Andrew Exum is annoyed with Anatol Lieven:
I was disappointed, though, to listen to Lieven’s broadside against Ricks here (at the 17:00 mark, to be specific). A more careful graduate student would never criticize a professor at the department from where he hopes to be granted a degree in the near future, but Lieven looks foolish when he brusquely dismisses Tom as a “Washington commentator” (what, because the view of Kabul is clearer from the Strand?) proffering “rubbish … unqualified garbage” who has never “lived in an Afghan village” and is thus apparently unable to say anything of substance on Afghanistan.
And indeed, that is a prick thing to say on Lieven’s part. But I don’t buy Exum’s defense of Ricks’ “expertise” on Afghanistan—visiting your dad in Kabul for a while a couple of decades ago isn’t exactly a claim to expertise. That’s because I don’t base my judgments of one’s expertise based on some arbitrary length of time spent doing first-hand research, but rather one’s understanding of the issues being discussed (and one’s humility of what they don’t know). When Ricks says he knows Afghanistan better than Iraq because he’s been there a couple of times, it’s a tough pill to swallow.
Indeed, it is Ricks’ writings on Afghanistan which I think disqualify him from claiming expertise on the place—and is also what makes his pronouncements of optimism… well, optimistic. But that same standard applies to Lieven, as well. I’ve gotten in my digs at the man in this space, mostly for his obnoxious habit of declaring everything obvious after the fact. But the point is, expertise, in my mind, is as much about having a track record of demonstrating an understanding of the issues, and saying things that lend understanding to processes and events even after the fact. Neither Ricks nor Lieven have that track record that makes me trust their “analysis” of Afghanistan at face value. But this gets to a bigger issue as well.
Last year, I complained that the “experts” the DC establishment runs to on foreign policy issues—and almost regardless of the issue, it’s always the same 15 or 20 people—are almost never actual experts on the topic at hand. Most are experts in “foreign policy,” as if that’s a topic with a standard set of readings to understand and a common ontology with which to discuss itself. I’m sad to say nothing has changed.
General Petraeus has decided to bring in Fred Kagan to help him “fix” the war in Afghanistan. Even ignoring his inflated ego that takes credit for Iraqis taking security into their own hands, Kagan of all people is a bizarre choice. He and his wife have been writing practically weekly op-eds in major newspapers about how badly we needed more troops in Afghanistan ever since they realized their impassioned pleas in 2006 for America to ignore Afghanistan in favor of surging into Iraq was in fact a bad idea that needed to be reversed, even though they refuse to acknowledge they were one of the main drivers of said strategic inattention, but still this time their advice is super correct because they clearly got Iraq right because the country is peaceful and everyone really likes living there.
Or something. Now we have a surge but it needs more time. Or maybe he’ll say something new, though there’s precious little evidence of new thinking in a man renown for describing “calling for reinforcements” as a fundamentally new strategy.
That being said, Kagan has real knowledge of the military, logistics, and how it’s all run. But if Ricks doesn’t know much about Afghanistan, the Kagan knows even less. In fact, his track record—the current surge in Afghanistan was largely his idea, along with his compatriots in the McChrystal Review team last year—is abysmal in Afghanistan. That should disqualify him from any more Bright Ideas (he doesn’t have any).
So why is Petraeus reaching out to him? You got me. I suspect it’s because they’re friends, or because Kagan is famous. Neither is sufficient reason to hire him as an adviser to the war. This is one important reason we can expect nothing significant to change under Petraeus’ command—just more of the same old failed thinking.
Memo to future theater commanders: if your strategy is failing, and you’re not seeing much success (even if you say so publicly without offering any evidence to support it), then calling in the same half-weights who designed it in the first place is not going to get you anywhere. Doubling down on a bad strategy is not how you win, it’s how you lose.