The Afghanistan Study Group Report: An Exercise in Determined Ignorance

by Joshua Foust on 9/11/2010 · 79 comments

I finally finished reviewing the Afghanistan Study Group report. It wasn’t easy—the group itself mysteriously neglected to include any experts on Afghanistan or the military—and is riddled with questionable interpretations of history, logical fallacies, and inconsistency of argument. I often joke that the three words that most reliably strike fear into the hearts of government analysts or pundits is, “what’s your evidence?” This report does not survive such a basic, simple question.

The only member of the group who has spent any time outside of Kabul is ASG Director Matthew Hoh, who displays an impressive arrogance in describing himself as a “Former State Department Official” (in reality: Hoh was a temporary employee on a PRT who walked off the job early and mailed his resignation letter to the Washington Post—hardly deserving of the term “official,” unless all State Department employees are officials now).

Put briefly, the ASG Report:

  • Eschews expertise on Afghanistan or the military;
  • Distorts the nature of the threat;
  • Does not account for the realistic consequences of its recommendations;
  • Does not support questionable assertions and assumptions;
  • Misrepresents vital American interests in the region;
  • Implicitly blames Pashtuns for militancy, instead of the social and historical pressures driving the insurgency;
  • Is cut and pasted multiple times, leading to lots of repeated assertions with little argument to support them; and
  • Is inconsistent and contradictory in consecutive paragraphs and sections.

In other words, the Afghanistan Study Group Report is a hot tranny mess. For example, here is what page 2 looks like with the trouble spots marked up:

I’m not kidding when I say every single page is like that—riddled with problems. I’ll highlight some of them below, with the understanding that this is a selection of the problematic sections and arguments contained within.

The ASG denies the argument that the current conflict is a struggle between the Karzai government and an insurgent movement, and instead says it is a civil war between ethnicities (i.e. southern Pashtuns and everyone else), between cities and the countryside, and over sectarian differences.

First off, that doesn’t make any sense.

  • There are Tajiks in the insurgency (see this Al Jazeera English report on one Tajik insurgent leader in Herat), plus one of the major insurgent groups is the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, whose base of power is in Zabul, and the northern provinces of Takhar, Samangan, and Jawzjan.
  • The rural areas of Afghanistan support the government as often as they oppose it. The vast majority of Afghanistan’s population lives in low-density farming villages; the majority of the residents in those areas do not actively oppose the government. And,
  • Describing a conflict as sectarian is usually followed by an explanation of what the specific sectarian cleavage is. There’s more evidence to say there is a sectarian element in the war, but it’s not as simple as “crazies versus non-crazies”—if there were, then there wouldn’t be the seeming ease by which Uzbeks, Tajiks, and Pashtuns all switch sides and choose to express their faith differently.

Secondly, that describes a struggle between the Karzai government and “an insurgent Taliban movement.” This is the first paragraph of the report: right off the bat, they’re using a strawman to describe a view they reject, but because they didn’t consult anyone with expertise on Afghanistan—and to repeat, a few months on a PRT in a backwater province does not grant one expertise on the country—they didn’t know how to properly reframe the conflict to support their argument.

A few other, brief points: ASG identifies two vital interests in the country, which are preventing Afghanistan from becoming a “safe haven” for terrorists, and assuring that Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal does not fall into terrorist hands. That’s fine, but as Michael Cohen points out, this is terribly incomplete: preventing a repeat of the 1990s in Afghanistan is also a vital interest. As Michael said, the best way to ensure Afghanistan does not fall into chaos is to leave the country as stable as possible. Reducing it to a Special Forces and Drone targetting range, which the group recommends, is just as unsustainable in the long run as the current counterinsurgency effort. Maintaining an active drone program to preemptively bomb any new al Qaeda camps that might spring up will be difficult if not impossible without a massive human intelligence network to support it—and that HUMINT network cannot be maintained without a significant U.S. military and intelligence presence in the country (which is difficult to do if 80% of the force is withdrawn over the next 18 months, as ASG suggest).

There are also curious breaks in basic internal consistency. On page 5, the ASG group says in one paragraph that the U.S. presence cannot affect al Qaeda’s ability to attack the U.S., and a decisive military victory wouldn’t affect al Qaeda’s strike capability. In the next paragraph, they say a U.S. withdrawal won’t make al Qaeda more lethal for three reasons: first the Taliban would have to secure a major portion of the country to make that likely; then al Qaeda would have to relocate there “in strength” (even though on the previous page they argued there are 300 al Qaeda operatives in the whole region); and finally they would have to build facilities in this new safe haven. How does that scan? If the U.S. presence doesn’t affect al Qaeda’s capabilities now, then why would it need to build new facilities under Taliban rule to be able to strike the U.S.? If U.S. presence doesn’t impede al Qaeda, why would Taliban presence promote it? None of that makes sense.

Lastly, and most importantly, because the Afghanistan Study Group did not contain anyone with expertise on Afghanistan or the military, they are ignorant of what happens there. For example, there is this passage on page 6:

Fifth, keeping 100,000-plus U.S. troops in yet another Muslim country lends credence to jihadi propaganda about America’s alleged hostility to Islam. Their presence may actually be increasing the overall danger that we face back home. Anger at U.S. military action in the Af/Pak theater inspired Faisal Shahzad, a U.S. citizen, to attempt an unsuccessful car bomb attack in Times Square, and other home-grown terrorists appear to have been inspired by similar motivations.

The ASG recommends a drone campaign supported by Special Forces as an alternative to a conventional military presence. But there’s one problem with this argument: Faisal Shahzad says it was the drones that inspired him to plant a bomb in Times Square, not the massive conventional military presence. So, if we’re to follow this logic, then the ASG’s recommendations will increase the radicalization of young men in the region, and lead to further attacks on the U.S.

The ignorance underlying the ASG report goes further still: because no one on their panel has studied Afghanistan in any detail, they are unaware of ongoing and failed efforts to resolve the conflict in non-military ways. This is a critical failure on their part, as the centerpiece of their argument is that we must adopt a “radically new approach” to the war. Most of their recommendations, however, are already on-going, and several of them are completely unworkable.

In the interest of space, I’m ignoring lots of little factual errors (like when they blame all of the militancy in Pakistan on Pashtuns in the FATA, as if Balochistan and Kashmir don’t exist), and choosing instead of focus on their new way forward. Despite the severe weaknesses of the rest of the report, this is by far the worst part of it, not only because it seems to have had such little thought behind it, but also because it appeals to the laziest impulses of the policy community, and thus promotes sloppy thinking, with assumption taking the place of sober consideration and argumentation.

Before we discuss those recommendations, let’s go back in time briefly to 2008, when actual experts Barnett Rubin and Ahmed Rashid first came up with a plan in Foreign Affairs to resolve the war in Afghanistan. First off, their general argument encompasses the totality of the war, including Pakistan’s sense of “siege” driven by India’s aggressive diplomatic push into Afghanistan (which is the key to their argument: Afghanistan will never be at peace as long as Pakistan feels threatened by India). When it came out, I wrote a long post discussing their ideas, some of which show up again in this ASG report. Notably, the objections and shortcomings of those ideas have not been resolved. We’ll discuss them in order.

Emphasize Power Sharing and Political Reconciliation. This section rests on a fundamental contradiction and error in logic. It starts by saying that the U.S. and its allies cannot dictate Afghanistan’s political future, yet their first recommendation—to decentralize the government and disperse decision-making power—requires essentially disbanding the central government and rewriting the country’s constitution. While that is not necessarily a bad thing, it is fatuous, at its most charitable portrayal, to say that such a decision is not dictating Afghanistan’s political future. ASG says that peace will not arrive without the broad support of the Afghan people, and this is true, but no where in this section do they demonstrate that their plans, like encouraging power-sharing “among all parties,” including the Taliban, is something the Afghan people actually want.

Indeed, Hamid Karzai’s current efforts to reach out to the Taliban are deeply controversial, and Secretary Clinton has expressed concern that the rights of women—which ASG say will be better protected by their recommendations—will be discarded in the effort to reach a deal with the Taliban. While the ASG derides those efforts as “narrow,” they don’t say why those are narrow—they just say we need to “include leaders selected by key tribal and village leaders in all of Afghanistan’s ethnic and regional divisions,” in such a way that preconditions like recognizing the current Afghan constitution are not required.

Just like that.

Scale Back and Eventually Suspend Combat Operations in the South and Reduce the U.S. Military Footprint. This is the one section of the report that actually gets it half right—the fight in the south is a waste of resources, and there’s not much that’s terribly new in saying so. However, there are some serious problems with the rest of their assumptions behind this point. For one, it rests on the belief that the mere presence of U.S. troops is inflammatory—an evolution of the racist conception of Afghans as xenophobic warrior monks who hate all outsiders and kill with rapturous joy. There is very little evidence to support this assumption—one would have to show that policies and actions do not radicalize or alienate populations, and that the simple addition of foreigners, regardless of purpose, is what causes the change in a region’s outlook. That is, quite simply, impossible to prove (and there is a tremendous amount of evidence that it is policies, not presence, which drive sentiment—I witnessed in Kapisa province a noticeable difference in attitudes amongst rural Pashtuns there when the French modified their engagement practices to be more respectful of homes and women).

Secondly, while the focus on the South is misguided, the lack of attention paid on the North and East has allowed those areas to slide into relative anarchy—places like Kunduz, which were fairly safe in the first half of the decade, are now incredibly dangerous. The IMU has free reign over Baghlan and Takhar because there are not enough troops to secure those areas. Jalalabad has suffered consistent infiltration and bombing attacks because the insurgency decided to move in and create trouble—and the troops stationed there now lack the manpower and mandate to move in force to secure the city (an urban area falling to the insurgency does not fit with the ASG’s conception of the war as rural versus urban).

Lastly, there is a fundamental disconnect between their conception of future military operations and the resources needed to achieve them. ASG says:

U.S. force levels should decline to the minimum level needed to help train Afghan security forces, prevent massive human rights atrocities, resist an expansion of Taliban control beyond the Pashtun south, and engage in robust counter-terrorism operations as needed.

Why is the current force too big to do that? Why will withdrawing from the south somehow prevent massive human rights atrocities? How can reducing the force by 80% prevent the Taliban from expanding out of the south? If there are only 30,000 troops left in the country, how is that enough to both train the Afghan security forces, and maintain a sufficient counterstrike capability within the country, and prevent the Taliban from expanding its areas of influence, and run the assets and resources necessary to keep it all flowing? ASG never answers those questions—they just arrive at an arbitrary number then assign that number an impossible number of tasks. It is an unserious argument on its face.

Keep the Focus on Al Qaeda and Domestic Security. Here, ASG recommends increased counterterrorism efforts and drone strikes to destroy known Al Qaeda efforts in the region. As we discussed before, it is precisely those efforts that have resulted in one bomb being deployed to Times Square—not the massive, expensive military presence. The same lack of specificity and detail afflicts this passage as it does the rest of the report: they say “more effort should be made to exploit potential cleavages among different radical groups,” as if that hasn’t already happened and people haven’t been trying to do that for the last five years, and as if we magically know some effective way of doing it. Demanding more effort for a difficult problem isn’t exactly helpful.

Promote Economic Development. ASG actually argues that poverty causes terrorism. I’m serious, they actually say “endemic poverty has made some elements of the population susceptible to Taliban overtures. Moreover, failed and destitute states frequently become incubators for terrorism, drug and human trafficking, and other illicit activities.” Of course, the role of a broken government or out-of-control drone strikes and special forces groups has no role to play. And luckily, wealthy countries like Saudi Arabia never promote terrorism, drug and human trafficking, and other illicit activities. Further, we should economically develop ALL countries, just on the off chance that they might make drug smuggling terrorists.

Here’s another thought: we cannot develop our own economy. Despite years of malaise, our government is struggling to make the economy function and reduce unemployment. We cannot get it right in a country and economy and region we understand—why should we expect to get it right in Afghanistan? Why should we have any expectations that we can be more effective there than we are here? The Afghanistan Study Group doesn’t seem to have thought of that. That they think there are no efforts to do things like microfinance and infrastructure development? I can’t say. This stuff isn’t very hard to find.

Engage Global and Regional Stakeholders. The ASG argues: “India, Pakistan, China, and Iran share a common interest in preventing Afghanistan from either being dominated by any single power or remaining a failed state that exports instability.” While this is undoubtedly true, as Rubin and Rashid argued, this is why there remains a robust insurgency Iran and Pakistan both fund insurgent factions to secure their interests in the country. They also fund massive development efforts to do the same.

Also, this has been tried. For almost twenty years now, the U.N. has tried to gather precisely these countries to develop a common regional interest in ending the conflict inside Afghanistan. It’s come to naught. Should the U.S. consent to Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for cooperation on Afghanistan? Should the U.S. scuttle the India nuclear deal to reduce pressure on the Pakistani government? Should the U.S. agree never to influence Central Asia so China takes a more active role in securing Afghanistan, and should we assume China’s presence will be accepted? ASG answers none of these questions. Holding Afghanistan hostage to resolving Kashmir is also not a realistic solution—it is akin to wishing for a unicorn to make everyone into happy rainbows.

Similarly, their portrayal of diplomacy in terms of quantity: more diplomacy, harder, faster, etc., demonstrates a pretty fundamental misunderstanding of what diplomatic efforts are already in place, how they work, and what sorts of political triggerpoints they must avoid. The U.S. must “use its influence,” they say, as if the U.S. has any influence over these countries, and as if these countries have any incentive—any whatsoever—to play along.

But there’s a more worrying angle to this as well. ASG suggests relying more on Islamic countries, like Indonesia and Turkey, to shoulder more of the burden of presence inside Afghanistan. First of all, there’s no reason to believe paying or convincing Indonesia to commit troops to the war is possible or affordable. Secondly, ASG says these countries can mentor Afghanistan on education, political reform, and human rights. They actually say this of both Indonesia and Turkey. Laughing yet?

Anyway, here’s the thing: the U.S. works very closely with Jordan. In fact, it was a trusted Jordanian agent that infiltrated FOB Chapman in Khost province and killed seven CIA agents who were—here it is again—running the drone campaign in Pakistan. We have not had noticeably better results from relying on Islamic countries to do our work for us.

Which brings us back to the report in a general sense. It just isn’t very well thought out. It relies on magical thinking, questionable assumptions, and has a glib attitude toward the policies it recommends. In fact, I’m pretty dismayed that respected scholars like Stephen Walt have endorsed it (think about that: one of the granddaddies of International Relations theory has endorse the idea that poverty causes terrorism). I don’t know if the Left is so desperate for an “out” from Afghanistan that they’re grasping at straws—it would at least make such shoddy work understandable, if its praise remains incomprehensible.

But in a real way, this is symptomatic of much of the anti-war movement in this country: it starts with a conclusion and works backward to develop justifications for it. That is an inversion of reasoned argument, as it relies on assumption and beliefs to shape reality, rather than using reality as a base for arguments and beliefs. It is meaningful that such a broad cross-section of Washington insiders have soured on the war… but the way they’ve chosen to express that turnabout is steeped in ignorance and sloppy reasoning. It is a dangerous precedent—if we choose to leave a war for bad reasons, for reasons that don’t reflect the reality on the ground and that deliberately underestimate the consequences of our policies—which the ASG report certainly does—then we are only dooming ourselves to repeat the same mistakes over and over again. We can’t possibly hope to make better decisions in the future if we refuse to learn from the past and present. Sadly, the Afghanistan Study Report doesn’t help anyone do that—in fact, what the ASG report does is encourage ignorance and posturing in place of a sober consideration of the reality of the war in Afghanistan. We can do better.

Postscript: Something just struck me about this report. By and large, the Afghanistan Study Group is advocating a U.S. policy position, but it ignores why U.S. policy is so bad in the first place. They try to say we misunderstand the nature of the war, but as I said above, their reasoning doesn’t convince me that they do, either. No one do we get a sense for why we’re doing the things we do there, and instead we read a lot about how Afghanistan is this difficult, inscrutable place we shouldn’t even bother with. That’s a curious stance for a report that is ostensibly about affecting the policy process.

In a very real way, the Afghanistan Study Group blames our problems on Afghanistan—the civil war, the al Qaeda safe havens, and so on. It’s the equivalent of complaining, “math is hard” when you do poorly on a math quiz.

It also cleverly avoids taking any responsibility for the policies in place. By blaming our problems on Afghanistan instead of ourselves, we never have to seriously reexamine why we made bad decisions in the first place. In that last paragraph above, I say why this is important: bad knowledge, even if in support of a correct course of action, will result in bad policy in the future.

To be clear: the real problem in Afghanistan isn’t Afghanistan itself, but rather the boneheaded way we wage war, manage reconstruction and development, and do governance mentoring. The ASG doesn’t discuss these things, for reasons I’ll allow readers to speculate about or figure out. This means, again reinforcing my final point, that even if ASG gets its way and we get out of this war, because we will not have accepted why we made such terrible decisions in the first place, we will continue to get mired in ridiculous foreign policy adventures.

Which is why I find this report so ridiculous and angering. I agree with its broad goals—I don’t think anyone who reads this blog can think I support the war in its current form. But this report blames the object of the war, rather than the war machine itself. So it’s misdiagnosing the problem, and perpetuating the likelihood that a similarly mishandling of policies and expectations will happen next time. That is a incredibly dangerous thing to do, and, ultimately, cowardly.

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– author of 1849 posts on

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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manan September 11, 2010 at 12:55 pm

what it highlights for me (your fisking) is how disintegrated is the narrative about Afghanistan even with our renewed commitment to it. Forget China, where is Germany (NATO generally) in our matrix? It is silly knee-jerk analysis.

The one thing which we have seized on as our silver bullet – the drones – is the one thing that we can demonstrably show to be causing us grave harm across the region. That requires some sober thought, which none seem willing to give.

anan September 11, 2010 at 1:02 pm

Josh, many things I would like to comment on. But will start here:

“ASG suggests relying more on Islamic countries, like Indonesia and Turkey, to shoulder more of the burden of presence inside Afghanistan. First of all, there’s no reason to believe paying or convincing Indonesia to commit troops to the war is possible or affordable. Secondly, ASG says these countries can mentor Afghanistan on education, political reform, and human rights. They actually say this of both Indonesia and Turkey. Laughing yet?”

Indonesia and Turkey are both training ANP right now. Turkey is increasing their commitment. And there are discussions about Turkey increasing its role further. This said, I got a report a few days ago from the ground complaining about Turkish trainers. To specify, trainers, not embedded combat advisors. The idea that Turks are naturally better combat embedded advisors and trainers than US Marines for example is unproven. And I say this as a huge fan of the Turks.

Indonesia and Afghanistan have very different cultures, understandings of the world, practices and languages. Indonesians are as different from Afghans as Americans are. Even if Indonesia decided to increase the number of forces they send to Afghanistan [Indonesia already agreed to a small increase earlier this year], it would take 3 to 5 years to train the Indonesians in Afghan culture and language for them to deploy to Afghanistan. Much of this training would take place in Germany or Turkey if they head to RC-North, as would be likely.

The hard truth is that many other countries don’t deal with other cultures, diversity, and capacity building as well as Americans. The Turks are probably an exception. However most of the muslim contributors to Afghanistan aren’t as good at it as the Turks.

Joshua Foust September 11, 2010 at 3:42 pm

Anan, I also meant specifically in ASG’s idea of using Indonesia and Turkey to teach Afghanistan about education and human rights. It’s just laughable.

frenchconnection September 12, 2010 at 12:28 am

“The hard truth is that many other countries don’t deal with other cultures, diversity, and capacity building as well as Americans. “

You must be kidding. Actually it’s exactly the contrary. Americans take for granted that their model (political, economical) is universal and the only one worth having, while in reality it’s more of an exception among Western democracies. Your statement is only an expression for exceptionalism and it’s amazing that there are people still believing that stuff. Americans are notoriously bad at understanding other cultures, even other Western ones. They lack skills in language, geography, history, culture – all “soft” values good enough for yurowussies. But there is worse : the economical aspect of nation building is often (and it’s worse today) victim of inaccuracies, red tape and most of all corruption, Halliburton style, that makes the worst UN bureaucrats look like amateurs. A nation showing the utmost incompetence in dealing with its own natural catastrophies (Katrina, Gulf leak…) cannot lecture anyone.

Compare with the EU results in rebuilding the war torn Bosnia and Kosovo 10-15 years after (it was not only the money and expertise but the presence on the ground inclusive military to 90% non-US) and Iraq/Afhanistan for a comparable period of time and you’ll see a difference between utmost success and utmost failure. In other words it’s not the fact that the US is imperialistic that bothers me (I’d rather have a Pax americana than a Pax sinensis), but that it sucks at it. And your post in all its naiveté is a blatant example of it.

PS : thanks Joshua for noticing the successes of the French approaches in Kapisa, which is another example of my standpoint.

Prithvi September 12, 2010 at 12:50 am

Let’s also compare the relative paralysis of the European powers during the worst of the atrocities. I suppose I can see some similarities between Iraq and the former Yugoslavia (states emerging from dictatorships fragmenting along sectarian lines) but in the former case, external powers were trying to maintain unity while in the Balkans, fragmentation into seperate states (in the case of Croatia and Slovenia along ethnic lines) was accepted and encouraged by Washington and the European democracies.

Why you think the Balkans and Afghanistan are in any way comparable is beyond me.

frenchconnection September 12, 2010 at 11:50 pm

There are of course differences between the two areas, mostly because they find themselves on different “historical levels”. It’s easier to rebuild countries with a mindset based on the Westphalian state (and to a graet part a common culture) than as some will depict a Carolingian warlord society. That granted remains the fact that the EU powers stood for the reconstruction and the US for the initial bombing. But the Europeans faced basically the same problems than the Afghan PRTs : graft, corruption, mafias, ethnic hatred, drugs etc… even if they skipped IEDs an local militias. But to the difference from the US privatized system they have an habit of accountability and didn’t use contractors and Halliburton like companies. When Europe is hit by a major natural disaster, their equivalents of FEMAs do work and actually do a heck of a job. That’s the whole difference, and that was my point. The problem in explaining this is that most Americans take for granted that THEIR system is the only valid, because they have been taught that it cannot be otherwise. Well reality is different.

Prithvi September 13, 2010 at 7:28 pm

I’m not really sure what either country has to do with the Franks other than Ummayyad ruled Iraq having a tenuous connection to the rise of Carolingians through the Pirenne Thesis.

Neither of them really have Westphalian legacies either. Both regions were ruled at different times by the Romans and the Ottomans and the region that is now Bosnia Herzegovina passed directly from the Ottomans to the Hapsburgs. If one wishes to be generous and treat the Kingdom of Yugoslavia as a sovreign state in the Westphalian sense, then it is only two years older than modern Iraq.

But anyways. I do actually agree with you on American ineptness of civil administration in foreign countries. You are right to criticize the American faith in market fundementalism, even in situations where public good and shareholder interests are at odds. And the staggering level of waste in terms of US spending in Iraq is obscene.

One thing that does not bode well for US nation building efforts is the fact that of the major industrialized democracies, the United States is the most decentralized (which is reasonable for such a large and diverse country.) That being said, America is not run from Washington DC especially given the fairly extensive powers granted to the states.

So it is not really surprising when the United States attempts to centrally administer an occupied foreign country and blunders badly.

Prithvi September 13, 2010 at 7:30 pm

It should also be added that Afghanistan became a sovreign country in 1919.

Joshua Foust September 12, 2010 at 9:06 am


Not to distract from an otherwise amusing roll, but the French only changed their policies in Kapisa province after months of advocacy by an American cultural advisement team. In Afghanistan, at least, it is the Europeans who have had a really hard time understanding the culture, at least as much as the Americans have (and the Brits have begun their own cultural advisement programme because of that).

I agree that America sucks at Empire, but I’m an American. There are lots of Americans who get Afghanistan, they just weren’t consulted for this report.

frenchconnection September 13, 2010 at 12:28 am


Well I am unaware of the American cultural advisement team, but I do know that after the Uzbin incident 2008 (when as many other European ISAF countries, the French were believing they were into “peace-keeping”) there was a rude awakening. I don’t know how much you can read from the French relatively big defense blogosphere, but at that time everybody immediately started to talk Lyautey and Galula. All the old vets from Algeria (a war that France won militarily) showed up with their experience. And according to French tradition it was obvious that a lot was leaked from the upper spheres. So I think that the cultural understanding didn’t depend only on American cultural advisors (there are probably in percentage far more culturally Muslim soldiers in the French troops than in other European ones). But the problem isn’t really there. Sharing that experience with the British (from Iraq), the two European best traditionally experienced Armies have come to the same conclusion : since we are minor shareholders in those coalition enterprises, we have no voice.

So it doesn’t matter what we say, the US brass won’t listen even if Petraeus has Galula under his pillow. This was explicitely said by General Desportes, a couple of months before his pension in july this year, which avoided him to be fired. It doesn’t matter what we say, because we still will be “gay” as Mc Chrystal explicitely said in Paris before his demise. We have learned our lesson, we are in this to the end to skip being called “surrender monkeys” again and the British today feel very much the same. Surobi is considered to be pacified today (hopefully it is), thanks to the great US cultural advisors wisdom of course. I only wonder why other districts, solely under that US cultural wisdom, aren’t. Must be my Cartesian mind.

Old Blue September 15, 2010 at 6:19 pm

I have spent now a total of 27 months in this country, including a significant amount of time in Kapisa. I was there when the site for FOB Kutschbach was chosen and laid out. I know what Tagab looked like when the ANP would not get further than 200m from the “District Center.” A friend of mine was the officer responsible for the buildings inside the District Center Compound. I know both the former and current Police Chiefs of Tagab. I did the first-ever district assessment of Ala Say.

I have also worked very closely with three French officers in this past year. Two were French Special Forces and the third is a Legionnaire. For the record, they are three of the finest, most professional officers I have known in over a quarter century of soldiering.

That being said, the French should not be overly critical of American activities in Afghanistan. I watched the French Marines badly botch a response to a rocket attack on the bazaar last year. It paralyzed them. By the time the French got it together, it was too late. The local Taliban Information Operation was well-formed, spread by word-of-mouth and widely believed. It was a disaster. The people of Tagab were not entirely happy with the Marines, partially because the Marines didn’t engage much and their road behavior was very poor indeed. The French have as much variance in the performance of military units in counterinsurgency as the US Army.

I am not saying that the French are terrible, and I have met and worked with many fine French officers. What I am saying is that the French are by no means excelling to the degree that anyone can hold them up as champions of either counterinsurgency or stability operations.

As for your comments about American emergency response, I was also deployed in response to Hurricane Katrina. I can tell you from my personal observation that there was significant Federal assistance staged… much of it never used or improperly used due to massive waste, fraud and abuse by the Emergency Management and law enforcement at various levels of the State of Louisiana and it’s component organizations (parish and municipal). It was a political nightmare and a great talking point for those who disliked the federal administration, but the reality on the ground was far different. I know. I saw it firsthand. You would be well-advised not to use such a meme as a point of national pride, for even those in the US who accept it as fact are not dealing with reality.

In short, you are speaking from a position of pride which you do not entirely deserve. I have great respect for the French in Afghanistan. They are not outperforming other major contributors. They are making a solid contribution. Be proud of your national contribution, but by all means keep it reasonable.

Tim Haggerty September 11, 2010 at 1:10 pm

Just another example of the fact that we are lazy, not as smart as we think we are, and looking for that 15 mins of fame again and again.

Sad, very sad.

Stephen Pampinella September 11, 2010 at 1:37 pm

Very nice. The section about how our mere presence will fuel the insurgency has Robert Pape’s fingerprints all over it. The irony of how leftist Realists (Walt especially) use conservative theories about power to justify an anti-war policy.

Joshua Foust September 11, 2010 at 3:45 pm

I believe Robert Pape is a part of the Group. He’s argued before that Afghanistan never saw suicide bombing until America’s occupation—forgetting, of course, that the leader of the Northern Alliance, Ahmed Shah Massoud, was killed in a double-suicide bombing on September 9, 2001—well before his “occupation theory of suicide bombing” could have possibly held relevance (unless you are to argue that al Qaeda felt the Northern Alliance was occupying Afghanistan, which is ridiculous and, to return to a theme in this post, ignorant).

Richard Kline September 12, 2010 at 3:19 am

Josahua, Massoud’s assassination was not a suicide bombing. The assassins were unlikely to survive, and did not; it was a suicide mission. That may seem like hair-splitting, but it’s not; ‘suicide bombing’ as a _terror_ tactic is something other than this particular action. It was a straightforward and sucessful covert action to get Massoud the only way they could.

Joshua Foust September 12, 2010 at 9:08 am

Interesting. Holding a bomb in one’s hand and detonating it to kill another is not an example of a suicide bombing? I don’t get it, then.

In Pape’s dataset, he doesn’t meaningfully distinguish between Massoud-style suicide bombs meant to kill specific figures, and all-purpose suicide bombs meant to terrorize. He labels them both “suicide bombing” and assigns occupation as their cause. It’s one of many problems with his work on the topic.

Joel Hafvenstein September 12, 2010 at 10:57 am

Hey Josh — I haven’t read Pape’s work, but it occurs to me that the camera suicide bombers who killed Massoud weren’t Afghans. Do we have examples of Afghan suicide bombers, pre-US invasion? I recall reading that suicide missions were anathema to the 1980s muj, but I was never sure how much credence to give that.

Conrad Barwa September 12, 2010 at 1:34 pm

In my opinion a suicide bombing is one that is intended to maximise casualities and maximise uncertainty and terror. Don’t think the Massoud killing falls into either of these categories really. As the other commenter says it was a suicide mission really, I think Schroen alludes to the fact that the proposed attack the CIA and NA were talking about before 2001 on eliminating Bin Laden in his farmhouse was seen by both parties as a de facto suicide mission.

In any case if that is the sole example of a suicide bombing you can cite with regards to Pape’s thesis; it can be classed as an outlier. Pape expressed his point badly, which I take to understand that the widespread use of suicide bombing as a tactic is a response to an armed occupation by militarily weaker groups. That in itself is debatable but not on the terms you set out which are weak.

Joel Hafvenstein September 13, 2010 at 8:30 am

Hi, Conrad & Richard: accepting your distinction between suicide missions and casualty-maximising suicide terror, it seems to me that the latter is not really characteristic of Afghan insurgents. It would be foolish and counter-productive of them to “maximise uncertainty and terror” in the same way as, say, Hamas jihadis blowing themselves up in Israeli marketplaces and public transport. There’s actually a high degree of predictability in Afghan insurgents’ use of suicide bombs and complex attacks; they are deployed against targets such as government offices, foreign embassies, election-related sites, and of course police/military bases and convoys. Of course the choice of weapons all but guarantees collateral civilian casualties. But the message is not the Hamas or al-Qaeda, “you aren’t safe anywhere,” but rather, “you’re not safe having anything to do with the government or ISAF.”

Conrad Barwa September 13, 2010 at 10:44 am

Hi Joel,

Yes, very accurate there; I should clarify that the Afghan suicide bombings probably fit the Lebanese model better than Al- Qaeda or Hamas. I am not a proponent of Pape’s work or anything, I just don’t accept Joshua’s criticism of it in this regard.

A writer for the Asian Times described car-bombing as the ‘poor man’s airforce’ and to a great degree I think this is what suicide bombing is in the Afghan context; it is designed to have a certain political effect – ie attack ISAF and ANG installations, units and representatives and prevent them from connecting with the local population. It seems somewhat effective in doing this so far.

Frank September 13, 2010 at 10:30 am

In the appendix of his book, “Dying to Win”, Pape has a list of all recorded attacks he considers to be “suicide attacks”. He clearly lists the Massoud assassination as one of them.

Conrad Barwa September 13, 2010 at 10:56 am

Yeah but it is under the heading of the ‘Ongoing Al-Qaeda’ campaign against the US. If you look at the table he includes several other AQ attacks in Afghanistan, as well as the WTC attacks, the Nairobi bombings, Bali and IStanbul attacks under the same heading. He also includes a failed assassination attempt of Musharraf as well in this table. So according to his arguement, AQ’s suicide-bombing campaign is a transnational one that is still tied to the military presence of American troops in the territory it is concerned with (Saudi Arabia etc.) He doesn’t see it as part of the Afghan insurgency – at that stage anyway.

One can question this arguement but that is different from saying Pape willfully ignores or suppresses evidence that doesn’t fit his arguement. He clearly *does not* but incorporates it a specific manner. Whether that is right or not, is a different matter but should be addressed appropriately, rather than just implying Pape is an idiot (which some come close to doing).

Tarl September 12, 2010 at 11:27 am

If occupation causes suicide bombing, how come there were no suicide bombings during the Soviet occupation? Wasn’t like the idea didn’t exist back then.

DPT September 11, 2010 at 5:50 pm

Of course, realists (and I say this as someone who identifies with realists myself), tend to have an overriding concern for great power politics and are biased to argue that anything which does not fit nicely into that schema (Afghanistan, etc) is just a distraction from that more important goal.

Of course, this same view of great power politics makes me wonder if any of the realists involved in the ASG actually signed off on the idea that we need to get Iran, India, Pakistan and China together to stabilize Afghanistan. Realists generally argue that powers rarely come together except in the face of a common threat. Given the huge divergences of Iranian, Pakistan, Indian and Chinese national interests, Afghanistan would have to be an enormous common threat to get them to sideline their respective agendas to cooperate on it. And if Afghanistan really is such an enormous threat that America could realistically marshal all these powers together to fix it, is it really small enough of a threat to the US that we should draw down the US military presence to some small residual unit of trainers and SOF kill teams?

Steve Hynd September 11, 2010 at 2:25 pm

Hi Josh,

A good post, but nowhere does it answer the question begged by “We can do better.” I understand that criticism of others’ positions is itself a useful process as thinking about Afghanistan evolves and I welcome it. But eventually you have to put your money where your mouth is and set out, even if only in sketch form, how you would improve upon what’s being done and what your own preferred vision of an overall strategy (hopefully, leading to an exit someday) would be.

The ASG didn’t really give a coherent answer to Petreaus’ infamous “how does this end?” but neither have you, neither here nor elsewhere as far as I’m aware.

You write: “this is symptomatic of much of the anti-war movement in this country: it starts with a conclusion and works backward to develop justifications for it.” I think that’s unfair criticism. Everyone of every political hue and variety begins with a conclusion: their own “assumptions and beliefs” about America’s national security requirements, and then works backwards to try to find a way to make reality change to accomodate those conclusions. That’s policy planning. The process is such that just about everyone has a tendency towards “magical thinking, questionable assumptions” and “a glib attitude toward the policies” they champion. That’s true of neocons, neoliberals, realists, progressive realists – the whole spectrum. Isn’t that why we’re trying to figure out where to go with two multi-year occupations in the first place?

As I say – if “we can do better”, show us how. And as I say that as someone who agrees with many of your detailled criticisms of the ASG report and someone who is critical of the ASG report as primarily a political document aimed at the Beltway crowd that doesn’t develop it’s own ideas near far enough towards an actual withdrawal.

Steve Clemons told me bluntly:

The ASG represented a number of views which we sewed together. I want out of Afghanistan and think that the only credible way at the moment of getting people to listen is to propose something that draws down and breaks down the logic that US forces stabilize in civil war/proxy struggle situations like Afghanistan. I can understand your frustration with the report — but I want something that will neutralize the competing logic, and calling for immediate, full withdrawal won’t be heard, and will have no effect…regrettably.

And Robert Naiman, who I will guarantee got it directly from the horse’s mouth, has more on the domestic political aims of the ASG report. To read it as true analysis, rather than a document designed to create political pressure, is a mistake.

Regards, Steve

Joshua Foust September 11, 2010 at 3:49 pm

That’s fair, on the point of it being to create pressure. My points about it being driven by ignorance rather than knowledge, however, stand. There’s no point in pressuring a course of action if you’re ignorant of its causes and effects, which I think the ASG is. So, while I applaud Mr. Clemons for using his considerable Beltway clout to advocate his position—seriously, this is a conversation worth having—but to reiterate my point, it is a conversation that must be held from a position of knowledge. ASG’s report is not coming from a position of knowledge.

As for my obligation to develop a “we can do better.” Well, I mean, you read this blog. I wrestle with it. And you know that I’m opposed to many current policies ISAF is undertaking, and think western troops are not making things better. I stumble on calling for a full withdrawal, as I don’t see how that would contribute to security, stability, or our goals to dismantle al Qaeda.

However, I’m not aware of any good choices we have. It’s a question of which costs we feel are more worthy of shouldering. And I reject the sorts of advice in this report, which amount to “do more.” Do more what? More diplomacy? Okay. More development? Right. These things are very easy to demand, but they are VERY difficult to enact. It’s frustrating to see such smart, influential people with access to all the power and resources in the world essentially cross their arms and say “we demand you do better!”

And for the record: it is not incumbent on the critic to describe a fully formulated alternative in the body of a critique.

Kepler September 19, 2010 at 2:09 am

This conversation here, between Josh and Steve Hynd, seems like the most pressing one. I can see and agree that the ASG report is a tool to create political pressure; can also see that it is misses points, has gaps, etc. Lastly, can FEEL the pain of a long time failing (having been personally part of that failure as US soldier in OEF).

While I understand that it is not the critic’s job to offer a solution, I would be interested to hear/see any sources or ideas for same from anyone in this discussion. For me, “Getting out” is a way oversimplified version of trying to say that because we have been doing the wrong things so long does not mean we should continue to do them because we are uncertain about what else to do. I write about this (also a critique of OEF policies) in

My point: I think that as complex as A-stan is, “getting out” is actually a real option, though scary and ironically strange to consider – just because we’ve gotten used to it, does not make it right. Getting out will create a series of 2nd and 3rd order effects that we should think through, but the amount of resource we expend on OEF vs. the poor showing so far, both in light of the fact that there are so many other issues to face … all this makes “getting out” a viable ‘solution’ or process really towards dealing with those other issues like terrorism, national security, resources (energy), budget deficits … the list goes on. I do not think that a presence in Afghanistan is the lynchpin that many policy makers make it out to be.

Prithvi September 11, 2010 at 3:32 pm

In other words, the Afghanistan Study Group Report is a hot tranny mess.

First off, their general argument encompasses the totality of the war, including Pakistan’s sense of “siege” driven by India’s aggressive diplomatic push into Afghanistan (which is the key to their argument: Afghanistan will never be at peace as long as Pakistan feels threatened by India).

I know Fred Kaplan is supposed to be the glue sniffing car thief of Central Asian punditry given how he believes how Uzbeks hang out in yurts and drink red bull from the skull cups of their enemies, but isn’t this a point he returns to again and again?

Joshua Foust September 11, 2010 at 3:50 pm

Broken clocks, and all that. Just because Fred Kagan says something that doesn’t make it automatically untrue.

caillo September 11, 2010 at 5:21 pm

My comments will be very short. The working group did agree fully in the results section.

Corsair8X September 11, 2010 at 8:55 pm

Just wanted to say that I really liked how you reconstructed and criticized that report. It was a much more scholarly approach which presented a lot of facts and information. It really helped my understanding of the various issues.

Steve Clemons September 11, 2010 at 9:00 pm

Josh – Thanks for the careful read if not for the civility in how you treat the report and the members of the group. That said, you raise a lot of key points that I know that Matt Hoh will consider as we move forward. This isn’t a static process — and it is designed in part to try to raise the sort of debate about US-Afghanistan policy that I think you support. Asserting “ignorance” is not the same as debating the issues. On the latter, you make a contribution to our thinking. This has been a ten month process — lots of inputs, lots of discussions with Afghanistan and regional experts. Wish we had chatted with you actually. But I reject the charge of ‘ignorance’ as an unconstructive assertion here. We frequently had people make some of the points you raise above – particularly about internal dynamics, but some of my colleagues and I also tried hard not to overprescribe outcomes internal to Afghanistan that the US can’t and should not commit to securing.

In any case, I do appreciate the debate and look forward to more. Hope you will accept my statement that this group did reach out to many experts for inputs into what we are doing. Our failings are our own, and mostly my own, for what we chose to include and chose not to include.

What I want to break through is the “paralysis option” of people who are so well rooted in this issue that they see all the reasons to pull out and yet see all the reasons we can’t. That’s chasing their tail and that was not what we allowed ourselves to do here.

All best — and thanks for your good work,

Steve Clemons

Joshua Foust September 12, 2010 at 9:17 am


Thanks for the comment. I’m impressed by your willingness to engage! However, your response here leaves me unsettled still. Raising the level of the debate is a great thing, and I’m glad you’re doing it. But doing your homework is the first step in doing so. I called the report largely ignorant because, frankly, it is—it gets really important, yet basic, things wrong, and there’s no need to distort or spin the situation in Afghanistan to make it seem bad—the unvarnished truth is appalling enough.

I will understand if you’re hesitant, but would you mind sharing which regional experts you consulted? The only ones who come close on your list of signatories is Anatol Lieven and Parag Khanna. While they’re fine chaps, in the policy and academic universes there are many people who’ve spent the last several decades studying Afghanistan. I see none of them publicly listed as collaborators or advisers. I feel very strongly about the ignorance charge, so I’m curious which experts were consulted and if their input was included (you don’t indicate one way or another in your comment). If, as you say, some of the experts you consulted offered input similar to mine, why wasn’t it used?

And I harp on this, again and again, because a group called The Afghanistan Study Group should at least include some people who’ve studied Afghanistan, shouldn’t it? This isn’t about “overdescribing outcomes,” as you call it (I’d call it “properly gauging the consequences of one’s advocacy,” but we can split hairs all day), it is about getting basic facts right so you can present a strong case for withdrawal from the country. Your group doesn’t do the former, so it can’t do the latter.

None of this is about paralysis. I share your belief that the war has become an unfocused disaster and must be changed dramatically, with the terms of American engagement significantly modified. But that report is not how you go about doing it. You seem to describe accounting for complexity as analysis paralysis—I don’t think that’s fair. Some things ARE really difficult. The response to extreme difficult isn’t to retreat into glib and unserious policy papers saying you want to “start the discussion.” The discussion has been going on now, for years! The response is to account for why it’s difficult and explain why difficult choices must be made.

Writing off such concerns the way you do really isn’t very helpful, either—any more so than calling a paper a hot tranny mess.


Steve Clemons September 13, 2010 at 2:15 am

Thanks for the note Josh. To tell you the truth, I certainly wish now in retrospect that we had had you as part of the study group process. Whether or not you had signed the final report, it would have been worthwhile to have your inputs. The question of “right” or “wrong” in various aspects of our framing the so-called civil war which we describe is important and something we struggled with a great deal. We had some of our most serious points of internal dissension over that issue — and the framing we developed is the one that the majority of signers agreed to. This was a consensus document with everyone who signed paying attention to every word — with the understanding that by signing they were not agreeing with every point in the proposal.

Some of our closest collaborators during the process — who in fact inspired the tougher edge of the report — decided for a whole raft of interesting reasons that I respect not to sign the report. I’d be violating their decision not to sign as well as agreements with those who were fellow travelers if I provided a list of who we worked with, read, talked to, checked in with, and consulted during 10 months — whether it ranged from my colleagues at NAF or others at CNAS or in the Pentagon or Afghans from various factions. That would be a mistake — so my apologies for not being able to oblige.

A more useful exercise in my view would sideline the ad hominem attacks — and the notes below that someone “blanched” when reading the report, etc. This report — flaws included — has past muster with enough of the establishment that it matters and will be part of the policy discussion. You are a giant in this arena — and rather than just slamming those who have tried to weigh in to a key debate about US national interests in the region, i would think it would be valuable for you and perhaps some of those who follow you to advise us on where the key errors are.

To put my cards on the table, I’m one who is very uncomfortable with the notion that the US and ISAF can fine tune political or even many life outcomes inside Afghanistan. I get the internal tension issue and ‘have’ talked to many experts far beyond Parag and Anatol — and given that I work with Steve Coll and Bergen, i also get the India/Pak proxy aspect of the conflict. I have talked to former Taliban officials — to candidates who have run against Karzai — to Pakistani ISI types – and others…but no doubt, your own views are fashioned and informed in far more granular detail of the moving pieces than my impressions are.

What I brought to this report was a consideration of the broader strategic costs of this engagement; the signals the Afghan engagement is sending to China, to Iran, to Saudi Arabia and other players — and that is ground I’m ready to debate on any front.

So, I appreciate your insistence on standing by your charge of determined ignorance. I fully reject that assertion – though have an open mind to your involvement in helping us to correct or modify things you feel are flat out wrong, or just debating them if there is informed and respectful disagreement.

Hope this moves us forward — but wanted to do what I could to engage the serious side of your critique. But the notion of who was consulted probably doesn’t solve at all the issue that you don’t like the outcome of the report.

I have an open mind and happen to love your work — though didn’t enjoy the flamboyance of your critique above — but I do get it.

So, hope we can somehow connect and we can exchange thoughts on how to improve what we are trying to do. That I know is consistent with your own overall objectives.

Love back :-) ,

Steve Clemons

Joshua Foust September 13, 2010 at 8:18 am


No worries. I don’t apologize for zinging someone for shameless resume inflation, however. I worked as an analyst at the DOD for a few years – do you really think it would be appropriate to refer to myself as a “former Department of Defense official?” It really obviously wouldn’t. I’ll accept that I went overboard on that, but it’s so obnoxious, and so unnecessary, that I don’t rescind the intent of that comment.

As for the rest of your comment… I mean, I have to restate my befuddlement at what’s going on when not a single Afghanistan expert you consulted seemed willing to attach their name to this document. Most of the ones I know and respect share my view—which aligns with yours, by the way—that the war is an absolute disaster.

But look, this isn’t about throwing a tantrum over not being involved. Frankly, if you had consulted me, and the report went out as is, I wouldn’t want my name on it either. And I know you’re right that the number of famous people whose names are on here means it will be influential—that’s why I attacked it with such vitriol. The way this paper develops its ideas is dangerous, Steve—it relies on magical thinking, assumption, and a glib indifference to consequences in arguing its point. That is the opposite of what “the conversation” needs (which has, I’m sure you know, been going on for many years at this point)!

You say you want some insight into what the key errors are. Read the post again. 9/10 of it is about errors of fact, conception, and logic. That’s all I can offer, I’m afraid.


Erica S. September 12, 2010 at 2:23 am

What’s “hot tranny mess”? I’m British and not familiar with this expression.

Prithvi September 12, 2010 at 5:16 am

It’s something that would come as quite a shock during a one night stand.

Ana September 12, 2010 at 4:54 am

What bothers me about the kind of analysis and discussion presented here (I am imagining the original report through the posted critique, I haven’t read it) is that what is always missing is the aim, the superordinate goal, the basic intentions.

What is the US (+Nato, others, if one likes) doing in Afghanistan? What does it hope to accomplish? Have those aims changed over time, if so, how? Why?

Describing an existing sorry mess and then offering up bullet points by committee to improve the present state of affairs is what one does, what one has to do, in some situations. E.g. a natural catastrophe – the aim is implicit, familiar, easy to grasp: reduce human suffering, rebuild what has been lost, etc. You need good bullet points (*food – *clean water – *restore transport – etc.) and some smart coordinators. Right.

Presumably the situation in Afghanistan is not a natural catastrophe, but the outcome of willed, intentional, coordinated human actions. So pride of place should go to the ultimate goal(s), which should be clearly stated.

I have no clue what these might be. Perhaps I am uninformed. I have read only empty rhetoric, vague nonsense, scare-mongering hype (WMD, terrorists, Al Quaeda, etc. etc.), and a lot of speculation from outside observers.


sayke September 16, 2010 at 3:25 pm is where to start. nobody can argue that the goals aren’t well-stated! whether it’s new, or even a strategy, might be somewhat disputed around here, but those are separate issues =D

Caleb Kavon September 12, 2010 at 5:23 am

The fact of the matter is that this report is really a Trojan Horse. It is so weak, and poorly thought out that Steve et al really need to keep on the Blog role and stay out of analysis.

By putting out such weak analysis they actually strengthen the hand of the current failing policy. If we are seeing Shades of Maiwand and Helicopters lifting off the Embassy compound, we can thank reports like this. If you cannot present a real tangible logical alternative then you keep the non functional confused policy intact and teetering by the day.

The Koran incident and mass protests are in fact a tipping point. It will be almost impossible for us to avoid Najibullah 2 under any circumstances, and a wider war in the near future in Pakistan is a near certainty. We have killed two birds with one stone, and unfortunately they were our favorite birds.

Thanks for taking the time to study this illogical effort. I read it once and blanched.

Frank Connor September 12, 2010 at 6:32 am

The Pashtun solution was rejected in 2001 because we wouldn’t be able to control it or gain by it financially. It is so obvious what an abject failure this has been in both the PK and Afghanistan. Is there any hope that we will ever get it right and starting minding our own business and concentrating on domestic security.

Hann1bal September 12, 2010 at 12:22 pm

Is there any hope that we will ever get it right and starting minding our own business and concentrating on domestic security.


Ed September 12, 2010 at 1:17 pm

I think it is pointless to give much currency to the Times Square bomber’s stated motives, much less linking his actions to a precise type of technology or attack method (pilotless drones).

To argue against drone strikes on the basis of single crazy’s stated motive is highly dubious.

Radical islamist terror is highly fluid and the “motives” are mere excuses that can shift like sand. If it isn’t Afghanistan it is Iraq, before Iraq it was “infidel” troops polluting Saudi Arabia and its holy sites. If it wasn’t that it would be Palestine or Kashmir or a Dane drawing a cartoon of Mohammed etc etc. These terrorists often claim to be motivated by the notion that the Islamic world in general is suffering a horrible oppression at the hands of non-Muslims and they lump everything from Chechnya to the Philippines together in their minds.

Ed September 12, 2010 at 10:29 pm

To continue my arguement a little further, terrorists of all shades have a tendency to claim their attacks are in response to a particular issue of the day. One could almost call it armed agitation as opposed to armed propaganda, in that agitation is for a specific demand (in this case, say an end to drone strikes) while propaganda tries to place things in a broad context (here, say, the idea of the Muslim world being oppressed by the infidel). In communist practice agitation and propaganda go hand in hand and I believe the same is true for Islamic terror.

The terrorists are waging their campaign because they have a particular view of the world, that Muslims in general are being oppressed and that their particular vision of Islamic rule is correct. They then seize on incidents and specific issues, such as drone strikes or the Mohammed cartoons or Abu Ghraib to agitate amongst the sympathetic population.

Other types of terrorist, such as the IRA and Red Army Fraction used the same method. They would present specific attacks as being in response to specific government actions (say the passing of particular laws, the conviction of particular terrorists etc). However their campaigns were rooted in a much broader view of the world whether that was Irish nationalism or the RAF’s type of Marxism.

That is why I don’t think the stated “motives” of the terrorists tell us much.

Homira September 12, 2010 at 1:25 pm

On frenchconnection’s points about how much better yuros are than Americans at stabilization and reconstruction:

a) the amount of money per capita donated to the Balkans was thrice what has been invested in Afg
b) the Balkans ain’t doin so well now.

I don’t disagree that Americans make mistakes and there’s a tremendous amount of hubris in the aid community, from whence I speak, but it’s not that simple, and why create divisions when we’re all supposed to be on the same side? I just don’t get this. I love to criticize America as much as the next person, but why not look to find ways to improve our collaboration and coordination instead? There are lessons learned for everyone. And the only yuros risking their lives were the Dutch in Uruzgan. Australians too, but they and the Canadians aren’t Yuros.

frenchconnection September 13, 2010 at 1:30 am


I don’t mean that the Yuros are so much “better”. I pointed out some basic differences from the following statement :

“The hard truth is that many other countries don’t deal with other cultures, diversity, and capacity building as well as Americans. “

which in its arrogant ignorance is borderline insulting for practically everybody else non-US. Or is maybe that insulting your partners is the ultimate expression of “cultural dealing” ?

besides :

a) true, and that was my point. In the Iraq/Afghan cases and specially regarding Iraq the billions went into the pockets of smartass companies, not to reconstruction. Has any of those companies been really hold accountable ? no.
b) 15 years after the Bosnian/Kosovo war, Slovenia is a EU-member, Croatia half-way in and all the others applicants to the horizon of 2015. To become a EU-member one must meet criteria (economical, political) that (on the economical front) California would hardly meet today. Violence is very limited, the latest is pure hooliganism. Compare with the situation Iraq/Afghanistan. Besides the current foreign troop presence has decreased from 80 000 (mostly non-US) to 10 000.
c) I don’t create divisions, stupid exceptionalistic ignorant statements do. And regarding European casualties, the answer is here :
You’ll see that “the only” Yuros weren’t the ones you named.
Tell that to the Brits…

Homira September 12, 2010 at 1:28 pm

p.s. – Josh, I went to the release on Wed., but got too nauseated to sit through even the opening after I read the summary. WHO are these people? and who’s funding them? not clear on their website.

Conrad Barwa September 12, 2010 at 1:50 pm

The rural areas of Afghanistan support the government as often as they oppose it. The vast majority of Afghanistan’s population lives in low-density farming villages; the majority of the residents in those areas do not actively oppose the government.

Evidence? In many civil wars or insurgencies, most civilians will try to remain detached or support the winning side, this in itself proves nothing really. For a govt like Karzai’s trying to establish its legitimacy, the very fact that many villages can equate it thus, with the various ACM is a huge legitimation problem.

I am a bit divided on whether this is best described as a govt fighting an insurgency or a civil war; imo it has elements of both. your arguements about mixed ethnicities isn’t convincing (it just means that the ASG have an extremely simplistic view of Afghanistan if they think it is just the southern Pashtuns versus everyone else). Its not realistic in any political conflict to expect dividing lines to be so neatly drawn, much less so in Afghanistan where loyalties can shift so quickly – indeed isn’t this one of the main reasons behind the rapid rise and the equally rapid collapse of the Taliban. If we see it in nationalist terms it comes down to who can better appropriate claims to represent the country better than anyone else. Not convinced that Karzai can do this really. Your claim to rubbish the ethnic elements of this war comes dangerously close to implying ethnicity doesn’t matter; which is false as it plainly does. I mean there is a reason why Karzai was selected as a viable Presidential candidate being a ‘southern’ Pashtun and all and the fact that over the last couple of centuries most rulers of the country (at least those that have lasted more than a few years) have been Pashtuns. There are certain realities one can’t ignore.

My view more on the fence really; I hate arguements that say it isn’t a civil war because this assumes it has no charactersitics of a civil war and imo gives a false position of representativeness to the Karzai govt which is heavily backed by foreign powers and can’t seem to win an election without mass rigging. Of course, it would be simplisitic to reduce it to *just* a civil war given the complicated nature of alliances in Afghanistan, tendency to switch sides and the fact that to win you kind of need to have a coalition of forces outside just one ethnic group – otherwise you end with the actual civil war that happened in the 90s.

Steve Hutcheson September 13, 2010 at 9:35 am

It is the same civil war that was taking place in 1995 between the same adversaries, six years before the US invaded. They just happened to take a side to do so.

Toryalay Shirzay September 12, 2010 at 1:50 pm

Ed, right on,bravo. Even more details would be appreciated.

Bird Dog September 12, 2010 at 3:19 pm

Josh, first off, good analysis. Second, I know you said that you didn’t feel a particular responsibility to outline solutions of your own re your critique, but you said in comments that our engagement needs to be “significantly modified”. That begs the question: What significant modifications are you suggesting?

Grant September 12, 2010 at 3:24 pm

Not having had time to read this report I can’t comment in their logic or possible lack thereof, but one thing that you mentioned does strike as odd (I’m not sure if it was on your part Foust or on the part of the people who wrote the report)

“The ASG denies the argument that the current conflict is a struggle between the Karzai government and an insurgent movement, and instead says it is a civil war between ethnicities”

Recently I have noticed that many students and writers seem to have forgotten that an insurgency is a civil war. It might not be of the same type as the Russian or American Civil Wars but an insurgency is still largely a civil war. You have two or more sides fighting to dominate an area that is internationally recognized as a state, that sounds like a civil war to me. I’m not saying that the report is correct, merely that regardless of whether or not it is about Karzai’s government or ethnic groups it is still a civil war.

gian p gentile September 12, 2010 at 7:54 pm


Good criticism and overflowing with your own counterarguments and purported clearer logic.

But what then is your solution? It seems to me after reading your post it is simply to stay there in force, try harder, get better colonels and generals in charge and then at some point way off in the future we may succeed. No?


Joshua Foust September 13, 2010 at 12:54 pm

Gian, I don’t think you can charitably read my posts on Afghanistan and think I blindly wish for more effort, more staying power, etc. In fact, I’ve made every single bit of tentative support for escalation or “more time” contingent on dramatic changes to policy that never came – among them, abandoning the ridiculous big box FOBs, increasing foot patrols, and so on. None of it has happened.

At this point, I actually share Steve Clemon’s belief that we should withdraw from Afghanistan. We differ, however, in that he and his group blame Afghanistan for being hard, while I blame the DOD for being stupid and inflexible. I think that is an absolutely critical distinction, and one I’d wager you agree with at least in part.

Steve Hutcheson September 12, 2010 at 10:54 pm

I made the same conclusions having worked on the same program for a year. I also wrote what I thought here:

frank September 12, 2010 at 11:14 pm

i read peter bergen’s book the osama bin laden i know quite some time ago. if i remember correctly he said in plain english that the taliban wanted no part of bin laden pre- 9/11. in fact, their were some in their government leadership that wanted bin laden and his gang out of afghanistan. in fact, less than six months prior to 9/11 GWB and his oil cronies were negotiating a deal in afghanistan and lost to, i believe, venezuela, if my memory serves me correctly.

it wasn’t until after that imbecile GWB said, “your either with us or against us” like he was at some texas OK corral cowboy event. and went in bombing the country and picking a fight with the taliban… — that all chances for getting bin laden were over… they were over before we even got to afghanistan.

after our DoD, state department, agencies have been infected with contractors looking to make a quick buck, it’s no wonder reports like the one you are blogging about aren’t even worth wiping your ass with the paper they are printed on.

Caleb Kavon September 13, 2010 at 3:07 am

Well I did in blanche at the report, and this is not an ad hominem attack, nor is Joshua Foust responsible for that comment, though the amount of red ink the report does indicate more than a little disagreement.

I would stick with “determined ignorance” and that this is indeed a Trojan Horse. If there are such “fellow travellers” who might be involved then let them raise themselves up from the fog of this poorly analyzed report. Quoting Taliban Government officials, or Candidates against Karzai or mysterious ISI members just does not do it.

The whole Civil War concept is at cross currents from the last 100 years of Afghan history, which you cannot be familiar with it seems. There is much more going on here, ask any Afghan, it is complex, not to be simply described and easily proscribed.

In Steve Clemons’ own words…

“The ASG represented a number of views which we sewed together. I want out of Afghanistan and think that the only credible way at the moment of getting people to listen is to propose something that draws down and breaks down the logic that US forces stabilize in civil war/proxy struggle situations like Afghanistan. I can understand your frustration with the report — but I want something that will neutralize the competing logic, and calling for immediate, full withdrawal won’t be heard, and will have no effect…regrettably.”

Steve, if the above comment is true, then why the subterfuge?

IF you want us “out of Afghanistan” then why not just say it?

Mathew Hoh was clear when he resigned the State Department PRT job that all was wrong and we just were not communicating with the Afghans and the COIN was failing. I admired him for that, it was a brave decision.

The report is flawed at its heart. If you want us out of Afghanistan stick with your guns, defend them and see the results. Do not put together a paper that you yourself do not agree with in essence, and then try to pass it off as a Plan B. Just bad work all around.

I think Joshua’s autopsy is clear enough: the patient died at conception.

Boris Sizemore September 13, 2010 at 10:17 am

What does Clemons mean by this??

“This report — flaws included — has past muster with enough of the establishment that it matters and will be part of the policy discussion.”

Who is “enough of the establishment?” What is the definition of “enough of the establishment?”

It seems Mr. Clemons is getting a little full of himself on this. There is enough errors in this report to drive a bus through it. If this has
“past muster with enough of the extablishment” then God help us. And no wonder things are going down hill so fast.

Self promotion has gone very bad in this case, Steve old buddy…

steve September 13, 2010 at 11:42 am

i second ana’s questions. and gentile’s. too much “granular analysis” going on here.

Two-Star Voodoo September 13, 2010 at 12:47 pm

Steve Clemons really did not do himself a favor by commenting here. He comes across as an out-of-his-depth pompous ass. Clemons, stick to making snarky, hipster comments about other people’s output. Leave the policy stuff to smarter people.

When life gives you Clemons, send it back.

Joshua Foust September 13, 2010 at 12:51 pm

Guys, this ends right now. Steve Clemons was gracious enough to respond to a harsh criticism on this blog, and no one has permission to denigrate his character publicly. My dispute with him is purely over ideas. There is no need to get personal, nor will I tolerate such a thing.

May15thProphecy September 13, 2010 at 4:47 pm

Mr Foust do you really believe that Michael Desch, Pat Lang, Barry Posen, and Stephen Walt do not have expertise on the military?

Have Juan Cole, Bernard Finel, Selig Harrison, Parag Khanna, Pat Lang, Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett, Anatol Lieven (!), and Paul Pillar never “studied Afghanistan in any detail?” I’d humbly suggest you may want to revisit this claim.

Michael Collins September 13, 2010 at 10:15 pm

The report missed a critical event in recent history. The election of Karzai was not legitimate, by any means. The UN even had enough of the fraudulent activities of Karzai to make a strong statement. Ambassador Eikenberry took the bold step (unheard of really) of standing with opposition candidates in public demanding fair elections.

Our model of democracy was to allow election fraud to return the rule of Karzai for the enrichment of his clan. Some democracy.

The report also failed to note that, whether we are successful or not, we have no legal basis for being in Afghanistan. But to them, that’s irrelevant.

Aaron September 14, 2010 at 12:04 am

Why is “poverty causes terrorism” a specious argument? Or at least, “poverty worsens the insurgency”? When the Taliban pays $10 a day, that must seem pretty attractive to people whose poppy fields have been set on fire by coalition troops.

You may disagree that the argument is useful for would-be statebuilders, since it may be true that it’s really hard to promote economic development. But that doesn’t make the claim untrue.

Joshua Foust September 14, 2010 at 12:11 am

If you can point to a single instance where someone chose to join the Taliban based on what they pay, we can revisit the charge. Similarly, we can talk about when the mere infusion of money has reduced Taliban ranks, and not other, concurrent factors like security efforts, political activity, religion, and social pressures.

It’s yet another assertion that begs for evidence to support itself, but where none exists.

Aaron September 14, 2010 at 12:30 am
page 14:
That is an extraordinary cross-section of concurring voices it took me all of ten minutes to find: reputable news sources domestically and internationally, congressional testimony by General Eikenberry, a white paper by a think tank, publications by the CFR, etc.

And that’s just a few sources, and only about Afghanistan. If I wanted to expand my focus, I could discuss many excellent case studies. Nigeria, Somalia, Sudan, Madagascar, Zimbabwe, Chad, Niger, Pakistan. Countries with low per capita income or high levels of income inequality seem to be extremely susceptible to instability. THIS IS NOT A CRAZY THESIS.

Alex September 14, 2010 at 5:01 am

What, precisely, is it that the Turks and Indonesians are meant to not know about democracy or education? Specifically, they both know a hell of a lot more about going from tyranny or anarchy to democracy, and negotiating with armed sub-state actors, which happens to be the problem at hand.

Or is this just the Pajamas Media influence coming through?

gian p gentile September 14, 2010 at 6:42 am


thanks for policing up your blog. As an aside I like commenting on blogs like yours, Ex’s, SWJ, etc because of the inherent intellectualism–albeit a raw one–contained in them with their free flowing debates premised on the intellectual notion that ideas wither or flourish on their own merit. But the angry jabs and personal attacks detract from this spirit so thanks again for looking out for such things. I know Ex and SWJ as examples do the same thing. In short, let’s keep it as business and not personal.

Anyway, as to your response to my short post, I don’t know man. You say you don’t follow things blindly and then in the same breadth state that we should withdraw from Astan because DOD is stupid and can’t get it done. Well the logic of that set of statements, Josh, actually does call for trying harder and the promise that if we do we can actually accomplish the mission in Afghanistan.

So if you do think we should withdraw then why not have some sympathy for the ASG since their alternative would in the near future it seems to me lead to a withdrawal from the place?


Joshua Foust September 14, 2010 at 8:07 am

Well, look I know a precipitous withdrawal would not only be impossible and impractical, but it would also have serious consequences to national security and enormous human rights costs. So that’s a bit of an oversimplification. Judging from your previous comments on COIN and warfare, I’m frankly surprised you think the DOD is capable of winning the war in Afghanistan—it certainly hasn’t demonstrated an ability to think nimbly enough or to modify its TTPs to address the realities of the fight (some units do in some cases, but it’s not nearly widespread enough to be effective).

I used to call, quite strongly, for the DOD, and the Army in particular, to do its job better. That was until I spent a couple of months overseeing my previous employer’s efforts to do precisely that – not to turn everyone into flower-carrying hippies but to just become a little bit more aware of the social realities on the ground. It hasn’t happened—it’s been worse, in that people talk culture and society now, but they still do the same old crap they did before as if the war can be won with an OER checklist. So we have the illusion of progress but the effect of statism.

I really can’t say it any better than my Internet-friend Christian Bleuer did this morning:

But what really bothers me is that I agree with most of the report’s conclusions. Why does this bother me? Because the Afghanistan Study Group has undermined “the cause” (if I may over-dramatically call it that) with their feeble attempt. They have taken away attention that would be better focused elsewhere – to people of similar mind who actually have the tools to do what the Afghanistan Study Group has attempted and failed to do. They are like the person who gets on TV or stands up in the crowd and speaks for a cause you believe in – but who totally screws up the opportunity by voicing mostly gibberish to support their viewpoint.

So that’s kind of where I’m coming from.

Render September 14, 2010 at 10:14 am

The solutions will not be found on the western side of the near mythical Durand Line. The enemy training camps and primary source of support are in the FATA, not in Afghanistan.

Move the willing Coalition into the FATA and the enemy’s focus will follow. Leave the unwilling Coalition and the civilian contractors to the Afghan re-building process.


RYP September 14, 2010 at 1:53 pm

This “The Afghanistan Study Group” sounds like one those roadside churches in Florida. In fact its probably not even worth dissecting something that is so tangental in appreciation and so stilted in context to the real problems of the region.

It will be up to Rev. Petraeus to sprinkle holy water on the mess (Al Qaeda…AHHH… Be GONE AHHH!!) and call it a miracle of salvation. I will be there when Afghanistan throws away its billion dollar crutches and pronounces to the world it can walk again.

Mike Dalton September 15, 2010 at 3:07 pm

The most important argument in the ASG report is it’s assertion that what happens in Afghanistan is not of vital interest of the U.S. A “safe haven” somewhere in off-the-grid Afghanistan where you can’t talk on the phone or access the internet is probably of limited use to a group planning a terrorist campaign, and of even less use to a group trying to carry one out. This is just common sense, and the recent reporting in the New Yorker on KSM’s doings pre-911 reaffirms that in great detail.

In fact, establishing a large presence in a known location is probably a strategic mistake for Al Qaeda. A smart U.S. anti-terror strategy might actually be to try to encourage as many Al Qaeda members as possible to relocate to Afghanistan, where they can’t do much harm. All Al Qaeda members in their Afghan safe haven seems like it would be a desirable end-state goal of U.S. policy.

Smashing Al Qaeda’s stronghold and forcing them to disperse is probably doing them a favor by saving them from the strategic error they had made by establishing one in the first place.

Old Blue September 15, 2010 at 8:10 pm

Having read the recent report, I was singularly unimpressed. It is the “easier, softer way” that is sought, clearly. It is also telling that part of the justification is that the cost of the war could be supposedly applied to social programs in the United States. It is a complete rejection of the concept that globalization has changed the world, including the introduction of non-state actors as being a credible security threat. It does this while openly agreeing with the concept that failing or failed states do provide fertile grounds for the development of such non-state actors.

The report is a call to return to the foreign policy that brought us these threats to begin with, changing only that the US military footprint in Islamic countries be reduced. Appeasement, withdrawal, and manipulation… with a healthy dose of Special Forces and “surgical strike” type capabilities added in to make everyone feel as if we’ve got it under control.

I agree with Josh in that a look at the list of signatories is telling. The group also appears to be inordinately stacked politically. It does appear to be in fact a statement from a particular political viewpoint and a demand to be taken seriously by a very polarized faction. It also appears to be very short on actual Afghan knowledge. It is no surprise that a number of people who may have been consulted would not want their names associated with it.

Flawed in facts, driven by false assumptions, it sets up its own straw men to mow them down with flawed reason and a lack of facts on the ground. This is not a document produced by a seasoned group of level-headed thinkers with a wealth of Afghan-specific knowledge. In fact, much of the document seems driven my myth, just as it sets up myths to nail down “the truth” based on still other myths.

One that I find interesting is the concept that we will somehow gain credibility by going the softer, easier route. The worst credibility disaster in our history was the end result in Vietnam. This result was counseled by friend and enemy alike. Yet, to this day and even here in Afghanistan, our legacy as quitters follows us. It is a significant source of comfort for our enemy, who points out again and again that all they have to do is wait and cause bloodshed of Americans, and that we will give up. “The Americans have the watches, but we have the time.” This report answers that call clearly. When we took the advice of friend and enemy alike, our national prestige, believability and our very word came under doubt for decades. It still haunts us here… but this time, it will be different.

The basic assumption that instability itself is not a threat in a globalized world. The assumption that what happens in a little valley in Afghanistan does not send ripples that can reach into American homes, is belied by the events of September 11, 2001. Al Qaeda is just the poster child. Our Cold War foreign policy contributed to these animosities. Iran was once an ally. Why do they hate us so now? Why do Saudis contribute so heavily to radical groups who have a stated aim of destroying the US?

We even contributed directly to some of the more well-known personalities. Bin Laden aside, Gulbuddin was once a major recipient of US dollars and expertise. We created a goodly portion of this monster through our own manipulations. We walked away then… and what could possibly happen? Didn’t see it coming then, still don’t see it coming now. Now, we are ready to do it all over again. Here’s the call to set it in motion.

The authors also fail to recognize that our strategies in Afghanistan are adapting. This entire venture has been a learning experience, from 9/11 onward. We failed, at all levels, to appreciate the complexity of what we were setting out to do. We were so simplistic as to think that our problem was bin Laden. (If you still think that bin Laden’s al Qaeda is our real problem, it’s time for a ball peen hammer hairdo looking for that reset button.) We failed to realize that assisting in toppling a horrid regime in Afghanistan would not suddenly produce a functioning society and lasting stability with a wave of our magic B-52 wand, a Bonn Conference, a few advisors and a basket of money. A top-down approach does not work in a country that is tore-up from the floor up. This has not just been the military learning, but State and USAID as well. Our strategies are evolving, and will possibly even evolve past the pop-culture crutch of tribalism as well. Afghanistan is molding itself, often well outside of “tribal” structures, now often so damaged and discredited as to be vestigial, in ways that many fail to understand; like this bunch.

“Oldthink” is resurgent, though and from the most unlikely of places; the political left, who supposedly eschewed “The Great Game” and foreign policy via remote manipulation, now basically espousing it as politically expedient.

The report is, indeed, laughable. Sadly, it will likely be included in “the debate” as if it carries some lasting value. Yes, this is a complex problem. Yes, it is difficult. Many, such as these signatories, obviously do not grasp the reality of Afghanistan. It is too much for them, and their frameworks can neither contain nor manage it. It turns out that all politics is, indeed, local. One must truly know the ground and the people to discuss it with any true standing, and many of these clearly do not.

For those who cry that counterinsurgency has failed, can anyone tell us how long we have actually been even attempting counterinsurgency in Afghanistan? I don’t mean how long we’ve been involved in one, perhaps without realizing it, or in name only, but how long we’ve actually been attempting it. I can tell you that the answer is not, “9 years.” There is much that is broken here. Much that is broken with us here, but a failure to demand/require/enforce professionalism should never result in a call for a near total abdication of commitments that we have made openly. Nor will it serve as justification before history that we forced ourselves to take an easier, softer road due to our lack of respect for our own spoken commitments. The true meaning of “American exceptionalism” is our underlying belief that a change of presidents means that all national commitments are in fact totally flexible. We truly believe that we can abrogate our responsibilities for our own selfish reasons; and the world will not only understand but appreciate it. In that, we find ourselves exceptional.

Of all the “lessons” we have clearly not learned, the deleterious impact of our failure in Vietnam has followed us to this day. The world, it turns out, does not see us as so exceptional when it comes to quitting.

We are learning in Afghanistan. Hopefully, we are learning about much more than just Afghanistan. However, the signatories of this ‘report’ certainly have not learned, especially those who quit after only a very few months because Afghanistan was too hard and now try to leverage such scant experience as expertise. Call that ad hominem if you will; it is the truth.

Abdullah September 18, 2010 at 7:03 am

You have watches, and we have ……….
The pen has been lifted and the ink dried….
10yrs., 20, 100, 1000, 5000
A Ronald McDonald time frame, with a Burger King strategy.
What’s that? Would I like an apple pie with that? NO THANKS…
Good work on the ASaves/sinksGop Report, the truth is Josh, A-land is old news, there are new wars to wage…. time to move on

Robrob September 22, 2010 at 8:07 am

I agree with many of your cricisms of the ASG report. Drone and/or SOF strikes without HUMINT are worthless. A reduction of troop strength to 30,000 is contrary to the historical reality of COIN operations.

On the other hand, I disagree with your characterization; “ASG actually argues that poverty causes terrorism.” Nowhere does the ASG report assert poverty “causes” terrorism. The ASG report says, “endemic poverty has made some elements of the population susceptible to Taliban overtures. Moreover, failed and destitute states frequently become incubators for terrorism, drug and human trafficking, and other illicit activities.” The key words here are “susceptible” and “frequently”. Yes, poverty makes them “susceptible” to the lure of insurgents’ promises. Yes, Saudi Arabia has some of these same problems (e.g. illegal activities) but the topic is Afghanistan. No where does the ASG report suggest other, more developed countries have somehow avoided the problem.

The most significant difference between Afghanistan and its problems and (say) Saudi Arabia with its same or similar problems is Afghanistan was used as a stronghold by al Quada, not Saudi Arabia. And therefore we currently occupy Afghanistan, not Saudi Arabia.

mike urena September 22, 2010 at 12:10 pm

I’m astonished at the complete lack of irony in this post. While attributing ignorance of both Afghanistan and the military to Hoh and the authors of the report you fail to clearly demonstrate your own source of expertise of central and south asian politics its history and culture to say nothing of the military. Unless of course having lived in Kazakhstan and populating this blog is qualification enough.
I got about half way through your post before finding myself applying the same red pen to your assertions that you applied to the ASG although I would not claim to be a supporter of the report itself. Among the problems I had was the distinction drawn between the IMU and Pashtuns as a means of rebutting the claim that this was a civil war driven by ethnicities. This is clearly a driver of the conflict but is not meant as a zero sum conclusion as if other dynamics (religious, urban/rural, local grievances) are somehow excluded. Of course denying the shared objectives between the IMU and some Pashtuns is difficult to comprehend as the former clearly rebuilt its strength while based in the FATA under the protection of Mehsud affiliated Pashtun supporters.
And what’s with the rant that argues the report offers a line of thinking that is just the rascist evolution of Afghans as warrior monks? That sort of non-sequiter detracts from the argument.
On the military piece I would note that you’ve repeated some of the military flavored arguments previously offered by Andrew Exum and others, to wit, the red herring about the necessary footprint to support prosecution of extensive HUMINT network in Afghanistan. But Exum’s military qualifications, or Nate Ficks for that matter, are no more impressive than Matt Hoh’s.
That said, I share your skepticism that a footprint of 30000 alone is not likely to succeed in preventing Taliban influence beyond the South. It can contribute to this end but if Taliban expansion is to be prevented it would require hard, bloody fighting by those that would lose the most by a return to Taliban rule in their areas. Of course this is why we train and equip the ANA and ANP. However 30000 are more than enough to punish large formations decisively, to conduct a train and assist mission on the scale we have now and to respond to massive human rights atrocities. Lots of hard military data to support this type of footprint for this purpose.
One cannot assess the strategic importance of Afghanistan in a vacuum. It must be placed in the context of our global interests, available resources and a rigorous assessment of risk. This will reveal priorities and thus force choice – the acme of the strategist. The problem with the double down with a large COIN in Afghanistan approach is that its supporters too often couch the argument in isolation from these other interests. Arguably, when viewed through the context of our global interests and available resources the risks associated with a smaller footprint in Afghanistan begin to look acceptable unless of course you argue that AQ is there in such size and with such capability as to be able to execute a massive attack, or series of attacks, on the homeland. There’s little data to support this though.
It seems to me, based on all I read, that Rory Stewart’s assessment of the situation in his piece for the London Review of Books ( still offers the most persuasive argument with regard to Afghanistan.

Boris Sizemore September 22, 2010 at 5:25 pm

Mike…not to be unkind..but I recommend that you study the detail of the this Blog and the posts that have been made by Joshua Foust who is a recognized scholar on Afghanistan. Many of the participants in the Blog are either policy makers and have a great deal of in country experience some stretching for decades..

Also, read the range of comments on the ASG….presented here.

My problem is that this plan is a non starter. Afghans will never tolerate partition of the country. I prefer a practical solution which requires Afghans to take charge of their security and which dovetails with a resurgent leadership.

The whole AQ debate revolves around whether someone believes that the Taliban can or will or want to eliminate the AQ elements that they work with. Also note the Taliban is in fact split into about ten or more fighting units which often times colocate with international units like the IMU.

The Rory Stewart article is interesting, but things have changed much in the world since the 1800s and he discounts the threat to Pakistan as minimal, despite the fact that large areas of Pakistan are becoming no go areas and the intra Pakistan insurgency is spreading. Pakistan because it is a off limits to ISAF is the preferred base area now and AQ has most of 30 years operating in and out of the Tribal areas in conjunction with Afghanistan.

ASG really does not describe what American interests should be but strangely echoes the logic that the Pakistani ISI has been saying for years. The war is about Pashtuns against everyone else, and the Pakistanis can manage the Taliban for us along with
the Pashtuns. The funny thing is Pakistan was not even formed yet when Afghanistan became independant and it is a stretch that Pakistan with all its problems managing itself can manage Afghans too. But that is what ASG recommends in essence.

ASG also ignores the islamic insurgency nature of the current war and isolates it to Afghanistan when it in fact concerns today, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kashmir, Tajikistan, and Kyrgystan and parts of Russia.

All these issues are discussed in detail week after week at Registan and that is partly why Joshua Foust and Nathan H.
are recognized for their superb work over the years.

mike urena September 22, 2010 at 8:59 pm

Boris, I’ll simply say that I also work in policy, have access to the information needed to make judgments and have lived in the reigon. Will leave it at that.

Boris Sizemore September 23, 2010 at 12:39 am

Mike..Great! Look forward to hearing more of your comments…

I have been working with Afghans/Afghanistan since the 1980s, and I am still learning every day, and always ready to hear a new perspective that might help all of us….it is very complicated at its root…something all of the ASG “experts” miss in my opinion.

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