The Latest From The Kagans

by Sekundar on 6/7/2011 · 7 comments

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.


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Sekundar works in national security, and has worked and studied in Central and South Asia.

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{ 7 comments }

Steve C June 7, 2011 at 6:46 pm

I just received this on a reputable listserve:

“This email is from an active duty colonel who travels all over Afghanistan. He actually goes on foot patrols with troops to see things for himself. Here is his latest report.  His message is bad Ju Ju, I am afraid.

Anonymous Correspondent on Email
To XXX

The mendacity is getting so egregious that I am fast losing the ability to remain quiet; these yarns of “significant progress” are being covered up by the blood and limbs of hundreds – HUNDREDS – of American uniformed service members each and every month, and you know that the rest of this summer is going to see the peak of that bloodshed.

The article by Michael O’Hanlon last week (i.e. Success worth paying for in Afghanistan ) and the one in today’s WSJ by Kagan and Kagan (i.e., We Have the Momentum in Afghanistan ) made me sick to my stomach – especially the latter.  Have you seen it yet?  It is the most breathless piece of yellow journalism I’ve seen in the entire OIF-OEF generation.  

According to the Kagans, “If Mr. Obama announces the withdrawal of all surge forces from Afghanistan in 2012, the war will likely be lost. Al Qaeda, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and other global terrorist groups will almost certainly re-establish sanctuaries in Afghanistan. The Afghan state would likely collapse and the country would descend into ethnic civil war. The outcome of this withdrawal policy would be far worse than Nixon’s decision to accept defeat in Vietnam, for it would directly increase the threat to the American homeland.  Apparently they forgot, “there’s a commie behind every bush,” “the Russians are coming!” and “if Vietnam falls, all of Asia falls to the Communists!”  That logic was absurd in the 1960/70s, and its even more laughable today – or it would be laughable if it didn’t cost so damn many American lives to prop up the fantasy.  

These people are actually arguing for increased involvement.  In fact, they are saying that we should expect high casualties this summer (after which – without explanation – we’ll have beaten the TB in the south), then we’ll move the troops up to RC-East where there’s still a lot of fighting – and as a result, we’ll have another spike in the ‘fighting season’ of 2013, after which (according to the neat schedule the Kagans map out) we’ll be ready to hand over control of the country to GoIRA and the ANSF on schedule in 2014.

 It’s sheer madness, and so far as i can tell, in the mainstream media and reputable publications, it is going almost entirely without challenge. 

Colonel YYY”

kip June 8, 2011 at 2:38 am

This post is right on the money and it’s high time people seriously started to speak out (not holding my breath though) against people like the Kagans – and the unapologetically baseless group-think which they peddle through the media and through their pseudo-think-tanks.

I have seen the Kagans in Afghanistan too. In fact I see them almost every day in Kabul. I had the misfortune of spending almost a full week in their company earlier this year and have yet to recover from the shock of hearing them describe the rise in civilian casualties as a “strategic opportunity”.

The argument goes like this: ISAF is responsible for 10-15% of civilian casualties and the insurgents are responsible for the rest. As civilian casualties increase, the Afghan people will turn against the insurgents because i/ they use indiscriminate tactics (e.g. ‘suicide bombings’) and ii/ because that’s what happened in Iraq.

Moreover, the 10-15% for which ISAF is responsible don’t matter because “we’re going to get political heat from Karzai no matter what happens”.

Anybody with an iota of understanding of what is happening in Afghanistan can see plain as day that civilian casualties. It doesn’t matter if the insurgents are killing more people, the point is ISAF is supposed to be protecting those same people (I’m sure I read somewhere that COIN is ‘population-centric’). Furthermore, if ISAF claims the moral high ground over the insurgency then it follows that one civilian casualty is one too many.

Anyone with a degree of common sense and/or basic understanding of Afghanistan will get that but the Kagans have neither of those things. In fact it’s so obvious it makes me sick to even have to explain it. Likewise I am at the end of my tether with these people and the shamelessly smug and self-righteous manner with which they ride roughshod over Afghans and their concerns, not to mention those of their NATO/ISAF ‘Allies’ (if we’re still calling them that).

The tragedy is that these people are not voices in the wilderness. The crap they come out with reflects the crap on which ISAF’s ‘strategy’ is based and the crap outcome towards which we are inexorably heading.

CE June 8, 2011 at 3:03 am

Fred Kagan reminds me of Dennis Nedry from Jurassic Park.

Just thought I’d throw that out there.

TS Alfabet June 8, 2011 at 4:58 pm

Hmmmm….

So, Sekundar.

What’s your analysis? What competing theories and strategies are *you* putting forth?

You do realize that the WSJ piece by the Kagans was speaking in generalities, right? When they say there is “undeniable progress” in the South, you surely can’t dispute that there has been progress in the South. There clearly has been. Your point that there has also been “regress” is pretty nit-picky, you must admit.

And what about putting personal issues aside? As a first time reader of yours, your complaints about how they jet around A-stan come off sounding juvenile. Like they’ve offended your personal sensibilities somehow and you’re going to take it out on them in prose.

Seriously. The WSJ piece is alot of general observations— a basic argument– that the U.S. should not pull significant numbers of troops out of A-stan this year (or next). Other than being a harpie and saying in response, “Maybe yes, maybe no,” why don’t you provide a little analysis of what *you* would recommend. This blog isn’t the NYT Theater Guide and you aren’t critiquing “Rent.” If you are going to vent at least give some positive points of your own.

Just sayin’.

Sekundar June 12, 2011 at 4:05 pm

The solution I’m recommending is that experts take the time to assess and decide future courses of action. My point was that the Kagans are not those experts. Despite their weeks in the field and access to information, this article makes it clear, yet again, that they are not learning.

As for the progress, I don’t consider any district center that requires hundreds of international soldiers or marines to guard it a sign of progress. Because ISAF will not be in Afghanistan forever. If, after ten years and will at most three years left, we still lose districts, that’s not progress. It’s just not. Again, I’m not denying there has been progress in some quarters; I’m saying that not all trend-lines are moving up. The Kagans’ piece skipped that unnecessarily. Maybe they could’ve taken out their two cents about Vietnam and used the extra words to add a shred of nuance.

Nathan June 8, 2011 at 9:05 pm

Did you miss his illustrating details? Seriously, we’re going with the “don’t just criticize!” critique?

Anyway, read this blog as if it has something of a narrative arc. It can make it hard to jump in in the 8th year of this thing, but there’s often some assumed knowledge in posts. Sorry they’re not all self contained, but follow back some of the links.

Nathan June 8, 2011 at 9:12 pm

Scratch that. Judging from past comments, this is a pattern for you. Critics of the claims of amazing progress are just wrong to you. They just don’t prove their case. But those who claim progress get a pass; no skepticism from you.

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