Picking at Scabs

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.

4 comments to Picking at Scabs

  • Madhu

    “….a Washington, DC “kiss up, kick down” approach to criticism.”

    Dr. Finel,

    As someone far, far, far, faaar removed from the DC process (thank goodness!), I don’t know what to think about what you’ve written.

    I’ve spent my entire life in some sort of academia – and a child of an academic at that! – and I know all about the “kiss up, kick down” culture of academic institutions. I imagine DC is like Boston or Palo Alto or Hyde Park, or whatever, to the nth degree. I know, too, that many fine and original minds exist in think-tankistan and that the majority of people within that world are honest and well-meaning.

    It’s just that, well, I know the academic culture (or think I do) and it CAN be brutal. Careers are ruined through simple neglect of junior faculty, having the wrong advisor or academic “patron”, being in the wrong place at the wrong time, by the politics of the greedy and the corrupt, the corruptness of our institutions, and just plain irritating the powers-that-be.

    Trust me, I’ve been there.

    It’s just that as an outsider to this particular process, I don’t know if any of what you say happened or who to believe. I am not trying to be rude. I am trying to be honest with myself and to be fair. I’ve always appreciated that you answered my questions on Abu Muqawama during the great debates that took place. Truly, you are a teacher.

    So, I’ll choose to take each person as they present themselves publicly and to argue and assess things from what I’ve read and studied (in my own haphazard layperson way, of course.)

    I don’t know where I am going with this except that I don’t care to speculate about people’s motives. Well, out loud. I’m not stupid. It’s not hard to see certain patterns but how do I know it’s not ass-kissing so much as a genuine desire to rise and to have a meaningful career in which you serve your country? And, yes, I know, a desire to rise can sometimes fool you. It can trick you. It can make you a person you never thought you’d be.

    Trust me. I know.

    I want, too, to take a good tone, to be polite, and listen to everyone equally, and to read more deeply and more seriously. So, I owe a lot of the “COIN-ish” bloggers a debt of gratitude. Whatever uneasiness I may have I will leave to my own thoughts.

    Because, how would I know?

  • Madhu

    Wow, all of those “trust me I know”‘s are really irritating?

    What can I say? I am deeply suspicious of large bureaucratic institutions. I try to be fair but that is my bias. It’s largely because of the negative experiences I have had in the past.

    Oy, the stories I could tell! And, yet, we academics never do, do we? Well, how could we. I’ve got no documentation, I probably was confused and got it wrong, I don’t want to wrongly malign people, and I don’t want the bother.

    No wonder our institutions run to corruption….who will be the whistle blower? :)

  • There is little more that I can add. Look, I have acknowledged, over and over, that personally Exum is a gracious and intelligent fellow. I would like to like him. And ultimately, I think he has a lot of good in him. But my judgment is that he is overly impressed with the people around him. Is this genuine hero worship? Or cynical careerism? Something else? I don’t know.

    Here is what I do know. His public positions and his private views have sometimes been at odds. If you talk to people in the community, this is a well-known issue. Now, there is a generous interpretation, which is that he is careful in public, but more free-wheeling in private. And generally, I’d consider that a virtue. But not in this case. Publicly pushing for a massive expansion of a costly military conflict while holding doubts close to the vest is problematic. I respect Exum for allowing his views to evolve. But I am also cognizant that he has not been willing to express this evolution in public until he was able to find a power patron to provide top-cover. There is something unseemly about only being willing to express one’s views when you can get a three-star to co-author.

    Beyond that, I’d rather not comment. Believe me or not, but Ex, and various other people in the COINdinista community have been guilty of repeated transgressions of professionalism so egregious that I have never witnessed the equivalent even in the rough and tumble world of academia. Recall, I was full-time at Georgetown for ten years. I was active in the ISA, serving on executive council of one of the most active sections (ISSS). I’ve seen academia up close in various ways, and I’ve personally been chewed up and spit out in the same manner as numerous other young academics. But despite that, I’ve never seen the sort of shenanigans there that I’ve seen over the past several years.

    You can believe it or not. Really, I am not that concerned regardless. All I can do is express my views with as much honesty as I can. People can accept my version or dismiss it. And look, maybe I am just horribly biased in ways even I can’t understand. But I don’t think so.

    Sorry for the rambling answer… but there are limits to what I feel I want to say in public. But the long story short is that some of the things I’ve personally witnessed are indicative of either major errors of judgment or lack of character.

  • Madhu

    I’m sorry Dr. Finel, I didn’t mean to say that I didn’t believe you, just that I am in no position to judge and I understand that for professional reason a person must be discrete. That’s professionalism

    And if it is true, that is very very sad because the stakes are so terribly high.

    How did we get here? The only part of the discussion about Afghanistan that I feel I have any inkling about is Pakistan (immigrants, the diaspora, immerse themselves in these issues for, well, their entire lives. That’s why recruitment via the internet works. Some of us already have the habit of paying attention and then some are prone to obsessing on top of that.)

    Something seems very wrong to me but I can’t put my finger on it. I keep coming back to institutional biases and inertia. So much money, so many working relationships – an entire edifice of working relationships set up during the Cold War, and then continued, to feed and follow and keep alive? Or just bad status quo thinking, solidified by the nature of DC?

    And then I think that I’m a paranoid or something. It just doesn’t make sense, does it? The sanctuary stuff seemed so obvious that even I picked it up and I’ve got no special training in these topics.

    Anyway, now I’m rambling. I’m worried. We haven’t learned from this past decade and we will continue to make bad calls, I’m almost sure of it. I mean, the new aid bill triples the amount of money to Pakistan, the regime is already jumpy and nervous that we are after their nuclear capability and the Indians are irritated (at least, that’s my reading of the Indian papers. They are, underneath, pissed as all get out that we seem so easily “gamed.” Where will this lead?)

    I am not cut out of the foreign policy world. I get too nervous by what I read.

    Okay, that’s it from me for now.

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