World Affairs Journal Blog

Fantasies of Progress at the Institute for the Study of War

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.

The one who hadn’t, Peter Bergen, caught my attention by noting that Afghan President Karzai wasn’t so bad, compared with neighboring thugs like Uzbekistan’s Karimov. (He also extolled Afghanistan’s mineral wealth, a topic he also raised in an optimistic article,28804,2059521_2059653_2059652,00.html 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.)

Lieutenant 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 didn’t 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, "I’m 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 idea—articulated early in the Iraq War as the "antibody" theory—might 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 ISW—and 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 didn’t say whether this was countrywide or in a particular area. It’s also unclear what precisely he was discussing. "IEDs turned in by the population" has long been a counterinsurgency progress measure, but that’s 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 men—temporarily—to the attrition-plagued Afghan National Army and police.

I was also surprised by the bland platitudes of the panel, for ISW’s 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 Karzai’s 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 (I’d 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 didn’t mention the name of Ahmed Wali Karzai. Presumably someone at ISW figured the really big deal policy people wouldn’t go beyond the executive summary, so no need to upset them with reminders of unpleasant phenomena like AWK.

Lt. Col. Rayburn—who previously taught history at West Point, and, it seems, won $50,000 on "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" in 2005—was freshly back from working in Afghanistan for General Petraeus, and his short overview of "progress" echoed his boss’s testimony. The only statistic he gave didn’t 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 don’t wear helmets or body armor. What does this tell you about our "progress" in Afghanistan?

It was hard to fasten upon particular inaccuracies in Dr. Kagan’s presentation, because of the vagueness of her style. (Dr. Kagan’s 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 aid—the north, for example—there is also terrible Afghan local governance, and a stable security situtation; (3) while bad local governance may make Afghans support the insurgency, it’s 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.

We don’t have any answer to this last question because I don’t think anyone has studied local governance in Afghanistan in a rigorous fashion to find out what correlates with success. Our military’s approach, nine years into the war, is to find someone who’s 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 district’s 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 reflections—I’ve heard crisper versions from a dozen American officers I’ve met on embeds—but they reflect reality as I and many others find it in Afghanistan. Reality was in short supply at the ISW event. And that doesn’t bode well for the strategy of the folks Dr. Kagan and Lt. Col. Rayburn work for.