So, yesterday, I got into a fight with Joshua Foust on Twitter (natch). I took issue with his characterization of the new CNAS report on Afghanistan as “a very positive first step.” Recall that earlier this year he’d called the Afghanistan Study Group report which had similar recommendation “an exercise in determined ignorance,” and indeed, Foust could not resist another dig at the ASG report yesterday, calling it “empty posturing.”
Foust took umbrage when I called him on his apparent dual standard, and I accused him of embracing a Washington, DC “kiss up, kick down” approach to criticism. He denied it, arguing that instead he had just turned over a new leaf in terms of tone. We’ll see. Why do I care? I care because I like Foust. He’s smart, writes well, and is a genuinely interesting analyst. He’s also young and still coming into his own. Andrew Exum also started off as a smart, genuinely interesting analyst, but he’s turned into a courtier (and worse). I’d hate to see the same thing happen to Foust.
Anyway, in the course of our “debate,” Foust accused me of not caring about facts — which is, I think, a pretty extraordinary claim. I may be a jerk with the social skills of a Bolshevik, but I am a charter member of the “reality based community,” no? Foust’s problem is that the only facts he seem to consider relevant are Afghan-specific. So even in his constructive take on the CNAS report, he notes, “I still think their end force strength is as arbitrary without further explanation as ASG’s” (both reports recommend a residual force of roughly 30,000). For Foust, this sort of figure must be grounded in operational details on the ground. But why? Both the ASG report and the new CNAS one land on 30k because they both judge that to be a sustainable figure given U.S. politics. That is an assessment, certainly, but it is a fact that domestic sustainability matters. Other facts that strike me as relevant, but which Foust apparently consider irrelevant, is that we do actually perform various CT or counter-drug Plus missions around the world — Colombia, East Africa — with a footprint that size or smaller. Sure there are tradeoffs to working from a definition of constraints (or interests) first, but it is not a fatal flaw by any stretch. I sometimes think Foust has something of a T.E. Lawrence complex, a fascination with local culture, but also a blinkered view of the determinants of strategy that is overly focused on culture and operations at the expense of an assessment of interests and capabilities.
Anyway, enough about Foust. Smart guy. I hope he remains a fearless critic rather than a guy who is always half-focused on figuring out which side his bread is buttered.
About the Report itself — “A Responsible Transition”…. Look, I have trouble being objective on this. Last year, we some of us were making similar proposals, report co-author Andrew Exum called us “half-assed.” Well, now the ass is on the other foot, I guess… or something. Point is, Dave Barno and Exum are, in their report, essentially embracing a “counter-terrorism plus” approach. So let me deal with this as fairly as I can:
(1) This is a very good report, better than the Afghanistan Study Group report both its details and structure. I agree with the vast majority of their arguments at this juncture. And this is a very positive development in the debate.
(2) I think the report broaches the topic, but does not close the loop, on precisely what is requires to continue to suppress al Qaeda in South Asia. But then again, no one has a good answer to that. Given the nature of al Qaeda, virtually every policy instrument — and certainly military force falls into this category — is a hammer rather than a scalpel. In short, all strategic concepts are open to an “appropriateness” critique precisely because there is no single, clearly appropriate construct to use.
(3) The report remains incoherent on the issue of Pakistan. I think this is a major problem in 95% of what is written on Afghanistan. The notion that Afghanistan is a key leverage point in promoting stability in Pakistan lacks any empirical support or strategic logic. I’ve called Afghanistan “irrelevant” to Pakistan. I think that remains true. The problem with getting this issue wrong is that it completely screws up an assessment of the stakes in the conflict.
(4) The report opens with a vague preamble about changing circumstances and new facts. This is bogus. Developments in Afghanistan since the 2009 surges have been exactly as any informed observer would have expected. Gates’ statement that “Frankly, progress — even just in the last few months — has exceeded my expectations” is probably accurate. The point is, it is disengenous to argue that changing circumstances are dictating a new approach. The reality is, Exum — and other proponents of the Afghan surge — were simply wrong based on the available evidence at the time. Anyway, it is great that Exum has come around. It is tragic that we’ve had to waste 2 years and $150 billion for him and many of his COIN colleagues to come around. If they hadn’t been so ignorant and pigheaded in 2009, we could have saved a lot of time, effort, and money. Whatever. Spilt milk I guess. But this is yet another demonstration that there is no cost to being wrong in Washington if you’re well connected. Point is, this is a fine report, but I’m not sure why anyone would particularly want to listen to Exum and/or CNAS on this issue at this point.
(5) Finally, about CNAS. I know it has no “institutional positions” and hence no obligation to explain shifts in analysis. But that is wildly disengenuous. We are seeing a major reversal in CNAS’s position on COIN issues — which are their signature area of research and influence — and refusing to acknowledge past mistakes or address new assessments is, well, creepy. It is vaguely Stalinist — you know, we’ll just rewrite history and pretend nothing happened. I am pretty sure that if Heritage new year started promoting higher taxes they would feel obliged to explain why their views had changed. The “no institutional positions” line from CNAS leaders is just a cop out. Own your past mistakes. Acknowledge them and learn from them.