Spectacular, Really

by Joshua Foust on 1/10/2011 · 10 comments

Let me say this up front: I personally like Andrew Exum. He has been personally a great encouragement to me, he has challenged me appropriately when I’ve made sloppy arguments, and he has advised me—properly, and in good faith—to reign in some of my frustration-born rhetorical excesses. And not just when I’ve directed them his way, but in general. Exum is a good fella, and I mean that sincerely.

I feel the need to start this post by saying that because being a good fella does not automatically make one’s arguments sound. And in reflecting on his participation this morning on a panel featuring Fred and Kim Kagan discussing their newest paper on Afghanistan, I think Exum made some arguments that are especially poor. Briefly:

For many folks — whether it be Richard Haass, Michael Cohen, Bing West or Peter Galbraith — there is this need to talk first about how stupid the war is and how we need to “draw down” before then … recommending a long-term security partnership with Afghanistan as well as a robust residual force to both target al-Qaeda and associated movments and to continue to train local security forces. (A lot of this strikes me as posturing, though I do not want to insult either West or Cohen. I am reading the former’s book at the moment, and the latter is someone with whom I have had more substantive disagreements.) Others, though, have instead just focused on how to get from Point A to Point Z with no need to ramble on about how much they don’t like the war.

Accusing everyone you disagree with of posturing is… well. Let’s just say Exum has counseled me before to stop doing that. Even when it might be true. In this case, accusing Bing West of posturing is a bit silly—the man clearly believes in what he does—even though I share Exum’s disagreement with West’s analysis at times. Same with Cohen: he and I do not agree 100% on everything, but he does his homework, and does not argue dishonestly the way some pundits pretty obviously do. Accusing him of posturing like this, whatever your intention, is actually pretty damned insulting. (Update: Exum modified his post to exempt Bing West and Michael Cohen from the posturing charge. But that doesn’t change the substance of my complaint here, as it leaves “many folks” who oppose the war and think it serves no purpose, like Richard Haass and Peter Galbriath as the posturers Exum still condemns.)

Further, there is the implicit argument that one cannot question the fundamental reason why we are fighting the war without resorting to posturing. That is not just insulting, it is an actually dishonest track of argument. Exum should know better.

Exum’s second point, about substance, is fair game. He thinks COIN is appropriate, many others do not. There’s nothing unfair in pointing that out on his part. It gets bad, though, when he addresses the Kagans’ paper.

1. I am much more heistant to champion the tactical gains of 2010. The Kagans, to their credit, acknowledge that the “true test” of the successes of 2010 will be whether or not they have a lasting, strategic effect in 2011. But I would have led with that uncertainty.

When Exum came back from his generals’ tour of Afghanistan—which he shared with the Kagans (they are friends)—Exum was not hesitant about the tactical gains of 2010. Like, at all. Example:

Bottom Line Up Front: There is cause for much encouragement about the way in which this conflict is being fought at the tactical and operational levels… 2. Counterinsurgency, as practiced at the tactical level, is the best I have ever seen it practiced… 3. The coordination between special operations forces and general purpose forces is the best I have ever seen it. This applies across the entire theater.

And so on. While acknowledging the serious strategic challenges of the war, precisely one month ago, Exum was all aflutter about our tactical successes and gains in 2010. What changed over the last few weeks? He doesn’t say. Back to his take on the Kagans:

3. I am much more cautious about the situation in northern Afghanistan. On the one hand, I have seen ISAF make the case why many within the intelligence community and think tank community are wrong to sound the alarm over northern Afghanistan so loudly. But given the degree to which intelligent observers disagree about the situation in northern Afghanistan, surely it is wise to gather more evidence before pronouncing all to be well.

There’s no way to say this politely, but… I think Exum is the only person to have seen ISAF’s “make the case” for why literally everyone else is wrong when they look at the North and see looming disaster. I, for one, have never seen their case advance beyond the “I’m a General, trust me” stage of things. More seriously, Kate Clark, an analyst with the Afghan Analyst Network, has more or less accused ISAF of lying about the performance of the ALP program to make its case that the North is doing fine. This is a serious charge from a serious scholar, with serious time doing primary research on the topic. Clark isn’t alone—there is literally not a single person outside the ISAF bubble—inside or outside the government—who looks at the North and thinks things are going really well. That should worry Exum (doubly so, considering he has appropriate doubts about the ALP), but instead it inspires him to urge analytic caution. I don’t get it.

Lastly, there’s this:

But Fred and Kim spent a lot of time in 2010 in Afghanistan, and anyone who dismisses their report out of hand is foolish. I said little at but really enjoyed today’s discussion. I’ll post a video as it becomes available.

Really, Ex? Really? C’mon. I thought you were better than this.

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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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Andrew Exum January 10, 2011 at 2:33 pm

Woah, unfair! First off, I did not accuse *everyone* of posturing, and second, you knew when you wrote this that I went back into the post and amended the bit about posturing to explicitly exempt Cohen and West — which was my intent in the first place!

Third, with respect to my writing about tactical gains, you quote selectively from my post! You never get to the serious strategic reservations I express in the latter half of the post, which, if true, invalidate the tactical gains I mention earlier!

Fourth, I did not spend my most recent time in Afghanistan with the Kagans. They were there, but there working on the NATO/ISAF staff.

Fifth, I know and admire Kate Clark, but she is just one analyst among many. While I listen to her analysis, you seem to be making the point that her analysis can always be trusted over that of ISAF. I disagree. I think this is a circumstance in which we have conflicting assessments.

This post is one massive cheap shot. I mean, I wrote a post saying that we had made tactical and operational gains but that those gains were endangered by strategic weaknesses inherent in the war — and you just quote the bit about tactical and operational gains, making it sound as if everything was going swimmingly. That was really low.

Joshua Foust January 10, 2011 at 3:43 pm

Alright, Andrew, let’s do this calmly.

1. I wrote this before you amended your post. I had even told you, privately, that I was away from my computer for a while and couldn’t update it. Accusing me of mendacity in quoting you before your editing is out of line. It also doesn’t change my point. You’ve excerpted West and Cohen from charges of hypocrisy, leaving “many others” who question the purpose of the war, like Richard Haass, as still being tarred with the charge of posturing. I don’t think I’m being unfair in calling that a cheap shot.

2. (This is wrapped up above.)

3. The post I linked to was a shade under 1500 words long. You spent the first 900 talking about the tactical brilliance ISAF has achieved, calling it stunning and other adjectives. You then wrote two paragraphs about strategic challenges, and waited until the comments section to say that the strategic challenges you listed make the tactical gains pointless. I did not quote your post unfairly. I quoted what it said, especially considering the point was about how enthusiastic we should be about tacitcal gains.

4. That’s fair about the Kagans. I knew you’d gone on other tours with them and had assumed this was true as well.

5. I accept your point that there are other analysts who think the North is not going to hell. I pointed out in this post that you appear to be the only person who knows who these other analysts are. Can you please, without clouding this any further with name-calling, point to any? Point to a single ISAF analysis that shows the North heading in a good direction? Anything? This is the point I was making: we have pinky-swears that things aren’t as bad as those grinch IC analysts and journalists say they are, but never any evidence to support the assertion. It’s 2011. Pony up.

Your comment is welcome, but I don’t think really read this post. Sorry we’re on opposite sides on this, but I think you’re way off the reservation on this one.

Andrew Exum January 10, 2011 at 4:06 pm

Regarding Point #5, I have never asserted that northern Afghanistan is going swimmingly, and neither, to my knowledge, has ISAF. But if you want evidence for why it may not be as bad as some analysts insist, here is some evidence (flawed data, which is why I do not normally cite it):

3 provinces (out of Afghanistan’s 34) account for 65% of the violent incidents in Afghanistan over the past 12 months: Kandahar, Helmand, and Kunar.

9 districts (out of 401) account for 50% of the violent incidents in Afghanistan. NONE of these districts is in the North.

Now, you and I both understand that measuring violent acts is a poor way to gauge how well a conflict is going. We also know that conflict tends to go up as a region is contested: hence the violence in Kandahar and Helmand over the past 12 months. So a rise in violence may be either a bad thing or a good thing.

But when you combine a lack of violence with natural limiting factors to Taliban influence, such as Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek communities (look at any ethno-linguistic map of Afghanistan, with the acknowledgment that the Taliban is not 100% Pashtun), you can see why ISAF might not be as worried about the North as, say, Gilles Dorronsorro. (As much respect as I may have for him.)

Anecdotal reporting suggests northern Afghanistan has gotten much, much worse, and I respect that. But I have seen competing assessments, and as I look over the data, I cannot make a clear determination as to how bad things really are. That is all I argued. You cannot any more say “the North is falling apart!” than I can argue that all is well, which I am not: I am merely acknowledging competing assessments based on limited data.

Joshua Foust January 10, 2011 at 4:21 pm

Yay, data!

But one quibble. The real comparison here is not the North with the South, and it’s not the North with the rest of the country. It’s the North over time—and it there that there is an undeniable downward slide in violence. Six provinces in RC-N have seen violence increase by more than 50%, and of the seven provinces nation-wide that have seen increases of more than 100%, four of them are in the North. It’s hard to get around the numbers here: the North has been sliding downhill for a while, and it’s getting worse and more rapid as time goes on.

And lest you’re tempted to in some way conflate this with the activity in the south, I have been complaining, at length, about the North going downhill since 2006.

If you are writing off the UN’s incident database as “anecdotal data,” that’s… fine, I guess. But give me a dataset that shows things are conflicting and uncertain in the North.

This is an honest request, and I’ll keep repeating as long as I have to: give me some reason—any evidence at all—to believe that the North has conflicting and uncertain data (or even a “competing assessment,” since I can’t find any of those, either). Anything at all. Please.

Andrew Exum January 10, 2011 at 4:35 pm

The ISAF response to all “the sky (in the North) is falling” reports would be to take a graph depicting security incidents in Afghanistan, year-by-year and month-by-month, and overlay a map depicting the percentage of those events that are taking place in the North. The question then would be, “This? This is what you’re so worried about?” Because the fraction of incidents in the north would be so small a percentage of overall incidents. So you don’t just have to compare month to month and year to year statistics but also in comparison to other regions. I mean, two murders is a 100% annual jump in violence if you only had one murder last year. But it might not yet be anything to be (too) worried about. Make sense? I am fairly certain things in the North have gotten worse. I am not at all certain, though, that they have deteriorated to such a degree that we need to shift resources and priorities.

Joshua Foust January 10, 2011 at 4:38 pm

That’s not unfair, but like I said, this is also not a new phenomenon. See this chart: it’s been happening for many years, and is still not as bad as other regions are…

but right now things in the North are worse than things in the East were in 2007, when it was the focus of so much attention and troops. Things only don’t look as bad in the North now because we’ve turned the South into such a hellhole that anywhere else in the country looks calm by comparison.

And that still doesn’t change what’s happening in the North. The point is about what is happening in the north. Simply saying “eh, it’s not as bad as the south” is immaterial to how the North is doing. It is unquestionably worst off—dramatically worse off. And this is aside from all the anecdotal stuff we’re discounting. Sheer numbers, no horror stories or Frontline specials.

Tim January 11, 2011 at 5:01 am

I hesitate to jump into the middle of such a scorched and hostile battlefield – er, the blog, that is, not northern Afghanistan. Perhaps this is a new definition of “friendly fire”? The debate is thoroughly entertaining – but also, and most importantly, it is interesting, as it throws up some challenging questions about analysis, so many thanks. I see you have both accepted the problems of throwing stats around, but you are both continuing to do so. But Joshua’s point is a good one – we shouldn’t compare north with south but north with the rest of the country (or even the north now with where it was in 04, 06, 08, etc).

We should also be looking for other evidence of the situation in the north – I found these comments from a recent Ahmed Rashid piece http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2011/jan/13/way-out-afghanistan/?pagination=false:
“Tajik and Uzbek warlords have become so rich and powerful in the north that they now barely listen to Karzai. Governors of northern provinces have created their own fiefdoms that are left alone by NATO forces based there, because removing them would create further instability.

“You may not know it from press reports, but the most powerful man in the country after Karzai is probably Atta Muhammad Noor, a Tajik general who once fought the Taliban and is now the governor of Balkh province bordering Uzbekistan. He and his fellow northern warlords are rearming their militias in preparation for what they fear will be a long war with the Taliban…

“The fear is justified because the Taliban have already arrived in the north, setting up bases, appealing to local populations, attacking NATO and Afghan forces, and infiltrating militants into Central Asia. For the first time, say US officials, there is evidence of the Taliban winning support from not just northern Pashtuns but even Tajiks and Uzbeks.”
And note that last sentence. Mood, perception, rearming, political manoeuvres, media statements, resentment, ethnic tensions, struggles for resources, control of the army and the police are probably likely to be just as important analytical measurements of a declining or improving situation than the number of security incidents caused by the Taliban…



anan January 11, 2011 at 12:35 pm

Andrew Exum, what do you disagree with Bing West regarding? Bing West thinks victory in Afghanistan is very important. His proposal for how to achieve it is to surge ANSF and Afghan capacity with embedded advising [and presumably training to a lesser degree]

I thought Bing West’s article at Newsweek was spot on:
It was as if he was channeling what I have consistently felt since 2001. Umm, Andrew, you have spoken a lot about the importance of transition and the mechanics of transition recently. Andrew, what do you disagree with Bing West regarding? Josh, could you elaborate on how you disagree with Bing West?

Joshua, you are taking Exum’s comments about tactical gains out of context. I don’t think Exum said that tactical gains are being made “everywhere” or elaborated how great these tactical gains are. In fact, Exum provided remarkably little granularity regarding these tactical gains. For example, he hasn’t responded to requests for comments on “tactical gains” by the ANSF. I think Andrew’s comments are reasonable, even though they lack specificity. I don’t understand what you are disagreeing with Joshua.

Joshua, there is a lot of info on the North that isn’t favorable to the Taliban. Hopefully can elaborate on this in an e-mail. Andrew is completely right that information from the North is all over the map.

Regarding Andrew praising the Kagans. Give him a break! The Kagans were sitting right next to him on a panel. Andrew had been invited to critique the Kagans. There is no edge to bad manners. What else could Andrew say?

Andrew, you were right to speak positively in front of the Kagans. However, you let them off “WAY TOO” light.

I was going to criticize Joshua for going all out in bashing the Kagans . . . until I read the actual Kagan bullet point summary.

The Taliban [Peshawar Shura] is winning in Nuristan, Kunar and Nangarhar. Kagan’s assertions to the contrary are wrong. You should have called him on that.

Andrew, you briefly mentioned the Gardez/Sharon/Ghazni triangle during the panel discussion in the context of things not going great. Ghazni isn’t going well. However, I would argue that the best news in Afghanistan right now is taking place in Khost. There is also good news in Paktia and Paktika although more tentative.

What makes this more remarkable than Helmand/Kandahar is that this has been achieved with limited ISAF resources [including limited foreign aid.] It is in large part ANSF/GIRoA lead success. Specifically the improvements in Governor Naeemi’s administration in Khost, improvements in the Paktika and Khost AUP, and improvements in 1-203 bde. The Rakkasans also deserve a lot of credit, but what ISAF does matters less than what Afghans and their GIRoA and ANSF do.

Helmand has also seen substantial success, but the success has been extremely and unsustainably ISAF resource intensive.

TJM January 11, 2011 at 3:25 pm

But Fred and Kim spent a lot of time in 2010 in Afghanistan, and anyone who dismisses their report out of hand is foolish. I said little at but really enjoyed today’s discussion. I’ll post a video as it becomes available

I don’t know of anyone dismissing it out of hand, but I know of very few people who failed to dismiss this “report” after reading it. The authors set out to defend a policy and did so with assertions that are supported by little more than the Kagans’ assurance that the information is good. Forgive me if I’m skeptical, particularly when their assertions are often highly suspect and at times directly contradicted by other news and reports from reporters, NGOs, and individuals with just as much time, or more, in Afghanistan.

By the way, what is meant by “momentum” when it is used throughout this report and/or when it is used throughout the administration’s assessment?

John January 11, 2011 at 11:49 pm

Yes, Kunduz has seen an increase in Taliban presence, but we’re not asking ourselves: why?

Is it a reflection of the Taliban’s growing reach, or is it an indictment on the ability of the German’s to do their duty in their AOR?

I would posit the latter. The German’s have shown ZERO willingness to accept responsibility for securing Kunduz. The attack on the USAID-DAI compound in August and the German’s compete negligence in responding to the six hour firefight is evidence of their complete disregard of the ISAF mission. Maria Abi Habib wrote an excellent article on this event, outlining the German’s unwillingness to respond to a threat on humanitarian workers only *2* kilometeres from their PRT.


The debate between Foust and Exum is an important one, but it misses the point that Kunduz could have been saved had the Allies worked out a solution in 2004/5 to move the Germans to a less fragile province (like Camp Warehouse!) and assign a *serious* ally to oversee the security of the major Northern foothold.

Alas, the Germans can pat themselves on their back for thier beautiful PRT beer garden and childish Psyops products they hold so dear (yes I’m referring to the ISAF teddy bears and soccer balls carrying the name of the Prophet).

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