On Expertise

by Joshua Foust on 8/25/2010 · 3 comments

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.

End rant.

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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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Grant August 26, 2010 at 11:32 am

On Lieven and Ricks I will say this much for Lieven. A student should not presume to criticize a professor unless that professor has acted in a manner that demands that it be criticized. Even if you do indeed know better than a professor you should still act with respect and restraint. That doesn’t mean that Ricks is above rebuke as much as that students should always remain civil and respectful.

On Ricks I will say first that the man gives constant mention of the difficulties and dangers that enlisted men face which is a strong point in his favor in my opinion. But reading his articles on Afghanistan at ForeignPolicy.com I have to say that he does tend towards the optimistic view even when a careful reading should give one the opposite opinion. Does that mean we shouldn’t listen to him? I’m honestly not sure but I do try to cautious when looking at his work.

On another note I will agree that the people quoted on foreign affairs are too often the same people who really don’t specialize in the issues that they talk on.

Caleb Kavon September 3, 2010 at 1:13 am

Exum, as usual is an interesting cross between Boy Scout and the Coffee Maker to the Kings of CNAS, or AEI lite. Focus on the Lite. Last week he was mumbling about the definition of civil war, while breaking down Christian Groups in the USA- he was pentecostal and do not forget it, Platoon Leader, Policy Maker, Advisor to General McChrystal himself. He says it best, when he says nothing at all. Just don’t forget the cream or Bud Lime as the case may be.
We are going to see more and more of this in the future…”Who lost Afghanistan and or Pakistan and or Iraq? CNAS and the Super Kagans are way out on a ledge and getting shot up. The future autopsy of missed opportunities and massive mistakes is going to fascinating to watch unless something changes quickly as in now.
Who will take the blame? Barnum and Bailey, I mean Barno (CNAS All the Way) and Eikenberry? Nagl, McCrystal, Kagan and Petraeus? The evil corrupt Afghans? or will it be the Treacherous ISI, who fed the Islamic Tiger one too many value meals? We can expect to see much more of this finger pointing via Exum UnPlugged, (live from London, or leading a Platoon to a nearby Village peopled by people just like the good old folks in Tennessee). There is nothing like being the authors of failed policy and COIN is not doing well in its present rebirth. It will be so fun to watch, but a terrible terrible legacy is being placed once again on the Afghan people and now the Pakistanis and or Iraqis as things spiral out of control. They will be all hiding under rocks, Lieven was just taking an extremely easy shot at our failed “Strategic Geniuses.” They need to get used to it.

WOTN Editor September 5, 2010 at 12:28 pm

I view all self-described “experts” with skepticism. After multiple experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan and nearly a decade of study, as well as daily reporting on the events there, for years, it is clear that I’m still only a student. And that is only the specific area, which excludes the general military experience and study of war and conflict which began decades before that.

Simply knowing more than most others is not a qualification as an “expert.” Certainly not when the subject are people that think in such a completely different manner.

As to the student being critical of his professor, perhaps not wise under GPA considerations, but more of a test of the professor than the student. Too often, self-centered faculty of the Ivory Towers consider their opinions unquestionable. When these egocentric professors then retaliate from their bully pulpit with diminished grades for their hurt feelings, it proves the problems and allegations they are charged with.

As to Afghanistan, no one specialized field of study can lead to a solution. One must come to an understanding of war, culture, tribes, conflict, diplomacy, economics, religion, and the powers that use them, to even begin to put a team together that could start to find a solution. Pre-conceived notions of eradicating all abuse of women, corruption, or even bad construction practices in one, ten, or twenty years are doomed to failure. Impatience is the surest means of defeat.

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