Brickbatting Helmand

by Joshua Foust on 3/4/2010 · 20 comments

“Long before Marjah was dragged from sleepy anonymity into one of NATO’s biggest offensives in its nine-year war against the Taliban in Afghanistan,” Julius Cavendish reports, “Western governance experts had begun drawing up the town’s future.” What a great idea—I just wrote about that! So what’s this blueprint?

“They were horrified. There was nothing there, absolutely nothing,” recalls Peter Hawkins, a British official who accompanied [Agriculture Minister Mohammad Asef] Rahimi’s delegation. “There was a good governor, but he was sitting there on his own in a little building built by us. They went back to Kabul with the message, ‘We’ve got to do something, we can’t not do something with this void down there.’ ” …

A map drawn up by the provincial governor and dotted with colored blocks shows what the restoration of sovereignty means in tangible terms: there are bright red schools, yellow agriculture directorates, and courts festooned with the scales of justice.

Green blocks, or police stations, are a point of concern. Thousands of elite officers have been drafted from outside Helmand and charged with maintaining security in the crucial next few months. The force must also shed its predatory and corrupt reputation for the rebuilding of Marjah to succeed, experts say.

“Probably the most challenging and sensitive thing” is improving the police, says Mr. Hardinger, the State Department official.

Well, where would we be without experts? But that State Department official is speaking the truth—recruiting capable Pashtuns with staying power is a huge problem.

But what we have here is a thousand words of fretting, followed by a much-promised “blueprint” that is little more than dots on a map, representing the urgent wishes of the Western planning staffs. How will all these dots be put into place? A reporter in Washington offers a clue:

Among the invaders were two U.S. civilians who are expected to help shepherd what ISAF Commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal called a “government in a box” in Marja — an entire corps of district and sub-district-level officials to begin administering the city.

According to Dereck Hogan, senior adviser to Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, there is now a total of six civilians — four American and two British, serving on the district support team responsible for Marja.

Okay, so after bragging about how this whole she-band was civilian-led, how all the plans were drawn up by civilians, how it’s all about civilian control and civilian governance, and civilian aid… we have six people for the “biggest operation since 2001.” The rest of that piece is ignorant rubbish, starting with saying Marjeh never had a “tradition of self-government,” (that’s exactly what it had before we destroyed it), to their use of ignorant morons like Matthew Hoh—he’s Washington’s most popular disgruntled temp since Chandra Levy—to argue that it’s all about those pesky literate Tajiks being imported to run things (not only does Hoh have no experience with Afghanistan beyond his few short months in the country, but so far the only permanent Afghan outsider stationed there is a Pashtun originally from Helmand).

But a gullible and clueless band of reporters selling things that don’t exist is weak sauce compared to the bizarre lunacy that continues to emanate from General McChrystal’s staff. Here we see an even deeper crazy:

The U.S. and its allies are working to create a new American-led military command in southern Afghanistan, setting the stage for a large-scale offensive into the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar.

Senior military officials say the new command will manage all military operations in Helmand province, including the continuing campaign in Marjah. The plan would allow the existing British-led command in southern Afghanistan to focus on the Kandahar campaign.

The mind falters at such a move. Chain of command issues have plagued the mission in Afghanistan, even despite General McChrystal’s attempts to unify it. Creating a separate command… just doesn’t make any sense. They’re just doing it to do it.

And we probably don’t need to discuss why they’re promoting the Kandahar offensive. This makes as much sense as promoting Marjeh beforehand—it just guarantees lots more IDPs and lots more IEDs.

Who’s in charge of this mess? It’s like they’re trying really hard to do things poorly.

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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 March 4, 2010 at 7:39 pm

They’re busy planning “the assault on Kandahar?” Geez, I hope no one tells the governor and his staff, cause they’ll be ticked…

Every helo pilot over KC for the first time reports the war trophy antiaircraft gun at the governor’s palace as a possible threat. I guess they’ve finally decided to take it out.

(My point is the city itself was never the problem. There’s certainly nothing there to assault. It was quite nice to walk around in most days. It’s the green zone areas along the Arghandab river to the north and west (Zhari, etc.) Always have been, always will be. Fortunately, I think the planners know that even if the writer doesn’t.)

Joshua Foust March 4, 2010 at 8:32 pm

I like how Kandahar is now the Taliban stronghold. Where ever’s next is the new Taliban stronghold. I mean, they wouldn’t be going there if it wasn’t a stronghold, right?

DE Teodoru March 4, 2010 at 9:55 pm

We invaded Afghnaistan just as we invaded the ex-Yugoslavia ad Somalia. Would we have done them all if there were no TV “news”? Clinton and Bush responded politically but that damned Pentagon always responded economically (more slots to command and more budgets) instead of militarily. How many “wars” must we go through before realizing that we are paying top dollar for a brass that can’t think beyond tactically and suffers from historic Alzheimer’s? Kandahar and Helman were “ours” and then, per the media, became the Taliban’s historic “stronghold” that McChrystal so “brilliantly” attacked in a “new” policy. Now, it seems, we discover that there’s nothing there and we must crate two provinces out of nothing. Every two bit mediocrity that gets into one of the military academies per his Congressman’s recommendation learns—right or wrong– that, per the Constitution, there’s no limit to how many tax dollars gets the Department of Defense. Like kinetic Peter Pans the Pentagon brass, as you get to know them, speak in person exactly as they speak in “press-speak.” Acronyms are their substitute for technical terms which are their substitute for complex thinking. It thus seems impossible to expect the bloody lessons of Vietnam to be learned by men in pressed uniforms drunk on bureaucratize Kool-aid.

The problem is that these civilian and military turf defenders are only confronted by fresh-minted PhDs desperate for a job or journalists who limit their “exposes” knowing that they’ll depend on the people they expose to make a career as journalistic “defense experts.” I recall the guy who exposed “Curve Ball.” He wrote for the LA Times a long and fascinating article. But his later book screamed out at you as you read it: “I’m a young guy and now that I established myself as an Intelligence Community expert journalist, I need these people for the next 30 years for “scoops” before I retire.” There’s nothing like a scoop to make for a selectively blind “expert” reporter!

Unlike as in Vietnam, the academics– the people we support in a sand-box environment with scholarships and stipends– while they acquire “critical judgment” and then we keep in secure tenured professorial slots, doing more professing than teaching, are supposed to come forth and avail us of their critical judgment so that we don’t needlessly shed the blood of yet another generation of students; hence they spoke out in MEANINGFUL DIALOGUE at teach-ins during the Vietnam War. But there is no draft anymore. There are only moms and dads who skipped college but realized that they can only do more for their families by leaving their dead-end jobs and going to college. Tuition is prohibitive so they enlisted in the National Guard because they were told that if they put in one weekend a month and one month a year their tuition will be taken care of in return for defending the homeland and fighting fires, floeds and other emergencies. Instead many were sent as an expeditionary corps in imperial corporate oil wars disguised as a War on Terror. This time the academics went mum when the neocons, fearing a critical assault on Israeli expansionism, got Congress to suggest that it might review all scholarship grants intimating censorship. So here we are with the “Action Jacksons” dominating national policy, the Reservist moms&dads serving as expeditionary forces under a “STOP LOSS” rule as indentured combat slaves, and Americans, per EJ Dionne, “ON A LONG VACATION FROM COMPLEXITY.” Into this millieu comes McChrystal whose report to President Obama is a travesty. Would you please, Mr. Foust, whose writings I came to so respect, please tell me how long can we stand getting shafted by both our best&brightest as crooked bankers and our dumbest as generals retaking the very Helman and Kandahar we twice took already? Putin must be laughing indeed!

M Shannon March 4, 2010 at 11:20 pm

The principal question is whether improved municipal services can act as a counter-insurgency tool. The theory is that a small improvement in water quality or electrical distribution will persuade locals from supporting guerrilla operations or even better yet to dime out rebels. We’ll see but the increase in the level of political violence and development dollars have so far matched each other in Afghanistan so the link between economic growth and a reduction in Taliban support isn’t obvious.

Will the six US/ UK gov people they send to Marjah be competent, have a unified goal and have the ability to get out and about to do something of value. The chance of all three happening is slim. Yes there will be short term development but then what? Once all the canals are cleared and the roads graveled what do you do? What happens when the short term laborers get laid off? How much are we willing to spend on one cluster of Afghan hamlets? Two ISAF battalions as the garrison will cost ~ $ 1.6 billion per year. Nothing in Marjah is worth that kind of money and that is the problem with the whole Afghan adventure.

DE Teodoru March 5, 2010 at 12:14 am

There is an adaptive momentum that establishes status and security. Can you, Mr. Shannon, imagine Americans with a bad reputation of broken promises and mislaid ordnance accompanied by a bunch of greedy incompetent crooks whose reputation in Kabul precedes them convincing people who of free-will made deals with the Taliban that time has come to put their lives on the line and side with a bunch of intel blind, language deaf and culture dumb weirdoes in spacesuits that have proven themselves more SELF-protective than PEOPLE-protective for a century?

Over a decade I watched Americans in SE Asia and Middle East on repeated tours but never I the same place failing to understand these regional war less than academics who just read about them. I recall an article in the Nation back in the 60s which asked: what can we expect from the high school drop out or draftee armed and scared to death not the best representative of what we’re trying to do? Do you think today’s mom and dad soldier– worried about what his family will do if he’s injured or killed– the best person for the job of making Afghan farmers join us and Karzai’s “government in a box” to spit on the Night Letters?

We’re like a surgeon who’se so incompetent that he’s been sued so much he lost his coverage. Would you let him do neurosurgery on you after he killed your mother, father, brother, wife and daughter?

Don’t drink the Petraeus/McChrystal Kool-aid, it’s poison to our mom&dad soldiers and we should at least love them all!

Njarl March 5, 2010 at 4:30 am

Can we please have analysis without character assassination of anyone who happens to disagree with you? I disagreed with the reasoning in Matthew Hoh’s resignation letter, but it’s clear he’s not a moron – he’s an ex-Marine captain with a considerable amount of experience in counter-insurgency operations and reconstruction. His point about Tajiks, Uzbeks Hazara and urban Pashtuns being used in government related to all southern and eastern Afgahnistan – on Helmand, he talked only about Haji Zahir being an outsider, with which you’re in violent agreement.

Calling anyone who works on one-year contracts in Afghanistan a “temp”, or comparing them to interns, is just nonsense. And Chandra Levy wasn’t disgruntled, she was murdered. One final point – sneering at people’s opinions because they’ve only spent “a few months in Afghanistan” is somewhat hypocritical, Josh.

Joshua Foust March 5, 2010 at 7:25 am


My issue with Hoh isn’t his knowledge of counterinsurgency – I can’t gauge that. It’s that he came at Afghanistan with practically no knowledge of the place, spent a few weeks in-country, then resigned in a huff while running off to the press about it. And calling him a temp has nothing to do with his length of service, it has everything to do with him being portrayed as a career Foreign Service Officer, when he was nothing of the sort. He signed a year long contract with the State Department and didn’t bother to wait it out. Hence, a temp.

WsL March 5, 2010 at 7:58 am

Agree entirely. Leave the cheap shots to those who will always vent in the comments section.

I read this site everyday and I have come to respect all the contributors, but the personal criticisms come off as arrogant.

WsL March 5, 2010 at 8:52 am

Just to be clear, I’m agreeing with Njarl. Josh beat me to replying.

I appreciate Josh’s reply, but I thought the Washington Post article made it pretty clear that Hoh had a career in the marines beforehand and declined taking other positions in the state department.

Maybe this is because my view from the ground is that we need all the qualified help we can get, but I don’t see any reason to demean people for not being experts on Afghanistan as long as they have other expertise. Of course lack of local knowledge hurts, but there just aren’t that many Antonio Giustozzis or David Edwards in the world who can help out, especially given that many, like the late great Bernt Glatzer, are conscientious objectors.

Like Njarl, I don’t agree with Hoh’s reasoning and wish he had cracked on and tried to do something about the problems he raised in whatever small way. But I also cannot fault his integrity for quitting a job he no longer believed in (“waiting it out” as Josh suggests seems more like greed on the part of even the most intelligent contracts).

Joshua Foust March 5, 2010 at 9:05 am


I’m sensitive to what you’re saying. But let’s be real here: if Hoh had just quit in protest and moved on, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. He’d be a part of the conversation, but there’d be fairly little acrimony (hell, I’ve quit programs from Afghanistan in protest too).

My problem with him is that he hired a PR agent to sell him to reporters as an expert on Afghanistan (I’m not joking – I get the emails), and those PR emails describe him as the brave Foreign Service Officer who resigned in protest of the war in Afghanistan or some similar nonsense.

You can’t excuse that away. To repeat: my issue isn’t with the quitting, it’s how he’s tried to leverage that quitting into becomming a media expert on Afghanistan. It’s unjustified, and frankly smears hardworking FSOs who try to work within the system to fix it.

WsL March 5, 2010 at 9:30 am

Thanks for the reply. Again, I’m not defending Hoh and I have serious criticisms of his analysis and his subsequent actions.

I know the whole post was supposed to be about Marjah and Kandahar, but I would much preferred and understood it if you had included the explanation from the above post instead of simply calling Hoh ‘an ignorant moron and Washington’s most popular disgruntled temp since Chandra Levy’. You are clearly capable of being reasonable and balanced, so I’m just asking that in the future you take the time to do so.

Your shotgun attack on Kilcullen, Seth Jones, Michael Semple, and the Kagan twins comes to mind as post which needed a lot more evidence to substantiate your diatribes (I agreed you on two of the four, but don’t think you know enough about the other two). Especially for the people who don’t read registan regularly, all the links in your posts are good, but you always have to do more work when you are the contrarian.

Njarl March 6, 2010 at 7:17 am

Thanks for the reply Josh – the info on Hoh hiring a PR agent certainly changes my perception of him, but I’ll agree with WsL in saying that your arguement would have been more effective if you’d included that in the original post.

Some new and very interesting details on Haji Zahir:

anan March 5, 2010 at 11:08 am

I am with Josh on Hoh. Hoh only had 4 months in Zabul, which is quite different from the rest of Afghanistan. How can he extrapolate his “experience” in Zabul as representative of Southern Afghanistan, let alone the entire Pashtun belt?

WsL and Njarl, during Hoh’s time in Zabul, he didn’t get along with at least some of the ANA and with ANA embedded combat advisers. I don’t know the whole story; some of this might have been personal, and not fully Hoh’s fault. But doesn’t this make Hoh’s entire account of Zabul suspect, especially his attack (let’s not mince words here) on the ANA.

Hoh’s accounts on the ANA drip with scorn, and are misleading. For example, why can’t Hoh acknowledge that the ANA is 44% Pashtun? Why knowingly and misleadingly imply that the ANA are a bunch of chauvinist Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras?

Why does Hoh make over the top attacks against the ANA, implying that the ANA are the problem? That is the heart of his critique, if you listen to it carefully. Hoh argues that the ANA are not respected, trusted, or accepted by rural Afghan Pashtuns; who fight the ANA because the ANA is in rural Pashtun areas (the implicit solution being for the ANA, ANP and GIRoA to leave rural Pashtun parts of Afghanistan.)

The heart of the problem for Hoh is that ISAF is propping up a hated ANA and GIRoA in rural Pashtun parts of Afghanistan.

Hoh’s breakdown of Pashtuns as 95% rural hillbillies who are anti ANA; and 5% educated modern enlightened urbanites is massively simplistic and misleading.

Toryalay Shirzay March 5, 2010 at 1:08 pm

No wonder there is not much progress made thus far in Afstan with all these buffoons trying to solve a very complex and frustrating problem.When was the last time the US sufficiently solved the problems of a poor country plagued by militants,terrorists,religious fascism,an abusive culture,foreign interference,etc,etc?? Can anyone come up with an example in the last 100 years??

anan March 5, 2010 at 2:04 pm

Toryalay Shirzay, wasn’t Somalia a big success for the UN, international community and US in 1992-1993? :LOL:

Iraq is becoming successful. Are there parallels between Afghanistan and Iraq? Not sure. Iraq has enormous oil and NG reserves. Long term steady state government revenue of over $100 billion/year for a country of 29 million people.

Iraq can afford a large capable security force. Iraq can bribe, coerce and scare its unhelpful neighbors.

zmv March 6, 2010 at 10:55 am

wasn’t Somalia a big success for the UN, international community and US in 1992-1993? :LOL:

lol indeed… A big success… 😀

DE Teodoru March 5, 2010 at 3:31 pm

What you call cheap shots is rage of frutration of over a decade– deja vu from a decade of Vietnam. Still, I apologize, it really doesn’
t help. And anyway, there’s still that voice in the back of the head: WHAT IF I’M WRONG AND MCCHRYSTAL IS REALLY A GOOD GUY?

MY main concern is not for Afghan situation– though it is deplorable what the war has done to Afghans– but how much ATPS, so to speak will the US have left to deal with real priorities.
Most worrisome is the Guf rich feeding Taliban enough so it could go on infenitely. We are in a regional mess we can’t influence or conrol because of too many independently moving parts. I would suggest that if we leave Shangai Accord will solidify into a regional solution by necessity. We are, in other words, the chaotic thermodynamic factor in the region along with Guf gold.

DE Teodoru March 5, 2010 at 7:52 pm


How much must one add to the inevitably limited personal experiences in order to get a prognostic sense of where things are at?

Hoh’s letter was not a letter of resignation but a letter of protest. How much experienced was needed for him to make the affirmations he made? He left it to the rest of us to weigh the nation’s priorities and the debt to Afghanistan and then form our own views. On the wards in a military hospital you get a few minutes to decide which patients are bed-bleeders and which should be in them to recover. Life is a story of diminishing assets. You have to ask: HOW MUCH BLOOD CAN I GIVE BEFORE I BECOME HELPLESS? But somehow at the Pentagon there is this assumption that Whatever Petraeus wants, Petraus gets….” The COIN thesis has come under academic criticism from a very strange angle, but an angle that holds up. So, when you ask “What does Hoh know about COIN?” you would do well to ask what the hell is “COIN”? Because, it has yet to work! In truth, the precepts offered were always accepted but never FULLY tested because the invader always came to deem the campaign not worth the price of full prescription and left when the cure could or could not have moved upward. It is not Hoh whom one should be angry with but Petraeus. He never once explained why more is better and was never held to standards other than DECREASING casualties on our side from decreasing incidents. But the decreased casualties on our side also resulted in decreased casualties on the other side. YET ALL ALONG THE “SURGE” THAT SUPPOSEDLY DECREASED CASULATIES *INCREASED* IN COST!

Can we afford to win in Afghanistan? I won’t ask about Iraq because that’s lost already. Thuggish threats by Odienrno scare nobody. It’s like the Israelis talking tough as they pulled out of Lebanon.

Anon, I do believe you owe me an answer from way back when I first posted as you promised me one: can we establish a peaceful Afghanistan WHERE AL QAEDA CAN NO LONGER OPERATE and where, per GW Bush, women are treated as equals and we can run our pipelines from the other “stans” to Pakistan to recoup a bit of our losses, or must we surrender Afghanistan to a Shanghai Accord solution as we surrendered Iraq to a Shia-Sunni regional solution?

Again, forgive me my rage at Petraeus/McChrystal and their peanut gallery, but I think there’s a lot of material out there and well implanted people there that we should be able to demand teach-ins that engage in MEANINGFUL DIALOGUE on how to survive this insane “Crusader” attack against Islam. Freeman of Stanfor, probably the most level-headed neocon (he’s not a devout Leninist believing in: POLARIZE TO MOBILIZE) has argued that we, in effect, must accept a nuclear Iran. That means that the Shanghai Accord rises in value 1000%. Should we not let it work out as a dialectic balance of interests the contradictions between its neighbors as we are now FORCED to do with Iraq? Our Kuwaiti presence in that region will eat a lot of our money but it will be “hidden costs” as the corporate oil beneficiaries argue that it assures us “cheap oil” to fill-er-up our SUVs.

So, anan, whomever you are, please answer my question– ARGUING YOUR CASE, PLEASE– for the issue now is not Marjah nor Hoh but American exsaguination like Israel’s in Lebanon (they at least had the American taxpayer for endless transfusion), causing it to leave quick and then, when it returned leave again, this time with a bloody nose. So, anan, is Shanghai Accord a way out for us?

P.S. Hoh outrage is shared by Giustozzi and Dorronsoro…do you deem them of equal lightweight?

Toryalay Shirzay March 5, 2010 at 8:47 pm

Mr. Anan, as you well know ,Somalia now is the most failed state ;so the US failed to turn Somalia into a successful state.
As for Iraq,i would say it’s too early to tell and i would wait at least ten years to make a call.
I still am searching in vain to find a poor,devastated country turned into a success story by United States of America.Is there a message here??!!

DE Teodoru March 8, 2010 at 6:19 pm

It may be too early to tell where Iraq will finally settle, but not too early to say that Western blood has greased the skids so that Baghdad is now a lot closer to Tehran. Who will be held accountable? Who will enshrine these lessons in the minds of school-kids through history classes so they don’t grow up to repeat the Rumsfeld/Cheney era of Bush-it? What do you say to a little kid who comes up to you in a park and asks: do you know how my dad got so badly brain injured and why?

When you see the wards of VA after the services finished with them you realize that they were both screwed then and abandoned now. Sure you can treat their pain or infections, but under all those deformations is a normal kid asking: how the hell did I ever get trapped in here? Why me?

I might ask how you all feel about euthanasia by doctors approached by vets and families wishing to break free of the dumb war that never ends for them?

It wouldn’t surprise to hear a doctor say all this but can you imagine it as primary in the silent unspoken ellipses of Hoh? Give the man credit for empathy if not for expertise! After all, it’s the guys that commanded your every blink in injun country that he’s standing up to. When you get old you see a lot of expert veterans of this or that war calling others “dumb.” But then remember what Mao said about soldiers: THEY ARE LIKE FROGS LOOKING AT SKY FROM BOTTOM OF A WELL!

Give the boy credit for a strong lumbar spine that wouldn’t bend over for a career that costs others a nightmare from which they never awaken!

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