At a Washington think tank panel discussion, I expect at least mild
intellectual stimulation, but not time travel. At the March 16th
lunchtime discussion on Afghanistan: Regional Stability and Global Security at the
Institute for the Study of War, I was transported back to 2006, when the insurgency in Afghanistan seemed to be a manageable problem, and
President Karzai a tolerable leader. Or perhaps the panelists had
awakened from a deep sleep induced that year. The sense of fantasy that
hung over the proceedings was frightening, given that two of the three
panelists had recently advised General Petraeus on the Afghan war.
one who hadnt, Peter Bergen, caught my attention by noting that Afghan
President Karzai wasnt so bad, compared with neighboring thugs like
Uzbekistans Karimov. (He also extolled Afghanistans mineral wealth, a
topic he also raised in an optimistic article for Time magazine on March 17th. As I have pointed out elsewhere, the costs of extracting these minerals make it unlikely that Afghanistan will benefit substantially in the next twenty years.)
Colonel Joel Rayburn, who was also on the panel, saw progress in the
fight against the Taliban in the north, preventing them from cementing a coalition of multi-ethnic Taliban. Oh wait, there were no Taliban in
the north in 2006. But neither Lt. Col. Rayburn nor Dr. Kimberly Kagan,
the founder and president of ISW, seemed to wonder why that was so.
(And, since Lt. Col. Rayburn gave no statistics to support his views, I
will follow suit and argue from anecdote: my Uzbek friends in Mazar told me this fall that their extended family in Faryab Province all support
the Taliban now.)
Kagan said that the Haqqani network was one
of the reasons we were still in Afghanistan. During the Q&A, I asked whether it was possible that we were one of the reasons
the Haqqani network was still in Afghanistan. Dr. Kagan didnt seem to
understand the question, repeating her earlier remarks to the effect
that she was not saying it was going to be easy, or that the Haqqanis
were not still dangerous.
I interrupted to clarify, Im
suggesting that the insurgency in general has grown along with the
American troop presence. Statistics suggest a nearly straight line
correlation between US troop strength and acts of insurgent violence.
Now, correlation does not necessarily imply causality. My
ideaarticulated early in the Iraq War as the antibody theorymight be wrong. But an experienced policy analyst like Dr. Kagan, who holds
undergraduate and doctoral degrees from Yale and has consulted widely
for the military in Iraq and Afghanistan, should be able to discuss it
cogently. Why was it inaccessible from inside the conceptual schema
adhered to by ISWand by extension by General Petraeus?
Indeed, in his testimony
to Congress a day earlier, General Petraeus offered a high noise to
signal ratio. The general referred to a four-fold increase in recent
months in the number of weapons and explosives caches turned in and
found, but didnt say whether this was countrywide or in a particular
area. Its also unclear what precisely he was discussing. IEDs turned
in by the population has long been a counterinsurgency progress
measure, but thats not quite what the general said. General Petraeus
also said that Marja now has 1,500 shops, but without saying how many
they had three or four years ago. That was about it for evidence of
progress, unless you include adding more mentemporarilyto the
attrition-plagued Afghan National Army and police.
* * *
was also surprised by the bland platitudes of the panel, for ISWs own
Carl Forsberg has produced hard-hitting reports on Kandahar that are
very much worth reading. His December article Counterinsurgency in Kandahar exposed the damage done by careless
American empowerment of criminals with lush Kandahar Air Force Base
contracts. He even took some swipes at President Karzais half brother,
Ahmed Wali Karzai, a political boss, CIA pal, and contracting kingpin
widely suspected of involvement in the opium trade. But when I picked up a hard copy of the report at the panel (Id read a PDF previously), I
was surprised to see that the executive summary, which I had skipped
online, buried the indictment of American contracting policy as the last item and didnt mention the name of Ahmed Wali Karzai. Presumably
someone at ISW figured the really big deal policy people wouldnt go
beyond the executive summary, so no need to upset them with reminders of unpleasant phenomena like AWK.
Lt. Col. Rayburnwho previously taught history at West Point, and, it seems, won
$50,000 on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire in 2005was freshly back
from working in Afghanistan for General Petraeus, and his short overview of progress echoed his bosss testimony. The only statistic he gave
didnt exactly show success; he spoke of a battalion that had lost 200
of its 700 soldiers in Kandahar. As he correctly noted, these are World
War II levels of casualties, yet our troops are fighting guys on
motorbikes armed with assault rifles, guys who dont wear helmets or
body armor. What does this tell you about our progress in
It was hard to fasten upon particular inaccuracies
in Dr. Kagans presentation, because of the vagueness of her style.
(Dr. Kagans remarks never evoked the reality of being in Afghanistan,
though she spent 150 days there in 2010 conducting research for General Petraeus,
according to the ISW website.) I did hear her say that another reason
our military presence was important was in providing the security to
nuture good Afghan governance. But it seems not to have occurred to her
that (1) in many places with a heavy U.S. troop presence, there is
terrible Afghan governance and local leaders try to enrich themselves on whatever aid we bring their people; (2) in many places with no
insurgent or US troop presence and little foreign aidthe north, for
examplethere is also terrible Afghan local governance, and a stable
security situtation; (3) while bad local governance may make Afghans
support the insurgency, its not clear that good local governance makes
them go very far out of their way for the Karzai government; (4) in some insecure areas, Afghan district governors and police chiefs go out of
their way to be honest and upright; and (5) we have little knowledge of
why some do this, or how we can make this behavior more common.
dont have any answer to this last question because I dont think
anyone has studied local governance in Afghanistan in a rigorous fashion to find out what correlates with success. Our militarys approach, nine years into the war, is to find someone whos not an obvious thief, drug dealer, murderer, or boy-raper, and do anything to help him out. Often, we over-empower such people and make them more corrupt and sometimes
more annoying to their communities. Carl Forsberg has noted that the US
tends to place unjustified importance to the role of the district governor, who is historically only one of many elements of a districts politics. We try to get rid of the noxious leaders (often they
are reinstated by Karzai), but no one seems to be thinking beyond the
level of good and bad individuals to how to create a local governance
system that encourages good behavior.
These are not brilliant
reflectionsIve heard crisper versions from a dozen American officers
Ive met on embedsbut they reflect reality as I and many others find it in Afghanistan. Reality was in short supply at the ISW event. And that
doesnt bode well for the strategy of the folks Dr. Kagan and Lt. Col.
Rayburn work for.