Framing the War’s Progress

by Joshua Foust on 3/15/2011 · 3 comments

Seth Jones, March 14, 2011:

Assessing progress in a counterinsurgency is more art than science. Body counts tend not to be helpful in measuring insurgent progress. Nor do levels of violence. Neither captures the combatants’ primary goal: control over the population…

A second reason for the decline in Taliban control appears to be the surge in conventional military forces, especially in eastern and southern Afghanistan. There are currently nearly 70,000 NATO forces in the south, up from 20,000 in April 2009. In Helmand province, for example, U.S. Marine Corps and Afghan National Army forces have conducted a range of dismounted patrols, targeting insurgent sanctuaries and working closely with tribal and other community leaders. One of the most notable successes has been the recent agreement with the Alikozai tribe in Sangin district, an insurgent stronghold, to halt insurgent attacks on coalition forces and expel Taliban fighters.

Thomas Ruttig, March 9, 2011:

The government of those NATO countries that provide troops for ISAF are currently developing a narrative of success: After another much-touted change of strategy, the Afghan army and police are growing, both in quantity and quality, both increasingly capable of protecting their country against the insurgents. Taleban and al-Qaida – both not much different from each other – are taking mighty hits…

This [UN/AIHRC] report speaks another language, one that makes the NATO narrative sound hollow, even dishonest. The consistent escalation of violence that is reflected in the UN/AIHRC figures alone is proof that the NATO narrative is wrong. The massively increased military pressure on the insurgents has not weakened them or forced them to the negotiating table. They just adopt their asymmetrical warfare – all this talk about their ‘cowardly assaults’ is propaganda, as long as soldiers and policemen are concerned which are in Afghanistan to fight and kill. Meanwhile, almost all security analysts in the insurgency‘s core areas in Southern and South-Eastern Afghanistan – domestic ones as well as internationals – confirm that all indicators about a really successful counter-insurgency are pointing into the wrong direction, like the number, geographical scope and casualty rates of insurgent operations as well as their potential to recruit. But because NATO HQ in Brussels or Washington don’t want to hear that (and their jobs depend on capitals, directly or indirectly) they tell you ‘off the records’ only. But I am sure that you have heard it, too.

Anyway, pick your narrative, then argue it to the hilt, sometimes before Congress.

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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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Briandot March 16, 2011 at 5:31 pm

The comparison isn’t really fair, though. The narratives that Jones and Ruttig construct don’t match up because they aren’t even talking about the same thing. Jones is commenting on mission progress; Ruttig sees even one civilian death as indefensible, without regard to the military mission. Thus, Seth Jones and Thomas Ruttig each have their own perspectives which cause them, in some sense, to talk past each other.

Jones is not a propagandist, but he is a political scientist focused on the security sector, and because of his position has become part of the military’s public diplomacy apparatus to some extent. He believes in the use of military power to effect political change and is concerned with mission “success” (whatever that might be this time around). He will emphasize markers toward that goal. The Afghan population is a big part of that, but the use of organized force against an armed insurgency is also key. Jones will likely never transform into a pacifist, and has never been an anthropologist. The refrain will be that civilian casualties are limited, are primarily caused by “the other side” (“sides” being ill-defined), that this is an armed conflict and that the military is performing a necessary function, and that they are doing a better job than diplomats or NGOs could, given that “the other side” has a large supply of small arms and a violent ideology.

Ruttig is also not a propagandist, but he is an anthropologist (degree in Afghanistics..?) primarily concerned with the effects on civilians, so much so that the success of the military mission is pretty low on his list. He believes that military power inhibits proper political change and that governance and authority structures would be better without it. For him there’s no such thing as a few broken eggs to make an omelet. To that end, if Afghan life or culture is threatened, he will emphasize markers of that. Ruttig will likely never fully accept that military action is necessary for securing the population, nor that civilian casualties are a common side effect of military operations in a country threatened by an insurgency. The constant refrain will be how terrible the effects of violence are, the implication being that ISAF is the source of this violence — nevermind that even in the complete absence of NATO troops there would be violent acts against the civilians, nevermind that the UN has identified that three quarters of civilian deaths are from the insurgency, and nevermind that Ruttig’s ability to interact with Afghans would essentially cease if insurgents overran the country; fluent Pashto speaker or not, he’s white and western. To be fair, this is not to say that Ruttig never points out the violence of the insurgency — the Hitchens exchange demonstrates this — but he seems to think the appropriate response will not involve some violence in return.

They’re both smart people. If they were working on the same page their narratives might be similar. But they’re not on the same page, so the stories are different. It’s “disconnected and in a bubble” versus “unrealistic and impractical”.

Joshua Foust March 17, 2011 at 11:04 am

I’m curious why and how you describe Seth Jones as not-a-propagandist.

Briandot March 17, 2011 at 11:44 am

Well, besides just trying to be polite, I also see a line — however fine — between being overly optimistic and/or blind to reality, and “The Statue of Liberty is Kaput!”. You could mark his analysis as just wrong, but not necessarily malicious.

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