A Children’s Treasury of Worthless Experts

by Joshua Foust on 8/9/2009 · 22 comments

  1. Michael Semple is lecturing us in Foreign Affairs on why we need to make friends with the Taliban in order to “reconcile” with them and end the war. Semple, if you recall, had his hands all over the disastrous secession of Musa Qala, yet couldn’t find it within himself to mention such a stupendous failure (and his expulsion from Afghanistan) in his piece. If he won’t own up to his own failures and maybe, I don’t know, offer a way we can avoid them in future, how is he in any way trustworthy for new policy ideas? Yes, let us talk to the Taliban, but let us talk to them when they are not actively winning already, since that kind of looks like surrender talk. We’ve discussed new political parties, the weird negotiations kabuki, and the fact that most people still don’t know we even want to “negotiate” with the Taliban. Semple barely addresses any of these issues.
  2. My biggest problem with Seth Jones isn’t his Big Ideas about Afghanistan (which are mostly inarguable), but that he blithely repeats vague platitudes with no indication about how to implement them. He did this when he was defending Hamid Karzai, and he did that when he timelined the post-2001 war. Now he’s in the WSJ, saying all we need are arbakai and local governance councils. And yes we do—if we reform the constitution, isolate Kabul, completely rework the entire government’s approach to nation-building, and accept all that local corruption he so strongly condemned in his book. And if we somehow make arbakai agents of security instead of insecurity, which is unlikely outside of Loya Paktiya. But he wrote a book, so listen to him! [Update: Christian Bleuer notices something I forgot in all my annoyance: Jones doesn’t even understand the field he’s writing off with a single sentence. And he’s the RAND expert!]
  3. Did you know Fred and Kim Kagan were Afghanistan experts? Because they talk about the Surge a lot, the Weekly Standard sure does, and even seems to enjoy them writing a passionate defense of the Green Lantern Theory of geopolitics, where if we Americans just squint and grunt hard enough, we can do anything regardless of implementations, resource limitations, and public support. Questioning the war is unpatriotic, trying to push it in any direction other than escalate escalate escalate is evidence of lacking will.
  4. David Kilcullen predicts we have four Friedman Units left in Afghanistan. This from the man who has made a career out of leveraging baseless, apocalyptic predictions of Afghanistan and Pakistan into prominent advisory positions. Sorry, Dave—your drag is getting kind of old, and no one likes the boy who keeps crying wolf.

That being said, something is weighing very heavily on me. Both the government and pundit-land have actual Afghanistan experts, with proven records of success (or at least being right if they were overruled), and an obvious and keen grasp of the issues involved. They never seem to make it to the op-ed pages or the reporter interviews (and worse: many of those same op-ed pages reject nuts-and-bolts articles—believe me, I’ve tried). It’s perhaps because they’re more busy with actually trying to solve problems than hyping themselves in the media, but the fundamental “expert problem” remains: why do we rely on the same old generic “experts” when we have actual experts who could lend insight?

Right now the same old crowd of think tankers is not serving us, our soldiers, or our strategic interests… in fact, I’ll go so far as to say they are making us significantly worse off. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Can the adults please start discussing Afghanistan? We need them desperately.


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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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{ 19 comments }

Jmoss August 9, 2009 at 11:31 am

Josh:

Let me get this straight, are you suggesting that you are an Afghan “expert.” When does a month in-country on FOBs with HTS hacks makes one an expert on Afghanistan? BTW, I have been waiting for you to beg for people to fund your next vacation.

You don’t speak the language (s) or have ever published a paper in a peer referred journal. You are an “expert” in criticizing others often in a very ad hominem way. I find your ravings not only funny but very destructive. You are the epitome of calling the kettle black but you should be careful in criticizing others who have done serious scholarship compared to your immature ravings. Please get a grip and face reality. But as you do this try to do it in a professional way. Josh you are an Afghan expert in your mind and NO WHERE else!

Joshua Foust August 9, 2009 at 11:47 am

Who said anything about me? I certainly didn’t. My point here is that the usual suspects aren’t serving us well, a point you conspicuously do not address.

Fabius Maximus August 9, 2009 at 12:09 pm

Foust hits what might be the key point in the Afghanistan debate. The pro-war experts are miltiary and geopolical experts, but their ranks include few or no area experts — people who know the region and its peoples.

For example, see the advisors to the much-hyped (and now delayed) Afghanistan review. Or the speakers at the June CNAS conference.

Where are our experts? Their voices are missing in this important debate.

Anon August 9, 2009 at 12:55 pm

JF and FM on the same thread – two “smarter than everyone else” wannabees who offer up continuing criticisms with little to no answers – pffft…

Toryalay Shirzay August 9, 2009 at 2:28 pm

As someone who comes from the depth of the soil of this land,I see this debate among all the writers mentioned in this article and those who replied as healthy not withstanding severe criticism by some such as Jmoss. This debate must continue until the US/NATO and all those who are genuinely concerned about fostering some measure of peace and justice and freedom to come to fruition in Afghanistan.But wouldn’t it be more fruitful if we concentrated on the RESULTS of 8 years of sacrifice? The results clearly show : 1–Taleban,islamic thugs and their supporters are still entrenched in AFPAK area;2– those put in power by US/NATO ARE VERY CORRUPT and discredit all the efforts and sacrifices of the US/NATO. I left out many other unhelpful results. No honest believer in freedom can afford to lose this war and we will be damned if we dishonor the blood of every soldier who sacrificed his/her life in this war

Msatwel August 9, 2009 at 3:23 pm

You don’t need to be an “Afghanistan Expert” (whatever that means) to know crap when you see it. I am an Afghan, a former diplomat and a US citizen–so I know something about Afghanistan, its people, culture and history. I also know something about the history of powerful empires’ interventions in other countries and their resulting disastrous consequences. When will we learn enough? How can we redeem ourselves from the repeated mistakes made over history?
Joshua Foust does not need to be an “expert” or publish meaningless and dangerous papers on Afghanistan to say that what he sees in much of what is written and said about Afghanistan and the reasons why we are we are today, needs improvement.

We need to remain humble in the face history which is witness to disaster after disaster of un-ending outside intervention in Afghanistan, and then complete neglect, abandonment and “experts” recommending all kinds of “effective” “exit strategies”.

For those believing that a “high degree” of “expertise” is enough to engineer “success” in a place like Afghanistan, with a 3000 year history, I have bad news: expertise from the outside is what has gotten us to where we are. In recent history, after the ouster of the Taliban, all kinds of “expertise” was hired at a cost of almost US $2 billion. Dollars which could have created jobs for young Afghans which make up an astounding 75% of the population (median age is 17.5 yrs! 45% is under the age of 15!). Other experts in Europe or American capitals churned thousands of pages of “expert” recommendations. The result? Things really went south from there with insurgents gaining ground, the Afghan government structure weakened, drug trade increasing and re-enforcing a climate of corruption, another weak (and perhaps collapsing) government across the border, the Taliban taking over large parts of both countries, and perhaps worse of all, the risk of ethnic conflict increasing on both sides of the border. Is this what we got from “peer reviewed” papers?

Foust’s jousting maybe unacceptable to some and harsh to others, but he is one of the few out there saying that we need to be wary of expertise not fully understanding the extreme intricacies of the social, political and cultural complexities of this land. And we need to understand the weight of history before we launch ourselves into yet another disastrous adventure based on a “peer reviewed” expert opinion. We may not get another chance to redeem ourselves from the next disaster.

Fabius Maximus August 9, 2009 at 6:00 pm

It’s fascinating to see the hostile reaction on threads like this to a request for advice on our wars from “experts” — that is, folks who know about the region and peoples we’re fighting over.

Anon says that that implies a belief that one is “smarter than everyone else”. I’ll bet folks like Anon sing a different tune when spouses or children are wheeled into the operating room — demanding grade-A experts wielding the knife.

Msatwel is “an Afghan, a former diplomat and a US citizen”, who knows “something about Afghanistan, its people, culture and history.” That qualifies one as an expert in my book.

This distinction is between knowledge and political credentials. Like the anti-commie gurus who got us into Vietnam. And the anti-terrorist/insurgent experts guiding our present wars.

“we need to be wary of expertise not fully understanding the extreme intricacies of the…”

That is a subtle and powerful point! Having experts designing policy does not, of course, guarantee success. But it makes success possible — even if their advice is to try means other than war.

“before we launch ourselves into yet another disastrous adventure based on a ‘peer reviewed’ expert opinion.”

Foust and others (like me) say that we have NOT relied on expert opinion for our wars, in the sense of area experts.

Bart August 9, 2009 at 9:06 pm

Well said Msatwel. Foust, despite not knowing the language, not having ever had a single conversation with a member of the Taliban, he’s an “expert.” Everyone else….. they don’t know what they’re talking about.

I went to Cancun earlier this summer. I also like to drink Corona and listen to Shakira. Maybe I should start publishing stuff on Mexico

Tintin August 10, 2009 at 2:50 am

The Kagans (or at least Kim Kagan) actually have a bit more nuanced a view of the war than you suggest. They want to escalate, sure, but they’re not opposed to criticism of the approach — for example, Kim Kagan’s think tank, ISW, is now peddling a report that suggests ISAF should leave the Korengal and maybe Pech valleys completely, not something a ton of military people want to hear.

Dafydd August 10, 2009 at 6:19 am

There are two sorts of expert/advice.

1) The sort that tell you what you want to hear.
2) The sort that tell it as it is.

Given the way we have been running our own countries in the West, whatever makes you think that 2) are going to be more employable than 1)???

Njarl August 10, 2009 at 6:42 am

I’m a long-time reader of Registan, but the tone and content of this post has made me a first-time commenter. Point-by-point:

1) Michael Semple had no role in the decision for British forces to pull out of Musa Qala in 2006. The truce was negotiated between the town elders and the local British brigade commander. Semple became involved in Musa Qala only in the two months before it was retaken in December 2007 – see here for his side of the story:
http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/books/article5992800.ece
Unfortunately I don’t have a subscription to read his Foreign Affairs piece, but given his 20 years of experience in Afghanistan and Pakistan, his fluency with local languages, and the fact he’s spoken with more actual Taliban that you or I ever have, I’m fairly sure that it deserves better than the pathetically snide dismissal it gets here.

2) I’m sorry that Seth Jones has a book deal and you don’t, but there’s really no reason to get so snarky. The Afghan government has an entire new directorate – IDLG – devoted to working with the sort of local governance councils described in the article, which is heavily supported by USAID and the UN. Clearly they don’t think this isolates Kabul or requires an entire reworking of the Government’s strategy. Have a look at the ASOP programme, for example. And the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development has been working with local governance councils in the development field very successfully, without increasing local corruption. I have my reservations about arbakai, but I’ll see how the MoI’s Afghan Public Protection Force trial works out in Wardak before rushing to judgement.

3) I’ve no argument your points here.

4) To say that Kilcullen “has made a career out of leveraging baseless, apocalyptic predictions of Afghanistan and Pakistan into prominent advisory positions” is absolute nonsense. He has made a 20-year military career through the study and practice of counterinsurgency, including a doctorate and several combat tours. His current prominence has far more to his work in Iraq than his views on Afghanistan. He may not be an area expert, but having just returned from 15 months in Afghanistan myself, I’d be inclined to agree that given the relentless advance/infiltration of the Taliban, the collapse of security in rural areas, and the growing disillusionment of the Afghan people with their government and the international effort, we only have a few years left to turn this war around before the situation becomes irreconcilable. If things look different from the US, then please let us know the reasons why. Again, snide dismissals are simply not good enough.

As I said, I’m a long-time reader, but have been growing irritated over the last year with the continual bitter personal attacks (Tom Ricks is “a dick”? Ahmed Rashid is “insane”?) often against people with far more experience and knowledge than yourself, and the sneering I-know-better-than-you tone of too many of the articles. If you want to be considered as one of the ‘adults’, as you rather pompously put it, let’s have some more ideas about what CAN be done, and some more constructive criticism. I know Josh can write interesting, constructive pieces, and would like to see more of them.

One more thing – can we have some more balanced coverage of Central Asia, rather than the almost exclusive focus on Afghanistan? For example, you haven’t had a single post on the recent unrest in central Tajikistan:
http://english.aljazeera.net/focus/2009/07/2009714123630140237.html

Joshua Foust August 10, 2009 at 6:55 am

Njarl,

I’ve been unable to get any British or Irish government types to respond to queries either about Musa Qala or Semple’s activities in Helmand. They just won’t answer questions. That is very suspicious to me, and tells me there is more there they don’t want to get out. Your defense of Semple amounts to an entertainment column comparing him to Lawrence of Arabia and the British government complaining about Afghan hypocrisy? Give me a break.

I’m quite aware of the IDLG and ASOP (and have written about them repeatedly here, if you’re such a long time reader). That doesn’t make Jones insightful, useful, or any less frustrating for his generic and misleading advice.

My discussion of Kilcullen relates specifically to his work in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where he has indeed leveraged a career of making apocalyptic pronouncements and getting high profile advisory and writing gigs out of it. He’s not quite a Tom Friedman about it, but he’s close. The rest of his work is immaterial to this point—on these specific issues we cover here, he’s just wrong, starting with the ridiculous roads=peace meme last year and ending with how many six months Pakistan might have left before doomsday.

Lastly, if you are such a long time reader, then you know that I’ve been mixing alternate strategies, new engagement tactics, and different frameworks in along with all the criticism—for years. Like, since 2006, back when Iraq meant no one cared about Afghanistan. If you’re going to call yourself as a long time reader, then maybe actually read this site for a long time first before complaining about what’s not there.

Am I in a foul mood? Why yes, yes I am. It’s nothing personal.

And seriously, if you want coverage of something we miss here, you can either a) email one of us, or b) write about it yourself. I’m not superhuman, I have a day job that is not writing this blog, and I also like to sometimes leave my house. Don’t look to me for everything.

Njarl August 10, 2009 at 8:59 am

Thanks for the reply.

On the Times article, it’s not an entertainment article – the Times website simply categorises all book reviews and book excerpts, regardless of whether they are international relations or celebrity gossip, under the ‘Arts and entertainment’ section. I hate lazy Lawrence of Arabia comparisons as much as the next person, but I think the article is as good as an account as we’re going to get in public of what happened. It’s certainly better than criticism based on unconfirmed suspicions. As for personal contacts, everyone who I have worked with who knew him had nothing but praise for him.

I know you’ve mentioned IDLG and ASOP several times here. That’s why I was surprised that you seemed to think that local governance councils and arbakai are diametrically opposed to the Afghan government’s strategy and the international nation building approach, rather than being an integral and growing part of it. Seth’s article was vague on the specifics, but no more so than most op-eds – and I think that’s a reflection of what the newspaper business wants, rather than on Seth’s abilities. As you said yourself, nuts and bolts articles just aren’t what they’re after.

As for Kilcullen, I’m afraid I just cannot agree that he is not far removed from the likes of Friedman. His career is based on experience in the field and published work, not on soundbites, and he had high-level advisory positions long before he started focusing on Afghanistan. There are a number of issues on which I disagree with him, but as I said above, if you think we have an unlimited time to turn the situation round – rather than a matter of a couple of years – then I’d like to hear why.

Since you ask, I’ve been a reader since it was Nathan’s Central Asia roundup on Winds of Change, and seriously appreciate all the effort the writers have put in since then. I’d just like to see some more constructive debate, and less personal attacks, than we have had recently.

Joshua Foust August 10, 2009 at 11:09 am

ASOP and IDLG are fine ideas. Jones doesn’t mention them, just that locals know best. Well, okay—yes, we get that, thanks to Tip O’Neill. Where’s the insight into how that works in Afghanistan? Jones tells us local leaders know their areas best. Yes, they really do, and if you read a bit closer you’ll see I didn’t complain about that (and in fact agreed with it). My complaint is about him being vague and not terribly informed—something your comments here don’t really address, since they seem more concerned with accusing me of being petty.

And I’ve read Kilcullen’s earlier work. He’s been beating this horse for a long time on Afghanistan, since at least 2005. That doesn’t make him any more worth listening to.

Joshua Foust August 10, 2009 at 11:17 am

I feel I should clarify about the timelines: I don’t think we have an unlimited amount of time to dilly dally about without accomplishing much. My problem is why those numbers? Why only six months in Pakistan? Why two years in Afghanistan, when CJCS Mullen says one? I can’t speak to his work in Timor, but in Afghanistan and Pakistan specifically, where is his record to support accepting such arbitrary guestimation?

Gulliver August 10, 2009 at 3:10 pm

Josh — I don’t think you’re characterizing Kilcullen’s “prediction” fairly. I was at that event, and I heard the context. There wasn’t any sense of “it’s going to be over by such-and-such time” so much as “if we don’t make sufficient progress in the next two years to turn over a credible state and security apparatus to the Afghans, then we’ll likely just declare victory and go home.”

I don’t think this is apocalyptic, and I don’t think it’s arbitrary. It seems to me a considered assessment of likely political realities. Do you think the President is going to imperil his re-election campaign by continually banging his head against the Afghan wall if no progress is evident over the next 24 months?

More importantly, how long do you think the status quo is viable? I appreciate that you believe there are changes that can be made to the U.S. approach that would increase our chances of “success”; assuming they’re not made, how long can/will this go on?

ML August 10, 2009 at 5:17 pm

Man, shit’s complicated. How are you guys so wordy?

anand August 12, 2009 at 12:44 pm

Joshua Foust is an “Afghan expert” in my book. So is Msatwel.

I do think Kilcullen is a little better than Foust gives him credit for.

ken August 14, 2009 at 2:01 am

Speaking to what Gulliver said, it’s the old adage; all politics is local.

You cannot over estimate the power of domestic (US) political concerns. You did live through the Bush Administration, right?

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