How to: Not Even Bother Trying

by Joshua Foust on 8/10/2010 · 14 comments

The title should say it all:

President Obama: Look for a New Massoud
by Cora Sol Goldstein

Ms. Goldstein is an associate professor at California State University Long Beach. Now, for the record, I fully support members of the academy branching off into new topics. And Ms. Goldstein is doing that—all her early work was on WWI-era Germany, and she’d moved on to Iraq, and now her webpage says she’s focusing on Argentina. That’s all great, and I can’t comment on any of her other scholarship.

But nowhere do I see even a hint that she’s even read a book about Afghanistan, to say nothing of taking the time to understand its recent past. Because if she had, then she wouldn’t start her essay by calling for a new Ahmed Shah Massoud, a man whose relationship to his country can only charitably be called complicated. Actually, Human Rights Watch would use another word: war criminal. As the military commander of Jamiat-i Islami in Kabul in the early 1990s, Massoud led the Afshar Campaign.

The Afshar campaign was marked by widespread and serious violations of international humanitarian law.War crimes included attacks on the civilian population and civilian objects, killings, torture and other inhumane treatment, rape, abductions and forced disappearances, forced labor, and pillage and looting.As discussed in Section IV below, there is compelling evidence that the senior Ittihad and Jamiat commanders involved in the Afshar campaign are implicated in these violations.[231]It is also possible that some commanders may be liable for crimes against humanity.Illegal acts that were part of a widespread or systematic attack on a civilian population, such as the killing or abduction of members of certain minorities, may amount to crimes against humanity.

Clearly, in Ms. Goldstein’s world, we need more of this. She even says so explicitly: the only way to fight the Taliban, she asserts, “is through Taliban equivalents.” Leaving aside the questionable morality of advocating the imposition of war crimes, it’s pretty obvious Ms. Goldstein just doesn’t know what the fuck she’s talking about. Put briefly, here are her pearls of wisdom:

  • If the U.S. leaves Afghanistan as it is, Pakistan, Al Qaeda, and the Taliban will be able to challenge American strategic presence in Central Asia and project their influence on Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan unchecked.
  • Second, after American troops leave Afghanistan, the country will be converted into a subterranean maze of refuges and arsenals that will be beyond the reach of drones. If this happens, the U.S. will be forced to escalate its air campaign, and this in turn will increase the severity of collateral damage.
  • Multiple Afghan armed factions waging relentless guerrilla warfare against the Taliban are likely to provide better results than gargantuan operations led by American and European soldiers with the dubious help of the new Afghan army and police.
  • A guerrilla movement can only be challenged and eventually defeated by another guerrilla movement equally knowledgeable of the territory and its people, and animated by a similar commitment to victory.
  • The decade-long American attempt to unify Afghanistan through social engineering (just like the Soviets tried to do) is preposterous.
  • Afghanistan is a fragmented conglomerate of tribal and ethnic groups harboring deep resentments against each other, and split by regional and local conflicts. If anything, Afghanistan is two countries, Pashtunistan (which straddles over the Durand line and includes parts of Pakistan) and the rest.

I mean, my God, it goes on and on and on and on, like she has some bizarre form of Afghanistan tourettes that requires her to spout every single possible racial and cultural stereotype in an effort to prove her case through the sheer weight of repetition and earnestness. A real scholar would justify these bizarre and contradictory assertions with at least a few token footnotes or hyperlinks—Ms. Goldstein doesn’t feel the need. Where the hell is she getting this? Her comments on guerrilla warfare are unfounded; her Playskool description of Afghanistan’s history can charitably be called ignorant; her iron-fisted belief in militarism first before all other options, as if the last nine years have been something else, is little short of monstrous. In one statement she complains about bad men hiding in caves, then we’d have to use drones, but we can’t use drones because we wouldn’t be there. She wants to kill everyone in charge of the Taliban and Al Qaeda and the ISI (organizations she lists separately but doesn’t bother to distinguish even a little bit), but argues that leaders are replaced quickly so killing them isn’t a solution. And the ISI leveraging influence in Turkmenistan? What the fuck?

If one would communicate through an essay the unsavory experience of watching spittle fly off weasely lips moistened with pure spite, that’s kind of like what reading this essay is like. It’s so ridiculous, it’s the kind of thing that should hurt one’s career for having written it, even realizing that the Small Wars Journal isn’t really edited for content. But it won’t—Ms. Goldstein is now ramping up her surely world-changing efforts to apply such a sterling mind to the intimacies of Argentina. Maybe someday in the future, perhaps before writing a few thousand words lamenting the demise of war criminals in a country she has never visited, Ms. Goldstein could bother to do a shred—an article, maybe even just an op-ed or something—of homework. But she won’t.

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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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SK August 10, 2010 at 7:06 pm

I think you were kind to her and didn’t mention her most absurd asssertion. She implies that using nuclear weapons in Afghanistan might be an option. Why is she even getting play?

Joshua Foust August 10, 2010 at 7:07 pm

I honestly thought that was a joke. Crap.

I don’t know why she’s getting play. I do know that, in general, the editors at SWJ don’t edit for content—they believe in putting all ideas out there to be criticized or lauded as necessary. Which is fine. But this is pure crazy, written over six pages. I don’t get it.

Cyrus August 11, 2010 at 7:04 pm

Is this woman for real? A tenured California State University professor, to boot! I am a native Californian, and this woman makes my tax dollars cringe. She works at a state school after all.

To think, the same school, CSULB, the retains Professor Kevin “it’s all the Jews fault” McDonald as a full-time faculty, keeps this racist piece of work Dr.Cora Sol Goldstein on permanent teaching staff, to.

Can’t say that I am shocked. Place is turning into a clear intellectual madhouse.

TJM August 10, 2010 at 8:07 pm

Mostly legitimate criticisms of a ridiculous paper by Goldstein, but I’ll comment on two of your assertions. First:

But nowhere do I see even a hint that she’s even read a book about Afghanistan… if she had, then she wouldn’t start her essay by calling for a new Ahmed Shah Massoud, a man whose relationship to his country can only charitably be called complicated… As the military commander of Jamiat-i Islami in Kabul in the early 1990s, Massoud led the Afshar Campaign.

What viable leader with both the pedigree and demonstrated ability to lead doesn’t have some horrible blemish on his record? You choose to portray Massoud like that, but here is how Tom Barfield portrays him:

“He was a true national hero both in his successful resistance against the Soviets and his long fight against the Taliban. Indeed, Afghanistan had probably never produced such a skilled military mind. But unlike most other commanders, Masud had a reputation as a cultured man who thought deeply about the problems before him and his country. When the PDPA collapsed in 1992 and his troops occupied Kabul, Masud refused entreaties to rule the country himself…” Thomas J. Barfield, Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History, p. 291

In fact, having recently read that book, I’m not aware of any reference to Afshar or any hint of a reference to Massoud being involved in a war crime. I just checked all the index references to Massoud and passages relating to that time period – there are references to fighting and passing references shelling Kabul (much of it attributed to Hekmatyar). Massoud comes out of the book looking like a pretty good dude.

So, two issues:

1. The fact that she views Massoud favorably doesn’t seem like evidence to support a view that she hasn’t read much about the country (perhaps other issues in the paper support this). Otherwise, I doubt Barfield would have written about Massoud as he did. I suspect he’s read plenty about Afghanistan – he’s written much of it. Indeed, Goldstein could have read Barfield’s book (perhaps she should have) and not known about Afshar.

2. I understand HRW declares the actions a war crime. But reading their report of it, there is precious little evidence of intent and a whole lot of evidence of confusion, recklessness, poor discipline, and general chaos. “War crime” is one of those accusations that gets thrown around far too casually, even by well-meaning NGOs – perhaps especially by well-meaning NGOs.

I think a discussion about the qualities of Massoud should be a little more nuanced than “war criminal” versus ideal leader.

Second assertion:

“Clearly, in Ms. Goldstein’s world, we need more of this. She even says so explicitly: the only way to fight the Taliban, she asserts, ‘is through Taliban equivalents.’ Leaving aside the questionable morality of advocating the imposition of war crimes…”

No. She does not say so, explicitly or otherwise. She wrote, “A guerrilla movement can only be challenged and eventually defeated by another guerrilla movement equally knowledgeable of the territory and its people, and animated by a similar commitment to victory.” That is how she portrayed, “Taliban equivalents.”

I also see no evidence that Goldstein is a) aware of allegations of war crimes, b) believes that those allegations actually were war crimes, or c) thinks we need more war crimes. If her case is so weak (which I agree it is) then I don’t see why you need to build this strawman. She asserts X and advocates more X. Your portray X as a war crime and thus conclude that she advocates for more war crimes. That doesn’t work.

Yeah, Goldstein could have done a lot better. But so could you.

All of that said, I do enjoy reading your frequent takedowns of bad ideas. I’m glad you haven’t tired of it yet, because the folks with the bad ideas show no sign of slowing down.

Joshua Foust August 10, 2010 at 8:30 pm


There is a broad consensus about the behavior of Massoud’s militia during the 1990s. Barfield, understandably, tends to focus on Massoud before and after the worst of the mid-90s. Human Rights Watch is not on the periphery here: RAWA, itself a highly politicized organization but nevertheless one that presents credible evidence the man was involved in some sketchy things to fight his enemies. His top commander, Fahim, is routinely derided as a known war criminal who’s afforded legal protection because of his status as Vice President.

In pop literature, too, namely Hosseini’s weep fests, there is a treatment of life under Massoud that is not only not complimentary, it posits quite explicitly that he either enabled or refused to address the rampant human rights abuses that took place when his militia ran Kabul. In fact, there is very little argument in broader Afghan literature that what happened during the early and mid 1990s was an atrocity of incredible scope; what most debate is how much that should matter now.

Which is a long way to say, just because Barfield didn’t say it, doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.

Your point about whether that means much is a fair one, and worth addressing. I’d say that, given the political climate in Kabul right now, an American-approved Tajik warlord is about the worst thing we could try to create in the country.

As far as Goldstein’s awareness of these issues goes, I don’t care. If she’s going to advocate something, it’s her responsibility to understand what, exactly, she is advocating. Considering here she is advocating the transformation of Afghanistan into a series of violently warring regional fiefdoms, a chaotic and far more violent state of affairs compared to what exists now, I feel comfortable accusing her of advocating for war crimes, since that’s exactly what happened last time the country devolved into such a state. In fact, I’m surprised you’re not reacting against such advocacy… that, or her casual reference to using nuclear weapons, a policy no one would morally justify right now.

TJM August 10, 2010 at 8:51 pm

“… just because Barfield didn’t say it, doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.”

That’s not what I was suggesting. You seem to imply that her failure to raise the issue of atrocities committed by Massoud means that she’s poorly informed. I was pointing out that Barfield didn’t raise the issue either and he’s quite informed. Furthermore, this oversimplifies the issue to two absolutes of war criminal versus ideal leader.

In fact, I’m surprised you’re not reacting against such advocacy…”

In short, I don’t think she’s advocating for it because I don’t think she’s aware of it and I don’t think she’s asking for a clone of Massoud. She’s advocating for a policy of backing guerrillas to fight guerrillas. There’s plenty there to criticize without casting her argument as a plea for more war crimes.

“… that, or her casual reference to using nuclear weapons, a policy no one would morally justify right now.

I thought that referring to her piece as “ridiculous” and agreeing that her case is weak was enough. As noted in my opener, I was only taking issue with two narrow assertions that you made. I thought the remainder of your critique was sound. Why re-argue what I already agree with? Yeah, I didn’t mention the nuclear thing. But, as your first commenter pointed out, neither did you. I thought it was sufficiently absurd that it merited no response anyway. And I think my comment was a bit long-winded without adding to it.

MM August 11, 2010 at 1:48 am

Hahaha it is very good to see real passion. She is just a very young woman with a head full of books and school and the deep understanding of history that comes with that. Give her a few decades in the real world. At this point not too many people will be listening except her poor students – and they are young enough to most likely recover without too many ill effects . . .

saintsimon August 11, 2010 at 7:15 pm

Your spew of bile over poor Massoud conveniently overlooks fact that had he not been blown to bits a couple of days before 9/11 we would have made great use of him in our little war there – and given the fact that to those not predisposed to revile him or think him a war criminal most seemed to have reckoned him a great military mind and a charismatic leader who inspired loyalty and devotion while championing a more progressive view of Islam, who can tell what difference that may have made.

As for the essay itself, I agree that it’s odd if not at times weird and in the end not convincingly argued – but what I take to be its central point rings true, ie you have two options if you wanna win in Afghanistan: destroy or radically alter the prevailing culture [thus her going on about Japan and Germany – this an extreme option to be sure but not in theory completely nuts – after all, when you get right down to it, war is usually about, explicitly or implicitly, modifying the cultural framework of your enemy]; or accept the limitations of the prevailing culture and try and exploit what tactical ‘virtues’ it has to offer to your immediate advantage.

Now, I understand why some [most] are troubled by the way she’s framed this conceit – one does sense a certain Nietzschean darkness lurking in her psyche there – but still, as far as I’m concerned, she strikes closer to the truth than some more ‘enlightened’ types have managed.

Homira August 11, 2010 at 11:04 pm

Josh I like most of the stuff you write, but I have to admit your single-minded antipathy towards Ahmad Shah Massoud puzzles me. The Afshar massacre was conducted by Sayyaf’s militias. Remember him? the sweet guy who’s running Paghman now.

steak August 12, 2010 at 12:05 am

Dude, I read this site regularly because there are so few sources of information on central asia. But this has to be the dozenth “they know nothing about central asia” piece in the past couple months. I don’t doubt the author’s knowledge of the area…I would just like to see it expressed more directly rather than through criticism of what other people write. Why not start by profiling these people or regions that everyone else gets so wrong and the author claims to know so well?

Abdullah August 20, 2010 at 5:41 pm

Thanks for saying that. Funny thing is I read this stuff for the same reason and usually walk away for a week or two before coming back because I get as frustrated about their comments verses the reality on the ground as he does towards her. The recent comments on the Dagestani’s in another article, please.

Ian August 12, 2010 at 8:16 am

You must be new here.

Schwartz August 16, 2010 at 8:57 am

@ Josh: hers may be the most hardline view I’ve yet heard expressed on Afghanistan, particularly her “analysis” at the end (pages 4-6). One would think that an expert in occupation and propaganda would have a subtler view. Nevertheless, to what extent do you think her views might actually echo public sentiment in America?

Schwartz August 16, 2010 at 8:58 am

(I ask because I’ve heard various versions of these remarks from “everyday Janes and Joes”.)

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