Defending the Afghanistan Study Group

Josh Foust has an important post up at Registan criticizing the recent Afghanistan Study Group (full disclosure, I am a signatory to that report). I won’t bother to summarize Josh’s points.  Go read his post.  But let me respond to a few issues:

(1) Josh is, as usual, up in arms about the lack of “Afghanistan” experts associated with the report.  First, I think he gets this wrong because all sorts of people fed into the process, not all of whom are signatories.  But let’s get to the bigger issues.  Must conflicts be analyzed primarily by regional specialists? In other words, is there are reason to assume that an Afghan specialist — and btw, Josh isn’t one either in any commonly accepted sense of the term — is better at understanding this conflict than say, a specialist in military affairs? Or a specialist in international relations for that matter? I like Josh, but this is one place where he is consistently sloppy.  He just assumes that a certain expertise is required to engage a particular debate, but he rarely stops to actually defend or justify the assumption.

(1a) A corrollary to this point is that Josh misunderstands what the report is about.  It isn’t primarily a document focused on Afghanistan.  It is a document that tries to put Afghanistan into context as a U.S. foreign policy issue.  And in this context, an Afghan-centric focus is precisely wrong.  Look, believe me, I have heard many, many moving, powerful, sad, and sometimes uplifting stories from Afghanistan.  If you have worked in a village, building a school so girls can learn to read for the first time in 15 years, and have seen friends and colleagues die for the effort, the idea of approaching the Afghan commitment with any sort of dispassionate analysis is tremendously difficult.  I genuinely honor and respect the work and sacrifice of the men and women who have served in Afghanistan, but to be blunt, they are too close to the issue, and their personal experiences rather than giving them any great insight into the issue clouds their judgments. 

(2) Josh, in his righteous indignation, cherry picks pieces of the report to make what are, in the end, specious arguments.  For instance, he is worked up over the fact that the report recommends a CT focus in Afghanistan relying on drones and SOF to keep any resurgent AQ presence off-balance.  As Josh argues:

The ASG recommends a drone campaign supported by Special Forces as an alternative to a conventional military presence. But there’s one problem with this argument: Faisal Shahzad says it was the drones that inspired him to plant a bomb in Times Square, not the massive conventional military presence. So, if we’re to follow this logic, then the ASG’s recommendations will increase the radicalization of young men in the region, and lead to further attacks on the U.S.

Now look, the report argues that a large-scale American commitment contributes to radicalization, and so recommends a smaller footprint.  Josh responds with a single case of a man who launched a failed attack.  Lots of issues here.  First, the report does not claim that drones attacks have no radicalizing effect.  It only argues that the radicalizing effect is worth it in order to continue to suppress terrorist activity.  Second, the report does not even argue that drones are less radicalizing than a large occupation, though I would argue it could.  The issue isn’t that we should not ever do anything that might radicalize someone — for various reason, radicalization of at least some is literally not preventable and any pretext will serve as justification — the issue is whether the whole package has more or fewer pros and cons.  Josh, and again, I really like and respect Josh, but his criticism here reflects any almost complete lack of strategic sense.  He’s picking out this recommendation and instead of seeing it a mitigatory (or risk management) element of a broader strategy he’s imbueing it with some sort of deeper claim that the report never makes.  My simple request, read the report as a whole, compare to current U.S. policy and ask which makes more sense?  Might there be a better holistic strategy out there? Sure.  But I have not seen any enunciated with the sort of depth and consideration in the ASG report.  But if you compare this report with current policy, I think the ASG report is more realistic and sustainable than what we’re doing.

(3) Josh is also upset about us dictating to the Afghan, particular in the report’s recommendation on “power sharing and political reconciliation.”  He writes:

ASG says that peace will not arrive without the broad support of the Afghan people, and this is true, but no where in this section do they demonstrate that their plans, like encouraging power-sharing “among all parties,” including the Taliban, is something the Afghan people actually want.

Amusingly enough, he contradicts himself in the very next paragraph where he notes that Karzai himself seems to want a broad reconciliation.  Yes, Karzai’s outreach is “deeply controversial” but the WSJ article that Josh himself cites notes that at least some of this resistence is from non-Pashtun groups who, as a practical matter, stand to lose politically from any reconciliation with the Pashtun plurality.  De-centralization is a middle-ground option.  It aims at Pashtun reconciliation without restoring Pashtun domination.  We can’t enforce that, and we shouldn’t.  But recognizing that this is the logical negotiation saddle point and developing a policy around pursuing it is hardly a neo-colonial enterprise. 

Think more in terms of international conflict resolution mechanisms.  An outside party may try to push parties towards what seems like a logical outcomes — say a two state solution in Palestine/Israel (also deeply controversial)– without necessarily impinging on self-determination.  The United States is not obligated to Afghanistan, so if we are to remain involved we can make movement towards what we consider a durable peace a precondition.  The Afghans can always reject it, deciding instead they prefer endless warfare.  But a quasi-permanent commitment which undergirds this sort of rejectionism is hardly more conducive to Afghan self-determination.  Either way, we’re messing with the equilibrium.  Recognizing that and trying to move toward a fair situation is the best we can do under the circumstances.

(4) Josh makes a peculiar argument about force sizing:

If there are only 30,000 troops left in the country, how is that enough to both train the Afghan security forces, and maintain a sufficient counterstrike capability within the country, and prevent the Taliban from expanding its areas of influence, and run the assets and resources necessary to keep it all flowing? ASG never answers those questions—they just arrive at an arbitrary number then assign that number an impossible number of tasks. It is an unserious argument on its face.

I have no idea where Josh’s arguments here come from. What number does he think is the right number?  We could certainly quibble about details, but a 30,000 man presence with a training and CT mission is eminently reasonable.  In fact, it would be a very robust presence relatively speaking.  We do similar things in Yemen with a fraction of that number.  Same in Colombia.  Same with the activities of CJTF-HOA.  Back in the old days, when a billion dollars was a lot of money, a 30,000 troop commitment was considered a massive deployment of forces.  I have no idea where Josh’s arguments are coming from, as I say, but I find it hard to imagine that a sophisticated force generation model would recommend a larger footprint for the mission laid out in the report. 

(5) Here is the key problem.  Josh writes:

To be clear: the real problem in Afghanistan isn’t Afghanistan itself, but rather the boneheaded way we wage war, manage reconstruction and development, and do governance mentoring.

No, the real problem is that some people — like Josh apparently — think that development and “governance mentoring” are effective policy instruments.  They aren’t.  I’m beating  a dead horse here, but there is simply no solid empirical evidence to support the imperial hubris that we are able to promote either “development” or “good governance.”  The historical record is extremely poor even in countries that are much more conducive to the project that Afghanistan.  I am not saying that Afghanistan is doomed.  I am just noting that it is extremely poor and conflict-ridden.  We’re talking about a policy instrument that is successful only rarely and trying to apply it to a tremendously difficult case.  It won’t work. It just won’t.  And if it did by some miracle succeed, the result would be transform Afghanistan into something like, I don’t know, Yemen maybe.  How much are you willing to pay, and how many American lives are you willing to lose in order to transform Afghanistan into Yemen?  This is the key kernel of wisdom anyone approaching Afghanistan needs to grasp because then you begin to think not in terms of “victory” but in terms of “mitigation.”  And that is what the ASG is fundamentally about.

Anyway, I’ve gone on way too long.  But as I say, I like and respect Josh, and I didn’t want to let his flawed arguments stand unanswered.

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