Well, that wasn’t too surprising: some of the signatories to the Afghanistan Study Group Report, which I critiqued fairly viciously, have responded by basically calling me a dumb asshole. Now, there’s always a danger in these bloggy tits-for-tat, in that they often devolve very quickly into acute wrangling over minutae, so let me state up front—I doubt anything will come from this, I will not waste my time bickering when everyone begins talking past one another, and I don’t think anyone involved in the report is stupid, just that they didn’t do their homework. That’s an important distinction some don’t often realize—there is a HUGE difference between criticizing one’s ideas and one’s person. Anyway.
Because I actually like him, I’m going to respond to Bernard Finel first. Bernard helpfully ordered his critiques, so I’ll use those as signposts to structure what follows.
“1. Josh is, as usual, up in arms about the lack of “Afghanistan” experts associated with the report.” I think it’s a fair criticism that I overreact to the lack of regional expertise involved in these sorts of reports. However, given the extent of factual errors—not just what I viewed as errors in conception but factually incorrect statements like claiming the Taliban is nothing but southern Pashtuns—I think the criticism about the lack of expertise in the group is a legitimate one to make. Since there is some confusion over this point, perhaps owing to Andrew Exum’s ebullient praise of my critique, I don’t think anyone should necessarily consult me—there is rich body of experts on Afghanistan with things like PhDs and decades of experience the country who would do quite nicely. I don’t think it should have been composed entirely of regional experts, but maybe one or two to help everyone gets the basics right would have helped the report tremendously (and to parry an obvious rejoinder: no, writing a few articles or a book does not make one an expert anymore than my blog makes me an expert).
“1(a). A corrollary to this point is that Josh misunderstands what the report is about.” No, I get that the report is primarily about Washington, trying to reframe our interests, and affect the policy discussion. The thing is, and none of the reactions to my criticism have addressed this yet, if you don’t get your basics right, you’re not going to get your strategy right (and calling it the “Afghanistan Study Group,” which is a pretty transparent sop to the Iraq Study Group, is misleading—the ISG was assembled by Congress, for one, and listed its contributors and collaborators. The ASG was assembled by some think tankers and a few academics and journalists). That I happen to agree with the general idea of changing U.S. involvement in the war is incidental and coincidental—lazy thinking is lazy thinking, and this report is full of it.
Much more importantly, Finel’s critique of expertise is interesting: “I genuinely honor and respect the work and sacrifice of the men and women who have served in Afghanistan, but to be blunt, they are too close to the issue, and their personal experiences rather than giving them any great insight into the issue clouds their judgments.” By this standard, the ASG’s director, Matthew Hoh, whose entire career at the moment is built on inflating his five months on a PRT in Afghanistan, is too close to the issue. It’s personal for him. If actual experts are disqualified by feeling strongly about the topic, then so is the ASG director.
“2. For instance, he is worked up over the fact that the report recommends a CT focus in Afghanistan relying on drones and SOF to keep any resurgent AQ presence off-balance.” This is my fault for not being entirely clear, but my point about Shahzad was not entirely serious. I meant it to demonstrate how flimsy the argument is that we can blame radicalization on any simple cause. I thought that was clear in how I said “so, the ASG will radicalize even more people,” but I guess it wasn’t. I was being sarcastic.
Bernard and I had a spirited discussion about this on Twitter, where he admitted the data to support the assertion that the mere presence of American troops in Afghanistan is a force for radicalization is “problematic,” and that none of the surveys on which he bases his belief about the effect of American troops have surveyed Afghans. His point, “Foreign military presence is always unpopular,” is a difficult one to square with the reality that quite often it’s not, and in my original post I made it a point to note that in Afghanistan, radicalization not only happens for a number of reasons, but quite often the presence of foreign troops can have a dampening effect on that radicalization.
This is another example why having expertise in the country you’re strategizing helps formulate an appropriate gauging of the phenomena in play, likely and known behaviors, and so on. The point about presence causing radicalization is posture based on assumption—not a data-driven argument.
“3. Josh is also upset about us dictating to the Afghan, particular in the report’s recommendation on “power sharing and political reconciliation.”” Yes, I am upset. The idea of decentralization & power sharing—which let me repeat, requires the dissolution of the constitution and the entirety of the Kabuli political establishment—is so unrealistic an expectation that it is silly. In practice, in the real world where few of the academics involved in this report actually deal with the squishy side of their theories, it is wholly, 100% unworkable.
“4. Josh makes a peculiar argument about force sizing.” Call it peculiar all you want. But I have no idea how they expect 30,000 troops to accomplish all the mission types they laid out. Here’s why: the current, American military requires at least 75% of its deployed force to participate in mission support. This includes transport, supply, analytic support, and facility security (the numbers are off a little bit in Afghanistan because of the high number of private contractors, but it’s silly to pretend that number doesn’t exist and I don’t know what the exact breakdown is). If you want a force size of 30,000, we can guesstimate that a good 25,000 of them will be involved in support operations—not directly accomplishing the mission. So that would leave about 5,000 troops to 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, as I put it. I don’t see how you do that in an unstable country the size of Texas with fifteen active insurgent groups trying to kill you. If the ASG meant 30,000 troops out on patrol directly accomplishing their mission, which might be a realistic number for that many mission types, then they should have said they want a 125,000 troop commitment to the country.
This is also why, to get back to my point on expertise, that having some people with expertise on military operations would have been helpful in gauging an appropriate troop strength for their preferred strategy. As an example, here is a slide detailing an angle to deployment that few recognize or account for: the U.S. Navy:
They have over 23,000 sailors active in CENTCOM, supporting two land wars. Look at what they contribute to the war in Afghanistan: HQ staff (again: the military has enormous overhead costs!), Engineers (to do that ASG-approved development work!), doctors and nurses (a smaller force on patrol more is going to get hurt a lot!), training teams (for the training mission ASG wants to maintain!), and so on. All told, they are 3,000 of the servicemen deployed to Afghanistan right now, or about 10% of what the ASG thinks we need to reduce to (missing is a count of how many Navy SEAL teams are active, anywhere, for obvious reasons). I cannot stress enough how unrealistic the ASG’s numbers are.
“5. No, the real problem is that some people — like Josh apparently — think that development and “governance mentoring” are effective policy instruments. They aren’t.” This is the most confusing point Bernard makes. I didn’t say development is an effective or appropriate policy instrument—the Afghanistan Study Group did (it’s point #4 of their “New Way Forward,” even though it’s just a continuation of the current way forward that assumes the problems in Afghanistan are economic, rather than social, cultural, political, religious, and historical). My response to the ASG report said, “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?”
So Bernard and I agree… that the Afghanistan Study Group is part of the problem because of its advocacy of forced, external economic development as an instrument of policy.
But that’s enough about Bernard. Much more hateful is CATO’s Justin Logan, who writes at the National Interest:
Foust writes that the Group “did not contain anyone with expertise on Afghanistan or the military.” Does Foust 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 Foust may want to revisit this claim.
That certainly deserves a response. I’ve addressed Lieven’s curious relationship to expertise before (by his standard, most of those names are not experts because they have not lived in rural Afghan villages for long periods of time). Bernard Finel is open that his expertise is not on Afghanistan, but rather the military and strategic issues. Selig Harrison’s supposed expertise is a sick, sick joke. The Leveretts are known for their expertise on Iran, including negotiating Iran’s cooperation against the Taliban in 2001… but I’m at a loss to find anything beyond a few blog posts at the Huffington Post that either have written directly about Afghanistan, and conditions inside the country. Parag Khanna has trouble developing his ideas so they, you know, make sense.
I could go on, but this is silly. Writing a few articles here and there, or even writing a book does not make one an expert—if it did, then the ASG should have included someone like Bing West as the expert of all experts. Let’s just be honest and admit the ASG was assembled because of the ideologies of the signatories, and not because of their specific skill sets and expertise and be done with it. Otherwise, Logan shouldn’t have been included on this list, either.
What else does Justin say?
I am forced to conclude that neither Foust nor Exum understands what strategy is. It is not, pace Foust, induced by piling up mounds of granular operational and tactical detail and then seeing what one can shape out of the pile. Instead, those engaged in strategy must attempt to discern and state clearly the interests at stake (in this case those the United States has in Afghanistan or the region more broadly) and then to attempt to connect the complex chain of ends, ways, and means in order to explain how best to pursue those interests. I thought the report was fairly clear on the task force’s views on America’s interests and in proposing to bring America’s exertions better into line with its interests. Thoughtful critiques would engage either on the grounds that the authors have misconstrued (a) America’s interests, (b) how best to pursue them, or (c) both.
This is where we get into questions of reading comprehension (again, ahem). First off, I don’t recognize his definition of strategy. In simple terms, a strategy is a plan of action meant to achieve a specific goal. The strategy put forth in the ASG report is the five points of their “New Way Forward,” though, much like ISAF, ASG is kind of fuzzy about what their desired end state or goal really is. I think what Logan is referring to is a discussion of interests, though interests and even means to achieve them don’t mean much without a desired end state in mind. Otherwise, you’re left with just a different version of the current policy, which is indefinite small footprint drone strikes and counterterrorism activity, with the ASG-approved development projects to endanger government civilians and tie up soldiers from accomplishing the security portions of their mission.
Second off, I critiqued each and every pillar of that strategy in my post, including their discussion of national interests. Why Logan chooses to ignore that to emote about his rather unique idea of what “strategy” is something I’ll leave to someone else.
But for the life of me I cannot find evidence that either Foust or Exum recognizes strategic thought. Both appear to believe that they are engaging in it by picking nits with various aspects of the report’s analysis, but none of their critiques of the smaller claims does anything to knock down the report’s conclusion: that America has limited interests in Afghanistan; that those interests are actually reasonably easy to achieve; and that our current efforts there are at best wasteful and at worst counterproductive.
Good grief, Justin, again with the strawmen. Perhaps an argument from analogy might work. We have two men, each with an equivalent set of skills and abilities, but only one of them will be tasked with educating an entire generation of children in how to view the world. They are each told to answer a simple question, and justify that answer. They are each asked, “what color is the sky?” Each answers, “the sky is blue.” But here is where things go sideways. The first man says “the sky is blue because God decided the sky should be blue,” while the second says “the sky is blue because of Rayleight scattering.” Both can easily be correct—for all we know, God decided to create Rayleigh scattering so we’d get pretty blue skies. But answering God, when asked a question of science, implies a certain type of mindset, and certain way of interpreting the physical reality in front of you; answering a question of science with a scientific answer presents a wholly different type of mindset, and a wholly different way of interpreting the physical reality in front of you.
Logan’s complaint, that I point out, relentlessly, the complete and utter negligence of fact in the ASG Report is the equivalent of saying the sky is blue because God wants it to be blue. Such an answer is, technically, correct, but the reasons for that answer are simply not rational, or fact-based, or even appropriate for someone meant to teach children science. In journalistic terms, Logan is responding by basically saying that the ASG Report is false but accurate, a policy that is maybe correct in its end state, but who really cares why or how we arrived at that decision because really, fuck it (strategy!).
The end result, despite Logan’s pretensions to seriousness, are neither serious nor interesting. If a Senator says we need to reduce the deficit because deficits make the demons in his head yell so loud he stays up and night and gets tired, we wouldn’t say “well his facts and support are all wrong, but his conclusion is right so let’s listen to him.” We would either laugh, or, more likely, politely ignore him in the future.
Logan should know better than to complain about being shown to be wrong on a matter this important. He doesn’t. I’m glad I had never heard of him before (even if Nathan has), and I don’t think I’ll be paying much attention to him in the future.