An Appalling Act of Dishonesty

by Joshua Foust on 12/16/2010 · 33 comments

Just in time for President Obama’s Strategic Review of the Afghan War, Max Boot and Pete Mansoor have an op-ed detailing their latest Petraeus-funded adventure tour through Kandahar:

The Obama administration’s Afghanistan assessment, due out Thursday, reportedly indicates uneven but real progress. Fed a steady diet of gloom and doom, including Wednesday’s headlines about negative intelligence assessments, many Americans will be surprised at this finding.

Oh noes, an implicit dig at the librul lamestream medias! This probably needs a proper, detailed review (a “fousting?”). Read on, dear intrepid readers.


Even with the recent increase in U.S. troops, bringing the NATO force to 140,000, there are not enough forces to conduct a comprehensive campaign across the entire country. Heavy-lift helicopters to ferry soldiers into the high mountains are in especially short supply. Therefore Army Gen. David H. Petraeus has focused efforts on two southern provinces, Helmand and Kandahar, where the Taliban has been strongest.

Yes. But before we go talking about how the bizarre obsession on Helmand and Kandahar is evidence of anything interesting, let’s not forget that we withdrew from Nuristan and vast areas of Kunar to make it happen (both areas are now Taliban strongholds). And while we’ve been obsessing over areas that don’t want us in the south, areas of friendly Afghans in the north that DO want us have been languishing on the edge of total chaos because of our misplaced priorities (several of which are now… Taliban strongholds). The best that can be said about this paragraph is it is an incomplete picture of what’s happened in Afghanistan over the last 12 months.

During a recent 10-day visit at his invitation, we found a classic, and successful, counterinsurgency campaign being conducted in the south. We drove around Kandahar city and saw markets flourishing. Children who once threw stones at American vehicles now wave at our soldiers. As we went north into the Arghandab River Valley — a Taliban stronghold until a few months ago — we found numerous American and Afghan outposts and soldiers patrolling on foot between them.

Just so we’re clear, I want to congratulate Max Boot for disclosing that his many adventure tours of Afghanistan are funded by the war’s top commander. They have a very close relationship, in case you were wondering. It’s worth keeping in mind. And when you’re not staring at locals through the thick blue ballistic plastic windows of an MRAP, and actually out talking to Afghans in the Arghandab, you see a great deal more skepticism about what these recent gains in security really mean.

The Arghandab was not safe enough, for example, for Boot and Mansoor to walk around, unescorted by a 4-star general’s security detachment and covered in body armor. It’s worth keeping that context in mind as you read this boundless optimism.

We spoke with one company commander who had just returned from a nighttime air assault to secure a village. But Arghandab is growing more secure, and officers are spending more time on governance. Everywhere we went, the message was the same: The Taliban was surprised by the capabilities and ferocity of U.S. forces, and it has largely retreated to regroup.

To be sure, fighting normally slackens in the winter; the extent of recent gains won’t be clear until the spring. But when the Taliban returns, it will find many of its old stomping grounds fortified to resist incursions.

I realize op-eds give you limited space to support your assertions, but aside from the checkable fact that fighting slackens in the winter (guess when they traveled to Kandahar!), there is not a single shred of evidence to support the assertions in that section. In fact, if you read what locals tell an unembedded reporter, you see they’re annoyed and wary because this always happens—troops move in, clear it (The Arghandab has been cleared three times, with the military’s assurance that it has enough resources to do the job right… and the locals know success is only as good as the day it’s happening), and within months things are back as they were before, or worse. There’s no evidence, not even in the op-ed arguing this is case, that this year is breaking that cycle.

Coalition operations have cleared most insurgents not only from Arghandab but also from the nearby districts of Panjwai and Zheray. Similar progress is evident in the central Helmand River Valley in districts such as Nawa, Garmsir and Marja. They are now entering the “hold and build” phase of Petraeus’ plan.

Since they’re not speaking from personal experience, I’m curious who, exactly, told them than Zari or Panjwai are cleared of insurgents… especially considering some just killed off 8 troops—six Americans and two Afghans—in precisely that area. This is also the fourth major offensive to retake these areas, and so far has followed the same script: massive success in the fall, followed by a resurgence and panic in the spring. On what basis can we believe the same pattern won’t hold true for yet another year?

This holds true for many of the claims in Boot and Mansoor’s op-ed — the assertions sound almost reassuring, but they are presented without evidence, proof, or reason to believe they’re anything other than the same point on the sine wave we’ve seen every year since 2006.

All of these efforts have been helped by the decision at NATO’s Lisbon summit last month to set the end of 2014 as the deadline for the transition of security responsibility to Afghan control. Afghan officials who only a few months ago were fretting that President Obama would pull out in 2011 are now optimistic that we’ll stick around. The new timeline has even made President Hamid Karzai more accommodating, as evidenced by his restraint over the WikiLeaks revelations.

This is illogical on its face. Which Afghan officials are now optimistic we’re sticking around when all we’ve done is push back the withdrawal date by three years? On what basis can they reasonably argue that Hamid Karzai has not lashed out over the Wikileaks cables because of the timeline? That is specious arguing as its most charitable. I’d call it dishonest. They are assertions without a shred of evidence or support.

We found that wherever a strong governor, police chief and intelligence chief are present in a district, progress is being made.

Yes, one would expect that. Now how many districts in Afghanistan have those? Four? Five? ISAF’s own reporting shows that this is frighteningly rare, and no basis on which to judge success or base a strategy. Yet that is precisely what Boot and Mansoor do here.

We will be unable to persuade Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency, which sponsors the Taliban and the Haqqani network, to break ranks with the insurgents in the near term. Instead, we should strive to make the sanctuaries less relevant by solidifying security and governance in Afghanistan. Stabilizing Afghanistan may very well prod Pakistan to cut loose its proxies as a bad bet. In this regard, too, the 2014 deadline is crucial because it shows our staying power to Islamabad.

Again, what is your evidence? If we cannot persuade Pakistan to break ranks with the insurgents now, why will 2014 do that? How does a new withdrawal date remove Pakistan’s strategic imperative to maintain proxy forces inside Afghanistan? I’d say the 2014 date makes the argument for their supporting the Haqqanis and Taliban stronger, as it is even less likely the next President will be able to fend off calls for withdrawal when our war-costs have quadrupled. This gets is precisely backwards—the 2014 date will solidify ISI’s support for the insurgency, making our problems worse.

Whatever the gains in Kandahar and Helmand, there will be no immediate lessening of the violence. Tough fighting is virtually assured next summer as the Taliban tries to claw its way back into these provinces. If it is repulsed, NATO forces will be able to extend the “oil spot” north and east.

But though overall statistics for violence are likely to remain high, we should see a drop-off in key districts containing the majority of the Afghan population. Eventually, once the Taliban is convinced it can’t win, expect to see significant defections from its ranks.

Now they’re just contradicting themselves. These two paragraphs are internally inconsistent, to say nothing of inconsistent with the argument they made further up the page and with ISAF’s own accounting of what’s happening in those 120+ “key districts.” It reads like little more than a grab-bag of clichés about the war in Afghanistan, spoken by two men who have never experienced it up close for a sustained period of time, in dogged pursuit of a desperate, myopic quest to avoid the humiliation of admitting limitations on American power.

Which kind of summarizes Max Boot’s career, at any rate. I hope it doesn’t come to summarize Mansoor’s—he is far too smart for that to happen.


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This post was written by...

– author of 1849 posts on Registan.net.

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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{ 33 comments }

AN December 16, 2010 at 3:18 pm

Some of your points have been made in an, err, graphic fashion, here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PoL2fkNLz2A

JYD December 16, 2010 at 3:29 pm

How does a new withdrawal date remove Pakistan’s strategic imperative to maintain proxy forces inside Afghanistan

I thought you were smarter than this.

Pakistan’s “strategic imperative” to maintain Afghan proxies is not a cost-free choice. Every additional day Paks choose to use their proxies is a day when side effects of these proxies could result in another 9/11 and their country’s survival is threatened.

Pakistan simply cannot keep up this level of support for the Quetta Shura or the Haqqanis for 3 more years without facing a “Come to Jesus” moment with the US.

Basically, the Paks will have to balance their jihad addiction compulsions with the prospect of losing the economy sustaining US aid and IMF loans which can disappear if the next Times Square bomber is a bit smarter or could make a proper bomb.

The fact that 2011 is now 2014 and could be even further extended should cause a rethink in Rawalpindi.

In this case, Boot and Mansoor and right and you are simply wrong.

Zach December 16, 2010 at 4:00 pm

First, Pakistan has nuclear weapons, so you can forget about them losing any IMF, U.S., World Bank or any other aid. The international community, no matter how naive, will do whatever it can to keep a nuclear state from failing.

Do you have any idea how, exactly, Pakistan “maintains” its proxies? It does so by using its intelligence assets to aid in the killing of Pashtun tribal elders. This is how the Taliban has maintained control of so much territory in NW Pakistan.

First, the Taliban started with this strategy across greater Pashtunistan. [NOTE: I'm talking about the Taliban proper -- the actual Taliban that once had a state of its own. Not "The Taliban" as the Max Boots of the world refer to them. There is a difference.] Talibs would assassinate tribal elders and maybe one or two of their sons, thus creating power vacuums in local jirgas — through which most villages solved even the most arcane of problems.

Since 2003, nearly 1,000 elders have been killed through NW Pakistan and in Swat. As of late, the killings have been massive (20-50 people at a time) — and, by accounts from the ground — coordinated by ISI/Pakistan Army assets.

When you say this: “Pakistan simply cannot keep up this level of support for the Quetta Shura or the Haqqanis for 3 more years without facing a ‘Come to Jesus’ moment with the US.” You are wrong. As of now, the come to Jesus moment is 2014 — when all heavy forces leave and SpecOps hangs around for a decade.

Hardly a come to Jesus moment.

carl December 16, 2010 at 5:20 pm

Zach: Can you point me in the direction of the “accounts from the ground” you spoke of? I am not being a smart aleck but I’ve not read of this and I would like to.

Joshua Foust December 16, 2010 at 7:17 pm

Carl,

Head over to RFE/RL’s website and search for tribal elders killed. They’ve been documenting it extensively. Or, you can read either of Zahid Hussain’s books about militancy in Pakistan. He, too, details the massive campaign against Pashtun elders, and did so for the WSJ.

Zach December 17, 2010 at 10:59 am

Carl — Follow Josh’s trails on that. We are producing a series of pieces here at RFE/RL, with our Pakistani journalists on the killing of elders.

Thus far, our Pakistan Service (Radio Mashaal), has produced 17 programs profiling individual elders who have been killed. This series is expected to be some 300-400 segments long at present. The broadcasts are in Pashto, so it is taking some time to translate and get them into working English.

When they are done, the will be found on the Gandhara blog on the RFE/RL website. I hope to have the first 2 up early next week.

Madhu December 16, 2010 at 9:16 pm

Joshua Foust: Thank you for using “strategic imperative” instead of “strategic depth” or “hedging its bets” in your description of Pakistani regional policy.

No one is hedging any bets. Two different strategic visions for the region are clashing with each other. Well, in my decidedly unlearned opinion, so please yell at me in the comments if I’ve got that wrong :)

A commenter at Small Wars Journal, David Billington, wrote the following:

One is the actual significance of Pakistan. Since the Taliban draw their replacements mostly from Afghanistan, the advantage to the Taliban of having Pakistan as a sanctuary is mainly tactical. The adjacent country problem is not strategic because neither Pakistan’s own armed forces have been committed to the war nor can other recruits to the Taliban and al-Qaida from outside Afghanistan substitute in numbers for those coming from inside it. I think Mansoor and Boot are right in arguing that the real war is in Afghanistan itself, as it was in Iraq.

I thought that was an interesting point. This seems to be a major point of contention in this discussion.

If a populace hostile to the Taliban can be so manipulated in NW Pakistan, then how will the Afghan Army protect the Afghans?

I ask because I honestly don’t know the answer.

Also, why have we made such bad bets in regard to Pakistan? Is it naivety of policy and decision makers, is it worry about a nuclear confrontation (but Pakistan continuing its ways is inherently destabilizing so what are we preventing with our aid?), is it the Cold War relationships between DC and Islamabad and associated intellectual inertia?

(The SWJ link:

http://smallwarsjournal.com/blog/2010/12/saved-round/#comment-15884

carl December 16, 2010 at 11:46 pm

Madhu: I would disagree totally with Mr. Billington about sanctuary. It is critical, absolutely vital in this kind of conflict. If the opponent has sanctuary, you can’t finish the fight. He crosses the line and you can’t get at him. That is important.

carl December 16, 2010 at 5:17 pm

The important point is not whether the Pak Army/ISI can actually keep it up for the next 3 years. The important point is whether they THINK they can. They seem pretty cocky to me.

Sam December 16, 2010 at 4:00 pm

Pakistan simply cannot keep up this level of support for the Quetta Shura or the Haqqanis for 3 more years without facing a “Come to Jesus” moment with the US.

Ah, the irony. Drop in the bogey of “N” word and we all know where it’s going to come to.

“Sweet Jesus, the Pakis are in a state of anarchy, their N bombs could fall in the hands of ___ (enter the name of your favorite terror organization)”

“Good god, no! Don’t let that happen. We gotta protect our “Major-non-NATO-ally. Gimme a freaking solution!”

“Money money money money..”

Exhibit A: Ground Zero.

US Taxpayers, in a way, are “sponsoring” the attacks on NATO forces by ISI-led Jihadis. Sabotaging any progress and relative peace and clam in Afghanistan. Although The fact that 2011 is now 2014 and could be even further extended should cause a rethink in Rawalpindi is what I like to call: Wishful Thinking. You see, policies aren’t based on “dreams and fancies”.

Good piece though.

JYD December 16, 2010 at 4:16 pm

Nuclear weapons? The same ones that emboldened Pakistan to say NO when Richard Armitage made certain demands to Pervez Musharraf?

The only reason the same threat hasn’t been made since Sep 2001 is that by providence or otherwise, we’ve avoided another 9/11 and the US establishment has decided that maintaining leverage with Pakistan overrides the negatives from the double game.

BTW, if Obama listens to the cut and run gang, the next 9/11 simply moves ahead in time.

Brett December 16, 2010 at 6:40 pm

BTW, if Obama listens to the cut and run gang, the next 9/11 simply moves ahead in time.

Don’t be ridiculous. The first 9/11, for example, didn’t happen because the US lacked a ground presence near the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan, but because of intelligence and coordination failures at home. Most terrorist attacks are stopped by police, FBI, and NSA phone work at home.

JYD December 17, 2010 at 1:12 am

I see. I guess the FBI, NSA etc. were spectacularly successful in the Times Square case.

Playing defense has to work 100% of the time and the law of averages usually doesn’t work that way.

If we cut and run, Al Qaeda will not just move in to its former Afghan havens – it will EXPAND.

And it won’t be to watch M*A*S*H reruns on TV…

Brett December 17, 2010 at 12:54 pm

Playing defense has to work 100% of the time and the law of averages usually doesn’t work that way.

Why, because playing offense works 100% of the time? Don’t be idiotic. I could just as easily point out that the Times Square bombing happened in spite of all the US’s offensive efforts in Afghanistan and Yemen.

JYD December 17, 2010 at 6:15 pm

A less than 100% success rate will set better with the public if their government DOES something, as opposed to sitting at home and playing whack-a-mole with drones.

No US President can explain away being attacked from the same region after he cuts and runs.

This is precisely why Obama will not withdraw until the job is done.

Madhu December 16, 2010 at 9:35 pm

Why is this so, do you think? Our “leverage” has brought us nothing but trouble?

TJM December 16, 2010 at 4:23 pm

I don’t think this is dishonesty. There is a world of difference to being dishonest and being out of touch.

Joshua Foust December 16, 2010 at 7:21 pm

That might be fair, but the argument itself is incredibly dishonest: first, there is a temporary reduction in violence, and we’ll know when violence is low in the spring, but fighting will be heavy anyway, and no matter how you slice it, it’s evidence that we’re winning. Plus, he deliberately ignores bad news, spins good news without source or basis, and tacitly accuses everyone who has doubts as wishing for failure.

That, to me, is appallingly dishonest.

JYD December 16, 2010 at 6:37 pm

Virtually everyone seems to underestimate US power (not just military) and overestimate that of the Taliban, Pakistan etc.

I also speak from experience and close contacts with Pakistani elites. At the World Economic Forum not too long ago I met with scions of Pakistan’s politico-military and industrial barons. Virtually everyone was of the view that without IMF loans and US and Japanese aid, Pakistan would be Somalia within months. The August floods wiped out the vestiges of industry along with crop reserves. They don’t have enough electricity, lack water for key cities and the gas supply is so spotty that they have to choose betwen heating homes and running factories in the winter.

Now, the Pak establishment uses this for a nuclear blackmail, but despite its bravado, its Generals still fancy their golf games and are loath to give up vacation homes in Florida or being able to send their offsprings to study in the US or UK.

So far, they have been successfully playing a game of chicken with the US. But they know and we know that they wil have to cave in, like they did on Sep 13, 2001, if they get an offer they cannot refuse.

None of this is pleasant or comes without costs, but I for one refuse to believe that any US President, even one as far left as Obama is, will choose to expose the homeland to an ineluctable enemy threat instead of confronting a duplicitous “ally” whose very survival depends on US taxpayer largesse.

Brett December 16, 2010 at 6:42 pm

So far, they have been successfully playing a game of chicken with the US. But they know and we know that they wil have to cave in, like they did on Sep 13, 2001, if they get an offer they cannot refuse.

Funny that they didn’t cave in after the actual 9/11 attacks and help to shut down the Haqqani network. What makes you think another one will make them do so?

JYD December 16, 2010 at 7:38 pm

Brett,

You haven’t done your research. After 9/11, there were 7 US demands. They did not include the Haqqani network or the Quetta Shura Taliban.

Madhu December 16, 2010 at 9:27 pm

I’m glad you chimed in with this. We didn’t ask for certain things, as you mentioned, and then we dumped a lot of money into the country to revive our old Cold War “client” relationship of using the military to perform certain “tasks” for us.

Why did we think this would work?

(By the way, the Cold War was a brutal thing. I’m not saying we didn’t make difficult, yet ultimately correct, choices back then, but that we live in a different time now and our postures in the region don’t make sense. I’m not an America hater, just to let people know because its the internets and hard to tell motivations. I just think we made some poor calls during a really rough time.)

Madhu December 16, 2010 at 9:28 pm

Okay, I just contradicted myself in the last paragraph. Let it go, you all know what I mean….

Dishonesty? December 16, 2010 at 6:50 pm

Gen.Campbell-Commander RC-E,Dec 15 2010

There will be changes in the command’s footprint in the region, Campbell said. As the strategy has evolved to a more population-centered mission, combat outposts and forward operating bases will change.

“I’ve recommended some that we need to come out of,” the general said. “There are some that we come out of and the [Afghan security forces] come out of. There are some we come out of and the [Afghan forces] stay in. There may be one or two that we may want to build up.”

Most likely to be affected by these changes, Campbell said, are portions of Kunar province that have small populations and are isolated. The general said he envisions moving soldiers in those areas to places where they will be of more use, especially along Highway 1 and Highway 7.

http://www.defense.gov//News/NewsArticle.aspx?ID=62107

Capt. Monkey December 17, 2010 at 12:00 am

What utility is there to beefing up numbers of soldiers along HWY 7? While there is strategic significance to the route, the greatest threat does not generally target CF or CF logistics. Sure, I would think that a check point in Bati Kot might be a good thing. Not at the expense of the Pech valley, though.

We really kind of suck at fighting this war. 10 wars in 10 years, each repeating the mistakes of the last. Clear-tout success-turn over-admit defeat-clear-tout success-turn over-admit defeat-ad naseum.

Dishonesty? December 17, 2010 at 9:05 am

Bati Kot,Naray,Asmar…500-1000 soldiers?Too late,too little.

LAC December 16, 2010 at 7:03 pm

Mr. Foust,
As an occasional reader of your exceptional blog (and others like best defense, abu muqwama, etc.) I can’t help but notice your penchant for getting into online spats as compared to your peers. I agree Mr. Boot can be a bit myopic at times, but dishonest is a stretch. The relative ease of initiating a virtual brewhaha doesn’t mean it’s always the right course of action. I find your Central Asian insights far more enlightening than your corse engagements with the blogoshere and thinktank crowd. Thanks as always for helping to make sense of a complex region.
Best,
LAC

Abdullah December 17, 2010 at 8:09 am

@Carl
“If the opponent has sanctuary, you can’t finish the fight. ”
That’s why this little skirmish was over two years ago, move on to current theatre, you are even on the wrong continent.

carl December 17, 2010 at 4:45 pm

Abdullah: Sorry sir, you lost me. what do you mean?

Abdullah December 18, 2010 at 11:26 am

Well, Sir, carl,
As I have posted here before on another topic many months ago, and I think the discussion had something to do with momentum, momentum is still being discussed from the perspective of how we see the enemy reacting, preparing, moving, etc…etc…, and that being ONLY as related to activity in that particular theatre (Afgh. in this case) Seems a better point of reference for shift in momentum might be from the sending/engagement/sponsorship end of the game. When it becomes known that NO new fighters are invited, and in fact are being turned away or referenced elsewhere unless they meet certain criteria(mostly tech skills) Well, that could just be a good sign that the enemy at least thinks it has momentum in it’s favor. We turned that corner 2 years ago sir, and the shift has gone from a trickle down to zero new combatants welcome. Wonder where the next engagement will be, No, not Pak. wrong continent. That’s all I’m saying Sir. Thanks for listening.

Abdullah December 17, 2010 at 8:13 am

You should move on too, Sir Foust, (oh I forget, you don’t know anything else) to the current battle at hand. You remind me of those want-to-be soldiers in the usa that continue to fight the civil war through re-enactments, you can play all you want, but it will not change the outcome.

Don Anderson December 17, 2010 at 9:21 am

It is amazing how the very inkling of failure and dishonesty can make the diehards close their ranks.

No one who has been cheerleading ten years of failure wants to admit that this has been one long running disaster movie of mistake after mistake.

Boot’s mission when not actually giving warming massages to Petraeus himself is to defend the strategic failure of the Helmand and Kandahar excursions. Petraeus has him come to Kandahar and eat at the best restaurants in Kabul with the express purpose of having Max Boot come home and write homilies of praise to a war that is in fact now recognized in the White House as a failure.

It is dishonest. It is wrong and it defines Boot as lacking morals and scruples. If it is not pushing a neo conservative invasion or defense of Israel, Boot does not do it.

When and if you bother to read Max Boot you know exactly what you are getting in advance. Joshua Foust knows this too. Boot is to be ignored by any one who wants real information and not slanted diatribe from a weak mind.

Afghanistan is worse this year than next and we are pulling out because we cannot fix the problems. Fact.

Petreaus has essentially lost an additional 30% of the country to the Taliban by focusing on one area to the vast exclusion of most of the country. The military situation is dramatically worse. Petraeus has failed in his basic mission to improve security in Afghanistan.

Hoping that Pakistan has any interest to listen to the “master” when we in fact no longer have the economic might to waste in a peripheral struggle is a waste of time. Talking to “big wigs at a conference” is meaningless. What matters is the notice that the insurgency in Pakistan has expanded dramatically in the past year and Pakistan has a failed leadership and a restless ready to resist population.

So this end of year bragging by those with a very weak position indicates that by this time next year, Petraeus in the desire to save his rapidly diminishing star would be better off having retired and thus his short stint of failure in Afghanistan forgotten forever. Hopefully he has the sense to leave Max Boot aside also.

Corsair8X December 18, 2010 at 9:14 am

I demand that all future articles of this nature be referred to as a Fousting. The term is too perfect not to use.

I heard of this “progress” from a few sources and even an archair spectator such as myself muttered “well duh, it’s winter”.

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