The Institute for the Study of War—still blindly advocating more war—has a report out devoted to “Defining success in Afghanistan.” My heart sank when I saw this 40-page report only has seven footnotes, all of which link back to the Kagans’ own work. But still: there could be actual content in here. Alas, the first sentence is a doozy:
Success in Afghanistan is the establishment of a political order, security situation, and indigenous security force that is stable, viable, enduring, and able—with greatly reduced international support—to prevent Afghanistan from being a safe-haven for international terrorists.
If you know what that means, or how we will know when we’ve achieved it, then you should probably be in charge. Because a description of what that end state will look like—when there is sufficient order, sufficient security, and sufficient indigenous security to be able to declare victory—is lacking from a report ostensibly about defining success. If your intention is to define success, then surely you should actually define that success, right? ISW does not do its readers this courtesy. (For example: what the hell is a “safe haven for international terrorists?”)
Unfortunately, the rest of the report never rises above this basic flaw. There is a lot of posturing about fundamental changes, reversed momentum, seasonal fighting, and, more bizarrely, an appeal to pashtunwali to explain why there is a viable central government in the country. Like most militant ignorance, it is tedious and exhausting to read through, but I’ll address just a few major points and leave it to the comments section to tell me any good arguments I missed in the avalanche.
The use of the term “momentum.” How is this defined? The term “momentum” is used several times throughout the report, to describe what the Coalition has the insurgents do not have, but nowhere is there a definition of what it means. Do they mean physical momentum? Social? Political? I have no idea. It is a kinetic word being used, I think, in a metaphorical sense. But without explaining what they mean when they use it, the Kagans render the term meaningless.
The rejection of evidence. In its very format—almost no footnotes, all of which go to previous work by the authors—the report seems to reject the idea of an evidence-based argument. Furthermore, it rejects on-the-ground reporting by journalists as well as the entire intelligence community to argue that there is no insurgency expansion in the east or the north. In many ways, this ISW report is better defined by a rejection of evidence, rather than an embrace of it. The UN violence mapping of the country show many areas have deteriorated, even as smaller regions have improved slightly. But a broad look at insurgent violence shows everywhere in the country is worse off than it was in 2007—including the north and east, which the Kagans’ argue have improved.
Even the DOD’s own commanders are tacitly admitting that in these regions the situation is deteriorating, but in Kagan-land, that’s all misleading crap because we’re secretly, somehow, winning.
The appeal to seasonal dynamics. Repeatedly, the report appeals to a winter lull in fighting to argue that we can’t know how effective the campaign is until the summer. In a way, this is a subtle way of arguing for yet another Friedman Unit—just give us six months, promise, and everything will be better!—but it is also dishonest. It is like saying you can never know the success of a Christmas shopping season until the summer, when shopping patterns change. That’s obviously false reasoning—we compare Christmas shopping seasons to past Christmas shopping seasons. So what happens when we do that with seasonal violence in Afghanistan?
Not quite the picture of reversing momentum one would expect.
Without becoming too laborious, this should give an idea of what is so deeply, deeply flawed in this report. It is, without exaggeration, unsourced assertion in support of logical fallacies and wishful thinking, but packaged as serious analysis. The reality of this report is, it could have been drawn, almost verbatim, from ISAF press releases over the last year and a half. That’s not research. It is posturing. Propaganda. But at least if it had, then it would have been better sourced. Maybe next time they could show more of their work, and perhaps support a few of their assertions. As it stands now, “Defining Success in Afghanistan” is just an embarrassing mess.