The latest opinion piece in the WSJ is about all the crap I can take from the Kagans. It’s been building for years. Their selective study, inappropriate analogies, and jingoism made them darlings during the Iraq surge, if only for confirming commanders’ hopes for the future in the darkest days of the war there. Before 2006, they were all about ignoring Afghanistan in favor of Iraq. Since 2008, they have, like mercenaries, defense contracting companies, and jihadists all over, turned their attention to Afghanistan. This does not make them experts. Never mind that neither had experience or study in the region; what was good enough for one Muslim country in turmoil should apply to another, right? Their lack of expertise, and apparent inability to consider the findings of actual experts, has led to such travesties as Defining Success in Afghanistan, which defined nothing. Constantly pushing for more troops on the battlefield is not really a strategy, but a method. Overwhelming force, by its very definition, will eventually overwhelm. But that does not make them strategists.
There are some bright spots in the Kagans’ orbit; Jeffery Dressler has written well on the Haqqani Network’s efforts in Loya Paktya. But they are few and far between. Still beholden to Petraeus and the ghosts of Iraq (not even two years ago Kim Kagan championed the AP3 local auxiliary forces in Logar, and are now big proponents of ALP, the latest and greatest attempt to arm and deputize locals), the Kagans have descended on Afghanistan with a vengeance, offering advice publicly for all who will listen, and privately for all who will pay.
I’ve seen them in Afghanistan. They move like a juggernaut, hopping from FOB to FOB (sometimes even spending a night on one!), soaking up massive amounts of staff time and hand-fed metrics before lumbering back aboard their aircraft and another series of meetings in windowless, air-conditioned rooms, either in Kabul or back in the States. Several weeks or months later, a report will come out. The only new material it presents will be light on sources, and for the most part it will be a re-articulation of command’s perspective. When actual Afghan history or culture creep in (rarely), they will over-simplify it, handpicking traits of, let’s say, Pashtunwali, to support their points (see Defining Success if you don’t believe me; if only Pashtuns really were that culturally monolithic). And because the big boss likes it, woe betide the officer who disagrees with their assessment.
Last year the Kagans said we needed more troops, and that the U.S. homeland would be threatened by Haqqani, the Taliban, LeT, al Qaeda, et al if the troops were not forthcoming. The year before they were railing against the “defeatist hysteria”. Now, faced with a possible withdrawal, as a result of rapidly diminishing public support and mounting casualties, they have combined their military experience in order to tell the CiC and anyone else what the proper withdrawal levels should be. All based on assumptions that, well, shouldn’t be taken for granted.
First, there is not “undeniable progress” in Afghanistan. There is some progress, but there is some regress as well. Remember, it was not so long ago that it took thousands of Marines months to clear out that half-district Marjah, which the Afghan government, who had known of the operations months ahead of time, failed to properly staff. There are about 400 districts in the country, and every province has a shadow government. And districts are still being overrun at this, the height of the surge. Casualties for the U.S. are mounting. And despite the opinions of legitimate experts that we should not work from generalizations, negotiate from a position of weakness, or arm unreliable local posses ( h/t Josh), we continue to bumble along, and with the encouragement of the Kagans.
Second, they equate suicide-bombing by insurgents as weakness. It could be, or it could be something else. Mullah Omar may not like suicide bombing, but who said he’s still in charge? As has been noted, Haqqani has had no problem with the tactic, and he’s a lot tougher than the Cyclops of Quetta. What we do know of suicide bombing is that it looks like it’s been pretty effective in harming civilians and Afghan security forces. And so it remains an effective, but not necessarily desperate, tactic.
Third, the Kagans assume that if the highest possible surge numbers had been approved, we would have cleaned out RC East. Yeah, maybe. And again, maybe not. Clearing operations in RC East are a little like trying to sweep the floor with a leaf-blower and a dustpan; some of the crap will end up in the dustpan and be properly disposed of, but more will end up all over or in Pakistan. At best the Coalition would be better able to hold territory and negotiate (or rather, let the Afghan Government negotiate) from a position of greater strength. And just as an aside, the Kagans add that security bubbles could be created in the South “for the first time since 2001.” It wouldn’t have been ‘since 2001’ if detriments such as them had not argued so hard for the Iraq war in the first place.
If we withdraw the 30,000 surge forces in 2012 (still leaving 70,000 plus coalition partners, and several hundred thousand Afghan security personnel), they say, we’ll lose in Afghanistan. I have no idea how they came to that conclusion, and I doubt their VIP whirlwind tours have equipped them to make that call. Finally, they save their weirdest line for the end, saying that if we pull out the 30,000 in the next year and a half, “it would be far worse than Nixon’s decision to accept defeat in Vietnam.” What? How do people still take them seriously?
I don’t pretend to know what the eventual verdict will be on troop withdrawals, nor am I going to speculate. But I do know who I want nowhere near the decision-makers on that one. Thanks, Kagans.