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.