Exum vs. Exum, or Revisioning COIN in Helmand

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by Joshua Foust on 6/28/2012 · 12 comments

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.”
  • 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.”

  • 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.”

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.

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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 Registan.net. 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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Dishonesty June 28, 2012 at 9:56 am

Shift in momentum 2012:
Insurgent attacks in Afghanistan rose in April and May, the U.S.-led coalition reported, indicating a Taliban comeback after months of declining activity.

Insurgents launched nearly 3,000 attacks around the country in May, up 21% from May 2011
, the International Security Assistance Force said Monday. The coalition statistics, which tally everything from rockets and suicide bombings to small-arms fire and roadside bombs, also showed a modest year-on-year rise in insurgent attacks in April, with just under 2,000 violent incidents.

This violence reversed 11 consecutive months during which insurgent attacks dropped from the previous year’s levels, a metric that coalition commanders have frequently highlighted as evidence that the Taliban had lost the initiative in the war.


TJM June 28, 2012 at 8:07 pm

You pointed out that there are some issues with how Washington “picks its experts, what those experts actually know, and how those same experts mistake fame for knowledge.” I agree. But, I think you skipped over a more problematic issue.

Rather than asking how we pick experts and how we size up their usefulness or competence, we should first ask why we are even picking them. Our experts were selected not for expertise, but for their ability to sell a course of action. The experts best positioned to sell that course of action are those who have credentials that are convincing to their target audience. The target audience was the media and Congress. So, it actually makes perfect sense that think tank dorks were trotted out to advocate.

If the experts were sought for formulation of a course of action, rather than advocating for an existing one and/or offering minor modifications to an existing one, then other individuals would have made much more sense. Afghan anthropologists, field researchers, NGO workers, and others would have featured more prominently in the mix. But that was not the purpose of the experts. This was more marketing and advocacy than planning and analysis.

With that in mind, I find the rest of your rant to be pointless. So some guy who advocated for a course of action now looks back and points out a myriad of problems with it. So what? In the first instance, he was an advocate. It was his job is to accentuate the positive and gloss over the negative. That’s what advocates do.

Does that paragraph irritate you? Does it make your skin crawl? Well, if it does, then re-read the first sentence of my second paragraph. The problem isn’t the quality of the experts. The problem is the purpose for which they are employed.

Joshua Foust June 29, 2012 at 9:48 am

Sorry, Tim, it doesn’t work that way. Exum denies the charge that he’s an advocate. You and I see him that way but he persists in the dishonesty that he is just a humble analyst from east Tennessee who’s trying to understand the world. And that’s just flat out not true, and he needs to be called out for it.

TJM June 30, 2012 at 3:53 pm

He needs to be called out? Why? So that, in 2014, when a similarly ridiculous decision-making process is used to choose a course of action, policy-makers will know that we should not listen to dishonest people? There’s an epiphany. “Don’t listen to dishonest people!” This is petty and absurd.

There is a structural flaw in how we set policy and formulate strategy. In short, we half-ass it and try to proceed with courses of action that are convenient short-term ways to mollify a domestic audience, without regard to worthwhile objectives or likely effects. The experts involved in that flawed process are fungible. You could fire them all and find a dozen equally useful experts to inject into the same structurally flawed process.

Aside from tackling a task that none of us are qualified for – that of judging an individual’s motivations – your argument focuses on one flawed input, rather than a flawed process. The problem is the decision-making process, not one or a dozen experts that were used in that process.

I’ll end on one agreeable note. Thanks to this blog post, I have now added synecdoche to my vocabulary.

Don Anderson July 5, 2012 at 7:59 am

Negative on that TJM.

I am sitting here in Jalalabad this fine evening. Just saw a Medevac Mission go up flying North.

When the “I really care” crowd of guys like Exum sit up thinking “big thoughts” on things they just don’t know anything about at all and Commanders like McChrystal present solutions that just don’t work-there is no such thing as “so what”

ie. We never asked the Afghans what they thought of the Surge…
ps. they opposed it as useless….and they were right.
ps why? The saw the Soviets do the same kind of thing only 2o years earlier….
ps why? 2….They had been insurgents themselves and everything that happened in 2009 had happened in 1985….
ps. why? 3…The whole outcome of the campaign was easily predicted on day one..
ps why? How could a serious Military Commander ask people like Exum and Chayes who knew nothing about Afghanistan pre 2001 what would happen? It verges on ridiculous.

So when I see the Medevac flight go up, and see such self important yet “humble” guys like Exum and the Marines, and CNAS CYA, and I know what they said when the mistake was made, and I see them disavow their failed positions and I see the Medevac go up. I get upset. There are people here getting hurt because of these mistakes, there are billions of dollars wasted on failed decisions, and it is just not a “so what.”

So call me old fashioned, a little patriotic and loyal on the Fourth of July and I will plead guilty as charged. What they did hurt our Nation, hurt our Afghan Allies and was completely misthought and mishandled. It is just not a “so what” to many of us.
If it wasn’t a clear act of ignorant failure- it borders on so much more.

1776 Americans might have more radical remedies for people like CNAS and the Brave Kagans and Combat Vet Nagl
Bemedaled Barno, Mr. Popular Eikenberry, I care so much Holbrooke etc.

And there goes another Medevac …this is a real war here for our Sons and Daughters…There is no “SO WHAT” anymore, out here.

Thanks for thing theoretically TJM…there are no theoretics…out here.

Johny Matrix July 5, 2012 at 1:10 pm

Don – Guess what, I’m up North from you where those medevac flights are going…and I’m not going to blame anyone for the KIA’s we ship out of here monthly.

We need to stop playing the blame game…yes it appears many to include the said target individual have made mistakes. TJM makes a solid point that it is the process that yielded our current predicament, so how do we change that? By publicly humiliating people? Not paying taxes? Mutiny? I myself tend to have a cold adult beverage and shut myself up for a minute or two, but I haven’t been able to find any good dive bars in the Pech River Valley.

Unfortunately, the best way to attack this is to know your enemy…in this case, the overly-conformist / strategy-drives-policy system. Attack it with facts and then disperse those facts to the largest audience possible so that it creates an environment where organizations that pander to political will cannot continue to do so.

Josh, you’re spitting truth and I appreciate your concerning for both the American fighting man (whether you know you have it or not) and your respect for the Afghan. However I just don’t see where this individual came out in overt support for the Helmand movement and hence his deserving of that specific blame. Guess what, I was part of the surge…did I agree with it? No, but I followed orders to see if there was something I could do. Does that disallow me from learning from my mistakes? If so, I will take my years of experience in the hinterlands as a Platoon Leader and advisor and walk on down the road so I can forget about this war…I have no problem doing that.

Steve Magribi July 6, 2012 at 10:13 am

Hey Don….Glad to see you back on the net. Johnny Too….stay low, drink Red Bull. Works for me.

It just goes to show that if you sit in ambush long enough, they will come.

Maybe I have been here too long, but the idea of giving them a Jirga Afghan style crossed my mind. They definitely sold the Tribe a bill of goods. Lashes?

No…just joking. Maybe it is the PTSD, but mercy does not come up in my mind. The “divert the blame” game is what is going on here. Exum put up the smoke screen and we are just driving our rounds out on the straw dummy.

After all, many of us saw this coming.

Let him and them blame them and someone else. But they are broke down commodities in the prognosis department. All of them. Maybe the Sponsors will give to a local food bank and not subsidize the bogus product coming out at CNAS etc.

Don you are right. We just didn’t care enough to listen to the Afghans. We are “so much smarter than them” we have our “A Team” in place. Does not matter they had just wrapped up fighting the Red Army in exactly the same places we are fighting today. We knew better.

Trouble is the move burnt our bridges just when we needed to build them up. We need to listen and quit playing know it all. Nothing to stand on anymore here.

It does not take a “strategic genius” to see that we are not on good ground here. Listening to the Afghans, and watching the seething looks in their eyes when the Patrols pass or a Joker drives by with his Pajaro convoy is enough to see that. So much of this is because we knew so much better than the Afghans themselves. Fatal mistake.

Time to change gears…..completely. It’s not downhill from here anywhere.

Don Bacon June 30, 2012 at 9:21 pm

Thanks for this. To me, the Marine base constructed in Delaram, Nimruz Province was particularly amusing. –from a Chandrasekaran WaPo article, March 2010:

One calls Delaram, a day’s drive from the nearest city, “the end of the Earth.” Another deems the area “unrelated to our core mission” of defeating the Taliban by protecting Afghans in their cities and towns.

The Marines are constructing a vast base on the outskirts of town that will have two airstrips, an advanced combat hospital, a post office, a large convenience store and rows of housing trailers stretching as far as the eye can see. By this summer, more than 3,000 Marines — one-tenth of the additional troops authorized by President Obama in December — will be based here.

“What the hell are we doing?” the senior official said. “Why aren’t all 20,000 Marines in the population belts around Kandahar city right now?

RScott July 1, 2012 at 9:09 am

The Soviets built a big airbase over in the direction of Delaram as well, forgot the name at the moment. But if you want to reference a new element of waste, see the WashPost article yesterday on the $92 million building we are building in Kabul for the Afghan military.

RScott July 1, 2012 at 9:21 am

I think it was Shindand where the Soviets had one of their big bases. Not the center of the world.

Don Bacon July 1, 2012 at 11:00 am

Shindand, Herat, is now a US airbase used to receive supplies. Also Camp Stone is there. It’s thought that the drone downed by Iran originated there. The base will be used to train the Afghan air force.
7/12/2011 – SHINDAND, Afghanistan (AFNS) — By expanding to nearly three times its original size, Shindand Air Base recently became the second largest airfield throughout Afghanistan.
Having been in the works since fall of 2010, completion of the “Far East Expansion” makes the base second only to Bastion Field in Lashkar Gah in size. The project is part of a $500 million military construction effort to support Regional Command West and turn Shindand AB into the premier flight-training base in Afghanistan, officials said.
The new expansion is slated to become the new living and work area for more than 3,000 coalition forces and government contractors. The relocation of these members will make room for a new a 1.3-mile NATO training runway.

JOSHUA NOVAK July 5, 2012 at 5:11 am

I have kept my powder dry for a long time on this subject. But after getting back from Nangahar, Khost and Kunar recently and seeing this, I had a real sense of wanting to vomit. The Post War- “It wasn’t me, nope, not me. I saw the mistake all along” crew are starting to pump up the volume.

What really distresses me so much is that at night you can still hear the fighting. We have soldiers on the line, at FPs all over the place. They are still suffering for what guys like Exum promoted.

Granted Exum never had a clue. We all know that. One month in Panjwai or Khost or Kunar at an FP is worth a couple of tours on Ranger “strike and pull out” HVT missions. We all know that.

Yes, and CNAS’s very own ILT (P)( for probably), had to promote himself as “a close advisor to General McChrystal (now teaching Management, I hear).” The whole gang had to say, “We had our hand on “strategy” in the war.”

But to see him turn a rout into a victory, and back out of fire during the contact betrays all of the soldiers he claims to represent. Yes, CNAS- you backed the wrong plan. Yes, our Soldiers and the Afghans got screwed for no reason. Yes, they were all flat wrong. Bad Plan, Bad missions, Bad results. Artillery Soldiers and Tankers pulling patrols and losing legs on missions of no operational purpose. while the Bad Guys laughed out of line of sight is a sorry excuse. Finally Rajiv Chandrasekan has said what very few were willing to say before.

I will wrap of this harangue with a post from this site about three years ago. The Blame Game is on

Caleb Kavon September 3, 2010 at 1:13 am
Exum, as usual is an interesting cross between Boy Scout and the Coffee Maker to the Kings of CNAS, or AEI lite. Focus on the Lite. Last week he was mumbling about the definition of civil war, while breaking down Christian Groups in the USA- he was pentecostal and do not forget it, Platoon Leader, Policy Maker, Advisor to General McChrystal himself. He says it best, when he says nothing at all. Just don’t forget the cream or Bud Lime as the case may be.
We are going to see more and more of this in the future…”Who lost Afghanistan and or Pakistan and or Iraq? CNAS and the Super Kagans are way out on a ledge and getting shot up. The future autopsy of missed opportunities and massive mistakes is going to fascinating to watch unless something changes quickly as in now.
Who will take the blame? Barnum and Bailey, I mean Barno (CNAS All the Way) and Eikenberry? Nagl, McCrystal, Kagan and Petraeus? The evil corrupt Afghans? or will it be the Treacherous ISI, who fed the Islamic Tiger one too many value meals? We can expect to see much more of this finger pointing via Exum UnPlugged, (live from London, or leading a Platoon to a nearby Village peopled by people just like the good old folks in Tennessee). There is nothing like being the authors of failed policy and COIN is not doing well in its present rebirth. It will be so fun to watch, but a terrible terrible legacy is being placed once again on the Afghan people and now the Pakistanis and or Iraqis as things spiral out of control. They will be all hiding under rocks, Lieven was just taking an extremely easy shot at our failed “Strategic Geniuses.” They need to get used to it.

Exum needs to check up and be willing to go down with the ship. We never fail until the game clock ends, but we can change our play sequence. Now is the time.

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