Ever since Washington Post reporter Rajiv Chandrasekaran began publishing excerpts from his new book literally everywhere (really, I’m glad he’s promoting it this much but I no longer feel like I have to read it to know what he says), a new consensus has emerged about the war: institutions and some individuals screwed up the war (duh), while other individuals (almost all of them uniformed military officers) did their best to make it all work. That may be true to various degrees, but the war never had to be screwed up in the first place: Afghanistan responds well to humility, to limited ambitions, and to long time frames. The COINdinistas now furiously trying to revise their policies never accepted that.
Now, with Chandrasekaran’s book laying out in apparently devastating detail what a monumental screw up the war is, was, and ever more shall be, those same COINdinistas are backpedaling furiously to portray themselves as smart and secretly dissenting from the strategy.
It didn’t have to be this way. The public debate sucked. There are the many issues with how establishment Washington picks its experts, what those experts actually know, and how those same experts mistake fame for knowledge. But still, they were out front and in public, advocating for a war that would never have worked.
The very idea of the war in 2009 was impossible. Obama’s new strategy for Afghanistan in 2009 was crippled by impossible goals and unattaintable dreams: ending corruption, ‘freeing’ women, training an entire Army in a few years, the immediate idiocy of the “civilian surge,” and so on. Chandrasekaran focuses on Helmand almost as synecdoche for the war as a whole, and this has some merit. Going into Helmand in 2009 was really dumb — something this blog noted again and again and again and again and AGAIN. Helmand was an own-goal in the worst way: had the White House or DoD consulted, you know, anyone with actual knowledge of Afghanistan, the Helmand fiasco never would have happened.
No one in charge went to actual Afghan experts, however, and the “experts” that did go now need to fess up to how badly they got it wrong. Few seem willing to do that, however. A particularly brazen version of this new revisionism about the war is Andrew Exum’s column this week.
Exum wrote a rumination on some of Chandrasekaran’s revelations and, as my friend and frequent intellectual sparring partner Michael Cohen points out, there are lots of things to criticize (to put it gently) in his history of the war. But I want to focus on Exum himself, because in his column he tries to portray himself as dissenting from the Helmand strategy, as if he were against the whole thing from the beginning. It is simply not true.
U.S. taxpayers reading Chandrasekaran’s account will be infuriated by the waste and amateurism on display by far too many of their government’s civil servants. They will also wonder, with reason, why young Marines died for a piece of land in southern Afghanistan that many of us warned in 2009 had little strategic value compared with Kandahar.
That link is cute: it goes to a Chandrasekaran book excerpt that portrays Exum, who was on Stanley McChrystal’s “GO SURGE ALL IN” advisory team in 2009, as sitting in a briefing about Helmand writing notes to himself — in ancient Greek, so no one else could read it! — that Helmand was a bad idea.
Of course, if we were to consult Exum’s own writing on the subject, we’d be left with a very different impression. Here’s a children’s treasury of places where Exum did not warn about the dangers of going into Helmand but instead endorsed McChrystal’s strategy:
- Abu Muqawama, April 29, 2009: “‘But because the opium is tilled in heavily populated areas, and because the Taliban are spread among the people, the Americans say they will have to break the group’s hold on poppy cultivation to be successful.’ Oh, well, okay. I guess that makes sense. Incidentally, real “War in Afghanistan” nerds are keeping their eye on BG Nicholson [who came up with the opium-focused strategy].”
- Abu Muqawama, July 22, 2009: “The truth is, General McChrystal has assembled a team of smart officers and advisers who understand the challenges of Afghanistan and are willing to speak unpleasant truths… To say we are facing an uphill struggle in Afghanistan is an understatement. But as a famous commander once said, hard is not hopeless.”
- Frontline, October 13, 2009: “The decision that was made to commit as many resources as we have committed to Helmand province was made long before Gen. McChrystal took command in Afghanistan. Now that we’ve committed those resources, though, we do not have the Afghan national security forces on the ground right now or in the foreseeable future that are going to be able to take over for the Marines once they clear through the Helmand valley…” (He repeated several times the need for more Afghan troops in the south, never once mentioned his “concerns” about the entire gambit being made by a “jackass,” as he referred to a US Major General).
- Abu Muqawama, October 17, 2009: “And in my mind, these kinds of [limited] CT strategies ignore the political dimension even more egregiously than do most counterinsurgency strategies.”
Abu Muqawama, August 17, 2009: “I believe, having replaced the commander in Afghanistan with the military’s so-called “A Team”, we now owe the command in Afghanistan the time and resources to be successful. I believe that policy-makers and the public alike have the right to expect a shift in momentum over the next 12-18 months.”
And so on. Mixed in on his blog are throwaway sentences here and there fretting about not having enough Afghan troops to make success in Helmand feasible, and the predictable pantomimes of worry about the 2009 Afghan election. Here’s why I didn’t include those in the interest of balance: those were obvious problems from the start. No one in their right mind thought in 2009 that the ANA could take over from the Marines, and no one in their right mind in 2009 thought that the Presidential election would be anything even vaguely resembling legitimate. Exum’s continued advocacy for a COIN strategy (whatever minor caveats) at the time was bad enough. But to then declare, three years later, that you were secretly opposed to it all along and knew from the start it would end in failure is… well it’s certainly not honest.
Anyway, this reminds me of Exum himself writing in June of 2010: “Researchers – whether in think tanks or in the academy – are loathe to admit error or display genuine humility.”
I’d add that they’re also loathe to admit when they get something incredibly, horribly, monumentally WRONG. And they’re especially loathsome when they try to revise and whitewash their own public advocacy of that failure.
This is the dishonesty at the heart of Obama’s war in Afghanistan. And it is the dishonesty that motivates the war’s advocates who now try to claim, only after it’s failed to achieve any of its major goals, that they’re not really to blame. And it is absolutely, viscerally, revolting.