Shaky Foundations Make Shaky Arguments

by Joshua Foust on 7/17/2009

New America Foundation fellow Michael Cohen is a fine chap, and I’m not just saying that because he’s linked to this blog several times in the past month. I mean that in the sense that his skepticism of current military policy and doctrine, though derided by the cool kids at Abu-M, is a healthy counterpoint to the Counterinsurgency boosterism currently coursing through Washington.

That being said, I can’t disagree more strongly with his FP piece, co-written with fellow New American Foundation fellow Parag Khanna, about why Pakistan is really the central front in the war on terror:

To be sure, Pakistani nation-building will not succeed without Pakistani support and ownership. Until the country’s political and military establishments commit more resources to meeting this objective, any short-term security gains — both in Afghanistan and Pakistan — will quickly be erased. The Pakistani tribal areas, for example, don’t need the stillborn pipe dream of U.S.-backed “reconstruction opportunity zones.” They need provincial reconstruction teams of their own, such as those that have jump-started local governance reform and economic activity in parts of Afghanistan.

I was kind of sort of going along with it until I read that paragraph. Though we part ways on the issue of drone strikes (they actually make us worse off overall, despite the temporary counter-terrorism gains—see here and here, for example), it’s not a bad thing to argue the necessity of a focus on Pakistan. It’s just… that won’t do us much good if we also ignore Afghanistan, which is kind of what they’re arguing.

But the unforgivable thing here is the assertion that Provincial Reconstruction Teams have “jump-started local governance reform and economic activity in parts of Afghanistan.” There is actually very little evidence of that (see here and here, for example). PRTs have done some good in some places at some times, but there is literally no evidence that PRTs have been effective at their stated purpose. Why would we want to important into Pakistan, and how would Cohen and Khanna propose they avoid the same limitations that have strangled Afghanistan’s PRTs?

I wish they had the chance to develop that idea further. Because without it, their entire premise stands on pretty shaky ground. I’ll give this to the New America Foundation, though—especially given the thinking of their other senior fellow Peter Bergen, it certainly can’t be called monolithically ideological. It has to be healthy to have that much diversity of thought within the organization.


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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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