The Misleading Case for War

by Joshua Foust on 2/21/2011 · 10 comments

CNAS honchos John Nagl and Nathaniel Fick have an op-ed in the NYT this morning, which argues that the war in Afghanistan is secretly going awesomely. It raises more questions than answers:

  • If your argument is that “analysts” are wrong (and let’s not forget the entire Intelligence Community, as General Petraeus alleged in his strategic review two months ago, along with his sycophants at ISW), you should probably include some analysis to indicate why that is the case. This op-ed has no analysis in it, just a few anecdotes and a lot of praise for the generals running the war. This is input-based, in other words (basically a rehash of “we have the fundamentals right”), but not based on outcomes—”is it working?” Hence, it says very little.
  • While no one would deny that 30,000 extra troops is a “shift on the ground,” how exactly does that shift on the ground automatically mean we’re winning the war? More troops after bad strategy means you still have a bad strategy, just with more people doing it.
  • By what measure does the number of fighter-bombers in Afghanistan’s airspace indicate progress of the war on the ground? When is the number evidence of a counterproductive amount of violence or force disposition, rather than proof everything is working? What does it really mean to have so many jets ready to bomb the ground? They don’t say.
  • “The Taliban are being driven from their sanctuaries” is turning into the “Coalition forces killed 30 Taliban today.” It is a phrase used so often by the people in charge of the war, it’s easy to mistake the phrase as being true, when it is, on consideration, probably the opposite. If you Google Trend the phrase, its use peaked in late 2009—indicating something about its relevance to what may or may not be going on inside Afghanistan.
  • I’ve never liked this “half the violence is concentrated in 9 of 400 districts” statistic. For starters, it appears that this violence is concentrated around Surge troops, so if your point is that lowering violence is good and a purpose of the Surge then it doesn’t make any sense. If your point is that violence is lower elsewhere that statistic doesn’t support it because overall violence is higher nation-wide: you’d have to say that because of the higher violence in these 9 districts, it is lower everywhere else. Even ISAF doesn’t say that—and the UN says things are worse everywhere.
  • The argument about high-tech thingies letting us capture-kill moar Taliban is really just a rehash of the body count problem (e.g. are we capture-killing the right guys, if they are the right guys then why has an unprecedented number of capture-kills also resulted in an unprecedented spike in violence, etc.). Also, to brag of our body count only to say that we cannot kill our way to victory is either incoherent or dishonest—take your pick.
  • The discussion of the Afghan Army is based entirely on inputs—in this case building a lot of barracks buildings—and not on effectiveness. Just a few months ago, Hamid Karzai complained poorly trained ANA troops were causing civilian casualties, and earlier this month Matt Rosenberg wrote of how screening for the ANA had to be increased because of all the terrible people they were training. Watching one of the four or five functional ANA units perform something so basic no one would care if American troops did it really doesn’t say much good—it only says just how appallingly slowly the build-out is going (and is there really zero understanding that these trips are tightly managed and exceptional things are selected to “American visitors” from pro-war think tanks and op-ed pages in order to shape their reporting?).
  • It’s awesome that Afghan mothers are proud of their sons joining the ANA. It is also irrelevant to their performance and effectiveness. If their mothers were ashamed but their units did their jobs and gained and held ground, Nagl and Fick would have written the same thing, only called their mothers misguided or ignorant of the glorious victories of the Afghan Army.

That’s just the set up. The challenges section is similarly bizarre. Briefly, so I don’t wind up with a ponderously long post:

  • The problem facing the U.S. is not the length of our commitment, but its terms. We have no strategy, no achievable end goal (Nagl and Fick describe it as “achieve the modest level of stability and self-reliance necessary to allow the United States to responsibly draw down its forces,” whatever that means and as if we will EVER know when that is met since it involves no numbers, indicators, metrics, or ground truths—and did we finally decide on 25,000 troops after 2014? Or is that just a backhand hyping of the “Responsible Transition” paper CNAS put out?), and no connection between our current operations and that amorphous end goal. How will a longer commitment to the war change any of that? It will just prolong a poorly-conceived strategy with no end.
  • McMaster’s task force is a welcome change to the issue of corruption, but it will not be able to address one huge, fundamental problem (actually a series of them): the Afghan government is predicated on transaction costs that normal government employees cannot match. That is, the government is structured to function off patronage networks, and requires a certain liquidity to function, so simply removing the people who broker transaction costs to make the bureaucracy work won’t actually fix the more fundamental problem: the structural failures of the government itself. All McMaster is going to do is make room for new officials, who will have to resort to corruption to get things done just like their predecessors.
  • We are not, in fact, “shoring up the parts of the border that the Taliban uses.” We have a brutal, unaccountable militia in Spin Boldak, and a few border outposts in Paktika and Khost. But from Torkam all the way north to Badakhshan, there are almost no U.S. border overwatch posts. And the drones are all floating over Helmand directing dire support for the Surge, so they can’t monitor the border (and it’s unclear what they could do anyway in Nuristan or Kunar). In fact, one of the biggest complaints about the first surge in 2009 was that it was drawing troops and reinforcements from the eastern border region to go focus on the worthless backwaters of Helmand—which is precisely what happened. The pittance of troops that has flowed back East in recent months is not enough to alter this rather drastic shift in posture. And in any case, a few hundred more troops to the border do not change Pakistan’s fundamental strategic imperative to maintain influence in post-America Afghanistan by any means necessary. Their evidence (which is itself pretty thin) doesn’t even address their argument, much less support it.

I’m curious as to why Nagl and Fick wait until the second-to-last paragraph to bring up negotiations. They are right that right now we are at the strongest position we will ever had to begin the talks. But despite Steve Coll’s piece the other day, which was long on vague non-facts and old stories but very short on details about the supposed talks taking place, there’s no indication the military is interested. In fact, the pro-military side reacted with quite a bit of horror when Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn wrote their paper arguing that the Taliban can be broken off from al Qaeda and dealt with as an end to the war—very much in line with Hillary Clinton’s speech on Friday. Yet now, suddenly, the idea is being thrown about like it’s conventional wisdom.

What’s changed? I’m not sure. But this op-ed is so riddled with logical and even factual errors it’s difficult to power through what it’s really trying to say, aside from “WIN.” It is insulting: a mishmash of slogans and posturing pretending to be analysis, based on one guy’s week-long adventure tour in General Petraeus’ hip holster. As such, it is also deeply misleading about the real challenges facing the war, and its prospects for success. We can do better.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1849 posts on

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from 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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sayke February 21, 2011 at 11:38 am

i agree that this article does not shed significant light on whether progress is being made in the war against the taliban. further, it seems deeply problematic that the really interesting metrics that one can use to judge the success of COIN are not mentioned. what we should be hearing about are:

- increased scope, efficiency, utilization, and public opinion of afghan government service delivery, including tax collection etc
- increasingly positive perceptions of afghan gov/ISAF/ANSF and increasingly negative perceptions of the taliban/al-qaeda
- increasing and more-accurate afghan civilians tipoffs to ISAF/ANSF about IEDs, and decreasing IEDs planted
- increasingly frequent and sophisticated afghan military operations without any ISAF support
- decreasing numbers of militants crossing from pakistan to afghanistan and vice versa
- increasing willingness of pakistani security forces to cooperate in taking on the afghan taliban
- decreasing availability of blackmarket weapons and ammunition
- increasing evidence of taliban fighters facing shortages of ammunition, food, equipment, etc
- increasing ratio of ISAF/ANSF offensive operations and contacts to defensive ones

there are a ton of them – kilcullen outlined a bunch of them in a paper a couple of years back. it’s great work… but none of those metrics are mentioned in the article.

is that not deeply problematic?

M Shannon February 21, 2011 at 12:30 pm

Follow the money. If CNAS wants to be funded it will produce materials in line with what it’s masters want. People who enabled “population centric COIN” can hardly be expected to find much fault with the escalation in nation building their “studies” helped sell.

anan February 21, 2011 at 1:16 pm


Nagl and Fick wrote a very short OP ED aimed at the general international public with only a tangential vague interest in Asia. And yes, their paper provides little actual detail and limited analysis . . . because providing this might confuse and irritate the “generalist” reader.

Some other points:
1) Don’t agree Nagl and Fick believe everything “is secretly going awesomely.”
2) Yes the CIA has a very different view than ISAF and CentCom and the ANSF. Part of this is because the CIA is subtly far more embedded with the mentality of the deep state and the Arabist [autocratic establishment] lobby. The CIA in general has a poor understanding of US national interests or how various events around the world are interlinked [or the covariances of various international trends, forces and outcomes]. Their decision making process has been influenced at the early ideation stage by some of the mindsets and assumptions of the deep state and Arabists.

Think about a product development tree [in this case the product being intelligence and analysis] with many stages in product development. If early in the process some avenues of thought and analysis are cut off by subtly planted “assumptions” and “mindsets” then later in the product development cycle the product development process is stunted by fewer branches of possiblities in the product/decision tree.

Notice how the CIA crowd strongly bashed the democratization agenda in the Arab world and advocated supporting the dictators [most of whom happen to be corrupt malevolent sectarian bigots.] Similarly the CIA sees South and central asia partly through the mindset of the deep state and sectarian Arab autocrats.

3) Having more ISAF capacity helps, all else being equal. And yes, doing better than without more ISAF capacity isn’t the same as strategic victory by the GIRoA/ANSF against Taliban/Al Qaeda/extremists.

4) On “taliban being driven from sanctuaries” . . . they aren’t. They seem to be getting more support and more capacity east of the Durand. They have also captured more sanctuaries in Nuristan and Khost and parts of Logar.

5) Half of violence concentrated in 9 out of 400 districts is relavent. It is also relavent to the degree it is correlated with ISAF/ANSF taking the initiative against the Taliban rather than visa versa. The the degree the Taliban and their allies are tied up in 9 districts, it reduces the assets they can deploy elsewhere.

6) ANA and ANP capacity and performance are surging rapidly. The evidence for this is all over the place. This is partly offset by surged Taliban/AQ capacity, supported by the deep state and part of the sectarian Arab establishment. This said, the ability of US/ISAF/NATO/Turkey, Russia, India and Iran to surge ANSF capacity is far greater than the ability of the deep state and part of the Arab establishment to surge Taliban capacity.

7) Believe the motivation of the ANA and their families and public perceptions of the ANA versus the Taliban are more important than you acknowledge.

I think there is a strategy. Surge the capacity of the GIRoA, ANSF, Afghan civil society and Afghan private sector over the long term so that they can defeat the Taliban and their backers. Part of this involves negotiations with factions of the Taliban to convince them to change sides and join the strong horse. Pres Karzai’s attempted negotiations with Hekmatyur and Baradar are part of this effort. Karzai has been trying to negotiate with the Taliban and their allies for many years. But now parts of the Taliban and their backers are more amenable to negotiations. Hopefully this trend accelerates

This next part is off topic. You often discuss negotiations with the Taliban. What you don’t emphasize as much is the intense paranoia and hostility towards the Taliban on the part of the ANA, NDS, Hazaras, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Persians, and many Northern/Eastern Pashtuns [specifically the Pashtun communities that supply 42% of the ANA.] Because of this, many Afghans have urged the US not to negotiate with the Taliban bilaterally because it violates Afghan sovereignty.

Any negotiations with the Taliban have to be lead by Pres Karzai and not by internationals. Otherwise, the ANSF and most Afghans are likely to believe that the US, NATO, UN, internationals are conspiring with the Taliban and extremists to destroy Afghanistan.

Already the largest cause of tension between the ANSF and ISAF is ANSF paranoia that ISAF is backing the Taliban against them. We cannot afford to increase this perception.

There is no way any negotiation with the Taliban can have any success unless the ANA institutionally acquiesces [ANA doesn't have to support the negotiations, merely tolerate them.] I believe Pres Karzai understands this, which accounts for his refusal so far to make too many concessions to the Taliban and their backers. But do we, the internationals, understand this? Do we internationals understand the degree to which the ANA is a reality on the ground that influences everything? The ANA will soon have over 200 thousand soldiers and far greater capacity and quality than it currently wields. Flows [how things change over time] matter more in long term international struggles than stocks [capacity during a specific snapshot in time.]

Joshua Foust February 22, 2011 at 9:00 am

Anand, couple things:

1) How else would you interpret what they wrote?

2) The Intelligence Community is a lot more than the CIA, which is only one of sixteen agencies in the IC. I also don’t think you reflect their institutional priorities correctly when you say they have a poor understanding of U.S. national interests.

5) I have never said the 9 out of 400 number was irrelevant, merely that I didn’t like it. Your comments on it indicate why: there needs to be context to explain why it matters, or how it is important to a given argument. Simply stating it, as Fick and Nagl do, doesn’t say anything.


“Surge the capacity of the GIRoA, ANSF, Afghan civil society and Afghan private sector over the long term so that they can defeat the Taliban and their backers.”

That is not a strategy, nor is it even at all what President Obama or General Patraeus have said publicly about their intentions for the war.

Don Anderson February 21, 2011 at 2:06 pm

Any one with two semi functional eyes, and two semi functional ears and a semi functional processing unit in their skull would bravely fail to pay any attention to what CNAS and the related “We are not to blame for the defeat in the war” crowd are crowing about at any particular moment.

I have prayed at times that their evil days are done, and that what they do in its all glorious failure to know anything would soon stop. The very mention of the fools working at this Defense Department “Ministry of Truth” is enough to make my weak stomach wrench in an upward fashion.

They are totally out of touch and delegitimized by the course of the war in the past several years. Their doctrinal focus on holding small pieces of ground and exposing our fine soldiers to mutilation and death via IED is a net benefit to the Enemy and a net failure to our nation.

I simply cannot put in any other way.

From Nagl ” I should have stayed in Armor” to “It did not fall apart until after I left” Barno, and “I took some Arabic courses, you know” Exum-the whole crowd reeks of compromise and not one of them will stand up for the soldiers in the field absolutely hand tied and ineffective because of the CNAS/Petraeus “sit on the FOB, sit on the FOB and don’t move unless I tell you” COIN policy.

It is with shame that CNAS has existed as nothing more than yes men to one General in particular, and that they act along with Max Boot as mouthpieces of nothing that ever comes true.

anan February 21, 2011 at 3:00 pm

typo above:

“4) On “taliban being driven from sanctuaries” . . . they aren’t. They seem to be getting more support and more capacity east of the Durand. They have also captured more sanctuaries in Nuristan and “KUNAR” and parts of Logar.”

Sirajuddin and his allies are losing in Khost to 1-203 ANA, provincial ANP and ISAF.

Don Anderson, the guys at CNAS aren’t idiots. Respect them and explain politely how specifically you disagree with them.

Yes, some of the stuff specific researchers at CNAS say is over the top. The same can be said for some of the stuff you write. For example your assertions that the Taliban are winning. Only in your mind.

Firstly, the Taliban are a loose coalition of many different factions. To speak of the Taliban as a whole unitary organization is misleading. Secondly, in Afghanistan, many factions of the Taliban, GIRoA, ANSF, and ISAF are losing simultaneously. This often happens in wars.

On what planet is the Quetta Shura Taliban “winning”? How often does the Quetta Shura able to successfully engage the ANA in Kandahar in platoon or larger sized operations any more? It is more accurate to say that QST is clearly losing in Kandahar. However the GIRoA, ANSF, ISAF are not winning yet. Arguably they are also losing in some ways.

Neither the CNAS guys nor you are idiots. You would both be a lot better off respecting each other and engaging each others’ ideas and analysis.

Don Anderson February 21, 2011 at 3:38 pm

Anan-not going to waste much time with you-but “idiots” was not used.Do try to read and comprehend what I wrote, I am pretty clear in my criticism of this particular brand of military doctrine and its application to Afghanistan… ears are still ringing from the Jbad attack the other day, so enjoy the Discovery Channel for me Anan or Anas or whatever you are called..All the Best..or Disney Channel if that is more on your level. Thanks again..

M Shannon February 21, 2011 at 9:17 pm

The idea that ‘winning” is predicated on succeeding in stand up fights is misguided. Insurgency is about politics and for the Taliban to remain in the field, expand it’s operations and be increasing the number of incidents in the face of the world’s most powerful military alliance is certainly “winning”.

It doesn’t matter if they can take on a NATO platoon or not. What matters is whether the Afghan people expect to have to deal with the Taliban and believe the Taliban have the capability of harming them.

Nine years into one of the most one sided wars in history it’s at best a stalemate which for the insurgents means they are “winning”.

stella February 22, 2011 at 2:19 am

Where is the center of the golf swing? It is somewhere between the bottom of your spine and your navel. It is not your head, although the fallacy about controlling head movement persists. Don’t think about your head. It serves only two purposes during the swing:

a) It holds the brain that sends messages to muscles,
b) It holds the eyes that see the ball.

The swing’s stabilizing force is in the abdomen. This, not your head, is the axis around which to rotate.

Ideal rotation should allow for the back to be facing the target, or thechest facing straight back away from the target. It is not important that the club get to parallel. If the back is facing the target and the hands are still basically in front of the center of the chest, Cheap Golf Clubs you have more than enough power stored for the downswing.

The Reverse Pivot
Typical Cause: Attempting to maintain your head on the golf ball.
Remedy: Begin your set up with the head behind the ball and start your swing with your left shoulder.

The Sway
Typical Cause: Using the lower body to create weight shift.
Remedy: Turn the hips; don’t slide.

AJK February 22, 2011 at 3:49 am

Man, how my star has fallen. From writing on Registan to not even getting a citation ;-)

To be serious, though, it’s clear that the Op-Ed has nothing to do with Afghanistan, it”s just political cover that checks all the right boxes so that it looks good in the U.S., there’s no honest attempt at doing something good for Afghans and Afghanistan. So really no reason to treat it as such.

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