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.