“Pick Your Cliché”

by Joshua Foust on 11/22/2010 · 10 comments

My friend Alex Strick van Linschoten (see here, for example) has an excellent post over at the magazine I sometimes contribute-edit, Current Intelligence, in which he picks apart, bit by bit, the five broad themes of how General Petraeus spins the supposed progress of the war in Afghanistan.

Petraeus isn’t alone, alas—he has a lot of help from willing journalists all too eager to push the line that the war is about to be won. Look at this video of a one-off Farhad Darya concert in Lashkar Gah:

Why, from that video you’d never know that just a few days earlier a car carrying 11 people was struck by an IED in that very same city, killing five and grievously wounding several more. While that video didn’t rise to, say, ABC News’ bizarre obsession with Afghan night life, it was of a similar bent: a single event, with tightly controlled security, does not a trend make. Yet it is reported as such.

Just so we’re clear: Lashkar Gah is not a safe city. Not by a long shot. By my informal count—a quick perusal of Google News—in the last month, 8 police officers have been killed in Taliban bombing attacks, along with at least a dozen civilians and several soldiers. It is, by almost any measure, horrifically violent.

But what of other cities in Afghanistan? Outgoing Senior NATO civilian Mark Sedwill wants us to know:

He told Newsround: “Here in Kabul and the other big cities (in Afghanistan) actually there are very few of those bombs.

“The children are probably safer here than they would be in London, New York or Glasgow or many other cities.”

Kabul has borne the brunt of the war in Afghanistan and although the security situation there has improved of late, it is still deemed a dangerous place to live.

He has, of course, been roundly criticized for being so tone deaf. Literally every NGO objected, especially Save the Children, which noted Afghan children do not, in fact, lead happy, carefree, charmed lives the way they do in Kensington, Flatbush, or even the Gorbals (if we want to go there). By every meager way we have of tracking crime in Kabul, in fact, it is a significantly more violent, capricious, and unpleasant place than almost any bad neighborhood in New York, London, or Glasgow.

This sort of clueless on Sedwill’s part shouldn’t come as any surprise, however. Alex and I have been tracking the Pentagon’s brazen attempts to spin the war into a success for years—including year after year of that old magical new solution we try every year, the tribal militia.

Understanding the country has never been a prerequisite for thinking you can fix it, however. This is a problem of both the pro- and anti-war crowds—ignorance and affect drive the discussion, not knowledge or understanding.

The same is true of the leaders of the war in Afghanistan as it is for those who advocate for or against it. It’s difficult to muster the energy to address it anymore—the avalanche is so constant, so voluminous, that even thinking about it causes me to sink into resignation and despair. That our top general—the most COINiest of all COIN generals in all the COIN—has retreated into clichés and platitudes is just par for the course.

Until actual thinking replaces magical thinking—in Kabul, in London, in and in Washington—I see no reason to pay very close attention to this war any more. It is lost. And our leaders refuse to consider why.

Parting Thought: Has anyone else noticed that the media now compares Afghanistan to how it was under the Taliban, rather than to how it was in 2002? In 2008, when it was still okay to note the military had no idea what it was doing, journalists used to contrast the deteriorated security with how much safer the country was in 2002-5. Yet now, years later, when security is substantially worse in every way, now, it’s merely better than it was in the 1990s under Taliban suzerainty. That is spin at its finest—and its appearance in a news story is probably a marker indicating you should ignore everything else that reporter writes as evidence.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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toshkan November 22, 2010 at 11:05 pm

It will take spin of a whole different order when it comes to this story: Taliban Leader in Secret Talks Was an Impostor This is truly sad, wishful thinking.

cathyrine November 23, 2010 at 12:06 am

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Brian Merrell November 24, 2010 at 1:22 am

At the risk of offending oh so many NGOs, I first must take some exception here. Certainly malnutrition, infant mortality, poor sanitation, the complete lack of a public health system, only the most basic of education (and irregular and spottily available at that), the horrific practice of bachibazi, and an economic situation that forces children to go to work before the age of 10 is not ideal. But violent crime and/or bombings are not really a threat, statistically, to the millions of urban children of Afghanistan.

The NGOs have a certain interest in emphasizing that it’s a bad place — I receive a f***ton of mail from CARE and Save the Children every month telling me the worst of it. But I spent 13 months there, about 10 of them in Kabul, and I’ve met a lot of those kids, been the park where Skatistan is set up, watched them play soccer in the dirt on the outskirts of the city on my way up to Parwan or down to Wardak. I think Sedwill is not totally out of line when he says it’s better than the drug infested inner cities of America and the UK. I currently live in DC, so I have some basis for comparison. Certainly my anecdotal evidence is not sufficient, but if we were to look at the total number of deaths for persons under 18 in Afghanistan and compare them to the number directly attributable to violence, Sedwill may not seem quite so clueless. (Now, if we were to look at disease attributable to availability of clean water…we might be shocked. Where’s our War on Dirty Water?)

Second, regarding Alex Strick van Linschoten’s (whom I can only count as a brief acquaintance, having met him one night at the Gandamack while he was on “holiday” in Kabul) piece, my reaction to his (and yours) constant refrain of incredulity over all things ISAF is starting to become a little tiresome. I’m not asking you to toe the party line — your strength lies in your critical eye — but good lord, could you even identify progress or mission success if you came across it? Do you believe that they’re simply making these things up? Shall I send you their post-op reporting process on SIPR? I find it hard to believe that in your time there, or even more recently, you haven’t seen their targeting info, so you know it’s not just “let’s go find some poor brown people in the middle of the night and shoot them”.

Over at his article, the themes he identifies Petraeus et al as espousing are not necessarily incorrect. I’d comment over there but there is no such facility, so let’s take them here, then:

Joshua Foust November 24, 2010 at 5:40 am

Hey Brian. Let’s do this.

How are you defining “not really a threat” here? Two years ago, the Post was running stories that crime in Kabul was so bad, it was driving more and more nostalgia for the Taliban, because at least they kept the streets clear. Are you arguing things have improved since 2008, that violent crime in Kabul has, in fact, lessened? If so, can you get over your disdain for Alex’s demand for data to support cries of progress and provide them?

I’m fascinated by your first paragraph. The primary complaint those biased NGOs had with Sedwill’s comment—because, clearly, a high-ranking ISAF official would never have an incentive to spin the truth here—is that it missed the point. Sure, there aren’t a whole lot of massive IEDs in Kabul anymore… but there never were. There never were massive IEDs in Washington, DC, New York, London since the 1970s, or Glasgow, either. On its face, his comparison makes no sense.

Here’s one thing to consider: diplomats posted to Glasgow, London, New York, and most major capitals take their families with them. Kabul is so unsafe, diplomats have not brought their families for years—precisely because it is such a bad environment in which to raise children or have a spouse. That Sedwill is unwilling to bring his own family to Kabul, while bragging it is a better place for children than London, is… well, that’s worth reacting against.

Anyway, look at how you caveated your defense:

Certainly malnutrition, infant mortality, poor sanitation, the complete lack of a public health system, only the most basic of education (and irregular and spottily available at that), the horrific practice of bachibazi, and an economic situation that forces children to go to work before the age of 10 is not ideal.

“Not ideal” really isn’t how I’d describe that.

As for the second part of your critique: I have discusses successes before. Often, in fact. You should know, considering how long you’ve read my work here, that I would rather see successes. But I cannot point to them. And when I see a steadily deteriorating security environment, with the Taliban literally occupying more territory by the day, violence off the charts, and even basic human indicators—the war on dirty water you support—getting worse… well, I’m sure you can forgive me for reacting against ISAF’s leadership insisting that everything is going to plan and we’re winning?

The last bit about themes: I’m sure Alex can defend himself. But he wasn’t complaining about the themes per se—that is, he wasn’t saying those are invalid ways to measure progress—but rather that those themes do not appear to support the line that progress is taking place. Unlike the two of us, Alex exists entirely outside the military bubble. He has never embedded with troops. His knowledge of Afghanistan comes entirely from living among them and studying them in person and not through the IIRs and HUMINT daily roundups. If you’re going to suggest he’s incapable of seeing progress there, I think it would be good to have a very specific reason why you’re doing that.

anan November 29, 2010 at 1:27 am

Josh, do you have actual stats on Kabul ordinary crime over time?

Several Afghan Americans anecdotally say that Kabul is relatively safe. In fact they say it is is safe enough for me, a nonAfghan to visit, and have invited me to do so. Granted, Afghan Americans have a biased view that comes from “relative” vacations. Their relatives take care of them.

Have you seen the weblogs from a Canadian who recently visited Kabul:
He felt pretty safe, but he didn’t visit some of the less safe neighborhoods and he might not have been as safe as he thought.

Let’s remember that Kabul use to have 1 million people back in 2001 versus 5 million or more today. Like any city that has exploded there will be large pockets of crime and Kabul is no exception. Despite this, Kabul is home to many foreign workers, most not western. Many of them come from countries such as India, Iran, and Pakistan.

Is Kabul really that bad? The Kabul AUP manage security on their own, with a few Turk and NTM-A [yes, actual NTM-A advisors are in Kabul, unlike outside Kabul] advisors. The 111 ANA Division is operational overwatch only.

“I see no reason to pay very close attention to this war any more. It is lost. And our leaders refuse to consider why.”

I have no idea where this is coming from. Even if the Taliban do better than expected, the GIRoA and ANSF will likely continue to rule a majority of the country including Kabul, as a long term Afghan civil war continues over more than a decade.

12 months from now the ANA will likely have about 100 combat battalions, not including 9 commando combat bns and 4 forming special forces combat bns.

Do you really see funding for the ANSF being cut before the 2016 US presidential elections? Do you really think Russia, India and Turkey would lightly accept an outright Taliban victory?

Helmand and Kandahar are not the only places where the Taliban lack positive momentum. Herat, Farah, Baghdis, Paktika, Parwan, Kabul, Kunduz, Khost, Uruzgan, Nimruz, are some of the provinces where the Taliban has not been able to improve its position over the last 12 months. [Sure the list of provinces where this is true over the last 24 months is smaller.]
This doesn’t mean that GIRoA/ANSF/ISAF are winning in these provinces, merely that the Taliban haven’t made progress over the last 12 months.

The Taliban isn’t 12 feet tall. And the possible outcomes are not binary. Likely the war will continue in some mixed fashion for a long time to come.

Joshua Foust November 29, 2010 at 5:54 am

Anan, this is all second hand. My NGO friends in Kabul say that, outside of the rich mansion neighborhoods, the city is incredibly crime-ridden: constant check points, thefts, and so on. Some from ANP, some from locals, some from gangs.

As for your point about which provinces do not see Taliban “advance”—by what metric? How are you measuring that? A friend in Khost told me this year it was the most unsafe that province has ever been. Same with Paktya. IEDs are up in Parwan and Badghis and the freaking governor of Kunduz was murdered like two months ago. I have a hard time swallowing that these places are either improving or even just stagnating without some data to contradict the overwhelming stories that say they’re getting worse.

anan November 29, 2010 at 12:39 pm

Has crime in Kabul increased in recent months? I don’t know the answer to this question.

In 2009 post handover to ANSF, violence actually fell slightly in Kabul. These are per capita numbers. So for example if Kabul’s population increases by 20% and crime increases by 19% per capita crime decreases by 1%. Kabul’s population has been growing very rapidly with the economic boom in Kabul.

To your second paragraph, it is possible for violence in an area to increase even as a specific or several militias in the area are weakened. To weaken the Taliban is not the same as the GIRoA winning and visa versa.

Khost saw a deterioration in 2008, 2009 and early 2010 because of the diversion of IA from the province– including to Helmand in early 2010; as well as because the Taksheel for Khost provincial AUP being understrenght. However in recent months there has been a large surge in kinetic activity by the Rakkasans and 203rd ANA that has weakened Siraj somewhat. Not sure if Siraj has been weakened in Paktia in recent months. It became official two days ago that 4th Bde, 203rd Corps has formed at long last. [should have formed in early 2008 but kept getting delayed to augment ANA elsewhere in the country.] This is good for Loya Paktia.

You might be right that Badghis continues to deteriorate. Parwan remains largely open for development. No ANA is currently assigned to the province and the AUP is close to completely in the lead. There is continued economic progress in the province. The ISAF brigade commander for Parwan, Panjir and Bamiyan had a briefing about a week ago and insisted that all three provinces are ready for transition [he also didn’t seem to think ANA were needed for the three provinces, which is good since none are there now, and the ANA are needed elsewhere.].

In Kunduz, after deterioration peaking earlier this year, there has been a surge in ANA, AUP, the equivalent of local forces, and ISAF activity in recent months. Quite a few ISAF are now assigned as partnered embedded to the AUP with no other battlespace responsibilities. They seem to making some headway against the enemy.

By the end of this year 209th ANA Corps will have 11 combat infantry battalions [they have at least 10 in the fight now.] An entire US National Guard Brigade has been assigned the task of mentoring northern ANP [literally that is almost their only mission aside from some units that have been split off to assist other commands.] All of this combat power has to have an affect.

When locals perceive that the Taliban are afraid to engage the ANA–which is the case in most of the North outside of Baghlan, locals see that as Taliban weakness. [To repeat, Taliban weakness isn’t the same as increased security or perceived GIRoA strength.] My view is that in most of the North the primary threats are organized crime [some from inside the GIRoA] rather than from ideological Taliban factions.

It is possible for the major Taliban factions and GIRoA and ISAF to all lose at the same time. This appears to be happening in large parts of Afghanistan. However, this problem can be solved if the ANSF grow large and capable enough.

Brian Merrell November 24, 2010 at 1:22 am

[Truth Number One: “It’s Working!”]: Well, we don’t know if it’s working. By some metrics it is — as Alex notes, some of the ones defined by the military (although clearly not all). However, apparently this is immediately suspect as it is implied that the military could not possibly come up with useful metrics. So, what metrics would work for you? Violent incidents, a la something to be found in CIDNE or the SAG metrics? Third party only metrics, from perhaps the AAN, if they have them? Alex says that “and assassinations and IEDs continue unabated”; IEDs will continue because of the sheer amount of material in the country and the ease of creating them. The asynchronous nature of this tactic allows a small number of people to emplace a large number of IEDs. Assassinations, on the other hand, are both an intimidation tactic against the local population and a method to undermine the central government. Perhaps these are a better metric. So where are the numbers? Or are we relying on Alex’s anecdotes over the military’s?

[Truth Number Two: “The Night Raids and Targeting of the Insurgency’s Leadership is an Effective Tool.”]: Clearly night raids are unpopular and frightening. They’re supposed to be — and it’s a tactic the Taliban use with night letters and the aforementioned assassinations. It also attempts to go after the people who are directing the violence. I suspect if NATO were doing absolutely nothing, there would be a hue and cry for them to do something — perhaps use SOF? — and if NATO were going after the rank and file, there would be the criticism that it was waging a wider war without achieving any real effects against the leadership. So, I’m not sure what is expected here. Inasmuch as an accurate order of battle can be constructed of the Taliban, NATO is going to target those who correspond to officers before they attack some random guy with a Kalashnakov in a field. Officers are not Mullah Omar. They are, nonetheless, still “leadership”. The NATO PR machine’s use of certain terminology is certainly reminiscent of the U.S. tendency in Vietnam to claim to have a kill based on scant evidence, or assume that the target was an officer (insert scene from Full Metal Jacket). However, to assume that the same is happening here is projecting a bias and suspicion, not actually getting at the truth of the matter.

[Truth Number Three: “The Military Effort is Subservient to Broader Political Goals.” ]: Uh, this *is* true. Not only has it been the stated position virtually all along, it’s true every time ISAF supports an election, or a jirga. This is, of course, also true in the context that a four star general is as much a political assignment as it is a command post. (Welcome to reality.) Much of my time was spent at ISAF HQ. I spoke to McKiernan and (to a more limited extent) McChrystal. They both engaged the political process and were not merely, or even primarily, focused on military engagement. Under McChrystal there was even a separate Operations HQ (IJC). Furthermore, Alex’s particular example of the Haqqanis is interesting in that this is the most active terrorist group (as opposed to the QST) and has received a great deal of external funding. Blacklisting them is…a good thing, in my opinion. Doing so does not somehow preclude them from negotiating with the Afghan government.

[Truth Number Four: “Mullah Mohammad Omar is irrelevant.”]: While it is outright false to say that he’s irrelevant to the Taliban — duh — he won’t be part of the reconciliation process. In fact, Omar himself has said so. The State Department remark is essentially true. Admitting this publicly might hurt some Taliban leadership’s feelings and make their hairs stand up, but look, that’s the truth. From the other side, Karzai has attempted to reach out to Omar — so, has not intentionally excluded him — only to be rebuffed.

[Truth Number Five: “Don’t mind the Afghan Government.”]: What? Point me to where /anyone/ in the NATO/U.S. chain has said this. They may have disagreements, but ISAF and OEF are officially (according to the agreement) to take all necessary steps to support GIRoA, secure the Afghan people, blah blah [insert annoying lengthy ISAF and USFOR-A missions here]. Furthermore, ANA is *actually performing a lot of these night raids*. They’re in the ANA chain and they’re quite active in the planning process.

Does ISAF spin on behalf of Petraeus? Certainly. Is some of this supposed to essentially psyop home country electorates and polities? Yes. Is it a barrel of lies? No. Is it better than sitting on our thumbs — like we did throughout so much of the first few years — well, I think so.

I don’t want to come off as an apologist — there have been strings of fuckups throughout the nine year mission. But there’s this deafening roar from the peanut gallery that Petraeus and crew are somehow completely incompetent and nothing they can do is right. C’mon — really?

Steve Magribi November 24, 2010 at 8:22 am

Sedwill’s lack of understanding is beyond phenomenal. It does not take much more than a walk in the early evening of a darkening Kabul dressed as an Afghan to see Kabul as it really is.

Kabul is a city of refugees, of small heatless shelters with a single bulb lighting a whole family if the breadwinner has a job. A few blocks from the Serena is one neighborhood where the street children live together burning garbage and sleeping in tattered blankets. Kabul is a city out of Dickens. Street violence, robbery and criminal/Taliban control of the hillside neighborhoods exists under the very nose and sights of the constant roar of helicopters flying toward the insurgency.

Sedwill in his imperial splendour has not a clue of the suffering and sensibilities of the poorer residents that make up the majority of this city. Kabul in many ways is the cruelest and hardest of all Afghan cities unseen by foreign armed forces and NGOs cruising past on a mission of fine dining and HBO viewing for the evening.

The statement he made is beyond phenomenal it shows once again how out of touch he is, and thus represents the new Raj that the Afghans suffer in Kabul more than any other city in the country.

TS Alfabet November 28, 2010 at 11:03 am

I count myself as a pessimist at this point on the A-stan campaign, but, having said that, I hope that I can venture at least a little criticism of the linked article by Linschoten.

It seems to me that his most powerful point is his first point– that the Petraeus narrative of progress occurring is false. Afterall, ultimately, the most important issue is whether the current strategy has any hope of winning. All other considerations pale. So, I would think that Linschoten would focus his argument most effectively on this point. But he doesn’t. In fact, his argument is an embarrassing string of conclusory statements. For example, as proof that no progress is being made he states that, “…signs on the ground don’t seem to confirm this. Marjah — the great test-case for the US military engagement — is by all accounts plagued with insecurity issues.” Um. Wow. “Plagued by insecurity [sic] issues.” That’s, uh… devastating stuff. And possibly not even true. According to Tim Lynch over at Free Range International, from first-hand observations with the Marines in Helmand, there does seem to be the same kind of progress being made that occurred in Ramadi and Fallujah in 2006 and 2007 when the insurgency was being squeezed out by coordinated efforts of Marines and neighborhood watch groups.

What else does Linschoten point to in order to debunk the all-important claims of progress by Petraeus?

Let’s see. He states that, “US troops are pushing into Kandahar’s western districts in an attempt to dislodge the Taliban there. In parallel, they have set up a series of bases circling Kandahar City, and assassinations and IEDs continue unabated.” The first sentence is hardly a criticism. Isn’t this, rather, a necessary move to “dislodge the Taliban” ? And setting up a “series of bases circling Kandahar City” sounds suspiciously like a coordinated plan “In parallel” to the push into the “western districts…” The worst that Linschoten can say is that the insurgent attacks “continue unabated.” The most negative inference would be that the tactics are a failure, but this could also mean that the push into western districts and encircling bases have not YET disrupted insurgent activities. How long have these tactics been in effect? Are all the troops in place? Are the troops operating at effective strength yet? What is the status of the efforts? We don’t know this critical information because Linschoten doesn’t tell us.

Worst of all, though, is this howler from Linschoten– “It’s true, many fighters have left Panjwayi and Zheray and are taking some down time in Quetta, but they’ll be back in spring, and IEDs and assassinations will continue in the meantime.” I am sorry Joshua, but this is the lamest form of argument– “yes, fighters have left, but don’t worry, they’ll be back in the Spring!!”

Linschoten ends his scathing critique with a conclusory bit about the surge failing to “shift public opinion in favour of either the American presence or the Afghan government” and the “deep seated suspicion of the foreign involvement, rooted in a failure to understand western interests or goals in southern Afghanistan. Unless this is addressed head-on, everything else being done is meaningless.”

Again, this type of piece by Linschoten is not worth reading. It doesn’t bring any, real information– no facts backed up with citations of authority or statistics or observed ground truth– to evaluating whether Petraeus is spinning or not. Is it just laziness on his part? Or does he assume that his uttered opinion is gospel truth?

I am curious, Joshua, to know why you thought this was an “excellent article” for your readers. And I certainly hope that your resignation about A-stan is not being fueled by stuff like this. There is plenty of other, good reporting and blogging going on to fuel pessimism, but Linschoten’s piece is not worth including.

It seems to me that our most important evaluation must be whether we are, in fact, making progress in A-stan. I have my doubts, but we must remember that there were alot of folks back in 2007 that accused Petraeus of lying about the progress being made in Iraq as a result of the surge of forces there. Petraeus was proven right then and we should be very careful to malign him a second time. His personal history does not lend itself to that of a spin doctor.

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