Our Insane Delusion

by Joshua Foust on 2/2/2011 · 11 comments

I’m still seeking to understand why ISAF rejects the analysis of, literally, all outside experts, plus the entire intelligence community, when it brags of success and progress in Afghanistan. There is a serious break: either ISAF is right and our entire system for understanding places and events is so fundamentally flawed we should probably scrap everything and ponder our lives for a few months… or ISAF is, plainly, lying about the war. Something tells me it’s the latter.

Take General Rodriguez’s press conference yesterday. It’s the usual amalgam of half-truths and cheerful spin on otherwise horrifying trends and dynamics. But there are some new doozies in there that warrant focus and some analysis.

So now in Arghandab — a district just outside Kandahar City that you know has been a tough place since the first time we really went in there and stayed, beginning in July 2009, was a Taliban stronghold, and people could not move around without fear. In that 18-month period, the district governor was killed, the district police chief was maimed, and there were no government officials or police present any place with — but the district center, which some of the Afghans described as a combat outpost.

I was there two weeks ago, and there were 16 government employees working with a new district governor. There’s a new police chief who has a police force that’s out and about. And the people on a Friday afternoon, Afghan family time, were out picnicking in the Arghandab River Valley — a significant change from 18 months ago.

When the NY Times Magazine’s James Traub was there this past summer, he got one of the last interviews with that murdered district governor. More interestingly, he ended his article with this: “Arghandab was something of a show district… And yet the Taliban continued to afflict the district like a low-grade virus.”

But Rodriguez is also wrong about the atmosphere. Not only is January a weird time of year for families to be out picnicking, they were doing so during the supposedly dark angry days of 2009—which Rodriguez would have known had he consulted actual people who lived there. People picnic there all the time, in fact, because it’s a pleasant place. There is an important story to be told about this: the Taliban were not there in 2007-8. They moved into the area after Mullah Naqib died in October of 2007. Then in February Hakim Jan was killed at a dog fight; that summer Habibullah Jan was shot dead on his way home in Zhari. There was a coordinated effort to isolate and occupy central Kandahar during this period of time; Karzai made things worse by meddling with Naqib’s succession, and the U.S. made things worse first by waiting until things became intolerable then going in without understanding the politics of the province.

So yes, it’s good news that people are supposedly taking January picnics along the Arghandab River as if it never gets cold there (really?). But it’s not really “good,” in the sense of meaning people there are better off.

We started to expand the Kabul security zone both east and south; in the east, saw gains in discrete areas, in Jalalabad, out in Nangarhar, which is at number four on your map, as well as pockets in Logar and Wardak, just south of Kabul City.

The east, of course, as you know, has difficult, complex and physical terrain, and there’s much work to be done there.

Hahaha, that’s all he says about the East (later on, he says soldiers are “working hard” and there’s a lot of people there). Progress indeed.

Up in the north, we focused on Baghlan.

And what’s important in that area is the intersection of two of the main commerce routes. So we expanded the security around that intersection and increased the freedom of movement in that area in the north. And if you look at number six, going around counter-clockwise on your map, that’s very important, because that’s the last place that the Ring Road has to be completed — of course, an important commerce route to connect the west and the north. And we made security gains in both Baghdis and Faryab.

Yes, we expanded security around Baghlan—except for all the combat, IEDs, and rogue militias abusing locals, Baghlan is the very paradigm of success and calm.

General Rodriguez made yet another outrageous claim during the Q&A period, where he said there’s no need to to address the safe havens in Pakistan for success in RC-East (because of all those folks doing “hard work,” see?). Not only is this at odds with, let’s go with half a decade of universal statements to the contrary from the IC, from ISAF, from the Pentagon, from Secretary Gates, from two Presidents, and every single analyst in the IC, or whatever else is out there… well I don’t really know what to say. When even Elizabeth Bulmiller thinks you, a three-star general, are kind of delusional about something, then it’s really time to reconsider your public statements.

I’m sure there’s more in there. And I don’t mean to downplay the successes that have happened, especially in Helmand. But those successes show that 30,000 Marines in a tiny patch of land can achieve calm. And it’s okay to acknowledge that! But what is unacceptable is the current method of thinking inside ISAF and amongst its most rabid boosters: the absolute, dogged, almost faith-based rejection of evidence that doesn’t fit their worldview that they’re winning and victory is just a few months away. That delusion, the denial, which is so constant, pervasive, and insistent even people who know better are at a loss to combat it, is what is currently losing the war.

Almost two years ago, I pasted this passage, from the conclusion to Les Grau’s The Bear Went Over the Mountain. It’s weird: almost every officer that deploys to Afghanistan reads it and says he gets it, but what always strikes me about that is they seem to gloss right over this passage. It is about how and why the Soviet Army deluded itself into thinking it was winning the war, using willing shills in the Soviet media, right up until the moment it began to withdraw.

Ideologically, the Soviet leadership was unable to come to grips with war in Afghanistan. Marxist-Leninist dogma did not allow for a “war of national liberation” where people would fight against a Marxist regime. So, initially, the press carried pictures of happy Soviet soldiers building orphanages—and did not mention that they were also engaged in combat and filling those very orphanages. By the end of 1983, the Soviet press had only reported six dead and wounded soldiers, although by that time, the 40th Army had suffered 6,262 dead and 9,880 combat wounded… It was only during the last three years of the war, under Gorbachev’s glastnost policy, that the press began to report more accurately on the Afghanistan war…

The Soviet Army that marched into Afghanistan was trained to fight within the context of a theater war against a modern enemy who would obligingly occupy defensive positions stretching across the northern European plain [i.e., the Fulda Gap]… The mujahideen did not accommodate the Soviet Army by fighting a northern-European-plain war… [Thus] the Soviet Army never had enough forces in Afghanistan to win. From the entire book, it is apparent that Soviet forces were spread very thin… There was also an evident dislike of close combat and a preference to use massive amounts of fire power instead…

Grau concludes that this inability to see the micro-level picture on the ground, coupled with the Soviet “distaste” for close-combat and a preference for mass-casualty air strikes, fatally undermined the invasion.

Anyway, we’re better than the Soviets, as LTC Flynn helpfully told Spencer Ackerman the other day. He, too, says he read this book. I have my doubts.

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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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Grant February 2, 2011 at 4:19 pm

Ignoring whether or not they’re right* they have to give a good impression. They don’t have a choice in the matter even if they wanted to make public the bad news.

*Something I’ve decided I definitely shouldn’t get into.

Joshua Foust February 2, 2011 at 4:20 pm

I’m not sure that’s a given, though. There’s no rule in the military that says “put a happy face on everything at all times.” That is a command decision, a choice from, admittedly, above Rodriguez’s pay grade. But it is still a choice.

Grant February 2, 2011 at 7:32 pm

It might not be a stated rule but armies in warfare (whether in conventional or asymmetric) have a policy of hiding negatives and hyping positives. Sometimes they’re fully justified in doing this and sometimes they aren’t.

Ned Hamson February 2, 2011 at 5:34 pm

What they have to learn or relearn is that for every spin master there are now 20 people checking the spin, and 20 more people checking the checking the checkers in nearly real time.

They need to consult US TV’s iconic Dragnet and report “Just the facts.” And if the facts don’t support what they are doing – then – change what you are doing.

Bob Saget February 2, 2011 at 10:01 pm

Mr. Foust, when’s the last time you’ve been to Baghlan and actually talked to the people THROUGHOUT the province from various tribes to get their perspectives, thoughts or solutions? I venture to say never. That is left to the real ‘movers and shakers’; the NATO soldiers, aid workers and people of Afghanistan that want a better tomorrow. So to you arm chair diplomats out there, a toast. The rest of us could only wish to see things so clearly through your eyes and surmise the truth through safety of books, websites and journals. However, the real honor goes to those there that realize the danger, complexity and satifaction of knowing they are making a difference.

anan February 3, 2011 at 1:13 am

Bob, Joshua has friends in Baghlan. Joshua might even agree with many or some of your perspectives on Baghlan.

I have no doubt Joshua would be very interested in your input on what is happening in Baghlan. I sure would. Would you mind sharing on this or another blog? You could also e-mail Joshua directly.

Look forward to learning from you.

Bob Saget February 3, 2011 at 2:49 pm

I am sorry. It’s just that I have issues with people who sound like they have all the answers and make particularly condescending reviews and remarks based off 2nd and 3rd party observations. If you find faults or offer solutions then by all means bring them to light, but if you want to be taken seriously among the policy makers, scholars and the intelligent voting public save the patronizing hyperbole.

Boris Sizemore February 3, 2011 at 5:38 pm

Hang in there Joshua…This is all par for the course…

LTG Rodriguez is about at his two year time frame and will be rotating out soon. This was his “all around the world” briefing to explain all the HE had figured out during his tenure as the brilliant author of Marjah…Moshtarak was not his, they figured out his limited grasp of the situation. Well he did not figure out much and can at least identify the province names from a big map.

The comment on Pakistan and the insurgent bases was ludicrous to say the least. Joshua Foust was right.

For the holier than thou on one or two year tours, I have over ten years in country now, and there is only one guy who knows a lot more than me. Joshua Novak and he is in China because the dimwits at ISAF were never smart enough to figure things out and bring him in before we got into this mess. He is the only one who actually is long term friends with all the tribal leaders in the country and the military and can get things moving again.

Joshua Foust’s criticism of our operations in Baghlan or anywhere holds a lot of water. You do not need to rocket scientist or get your terps( interpreters) lay of the land for those that obviously do not speak pasthun or Dari during their “trying to catch up, we are w a y behind now” tour in Baghlan.

Having a talk with someone in Afghanistan is not the same as actually finding out what is going on. Takes more than a two year tour, try ten or more to get them to trust you at all.

The insurgents had been targetting Baghlan off of their expansion into Kunduz since 2007, but ISAF and its first flight group of brain surgeons like Rodriguez, who is not too quick on the uptake in this insurgency, completely ignored the signs of Insurgent expansion into the area, while they missed the same things going on in Kunduz and Nangarhar last year.

Instead, we sent sixty percent of our Assets and thirty thousand marines to try to pacify only several districts in Helmand and somehow try get back to 2007 in Kandahar-don’t worry about the burnt villages, we might be able to get back to 2006 with another SURGE.

But lets not mention Sangin, and the daily casualties and how and what the hell we are doing there?

This is one million dollar per year per soldier war and we are losing ground folks. Wakeup…smell the reality. We are spending one hundred plus billion on this war…Note we give Egypt two billion or so. What an expense…and we do not know what we are doing. Correct Joshua Foust corrrrrreeeccct…

You will notice that Kunar hardly gets a mention because we are basically cutting and running from the area as we speak. Joshua Foust recommended that two years ago.

Rodriguez briefing WAS an abortion of logic and if this is the best we have to fight this war, no wonder we are in trouble. He typifies what is wrong with this war effort and bravo to Joshua for bringing it up. Sometimes getting too close can make even sane men retarded.

For anyone that cares, things are bad and we need to change this course now, with or without Petraeus as the case may be but send in somebody who can turn this disaster around. I know who I recommend. No one is listening however.

With All the Best, Gardez, at night…

arizona jim February 3, 2011 at 10:09 pm

I couldn’t even read your whole article .. you had made your mind up in the headline. As a father of a soldier in the Arghandab, I follow events there on a daily basis, including Al Jazerra and obvious Taliban posts. We are having tremendous success in the Arghandab. I couldn’t get past your first post of someone “there this past summer”. Geez dude, we have been “working it” during the fall and winter. What the hell has the past summer got to do with it.
We have provided security to villages that have NEVER HAD IT (where my son is located). Quit the “don’t confuse me with the facts, my mind is made up” reporting. I don’t like the war, don’t believe we should be there .. but can’t deny that we have done some good over the past 6 months.

Dishonesty? February 5, 2011 at 11:09 am

And the people on a Friday afternoon, Afghan family time, were out picnicking in the Arghandab River Valley — a significant change from 18 months ago.

Picnicking in January?

Back in the desolate plain outside Kandahar, Lalai, another Arghandab farmer, is among the hundreds of displaced rural families waiting for their government to restore their livelihoods. He counts his losses and hopes the government will help.

“My brother, they should build schools and clinics for us and help in rebuilding our irrigation channels,” he says. “We have lost everything and, as you can see, we live in a desert. We have lost our houses, orchards, and irrigated lands.”


James February 6, 2011 at 4:46 pm

Boris so I will do some quick math….. Ten years in Afghanistan it’s Feb 2011 they went we invaded in Nov – Dec 2001 so you are either an educated Afghan, a liar or a confused contractor. I will assume the latter that you began contracting there mid 2002 or so maybe have been around to some scary Mega FOBS and have a strong relationship with the locals you seem to know so well that work at the barber shops and Starbucks…. Wait those are Phills. So ten years of contracting, blogging about how screwed up one of the poorest most war torn countries in the world is makes you a legitimate scholar. The fact of the matter is that today life is better than it was yesterday, and one hundred times better than it was ten years ago. But I guess the millions you have made sucking on the golden tit can cloud your vision.

As far as baghlan goes their strategy was flawed but steps have been taken to fix the problem. So we armchair qb it and say why Helmand, why agrandab, why sangin we’ll hmm the majority of the Pashtuns live there, or heroin, or hash or the symbolism of owning Kandahar. So Joshua have friends in Baghlan, ok so is Joshuas friend in the ANP, ANA, APRP? Probably not he’s probably one of the hundreds of thousands of Afghans in Baghlan who complain of the security situation yet do absolutely nothing to help. Joshuas friend will be helpful and point out all the things wrong with Baghlan though suprise surprise, the Russians built billions worth of infrastructure, the afghans destroyed it, now NATO gets to dump billions into projects which won’t be there in five years.
In Kandahar any Mullah, Malik, or village elder will tell you they need their karezs fixed but amazingly a village of 1000 plus people cannot dig their karezs out unless we pay them to do the work. When asked how the karezs got their in the first place again, big surprise, they or their fathers dug them but somehow they have lost the ability to help themselves.
So where do we go from here, I think you are right we shouldn’t have faith in generals with top secret information, spy satellites, uav’s and thousands of troops reporting ground truth which is analyzed be massive think tanks, no no no we should listen to a contractor and a reporter who has friends that he talks to.

You can’t learn a lot from spending two years there? Really? I guess if your researching

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