A Breathtaking Amalgam of Arrogance and Ignorance

by Joshua Foust on 2/4/2010 · 4 comments

I liked reading this post discussing the by-now tautological Gant paper—especially the condemnation of a “silver bullet” approach to the country. While Major Springer is just plain wrong in his treatment of Nuristan (there is no such thing as a “Nuristani tribe,” for example, since that would imply the different quasi-ethnic groups shared a common descent), his broad point about developing a certain humility in the face of social relationships we don’t understand while searching for local solutions to local problems, is quite excellent and deserves positive attention.

In fact, that post at all isn’t an issue—like most writing at the COIN Center, even if it falls down on some details, it is well reasoned and contains some insight. What grabbed me was the comments that came after. Given the way academics who study Afghanistan professionally have derided Major Gant’s paper, and in a way the entire Special Forces’ approach to the country, it’s understandable that there would be some push back in the military community.

But when PhDs like David, a regular commenter here who has invested literally decades in understanding the country and wrote his dissertation on Nuristan, get derided as “the annoying PhD guys who always know more than the guy on the ground,” I have to wonder what kind of psychosis affects people that makes them so unwilling to bear informed criticism of their ideas. David has worked on a PRT in Nuristan, speaks at least one of their languages, and lived there, on the ground, without weapons or air support (or other tricks of the trade operators get) for several years. He is more of a “guy on the ground” than any 6 month SF stinter… yet his criticisms get written off as the ignorant ramblings of a ivy tower academic. I don’t get it.

Major Gant, too, seems curiously incapable of accepting that he might not have all the answers. His response to the critique that he actually misunderstood his community is to… ask why the critic didn’t do exactly what he did.

Why can’t you go and get this “tribe” of people together? Why are we so hung-up on the semantics of the situation. Call that group of people whatever you want. Call the group of people you go in with whatever you want, take as many or as few people as you like…

Call me an ignorant liberal academic preaching from his ivory tower (I double dare you—call me that), but I suspect Major Gant’s inability to view the situation with specificity and precision, ideas he writes off as mere semantics, are at the heart of Major Springer’s critique… and pretty much everyone else who read Gant’s paper and felt concern instead of awe. Telling people to be their own engine of change is awesome, but if they don’t know what kind of change they’re bringing about, we’re no better off than simply flipping coins and praying chance favors our boldness.

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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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Madhu February 4, 2010 at 1:23 pm

Question posed from my utter ignorance and as a “bystander” to the debate – at least, the online version of it

Do the Taliban think of Afghanistan in terms of tribes or these groups that Gant is thinking of?

In other words, in the past didn’t the Pakistanis and Indians and others manipulate certain proxies in Afghanistan? Is that what Gant is thinking of, perhaps? Again, this question is posed from such a well of ignorance that it must be painful for some of you to read….

(Still, you only learn by asking!)

Madhu February 4, 2010 at 1:59 pm

Oh, and let me add: it sounds like too complicated a potential plan to ever work, even if you all could agree on tribe versus proxy versus group. I mean, you are throwing your lot in with one group over another, and then, as one of the commenters at the link states, “picking sides.” And who knows where all that would lead? It would just be a big mess. Again, said in complete ignorance…. .

MAJ Nathan Springer February 6, 2010 at 1:48 pm

Sir, enjoyed your comments. I just want to point out that the Nuristani tribal breakdown I posted intended to make the very point you criticized me for. That picture represents the Sects, Sub-tribes, and clans we mapped in Kamdesh District, Eastern Nuristan Province. I should have titled it Kamdesh district and then broken the sects, sub-tribes, and clans down within the district…anyway, that was the intent. Thank you.

Joshua Foust February 6, 2010 at 1:51 pm

Hey, no worries. And no need to call me sir! I haven’t earned it.

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