How Do They Do It?

Conventional wisdom in Afghanistan is changing.  Just a few months ago, calling for a smaller footprint approach focused on counter-terrorism was labasted as “half-assed” and worse.  And people calling for such an approach were accused of being ignorant and labeled as extreme peaceniks.  But times change, I guess because it is becoming increasingly clear that we are moving in the direction of this position.

But I don’t actually want to talk about Afghanistan. I want to talk about pundits and analysts instead.  What is most surprising about this collective change of heart is few unexpected development we’ve seen.  I mean, the Afghan surge has, by any reasonable measure, worked as well as any reasonable person could expect.  Not to be nasty about it, but anyone who expected that Karzai would either be willing or able to eliminate corruption in six months understands nothing about corruption.  And similarly, anyone who thought the military campaign against the Taliban would go better obvious has no understanding of either counter-insurgency nor of the Taliban in particular.

The one thing that has actually changed is that due to McChrystal’s inept forays into trying to shape public opinion, the possibility of a second surge is now significantly less likely.  Was that an implicit assumption for people who supported the massive escalation of the Afghan war? Maybe.  I can’t get any of them to admit it to me.  At most people will acknowledge that they had hoped to weaken or eliminated the 2011 timeline for reducing forces.

So, here is the deal.  You have a group of pundits and analysts who recommended a course of action in August-December 2009.  Then in Summer 2010, many of them have reverse course despite the fact that nothing unforeseeable has occurred in the meantime.  On one hand, it is great that they are willing to reconsider their arguments, but I am surprised by how few of them seem at all chastened by the experience.

A personal aside.  I was a supporter of the Iraq war.  As it became clear that there was no active WMD program in Iraq and as the costs of the war escalated, I came to regret my support for the war.  But unlike many prominent pundits today, this really shook me.  I had a book manuscript on use of force issues about 80% done at the time, and I just shelved it because the Iraq war really made me go back and rethink a lot of assumptions.  Indeed, I wrote very little for the next couple of YEARS because having been so wrong made me doubt my judgment.  Probably, I went overboard.  I’ve always been overly critical of my own work, and as a result I’ve published less than I probably should.

But there has to be some middle path because paralysing self-doubt from being wrong and a sort of glib unwillingness to either admit any errors or even pause in one’s punditry for even a moment.  I dunno, but if I had recommended escalation in December, and was now in August calling for a reassessment of Afghan policy or even explictly recommending a small footprint approach, I was be engaging the debate with more caution and modesty than I see in many of the new converts.  I find it vaguely sociopathic to be willing to argue positions 180 degrees at a remove from previous arguments when only six months have passed.  But there you go.

10 comments to How Do They Do It?

  • Michael Drew

    It would be helpful for you to provide linkage demonstrating this opinion shift (not challenging that it is occurring, but) so we can judge for ourselves if it is happening to the extent you think, and where.

  • On the matter of pundits arguing both cases in a short period of time, I’m reminded of the Sophists. They taught their students to argue both sides of a case, but not because this is a good way of assessing the strength of an argument. Rather, it was to ensure that the students were prepared to argue whatever the prevailing opinion of the people was at a given time – to placate the masses. That’s really all a pundit does. He writes and sometimes speaks about the prevailing opinion of a certain group of people, which makes him a handy person to invite on a talk show or to publish a column on short notice.

    The problem is that they appear, to many, as informed observers who are capable of forming opinions, rather than echoing the non-objective views of others. When I was an undergrad, my International Relations professor actually had us read The Lexus and the Olive Tree and he relied heavily upon it for classroom discussion. Yes, that is one of Tom Friedman’s books. Unbelievable. Over the years, I’ve endeavored to flush everything from that course out of my memory.

  • Micheal:

    I may yet do that, but I think goggling the following people in Nov 2009 and in Aug 2010 will give a flavor: Dave Barno, Steve Biddle, Andrew Exum, Tony Cordesman, Patrick Cronin.

    It does give me added respect for John Nagl. He’s wrong, but at least he doesn’t just blow in the wind.


  • And if you need someone to provide a baseline of consistency and accuracy for the comparison: Gian Gentile.

  • Bruce_R

    Not sure why you include Cordesman: he’s been almost entirely pessimistic about this war. At least as far back as late 2006, and with allowances for how the war as a whole has changed over those three-plus years, I’d say his public statements have been remarkably consistent. What is the late 2009 statement of his you think he’d disavow now?

    As an example, his assessment in December ’06 was (, “Nation building in general, but particularly in a counterinsurgency environment, is a high-risk operation. It is an experiment. Stability operations in general take five to 15 years, and usually they take more than a decade. They take a sustained mix of economic, military, and governance resources. If we are to win in Afghanistan, there is going to have to be clear leadership and a clear administration commitment to doing this.”

    Not too much wrong with that assessment, in hindsight.

  • Bruce_R

    Since you mentioned Nov. 09, specifically, Cordesman’s assessment then was (

    “A mix of NATO/ISAF and ANSF fighting forces can perform the shape and clear missions and part of the hold mission, but if this is all that is accomplished they will still lose the war to an opponent that can win a battle of political attrition against an Afghan government that is perceived as over-centralized, distant, failing to provide basic services, and which is seen as corrupt as well as supporting power brokers rather than the people.”

    Again, not exactly the kind of forecast I’d want to retract right now, assuming I’d made it.

  • Yeah, but in 2009 Cordesman supported the surge. Hell he was part of the assessment team that recommended it! The fact that he also noted the very real challenges at the time is not a plus. It is a negative. He realized things would be difficult, still recommended an escalation, and is now talking about a smaller footprint mission ( Well, guess what? We had a smaller footprint in place before Tony recommended escalating. The reason we don’t have a smaller footprint, more limited mission in Afghanistan is largely a function of the analysis and recommendations of people like Cordesman.

  • […] entered a new phase in the debate over the war in Afghanistan. Bernard Finel writes: Conventional wisdom in Afghanistan is changing. Just a few months ago, calling for a smaller […]

  • […] entered a new phase in the debate over the war in Afghanistan. Bernard Finel writes: Conventional wisdom in Afghanistan is changing. Just a few months ago, calling for a smaller […]

  • […] entered a new phase in the debate over the war in Afghanistan. Bernard Finel writes: Conventional wisdom in Afghanistan is changing. Just a few months ago, calling for a smaller […]

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