Afghanistan, Now or Never: Operations in the Post-Surge AfPak Theater

by Joshua Foust on 9/14/2010 · 17 comments

In the interest of space and my own feeble fingers reformatting it to a blog-friendly format, I’m going to post a paper sent to me Joshua J. Novak. Because it’s lengthy, but still worth considering, I’m going to borrow the Small Wars Journal format and post an intro here, along with Joshua’s bio, and a link to download the PDF. I’m sure he’d love to see comments, below.

This paper discusses and recommends actions that must be taken now to prepare Afghanistan for the 2011 Post Surge Realities. The concept is to radically reformat US support and AfPak response to the wide spread insurgency that current envelops both countries. The outcome of this reformation will be stronger AfPak governments and the marginalization of the Taliban Haqqani Insurgency. Key goals are accomplished using dramatically smaller resources, and paring this is a strong ideological counter Jihad undertaken by the Afghans and Pakistanis themselves.

Afghanistan: Now or Never.pdf

Former Intelligence Officer and US Army Advisor in El Salvador, he has a wide range of long term relationships with Key Tribal and former Anti Soviet Mujaheddin leaders. Key friendships include the family of Shaheed Abdul Haq and Haji Quadeer, as well as staff members in the Abdullah Campaign. Has spent long visits in country but never in an official capacity and most importantly only as Friend of Afghanistan. Mr. Novak advocates a dramatic change in strategy and tactics of which many are included in this paper.

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– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from 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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Pantagruel September 14, 2010 at 9:12 am

I had to chuckle when I read your response to Logan. I don’t know quite why, but his piece came off like a mix between pretentious and petulant whining. (Maybe it was: “I humbly beg”. Please don’t humbly beg, just make your argument, and make it better than “these guys are experts man!”)

Anyway, did you really think that this Joshua Novak piece was a good one?

I had to cringe when I read his intro: “that he is capable of acting on due to his long and detailed involvement in the country and a special unique skill set that would make him a key to the solution in what is now America’s Longest War.”

HAHHHH!!! Wow – untrammeled silliness. I would call it egotism, except that it’s so patently ridiculous (and so pitifully naïve).

And then I jumped to the conclusion to see what he had to say there (I had to resist closing it after I read the intro), where I see: “I remain ready to deploy to achieve the changes we need to make now, this is my duty as an American and also to honor my Father” Holy crap…. are you kidding me? Did he just offer his services to the nation, to “achieve the changes” he suggests? I’m not sure whether to laugh really hard, or to just be really puzzled by the nincompoop nature of this thing (and yes I did use the word nincompoop).

Ok, so maybe he just has no idea how to present himself. So I gave a look at the paper itself. Ummmm, really? There’s nothing there but pat phrases. And what’s worse, he insists on persisting with his self-marketing. See for instance his section on corruption: “Step by Step would be my recommendation on this. Once again, this is part of the daily job for an advisor.”

Or his section on aid and “how to do it better”: “Once again, someone needs to be with President and the Ministers to push this through. Afghans are not bureaucratic in nature, they just need to be advised in other courses of action from someone they like and knows how to discuss things with them.”

Whatever it means to say something like “Afghans are not bureaucratic in nature” (not in nature? Really? They’re not? – I should probably avoid sarcasm since it doesn’t seem to translate well), is the suggested solution really just that they “need to be advised in other courses of action from someone they like”? Maybe Afghans are his friends, but he also seems to think of them as his children. It’s unfortunate to have to keep repeating what he says in question form, but what else can you do with conclusions like his?

I’m just not sure what you saw in this.

Joshua Foust September 14, 2010 at 9:19 am

Well, for one, I saw it as another perspective on how people are viewing and in some ways shaping the debate. I’m not the only person to have read this, and if you pay close enough attention you can see others who have used his ideas as a jumping off point. So I prefer to get my ideas from the horse’s mouth, as it were.

I forgive a lot of sloppy writing—unlike an official policy paper, I saw this more as a thought piece. I write similar things, too, sometimes, with language I’d wince at later but they communicate a thought process that is still valuable.

I should state, unequivocally, that I do not agree with much of this paper. But, unlike the Afghanistan Study Group report, it is based on personal experience and experience I don’t have—something I find valuable, even when I disagree with the self-analysis.

Joshua Novak September 14, 2010 at 9:37 am

Wow, that was fast…

I really wrote this because I saw how things were getting out of control of the last year or so. And yes, I do owe it my Father, and our country to help since I know or have direct access to most of the Afghan leaders. It was not written as a scholarly report per se but as a ..:”where to next”

We are going to draw down forces in the near future.

The Afghans must fight this war, not us.

Revived patriotism and counter jihad are the only way to fight

We need to learn how to communicate with Afghans, they are amazing when the are motivated.

They will listen to logic but cannot stand being talked to or mocked

These are things that are not happening in country now.

Donald Anderson September 14, 2010 at 10:00 am

I think the paper has a lot merit. It is hard to find anyone who actually talks to Afghans on a friendly basis and knows what they think. A lot of his points are very valid and unlike the ASG report do make sense. This is a good thought piece as Joshua said….

Joshua Novak September 14, 2010 at 10:56 am

Let me explain the self promotion thing and the basis of the paper..PantaGruel…

I went to Afghanistan last year to visit my friends and saw that things were going downhill fast. I have been out of the military for 20 years, but have a lot of experience and knowledge about Afghanistan and contacts and access to any leader in the country.

As an Officer, I hate to see our country essentially losing a war that we should be winning. I was concerned about my friends in Afghanistan and for our country, and knew that if my Father was alive he would be there defending the democracy and Afghanistan and making sure that our Army that has come so far does not fall here. Call this naive but family relationships and tradition are important my family as well as for the Afghans.

So I am sitting here snug as a bug in China, and wrote this paper with the express desire to get this to the White House, maybe to Denis McDonough or Obama or anyone because I thought since at least I know the people and have their ear, I could get more done than a lot of people there now and there is a total miscommunication at all levels.

Call it naive or what you want, that was the purpose, and I stick with a lot of the ideas in the paper. The Afghan Chief of Staff has it and we are seeing them push a more “Afghan” in charge policy and advocating a new strategy almost weekly in the past month or so.

I sent it out to a lot of places a long with my resume, to Brian Katulis, Clemons and Coll, Donorroso, Senators and Congressman, Rothkopf, Karzai Dr. Haass, MG Flynn,etc etc…really anyone who might be able to get me over there in Senior Management position. It is really designed as a thought piece and a job application to anyone who might have the right connections. I have been overseas for decades and know no one in the power grid back home.

The paper was conceived with this in mind and does contain what I would do if I was pushing a new policy knowing that I do know the right people and can go anywhere I want because of Pashtun Wali which I have because of my long relationships with Key Afghan leaders.

But the point is…if you want a new policy there you need to talk it out with them over a long while to get consensus. The paper does not have all my ideas just a general direction. Nothing gets done without consensus, and knee jerk change does not go over, they just tune you out. Believe me when I say they have almost given up on the ISAF war plan and our policies.

In many ways we are own worst enemies in this war, and the Afghans would respond so much more if we did things the right way…

Joshua Foust was kind enough to put this out there and I Thank him greatly for it. I do know a lot about the situation because I am with Afghans and we discuss all these things for days and days and it is their country after all. Whatever happens, I am their friend after this war as I was before this war when the Soviets were there. Friendship in this culture is just like that. Call it what you will.

Boris Sizemore September 14, 2010 at 1:25 pm

The paper is well and good, but this Return of the Mujaheddin is hard to imagine. Karzai himself has been against arming militias and there is little success to point to. The situation is not going well and I cannot see any dramatic change like this, no matter what connections the author has.

Pamela Richards September 14, 2010 at 1:56 pm

We are clearly losing the war, and we have lost the Afghans a long with it. Next week should be interesting as the elections come up and the Taliban comes back after EID, rested. It may be too late to do anything at this point. We have screwed up and need to admit it.

Mark Hittinger September 14, 2010 at 2:40 pm

Thanks James
typo report! Heart instead of Herat. 🙂

Shershah September 14, 2010 at 2:41 pm

Hello to all.
As a good friends with Josh, i really appreciate his initiative on proposing change in the strategy in Afghanistan. He is pushing for an Afghan inclusive, decision making policy now. Afghanistan has never been controlled by another power in the recent and old times so the world needs to find a common ground with the Afghans. On Afghans part, i would suggest as my good friend Khushal Arsala says, they need to come out of the 19th century mindset but the world has to facilitate that in an Afghan stamped envelop rather then with the imported ideas. I don’t want to go into the blame game against Zbigniew Brzezinski, United States National Security Advisor but one good thing that he recently said in a TV interview was to let the Afghans decide for themselves, facilitate their traditional tribal codes for enforcement, respect their culture and traditions, ballot boxes and election campaigns are western ideas that alienate them so let them use their jirga system to elect their leaders and resolve their issues. A friend of mine Ahmad Shah Arsala was writing his thesis and asked an Afghan philosopher if the world will solve Afghanistan’s problems and he replied that actually in Afghanistan’s case world is the actual problem and expecting something good from them is mad mans dream. They need to detach themselves from supporting bad elements in this country and form a coalition of the traditionalists, the religious sects and the modern reformists as again Khushal Khan has said that there needs to be a balance between the turban(traditional) the beard(religious) and the neck tie(modern western educated). In the current elections, i have seen a security guard , a construction company owner and a convicted drug dealer with posters in town running for parliament , i mean we love democracy but where is the balance or what is the merit for becoming people’s representative obviously if you are a successful businessman, a security guard or a drug dealer are different qualification then representing a nation that is born and raised in politics that feels humiliated when sees those faces and hold the west accountable for this.
Afghanistan’s story is part of 9/11 and soviet invasion but to understand the current situation, one has to go back to the 19th century and what the world wants to prove is that it can be summarized with Taliban is a mistake because there were no Taliban back in the first Anglo-Afghan war 1839–1842, second Anglo-Afghan war 1878-1880 and third Anglo-Afghan war May 1919 to August 1919 and Afghans had not attacked anyone back then but their mistake was that they wanted to live as a sovereign nation. Afghanistan’s geopolitical position is its biggest enemy as in Afghanistan people say that someone asked a fox that why is everyone chasing you because you are ugly, cunning and not pet able so the fox replied “it is my own skin that is my biggest enemy”.

Mark Hittinger September 14, 2010 at 2:44 pm

another typo report Joshua
“If you cousin gets arrested”

Mark Hittinger September 14, 2010 at 2:57 pm

sorry Joshua last one – thanks again for your paper
umbella of Mulla Omar
They know that they at this point

Joshua Novak September 14, 2010 at 3:08 pm

Mark…thanks for spells….Must be confusing my english and chinese spelling…

Sher Shah….Thanks for commenting…God Willing Things will Change…

Joshua Novak September 14, 2010 at 3:12 pm

Thanks for the Spell check…wrote this very quick like in 5 hours must be confusing my chinese characters with english..

Sher Shah….Thanks…God Willing something will change soon…

steve September 14, 2010 at 5:07 pm

great post, shershah. thank you.

CostOfWar Blog September 14, 2010 at 7:54 pm

AS Novak mentioned, Kandahar is a mess that needs serious cleaning up. that is where this war will be decided

Dan September 18, 2010 at 11:20 am

Dear Joshua(s),

I have only been in Afghanistan for a year – which makes me much less knowledgeable than you are but I have some reservations about your article and would very much like to hear your views on these. I agree that there is a problem of ownership, and besides that, of respect for Afghans, beyond the “respect of Afghan culture” (whatever that means, as a culture is never static nor monolithic).

1. Your proposal is I find not clear about how the transfer of power to Afghans would be done given the longstanding conflicts (ethnical/religious/resource-based/personal) that I see at pretty much any level and the lack of peaceful/legal mechanisms to solve most of them. I do not see any consensus among Afghans about the sort of political system they would like to have in the future and incentives seem to be very short-term because of that. I am not saying ownership is not desirable, I am just saying that it is a bigger challenge than the way you present it in your paper and that mechanisms to settle longstanding disputes need to be thought of.
2. You mention the importance of tribal leadership a lot. This may be the case in the South – which I am not familiar with, but there is a strengthening of the insurgency in the north and I have failed to find functional tribal institutions.
3. One of the reasons mentioned by elders to explain the Taleban’s ability to recruit seem to be the corruption and injustice. Many accusations target the Karzai administration and the Jehadi commanders; although you do not address this up front, I believe it is a quite central issue and find your admiration for commanders in general a bit of a free pass given the abuses people experience because of some of these. I am also uncomfortable with your language towards former communists. In my experience, there are often more highly educated and have mollified their position on both market and religion (if that still matters to the US in 2010) a lot after three decades of conflict. I find their marginalization of any current process in Afghanistan a bit strange because although they lost to the Mujahedeens, these were then involved in a civil war and ended up losing most of the country to the Taleban…Actually lately, I have heard some Jehadis expressing nostalgia at Afghanistan under Daoud and Najib…!

Anyways – just a few quick points but I would be glad to receive your feedback about them.

Joshua Novak September 18, 2010 at 2:08 pm

Dan, thanks for the great comments, and yes I am sure you can relate to a lot of what I say after a year there.

A. I know the plan is a long shot. You just do not see the will to make a dynamic change in what has become an almost listless environment on all sides.

I guess I relate a lot to what I saw duing the Anti Soviet Jihad, when they were amazing, had leadership and moved to the front to fight every day in a precise successful campaign. They really had a heroic persona to me at that time. I know when there is that motivation they are incredible just hard to see at this point in time.

They worked together, Hazaras units, Tajik units, Pashtun Fronts….it was amazing. Massoud was brilliant and his loss is an incredible step back as was the death of Haji Quadeer.

So I would love to see some of that unity back no matter how hard it is to achieve. Hekmaytar was the real jerk at the time and he is with the Taliban now. A lot of good guys are left, just hard to differentiate them with all the creeps in the public eye now.

B. I guess I focus on the Mujaheddin Tribal nexus. Tribe is always the ground truth in most areas. The Taliban use the Pashtun areas in the north for a base and stengthen this with professional insurgents like the IMU and elements of the HIG to promote what is a very successful expansion.

Mujaheddin leaders and networks are also in the North but do not get the focus because COIN and the ANA focus tampers this down. The Elections are peppered with these leaders and people still look up to them for support in local life and the mythology that Afghan relate to. Panshiris are very tight, and Uzbeks too. The Qawm is alive and well everywhere. Felt but not seen on Tolo TV.

COIN and the current Government must respect these forces but just do not give them a role in defeating the Taliban. This is a untapped resource, not sure IF there is the will to push this weapon out. It is in the end a political decision, and not what the US Embassy is in touch with.

The funny thing with this reconciliation process, they all know each other. I have met more than several people that know the Haqqanis from the old days and these previous relationships are every where. Karzai himself knows quite a few key Taliban, of course not everyone but quite a few.

An Afghan made a funny comment to me the other day. He said the Americans and Pakistanis were working as a team. The Pakistanis captured Baradar, and the American busted Salehi, both key players in the reconciliation process which is not at this point even funded and could become a dead issue. Funny comment, maybe a little truth behind it? Not sure though.

C. From a Jihad angle the Taliban do great recruitment. They combine local forced recruitment with a steady stream of dedicated jihadis most of them Pakistanis but not exclusively. Sure corruption plays a role, but there is a lot more to tap on. Anti Americanism, Shariah, local conflicts, civilian deaths, the recent floods, unemployment, the Caliphate, Khurasan, tribal loyalty a whole range of things.

Not sure what is the main thing, they all play a role. The amount of suicide bombers they have indicates a solid indoctrination curriculum if anything. A stark comparison to the lost young just trained soldiers of the new ANA units, of General Caldwell.

From Shirzai to Wali and the Noorzais, and Farhnood, etc etc there are a lot of unpopular members of the patronage group. My goal would be to work towards a unity government, and provincial governor elections to bring more real national leadership to the fore.

A whole range of bad things is going on. No doubt. However do remember that outside this group of nouveau powerbrokers there are a lot of respected leaders.

It is just that I get the impression that the Embassy either does not know who they are or are afraid to engage them for the real value they could bring. Karzai knows who is who the Taliban do too. The PRT is folks are afraid to leave the base so it does limit the valuable contacts and knowledge of what is really going on in the Provinces.

D. The former communists are another group, which mixes in all the time. I know a lot of Russian speakers and exKhalq guys. They play a role in the political dynamic as well as former members of DRA Army. They are part of the tapestry and yes, from a western non islamic point of view they could be construed as a solid anti Taliban bloc despite the mostrocities that occurred in the 1980s.

Afghans amazingly would prefer to forget the past and understand that during that period people ended up on opposite sides for a whole range of reasons. Some families have both Russian speakers in the same family. Also never forget the Tajiks supported the Northern Alliance to a large degree.

Good point I should have explained that better. Glad you brought it up. I always do like talking to those guys, and their Russian is just fantastic.

I do keep Dostum out of this as he plays a strange roll in both the fall of Najibullah all the way up to today. Atta Noor however, has largely neutralized him and though he is a factor, not a critical factor. I thought the exile in Turkey was a good thing. So that kind of former communist I would stay away from in general. Some really bad guys are still around but a lot met untimely ends along with Najibullah and company.

Also, there is a school of thought which says the Russians did a much better job on development than we have. Not sure, but a valid discussion to have as we are surely not that popular with anyone there now.

And I second the nostalgia, this current conflict is much more murky and greasy and just has a bad feeling. Things were more clear and if you will pure in the old days. My whole paper is somehow wanting the challenge the good of the past to the failures of today…Another good point…Thank You..

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