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.