection of foreign forces by the Afghan people, and the lack of local administration to gain support in the population.  In so doing the Taliban have achieved their objectives in the South and East of the country, isolating the Coalition, marginalizing the local Afghan administration, and establishing a parallel administration (mainly to dispense Sharia justice and collect taxes). In recent months, a more professional Taliban have succeeded in making significant inroads by recruiting from non-Pashtun communities.
These developments, and the strength of the insurgency makes the current Coalition strategy of focusing its reinforcements in the South (Helmand and Kandahar) risky to say the least. The lack of local Afghan institutions there will require a long term presence and therefore a need for even more reinforcements in the coming year. Meanwhile, the pace of Taliban progress in other provinces far outstrips the ability of the Coalition to stabilize the South. The Coalition should change the priorities of its current strategy, shifting resources to stop and reverse the Taliban’s progress in the North, while reinforcing and safeguarding the Kabul region or risk losing control of the entire country.

That sounds remarkably like this blog in the last few months. Notice how Dorronsoro argues the Taliban are “deeply opposed to the Afghan tribal system?” That’s something we have argued here for years. Yet still, you see tremendous pressure and effort in the military to focus only on tribes as the key to victory.

Dorronsoro also argues that the International Coalition (which he abbreviates “IC,” not to be confused with “Intelligence Community“) “is unwittingly helping the Taliban maintain its cohesion by killing those commanders in the field most capable of opposing the central shura. Prime examples are Mullah Akhtar Osmani, killed in December 2006, Mullah Berader in August 2007, and Mullah Dadullah in May 2007.” Given the relationships those commanders had to the opium industry of Helmand, this argument will be very relevant later.

In all, Dorronsoro’s paper is a devastating critique of the West’s understanding of the Taliban, and the fecklessness of its efforts to combat it. I highly highly highly recommend reading it.

Update BruceR at Flit, a former embedded trainer in RC-South, wonders why it’s such a surprise there aren’t many Afghans participating in the Helmand offensive.

The deployment and laydown limitations and other related ANSF problems have been totally self-evident to anyone who has worked with them regularly in theatre recently. I could have told the Americans they weren’t going to get another brigade’s worth in Helmand by June, as could any number of other people I worked with or for…

I don’t buy that the Americans are “increasingly concerned” now, because I honestly don’t know who could have dissembled here so badly, and told Gen. Nicholson or his superiors confidently that he’d be getting the numbers of Afghan soldiers he felt he needed for his plan to work, or that having that information he would not identify it as a critical flaw before, you know, the operation actually was launched. But I’ll tell you right now it wouldn’t have been mentors working at my level… or the ANA, for that matter. They know the score better than we do in that respect. I also recall reading or hearing at least two Western officers of Nicholson’s rank level in theatre making statements roughly congruous what I’m saying in this post in semi-privileged forums there, too, and that was months before Nicholson would have arrived. So if there was any wishful thinking about the Afghan security forces in evidence before the operation, where exactly would it have been coming from?

For that matter, I can recall a couple Helmand operations that were cancelled or called off in the last year precisely because it was clear the ANSF were not going to be able to materialize in the numbers required for success. Surely the initial read-in into their area of operations would have brought that to staff planners’ attention. No, having this complaint come to the fore just now makes no sense at all from a planning perspective.

Which brings up a great point: I’ve noted before that it seems the Marines aren’t really planning for this offensive well, and that they are misjudging the scope of their operation. If BG Nicholson is being serious that he wanted more Afghan forces for his offensive, then that is uncharacteristically lax planning and wishful thinking for a Marine. If he is just playing concern for the cameras, then that is weirdly dishonest of him.

Unfortunately, seeing the Marines make such rookie mistakes as not having female soldiers around to search whatever might be lurking under the burqas at the homes of suspected militants, I’m really starting to wonder at the planning that went into this.

Adding female soldiers into the mix to search women wound up being a key component of saving France’s reputation in Kapisa—in 2008. Where it’s been implemented elsewhere—and Kapisa isn’t the only place, merely where I know best—it’s also been very successful at enabling search operations while avoiding offending any gender-based sensibilities. And it’s vital, too, considering how many bad guys have been caught hiding under their burqas.

What gives? The Marines aren’t even doing the basics to make sure they’re successful. Is there something else at play I’m just missing?

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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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BruceR July 8, 2009 at 1:20 pm

Agreed. His summary of ANSF capability, or lack thereof, is right on the money, too.

BruceR July 8, 2009 at 1:44 pm

On another note related to your NYT link, I’m really at a loss to explain why BGen Nicholson would have been operating under the assumption he’d been getting any more Afghan soldiers than he’s got. Any honest individual who was involved with mentoring in Afghanistan in the last year could have told him that wasn’t going to happen and why. The whole point of military planning is identifying critical flaws before you launch the operation… I simply don’t get it why this is coming up now. More here:

Bart July 8, 2009 at 6:12 pm

” In all, Dorronsoro’s paper is a devastating critique of the West’s understanding of the Taliban, and the fecklessness of its efforts to combat it. I highly highly highly recommend reading it.”

Let’s at least note that Dorronsoro’s paper makes these conclusions about the Taliban without consulting a single Afghani or Taliban source. Every single one of his sources is secondary, in English, a language which is certainly not spoken by the Taliban, and generally come from people who agree with the goal of crushing the Taliban.

We should also note that you rely exclusively on seconardy, English sources to make your conclusions about the Taliban.

You often seem to be quite critical of people who disagree with your views, but its interesting how little of your understanding comes from what might be considered primary sources. Or anything other than English language military or other pro-US and anti-Taliban sources. Hard to see how intimately one could really understand the Taliban this way.

Bart July 8, 2009 at 6:15 pm

I would also ask three questions which I would appreciate if you answered:

1) Have you ever been to Taliban-controlled territory?
2) Have you ever had a conversation with a member of the Taliban?
3) Do you know any of the local Afghani language that would allow you to come to read local newspapers, have conversations with locals, and gather your own indepndent information?

Joshua Foust July 8, 2009 at 6:32 pm

Bart, You should probably make a point. Do you disagree with these points, and are they demonstrating an incompleteness that needs filling?

Until you can answer those questions, I won’t answer yours, the answers to which can be very easily found by actually reading this website.

Nathan July 8, 2009 at 6:33 pm

Since we’re checking whether or not people are credentialed to have opinions on this subject, Bart, how about you answer them first?

Bart July 8, 2009 at 7:30 pm

I do not claim to be an expert on Afghanistan and do not make decisive statements about what is happening in Afghanistan. You, however, do both. And, importantly, you frequently dismiss the arguements of others who write on Afghanistan that happen to disagree with you, suggesting they aren’t as informed in their knowledge of Afghanistan. Therefore, I think its only fair to ask these three questions so we can get a better grasp of what you are basing your analysis on.

Sure, I’d be happy to go first. The answer is no to all three questions.

Nathan July 8, 2009 at 10:40 pm

Great, so why are any of those three necessary preconditions for making any of this analysis? Sure it would be great if those conditions could be met and the analysis might seem stronger (though there are reasons to doubt whether evidence from any of those avenues would be very high value). But Dorronsoro is not just some guy. For the type of publication this is, I don’t find anything inappropriate with his sourcing or claims.

Bart July 9, 2009 at 5:57 am

This site, especially Joshua’s posts, frequently makes declarative statements about the nature of the Taliban — not just “opinions” as you stated a few comments back. And he frequently disparage other writers who say things about the Taliban that don’t conform with his view.

Given that he claims, however implicitly, that his understanding of Afghanistan is superior to others, I think its fair to ask what makes him qualified to speak for what the Taliban “is” or “is not.” The

Readers have a right to know how he is reaching his conclusions. Is it special expertise and first-hand knowledge of the Taliban and the situation in their territory? Or is it just English-language secondary sources, most of them provided by sources which are hostile to the Taliban, such as the US Army?

Nathan July 9, 2009 at 6:51 am

And I think it’s fair to question why any of those three fonts of knowledge you mention are of unique value.

Let’s put Josh aside and talk about Dorronsoro since you leveled this critique at him first. Why should we disregard him for not citing conversations with Taliban in the paper? How many such conversations would he have needed to make his point acceptable? How would local newspapers have contributed to the article? Is it perhaps sufficient, if not ideal (considering that Afghanistan is a war zone in which travel opportunities are a bit constrained) to speak to many people who have had some of these opportunities or have also studied the subject?

There are plenty of places, in addition to a research library, where one can go to learn a lot about Afghanistan’s insurgency and conflict dynamics. AREU and CPAU are good places to start.

Bart July 9, 2009 at 7:11 am

I’d appreciate first if the three questions could simply be answered. As you requested, I went first and answered them, no, no, and no. I’ll happily respond to your last point if you and Joshua could answer those three questions.

noah July 9, 2009 at 7:43 am

Additionally, I think it’s important to note that if you attack anyone for not having “the perfect qualifications” to do area-based research you would have precious few scholars of any type left in any field. You might as well add that only Pashtuns have a right to talk about the Taliban because only they can adequately understand regional dialects, or the emic perspective on the area, or so on and so forth. An anthropologist can’t do it, because he isn’t qualified to speak aobut history; a historian can’t do it because she isn’t qualified to speak about political science; political scientists can’t do it because they don’t understand anthropology or history and are constantly trying to compare the situation to others and draw general conclusions that don’t perfectly fit anywhere.

But then again, that’s what the community of scholars and bloggers and journalists is for–so we can each bring our own perspective, translate material for one another, and bring to the table the understanding contributed by our particular field of training or expertise.

Josh may not speak Pashto or Dari, but he can certainly talk to others who do. He may not be able to read local-language newspapers, but others run projects that translate these papers into English and other research languages (like AfghanWire).

As far as charging that he only makes “hard conclusions” and not “opinions,” I’ think that we have different ideas about what blogs are for.

I guess what I’m saying is, if you want to disagree with Josh, please feel free, but if you are trying to say that he’s not allowed to have an opinion because he doesn’t speak Dari or Pashto (and you might as well demand that he speak both plus Arabic, Uzbek, and Chechen by your standard) then you’re attacking the foundation of what makes cooperative scholarship–and most of the advances of the modern era–work.

Nathan July 9, 2009 at 7:44 am

Bart, when did this become about me? I hardly ever say anything about Afghanistan in public fora.

I’m surprised why you can’t just say why those three criteria are such important factors. It would be like me refusing to take serious anything you say until you tell me what kind of car you drive. And again, I said to forget about Josh, tell me why you make the same claim about Dorronsoro. I’d appreciate it.

Since, unlike Josh, you will not find answers to the three questions for me elsewhere on the site: no, no, yes (but not in the way you probably are thinking is sufficient).

Joshua Foust July 9, 2009 at 7:57 am

Bart, I will repeat again what I said earlier: the answer to all of your questions can be found elsewhere, including my journey to Afghanistan and my (translated) discussions with Taliban sympathizers. But even then: you’re setting up a very arbitrary standard for qualifications, while dodging the very good point Nathan brings up: why do those specific merits matter more than other, at least equally salient ones? I’m rather proud of my writing, which stands on its own merit independent of my person. Either it’s right and justified, or it’s not. Fluency in Dari or Pashto is not relevant to my analysis.

Also, if you think me or this site is so pro-military, then I’d really appreciate you telling the military, which has significant issues with my critiques of them.

Ian July 9, 2009 at 8:33 am

Bart, you’d be right to flip back to the list of references on any report in order to evaluate the quality of the sources.

However, it’s evident you didn’t do so, because you say that all of his sources are in English. That’s not the case; check again.

Now, as for the usefulness of a list of references, I don’t think that that list excludes all other references; frequently a short list at the end of a think tank report is more a “suggested reading list.” Given that he’s written a few books about Afghanistan (originally in French, I believe, but no matter), he’s consulted a wide variety of sources that aren’t in this present report.

Now then: check the Carnegie bio of him. He speaks Persian. That would be the language called Dari in Afghanistan.

Has he been to “Taliban-held” territory? Um, I don’t know. I do know that professional scholars of Afghanistan rarely do that, so if you eliminate everyone who hasn’t been to “Taliban-held” territory from your catalog of trustworthy sources, you’re left with slim pickins indeed. Reporters who parachute into war zones (and rarely read a book before they do, nor do they tend to speak the local languages) are your list at that point. Other than, I guess, Taliban themselves, but then their analysis seems to be a bit biased. Not sure what a conversation with one Talib would bring to the report, but whatev.

Is the analysis good in Dorronsoro’s paper good? Yeah, it’s great, and the reason Josh is able to tell you that is because he is deeply immersed in the analysis of this topic and has a good base of knowledge on which to compare it to the other stuff (much of which is junk).

And, in case you were wondering, I do meet some of your three requirements for being an “expert” on Afghanistan, but not all of them.

Ian July 9, 2009 at 8:41 am

Following on that, I’m curious whom you would list as an “expert” on Afghanistan?

Bart July 9, 2009 at 9:04 am

1) Joshua, if you read my comments carefully, I never once questioned any of your writings, or your expertise on Afghanistan.

2) However, when you make decisive claims (not stated merely as “opinions”) about what is happening regarding the Taliban and the territory they control, and then disparage others who hold conflicting opinions as somehow less knowledgeable, which you frequently do, it is fair game to ask what special background you have to make these claims. If I published a book on Cancer research, it would certainly be legitimate to ask me what my background is in this area, so you could get an idea of how I’m reaching my conclusions.

3) As for why these questions are relevent. Would you consider authoratative a bio of say, former French Preisdent Jacques Chirac, that uses no French language sources, is written by someone who has never been to France, and consults neither Chirac nor anyone close to him, but relies exlusively on American and British journalists to describe what those close to Chirac were thinking?

The same principle applies to coverage of the Taliban. If you’ve never had a conversation with a member of the Taliban, never been to territory they control, and have no knowledge of what’s being said in local Aghani media, maybe you should be a little less dismissive of other people with different assumptions about Afghanistan than your’s.

Joshua Foust July 9, 2009 at 9:13 am

Bart, re-read what I said — twice now. I have, indeed, been to territory the Taliban controlled, and spoken with their supporters. I have also spent several years researching the academic consensus on the subject, which is deeply at odds with pundit-based opinions on the topic (and the perspective from which my critiques flow).

Lastly, think about this standard: to comment decisively on Afghanistan, one must converse with members of the Taliban, visit territory they control, and have “knowledge” of what’s being said in local media. Well, I’ve not done the first, at least to my knowledge. You don’t need to speak Dari to have the third (as Noah points out, a significant amount of what little local media there is gets translated into English in multiple forums by mutliple organizations). And many scholars whose opinions I share have, along with me, done the second.

What am I missing?

Ian July 9, 2009 at 9:15 am

Bart, take this salve for your wounded spirit: everything written on blogs is opinion. Even if it sounds “decisive” or “dismissive.”

Shohmurod July 10, 2009 at 12:56 pm

“Unfortunately, seeing the Marines make such rookie mistakes as not having female soldiers”

Well, female soldiers are not available! They prefer the Army! ;-D

MJD July 29, 2009 at 1:18 pm

This blog discussion is mute. In the acknowledgement to the report, Dorronsoro states the report was first drafted after he returned from a visit to “Afghanistan (Kabul, Gardez, Jalalabad, Mazar-i Sharif, Kunduz, and Uruzgan) in April 2009.” He also thanks those who “under the current conditions prefer to remain anonymous.” Furthermore, his bio at the end of the report establishes his academic credentials to publish commentaries about the current situation in Afghanistan. This does not mean that I am not critical of Dorronsoro, because I am. I am just not sure that his points are completely invalid.

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