Peter Bergen Goes All Miracle Max, Only Gets It Mostly Wrong on Afghanistan

by Sunny in Kabul on 6/3/2013 · 9 comments

Per a nice blurb in Foreign Policy that, admittedly, was in reference to the Tumblr, the writer said that I spend a lot of time countering Peter Bergen‘s assertion in March of 2013 that things are actually going pretty well in Afghanistan. Since I was on vacation at the time, and stuff was shiny, I’ve been remiss in responding to his premise. Like most analysis of Afghanistan, Bergen goes the Miracle Max route, and only gets it mostly wrong. How? By Citing surveys, cell phones, and the streets of Kabul, Bergen reaches the right conclusions, but for all the wrong reasons.

First, a question:

Nobody is claiming all is coming up roses in a country devastated by decades of conflict. But not everything has gone wrong, either. So perhaps the more interesting question — and certainly a more underexplored one — is this: What went right?

Indeed, what is going right? For starters, let’s ask the Afghans.

A poll by Rasmussen at the end of December found that 33 percent of American voters believed their country was going in the right direction. By contrast, a poll of some 6,000 Afghans conducted by the well-regarded Asia Foundation found that in 2012, 52 percent of Afghans thought their country was on the right track.

The Asia Foundation is “well-regarded” since their annual survey helps promote the narrative that the effort in Afghanistan isn’t wasted, and that the billions we’ve spent on this country are getting things done. And it’s true that the 52% he references is an increase from previous years. Where this falls apart is in the methodology used by the surveyors: 24% of all respondents to the survey live in the Central/Kabul region. So fully 1/4 of the people being interviewed are living in the most secure/best-funded part of the country. Naturally their responses are going to be skewed to the positive. The “52%” further breaks down when examining the percentage of respondents by province: Kabul accounts for 15% of all respondents, and the next highest percentage of respondents by province is Herat, with 7%.

It gets even more complicated when looking at the reason some sampling points had to be changed. In 2012′s survey, 16% (or 168 total sample locations) had to be changed for security reasons. This was a 5% increase over 2011, and was equal to the high set in 2010, at the height of the coalition troop surge. What does this mean for the survey?

The replacement of 168 out of 1,055 sampling points for security reasons means that some areas with high levels of insecurity could not be accessed by the field survey team. This, in turn, means that the opinions of those living in insecure areas are likely to be underrepresented in survey findings. This year, the total number of sampling points is 25% higher than in 2011, 2010 and 2009. This is at ACSOR’s recommendation to spread sampling points more widely and decrease the margin of error.

That last point is telling: they sampled more places, and what they found was a 5% increase in insecure locations. Bottom line: they’re interviewing people in the most secure areas in the country. The main reason people thought Afghanistan was headed in the right direction? Security, with 41%. Next up? Reconstruction/rebuilding, with 35% of the vote. Which makes sense, since, over time, the areas of greatest focus when it comes to reconstruction funding have been those parts of the country that are the most secure.

Bergen then walks us through some of the positive changes in the Afghan economy:

Afghanistan’s GDP in 2001 was some $2 billion — about the size of Burkina Faso’s. In a decade, GDP has gone up to $20 billion (though much of it is attributable to foreign aid). Today, one in two Afghans has a cell phone, which they use for everything from getting their salaries wired to them to making utility payments. There are also now dozens of newspapers and TV channels. Where once Kabul’s streets were largely silent, they are now a bedlam of traffic and thriving small businesses.

So Bergen admits that the growing GDP is due mainly to foreign aid. And while it’s true that 50% of Afghans have a cellphone, it’s also true that only 1/3 of the country has access to electricity, so making those utility payments isn’t really a great metric, either. TV channels? Sure, they are there, and in abundance, but with 33% electricity access, is that really such a big deal? If you can’t keep the lights on, is TV that high on your list of priorities?

His last sentence here, though, is the one that makes me twitch worse than the idea that they’re remaking Point Break: all that traffic in Kabul? It’s a sign of poor security, not economic growth. I regularly hear from Afghans that they can’t go back to their home villages because of the provincial security situation. I’m fully aware that the small circle of Afghans I deal with isn’t a scientific sampling of the population, but the bustling streets of Kabul are also home to several IDP camps. There’s a reason those camps aren’t in say, Kapisa, or Ghazni: they’re refugees, not residents.

So we’ve covered feeling good about feeling good, economics…what’s next? How about governance? Let’s keep it real, people: Karzai‘s not so bad, when you compare him to the alternatives, right?

Karzai should also be judged by his immediate predecessors. Let’s recall Taliban leader Mullah Omar, a dimwitted religious fanatic who turned his country into an international pariah; the warlords who preceded him; and before them Mohammad Najibullah, the communist puppet who replaced the Soviet occupiers when they retreated in 1989 and ended up being hanged from a Kabul lamppost seven years later.

So his argument here is that Karzai’s better than a Soviet puppet and an oppressor of all things fun. As for the hapless Najibullah, given that we toppled that Soviet regime in the first place, we probably had something to do with that. Since we, well, financed that little revolution. But nice touch on the Mullah Omar aspersions. You stay classy, sir. Dimwitted or no, his Taliban did manage to run their own country for a while.

Then of course there’s the basis of good governance: elections.

By both regional and Afghan historical standards, Karzai is a reasonably competent leader who — despite his feckless image in the West and despite being in office for 11 years — retains considerable popular appeal. In the last Afghan presidential election, when the votes were finally correctly tallied, Karzai had received 49 percent of the vote against dozens of challengers. By contrast, Obama prevailed in the 2012 election against one challenger with 51 percent of the vote. And Britain’s David Cameron leads Britain despite his Conservative Party only receiving 36 percent of the vote in the 2010 election that made him prime minister.

Bergen’s actually using the 2009 election as an example of how much Karzai is loved. Since that election was viewed by both Afghans and foreign observers as deeply flawed, it’s hardly surprising that he beat out a disorganized mass of “dozens of challengers.” Karzai is widely seen as a Western-supported construct who managed to steal that election from all comers, and that win was not due to his overwhelming popularity.

Bergen goes on to discuss insurgent attacks, another fine example of how well things are going here:

That war is not going as badly as you think, either: In 2012, for instance, Taliban attacks dropped as much as a third compared with the year before. Is this just NATO cooking the books? Nope: These figures come from the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office (ANSO), an organization that has collected data about violence in Afghanistan for many years and is far from a cheerleader for the military. In a 2012 report , ANSO stated that the sharp drop in violence is “the first reliable indicator that the conflict may be entering a period of regression after years of sustained, and compounded, growth by all actors in the field.” In January, three U.S. soldiers died in Afghanistan — the lowest monthly American casualty count in four years.

Except that ANSO’s report from the 1st Quarter in 2013 (which, admittedly came out after this article), shows attacks way up from the same period the previous year — 47%, in fact.

Countrywide, the number of attacks by the armed opposition has grown by 47% on Q1 2012, challenging the linear logic that the shrinking IMF presence will result in less military determination by the IEA.  Instead, the opposition has demonstrated an effective transition to domestic targets while consolidating its position in the East.   This increased conflict activity has resulted in NGO staff and projects being impacted in 39 separate incidents this quarter, a 63% increase over Q1 2012, denoting a return to the levels recorded for the equivalent periods in 2011 and 2009.

So while attacks on foreign military forces have diminished (which isn’t surprising, given the reduced coalition footprint — makes it hard to shoot people when they’re not actually there anymore), attacks have instead shifted to the civilian population. Good news if you’re ISAF. Bad news if you’re an Afghan. Finally, though, Bergen asks some smart questions:

Could that momentum return? Some smart commentators on Afghanistan worry that the Afghan civil war will renew itself after the United States and other NATO countries withdraw combat troops at the end of 2014. In an influential July report in the New Yorker, veteran war correspondent Dexter Filkins described how Afghans are girding for another civil war, and he quoted a former U.S. official based in Kabul as saying, “A coup is one of the big possibilities — a coup or civil war.”

This is overwrought.

Here, Bergen and I very much agree. Things here are not going to be as bad as some observers (and admittedly many Afghans) make it out to be, but it won’t be as good as NATO/ISAF want it to be. And I absolutely do not hate this.

Afghanistan is not hopeless. Forty years ago, it was a country at peace with itself and with its neighbors.

Maybe, not too long from now, a new generation of guidebooks will again be raving about the joys of springtime in the Hindu Kush. Nothing, not even a failed state, lasts forever.

While I agree with Bergen’s conclusions regarding the post-2014 hysteria that’s all the rage in some Western media outlets,  he’s missing the point, chasing metrics that measure nothing tangible. The fact is that we just don’t know enough about what’s really going “right” here to point to any solid indications of how things will be in Afghanistan post-2014. That’s because so much of that “right” is dependent on the future commitments by foreign governments. The international community has made quantifiable commitments to the future of Afghanistan, but it’s going to take quite a bit of effort (and money) to maintain the gains made until now. The fact is, there are signs of genuine progress here: foreign investment, developing security forces, and improved life expectancy for the Afghan population. Maybe next time, Mr. Bergen, you can tell us more about those.

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This post was written by...

– author of 15 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Happily married, cynic, and I long to drink the Kool-Aid. Two tours in Iraq, once as an Infantry officer, once as a Civil Affairs officer supporting a PRT. Now it's civilian development work in Afghanistan since 2009. I want to believe, it's just that the lies are so laughable.

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pakistani342 June 3, 2013 at 11:12 pm

I’d like to comment on this excerpt:

Afghanistan is not hopeless. Forty years ago, it was a country at peace with itself and with its neighbors.

I am surprised that experts on Afghanistan can make this assertion so carelessly.

Since the 1960s Afghanistan had been supporting separatist groups in Pakistan and had even invaded Pakistani Territory.

From the 1950 through the 1970s Afghanistan experienced several internal lacerations such as:
1. The ouster of Zahir Shah
2. The murder of Serdar Mohammad Daud (along with about 16 other members of his family)
3. The murder of Nur Muhammad Taraki
4. The murder of Hafizullah Amin
5. The Saur revolution

Afghanistan has not been at peace with itself or with its neighbors since 60 years.

Nothing, not even a failed state, lasts forever – but the wheel does seem to keep coming full circle in Afghanistan every few decades.

anan June 6, 2013 at 8:32 am

Dude, just had a conversation with a Pakistani friend over this. Will you give it a rest?

Exaggeration does not improve your case. Yes, Mohammed Daoud Khan shot his mouth off about Pakistan too much. Afghans have paid a terrible price for that mistake ever since. Since successful GHQs have sought to destroy Afghanistan ever since. Often using Afghans to destroy Afghanistan.

To ask you a question. Why doesn’t GHQ deal with Afghans through Kabul? Why does the Deep State instead deal with every sub-faction in Afghanistan?

Russia, Iran, India, ISAF, NATO, Turkey, US, UN interact with regional factions. But they still work to a larger degree through Kabul.

Sunny in Kabul June 6, 2013 at 8:58 pm

When you suggest that someone should “give it a rest,” do you mean me or Mr. Bergen? I’d say that to Mr. Bergen, since, well, he’s wrong. And only adds to the mass of poorly-conceived assumptions about the state of things in this country.

GHQ does deal with Afghans through Kabul. Which is really the whole problem. ISAF/NATO has paid lip service to the “one tribe at a time” or whatever, but has no idea how to make a district-up system work here. And in 2013, it’s too late for that, anyway.

Martin Doyle June 4, 2013 at 4:31 am

Congratulations Sunny in Kabul, nicely done. Methodically parsing Peter Bergen’s Foreign Policy blurb demonstrates the value of close scrutiny in assessing any given body of work.

Sunny in Kabul June 6, 2013 at 8:56 pm

Thanks for that.

Don Bacon June 5, 2013 at 3:11 pm

“Nobody is claiming all is coming up roses ” — but a lot of it is coming up poppies, which is a change from the times under the ” dimwitted religious fanatic” when there was hardly any such opportunity.

Now poppy is the most profitable crop Afghan farmers can grow, and the opium sales to Iran, Russia and the rest of Europe is a boost to the GDP that is outside foreign aid. Thank you, CIA, for that. (Okay, that’s foreign aid.)

anan June 6, 2013 at 8:36 am

Sunny in Kabul, did you see the last NATO press conference? NATO will keep five regional commands post 2014.

Kabul will continue to be lead by Turkey. North will continue to be lead by Germany. West be lead by Italy (although not mentioned in the briefing, it looks like Spain will remain a large contributor.) East and South will be lead by the US.

The ANSF now have security lead for all of Afghanistan.

Do you think India will honor Karzai’s equipment request?

Sunny in Kabul June 6, 2013 at 8:52 pm

I didn’t, but I’d heard that re: post-2014.

ASNF security lead: is a joke, given how unable the ANSF is to actually defend itself, much less move ahead with offensive operations.

India: doubtful, honestly. India wants a piece of the Afghan pie, but don’t think anyone’s going to give Karzai what he’s asking for in the equipment department.

AS June 15, 2013 at 6:00 am

I am no fan of Bergen but I find it ridiculous that after 12 years of war in this country it is an “unknowable” fact among Afghan watchers how to assess what will happen in country post-2014. Your article uses that point to justify more foreign involement (i would use the word meddling) in AF but you and other AF watchers whose livelihoods come from this war should ask yourselvs at what point does the amount blood and treasure sent down this black hole exceed the return we can expect to receive?

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