Crusaders, Vietnam, Whatever: Inside the Thomas Johnson Afghanistan Kaleidoscope

by Joshua Foust on 1/19/2012 · 6 comments

My favorite ABD Professor of Afghanistan things of all time — seen here making things up, comparing the Taliban to Irish people or maybe Native Americans, and talking very ignorantly about Vietnam — is back.

The Vietnam thing continues in his latest article, co-written with eternal collaborator M Chris Mason, for the AfPak Channel. “Our enemy in North Vietnam was not fighting a war for communism,” he helpfully tells us, just so we’re absolutely clear about what the North Vietnamese were not doing (which is totally right if we ignore everything about North Vietnam, including its communism). If you were looking for information on what the North Vietnamese actually were fighting for, you won’t find it because he never really gets around to talking about it. But they weren’t fighting for communism!

Anyway, for reasons unknown he chooses to continue digging: “in Afghanistan our enemies are not fighting an insurgency.” Gulp. Let’s read the whole context, and see if that gets any better.

However, our enemy in North Vietnam was not fighting a war for communism, and in Afghanistan our enemies are not fighting an insurgency. They are fighting a jihad, and no South Asian jihad in history has ever ended in a negotiated settlement. And this one will not either. There is no overlap between the way insurgencies and charismatic religious movements of this archetype in the Pashtun belt end. Insurgencies by definition have both political and military arms. Regardless of what they have learned to say, the Taliban does not. One hundred percent of the movement’s leaders are Muslim clerics. After fighting a second war in Asia the wrong way for almost a decade, the United States is now again desperately seeking a way out of the quagmire from within the wrong set of potential outcomes.

Okay, so this… is all wrong. All of it. For starters, South Asian jihads (what a curiously artificial delimitation!) most certainly HAVE ended through negotiation. Sir Edward Wharburton describes one such negotiated jihad in his memoirs (the so-called “Mad Mullah” of the 1897 insurrection in northwest British India) — they end after a period of often-brutal fighting, but they end by agreement.

For another, the Taliban most certainly DO have political and military goals. They’re not particularly shy about them on their website. But also, I participated in a very small way with the Century Foundation Task Force on this very topic, and their principals (including Thomas Pickering, a distinguished ambassador, and Lakhdar Brahimi, the former UN envoy to Taliban-controlled Afghanistan) actually spoke with representatives from the Taliban—who endorsed the idea of negotiations. Oh, and more and more lower-level Taliban commanders are endorsing negotiations as well. It’s almost like they have political ambitions or something! Oh, and remember when they ran Afghanistan? With a military and a government? Yeah it sucked for everyone and wasn’t run well, but to say they have no political or military goals is just ignorant.

So the Taliban actually do have political and military goals, making them an insurgency, whatever the religious trappings around them (which don’t matter, since other Pashtun-dominated insurgencies in South Asia have ended through negotiations and settlement). It’s just wrong, so horribly wrong I’m really surprised that even made it into a draft. What else is in there?

First, the best way to understand the “Taliban” is not as a political entity that can carry out negotiations, but as an event in time analogous to the First Crusade.

And this is where I stopped reading. They actually expand on this a paragraph later, but I didn’t read it. After getting literally everything about the Taliban’s make up, goals, history, and motivations wrong, Thomas Johnson and M Chris Mason then proceed with yet another ridiculous and ahistorical analogy, sourced to nothing beyond their own, crappy, unsourced previous work that didn’t withstand scrutiny. First the Taliban were like Apaches, then the VietCong, then the Irish, then everyone is wrong and they’re really just like the Knights Templar.

This is not the reasoned argument of a master of the subject; it is the insane ramblings of an empty suit, so incapable of describing reality on its own terms it must reach into the hazy mists of history for analogies that don’t work and history it can’t be bothered to get right.

“The Taliban of 1996-2001, which was infinitely more centralized and controllable than it is today, never kept a single such agreement for more than a week,” they write. That’s such a ridiculous hyperbole — Ahmed Rashid’s eponymous book “Taliban” records many accords they struck with both local power brokers and the international community that lasted weeks, months, and years (including with the United States) — that it’s hard to think they’re not just ignorant but actively misleading about the history of how the Taliban behave and act.

However, history, fact, and logic have never stood in the way of Thomas Johnson’s awful Afghan snake oil. For years he has peddled such a lazy, false historicity dressed up like clever allusion and smothered liberally with factually incorrect trivia that have nothing to do with the topic he’s arguing, that it’s not even interesting that he can’t be bothered to keep his arguments similar from article to article. It’s more worrying that he keeps thinking it is okay to peddle such sloppy back alley analytic filth and expect to be taken seriously.

Yet mysteriously, he is — his perch at the Naval Postgraduate School more or less guarantees it (as well as a generous operating fund and lots of staff). So in the meantime, all one can do is pick away at this lazy crap and hope smarter people just ignore it.

P.S. Tom, M Chris, the Vietnam War ended in 1975, not 1976. The U.S. withdrew the vast bulk of its armed forces in 1973, and the South Vietnamese government held on for two years, not three weeks. I know Wikipedia was down recently, but these are very basic, easily Googled facts you should probably get right if you’re going to draw a historical analogy. Love, Josh

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

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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Jim January 19, 2012 at 10:11 am

Heh. I saw this and knew there was no way it wouldn’t end up here.

While the piece is trash top to bottom, on the “they weren’t fighting for Communism” thing, I presume he’s referring to the idea that for the North Vietnamese the conflict was more about independence than the particular ism. That I think is reasonable and defensible.

That doesn’t necessarily change the piece from anything other than a pile of poo though, unfortunately.

Ben January 19, 2012 at 11:37 am


Don Bacon January 19, 2012 at 11:15 pm

This is good example, if one were needed, of why I defended Mr. Foust recently as a thinker that generally gets things right (nobody’s perfect). Here he is at his best, which is pretty damned good.

S January 21, 2012 at 12:30 am

Must feel good to be right.

Johnny Matrix January 30, 2012 at 1:29 am

“They are fighting a Jihad…”

Are you kidding me? Any Afghan worth his salt would laugh at this dude…in fact, you know what just watch this…

Go to 24:25…and watch this rest when you have time

Jakob January 30, 2012 at 7:14 pm

If a Mason on the area, than not Chris but Nick. ‘up the khyber’ by nick mason/pink floyd – ‘up your khyber’ with all the expert papers.

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