I had a really busy week at work and was only able to finish Bob Woodward's new book this morning. I must say, I really enjoyed it. It is almost impossible to dispassionately judge the winners and losers of the book, in large part because your view on who is a hero and who is a villain will be informed by your opinion regarding the outcome of the policy debate in the fall of 2009. Folks who believe the president was wrong to commit 30,000 new troops will have sympathy for Doug Lute, Dick "Richard" Holbrooke and Joe Biden. Folks who argued for a more robust committment, meanwhile, will cheer along Bob Gates, Hillary Clinton, and Dave Petraeus.
For my part, I can see why the White House was not too concerned about this book. I think the president comes out of it looking really good. I was having a discussion last spring with a very distinguished retired intelligence officer who happens to think the president made the wrong decision in the fall of 2009. But, like me, he agreed that the national security decision-making process, unlike the one that led to the invasion of Iraq, worked well. You saw the formulation of policy and strategic objectives, the input from the various departments and agencies, an ongoing examination of assumptions, and a robust debate between policy-makers, diplomats, and military officers. All of the raw emotions on display in the Woodward book -- and your opinions about whether or not the decision was the right one -- should not obscure the fact that the system itself worked. And I, for one, actually admire the way the president ran the process, asked hard (and good) questions, and coolly analyzed his options in his Spock-like manner.
And I think the president got things about right in his own personal analysis: this was 2009, not 2003, and a robust time-and-resource-intensive counterinsurgency campaign was simply not in the best interests of the United States given fiscal realities and U.S. interests elsewhere (both home and abroad). The United States and its allies should instead focus on limited counterinsurgency operations designed to buy time and space to rapidly build up Afghan security forces and allow a transition to something that looks more like a security force assistance mission with a counterterrorism component. (You'll note, though, that the president deemed the words "counterinsurgency" and "counterterrorism" so loaded he simply banned them.)
If I had to fault anyone in the narrative it would be the uniformed military in Washington, DC. I don't think the uniformed military conspired to box in the president, but I do think they failed to provide credible alternate strategies until too late in the process. (The only credible alternative was provided by McChrystal, late in the game, after he was asked what he would do if he did not get the additional 30,000 troops.) I think there was both a failure of imagination and an all-too-familiar bureaucratic inflexibility in the Pentagon that did not serve the president well. (Even after he made his decisions, when the Pentagon simply couldn't wrap its head around the fact that no, 30,000 really does mean 30,000.)
Speaking of Stan McChrystal, is he a surprise winner in all of this? Doug Lute is quoted as believing that McChrystal did not have a conspiratorial bone in his body (I agree) despite plenty of nonsense from the Left to that effect, and after a U.S. Army inquiry cleared him of any wrong-doing in the L'Affair Rolling Stan, Eliot Cohen asked the following:
"I don't get it. The president fired one of our truly great commanders not for things that he said but for tolerating indiscretion, disloyalty and disrespect among his subordinates -- but do these people apply anything remotely like that standard to themselves?"
I'm not as upset by the book as Eliot is, obviously. I think the disagreements and emotions aired in the book are normal for any group of men and women trying to wrap their heads around a very difficult war and determine whether or not the addtional committment of U.S. lives and other resources is worth it. I'm glad the debate was so intense and would have been disappointed if it had not been. And maybe I'm too sanguine about these things, and I'm almost certainly in the minority in the following conclusion, but I finished the book with a higher degree of confidence about the national security decision-making process than I had at the beginning.
Update: For what it's worth, Steve Coll's take on the book largely mirrors my own.
On a completely unrelated note, four veterans killed themselves last weekend at Fort Hood alone. My fellow veterans, if you are in a bad place this weekend and don't think you can make it until Monday, please call the following number before you do anything you can't take back: 1-800-273-8255 (and press 1). Please, brothers and sisters, the world and the United States are both better places with you in them.
I arrived back in the office this morning to discover a copy of Bob Woodward's new book on my desk with the rest of the mail. The mail also included two other books I ordered from Amazon -- Leonardo Sciascia's The Moro Affair and Colin Gray's Fighting Talk: Forty Maxims on War, Peace, and Strategy -- so it may be a while before I get to reading and commenting on the Woodward book.
That having been said, and since Marc Ambinder is already giving me credit for having convinced Stan McChrystal to institute strict new traffic guidelines for ISAF vehicles*, I need to make one minor correction -- a clarification, really -- to the section of the book in which I appear:
The Toyotas raced around Kabul. The drivers honked their horns rather than step on the brakes, madly changing lanes, swerving through traffic and accelerating at every opportunity. The theory was that erratic driving reduced the chances of a roadside attack. Afghans who didn't jump out of the way could be plowed down. After one of the SUVs ran a bicyclist off the road, Andrew Exum, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security and a former U.S. Army Ranger, asked the driver, "What are you doing, man?"
"You can't be too careful. Could've been a bomb, sir," was the response. But this kind of commute left Afghans on the street visibly angry. The team could see how an emphasis on force protection was causing the coalition to lose the Afghan people. Exum wrote a one-pager for McChrystal about aggressive driving and armored vehicles entitled "Touring Afghanistan by Submarine."
All of that is true. But the title of that one-pager actually referred back to another dynamic -- one that Woodward writes about a page earlier. The way in which I saw NATO/ISAF vehicles travel around Afghanistan bothered me in two ways. The first way is mentioned above: I saw NATO/ISAF vehicles driving around Afghanistan as if we were the sovereign authority and not in Afghanistan on behalf of the sovereign authority, the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. We needed to behave as if we were the invited guests of the Afghans rather than some occupying power. But more than that, the experience of traveling around Mazar-e-Sharif -- a largely secure city in northern Afghanistan -- in an armored German vehicle, whereby I could only observe Mazar and the Afghans themselves through a narrow two inch by four inch slit of bullet-proof glass, really bothered me. It was, as Woodward writes, as if I was seeing Afghanistan through a periscope. And if this was how most German soldiers were seeing Afghanistan, I had no confidence that any of them really understood what was going on in northern Afghanistan at a time when the provinces under German responsibility were noticeably worsening. (And it wasn't just the Germans. In Wardak Province, for example, a U.S. commander insisted on us travelling in an MRAP ... 200 meters.)
I have said before that as someone who makes no claim to being an expert on Afghan culture, I spent much of my time on Gen. McChrystal's review team examining our culture -- and how an operational culture defined by "force protection über alles" hinders our ability to learn about and understand the local dynamics of the conflict. That, in addition to running people of their own roads, was what led to that paper.
On another note, readers of this blog will either be pleased or dismayed to discover that the same black humor and blunt informality you see on this blog are also characteristics of my interactions with four-star generals. For better or for worse, I suppose.
*I was but one of many people complaining to Gen. McChrystal about the way in which ISAF vehicles were racing around Kabul, driving Afghans off the roads and p***ing people off.
Update: Case in point, here is Steve Biddle making pretty much the points I made in an op-ed in the IHT earlier this year. Steve's op-ed is worth reading. The comments section, aside from the usual silliness, is filling up with guys making the valid points that sometimes armored vehicle travel and additional force protection measures are necessary. Absolutely! But officers get paid to take and manage risks in order to accomplish the mission they are given. Between the men and the mission, the mission gets priority. Always. My experience has been that officers and enlisted men understand when reasonable risks are taken to accomplish the mission. They only get bent out of shape when they feel their superior officers are playing too free and loose with their personal safety or that the risks don't make sense in terms of what is necessary to accomplish the mission. I am hardly the first person to note that the U.S. Army, Marine Corps and their allied militaries are especially risk averse, often to the detriment of mission accomplishment. And I would never advise a U.S. military officer to take risks that I would not take myself. But simply buttoning up and doing whatever it takes to avoid casualties is not an option if you're still trying to win. That leads to what I've heard Israeli officers memorably call the "Beaufort Syndrome" after what happened to the IDF in the last years of the occupation of southern Lebanon. Good combat leaders will understand that sometimes you need to do your business in full battle rattle and moving in MRAPs and that sometimes you will need to do your business in nothing more than your ACUs, sitting on the floor of someone's house, drinking tea. You can respond by calling me a pencil-necked think tank geek, which, heh, is very much true, but that doesn't make what I just wrote any less true as well.
Andrew Sullivan highlights the crux of Justin Logan's defense of the Afghanistan Study Group:
I cannot find evidence that either Foust or Exum recognizes strategic thought. Both appear to believe that they are engaging in it by picking nits with various aspects of the report’s analysis, but none of their critiques of the smaller claims does anything to knock down the report’s conclusion: that America has limited interests in Afghanistan; that those interests are actually reasonably easy to achieve; and that our current efforts there are at best wasteful and at worst counterproductive.
First off, I am not sure when, exactly, I pushed Justin's mother down a flight of stairs, but I must have done it, because man, Justin seriously doesn't like me. That having been said, I think he is certainly correct when he argues that the United States has limited interests in Afghanistan and that our efforts thus far have been, in some cases at least, wasteful and even counterproductive. (I think Justin and I would probably be in agreement, for example, concerning the effects of the massive amount of aid and development money that has flowed into Afghanistan since 2001.)
Where I think Justin and the rest of the ASG get things wrong is when he says that our interests are "reasonably easy to achieve." This gets back to the main point I made in (constructively, I thought) criticizing the ASG: the lack of actual knowledge of Afghanistan and the current environment there within the ASG contributes to a drastic underestimation of the difficulty we would have securing our interests through their proposed strategy. (They might also, as one friend pointed out, similarly overestimate the costs of the status quo.) So again, I applaud the efforts of the ASG, but they would have perhaps been better off drafting this guy or this guy -- neither of them "counterinsurgency enthusiasts," as Steven Walt has taken to calling me -- into their team to help them sort through how they might operationalize an alternative strategy in a way that makes sense in Afghanistan's local context.
I don't think Justin considers me very intelligent, and, heh, he's probably right. But my limited cognitive capacity has paradoxically given me enough epistemological humility to know when I don't know something and need to ask for help. Every paper I write for CNAS on Afghanistan, for example, is sent out to people who might not agree with me but know more about Afghanistan than I do. Even the smartest kids in class, with the grandest theories about how the world is supposed to work on paper, need to check their work against subject matter and area experts. Not doing that results in the anguish with which Christian Bleuer, another Afghanistan expert who isn't a fan of the current strategy, greeted the ASG report.
Finally, regarding whether or not I understand strategy, allow me to quote someone who most certainly does understand strategy:
Strategy is very difficult for many reasons, one of which is that it is neither a question of politics nor fighting power, but rather the conversion of military effort into political reward.
War is the continuation of politics by other means, and all politics is local. (Tip O'Clausewitz said that.) And for the reasons outlined by Josh, Christian and others, I just don't think the ASG managed to explain how it would convert military effort into political reward in a way that makes sense in the context of Afghanistan. I suggest the gang at the ASG should not take the criticism so personally and should instead think about how they can do things better the next time around.
I know think tank researchers, like scholars in academia, are not supposed to admit when they have been wrong about something. But as regular readers of this blog know, I am not above doing that from time to time, in part because the learning process is usually more important than the conclusion at which I have arrived. In June of 2009, I wrote the following in a paper for CNAS:
The United States and its allies must work with the Afghan government before and after the upcoming election to expose and combat the egregious corruption that has eroded popular support for Afghanistan’s civilian institutions.
Yesterday in the New York Times, meanwhile, I said this:
Unless you are prepared to stay in Afghanistan with high troop levels for at least a decade, then an overt campaign to tackle corruption is a big mistake.
So, you're asking, what gives?
Between June of 2009 and May of 2010, when I wrote this paper, I have struggled to determine the wisest course of action for the U.S. government concerning corruption in Afghanistan. From what I can see, there are basically two schools of thought: On the one hand, you have serious people like Sarah Chayes who argue that corruption is the problem in Afghanistan. Afghanistan does not have a weak government, this argument goes. To the contrary, it has a quite effective government: it is "effective" at essentially lining the pockets of the ruling class at the expense of the people themselves. I remember talking with Sarah in Kabul in June of last year and being converted to this way of thinking.
But as I spent more time in Afghanistan last summer and talked to more people back in Washington, I starting wondering whether or not the United States had the time or committment necessary in Afghanistan to really tackle the issue properly. If Afghanistan was going to be our 51st state, then it makes sense to send Patrick Fitzgerald or whoever over to Kabul and let him do his thing. But the reality is that we are trying to leave Afghanistan. So the other school of thought on corruption argues that trying to target corruption in Afghanistan is, like counter-narcotics, the very definition of mission creep. Let's just train up the Afghan National Security Forces and trasition to a security force assistance-type mission as soon as is humanly possible.
I have more sympathy for that second school of thought these days. But I also think Sarah and others are correct that corruption might eventually undermine the very host nation government by, with and through which we plan on keeping al-Qaeda and its allies at bay. So what should we do?
I was greatly enlightened listening to a retired U.S. diplomat last spring who made the point to me that overtly pressing Hamid Karzai on issues related to corruption without first establishing a relationship of trust actually encourages the worst kind of political behavior. Karzai, he argued, goes into a defensive crouch and then lashes out. A better way to approach Karzai would be to first establish a relationship with him and convince him that we are in this conflict together. After establishing a relationship of trust, issues where our interests do not allign could then be tackled discretely. And where we ask Karzai to make what we feel to be necessary reforms, we could ourselves take steps mitigate the risks he would run by doing so.
These ideas made their way into this paper I wrote in May:
Hamid Karzai is, for better or for worse, the United States’ man in Kabul. He can be forgiven, though, for not knowing who his man is in the United States. The United States should settle upon one point person for dealing with the Afghan president, because a healthy relationship with Karzai is the “defeat mechanism” the United States and its allies are looking for in the fight against Afghanistan’s enemies. A political strategy aimed at Afghanistan’s leadership can just as easily rely upon a consensual approach as a coercive approach. But in order for the United States and its allies to not resort to coercive measures, they must first build a relationship with the Afghan president. Amb. Richard Holbrooke, living in and operating from Washington, has unsurprisingly failed to do this. So too, though, has the U.S. ambassador in Kabul. A new U.S. “tsar” for Afghanistan might succeed if he is actually based in Afghanistan, and so too might the NATO senior civilian representative if he is given the full support of the troop-contributing nations. Whoever takes the lead in building this relationship, though, must first convince the Afghan president he has an enduring partner in the United States and its allies and then move on to addressing difficult conflicts of interests.
I hope that all make sense. Corruption in Afghanistan is a difficult issue, and how to deal with it from a U.S. policy perspective is a question about which smart, well-informed people can and do disagree. But I do not feel that overt, U.S.-led or sponsored programs are the correct path forward unless they have buy-in from the highest levels of the Afghan government. And I am not sure that we should focus to heavily on corruption as an issue unless we plan on retaining a very strong presence in Afghanistan well past June 2011.
From the comments I have been reading, one of the main reasons the Afghanistan Study Group's report has disappointed so greatly is because people really want an alternative to the current strategy in Afghanistan and could not find one in the ASG that was grounded in the realities of Afghanistan itself. I started thinking last night, then, about how one could have gone about constructing a more helpful report. As Michael Cohen and Josh Foust both noted, it was really odd that the ASG did not include any notable specialists in military operations or any noted experts on Afghanistan. Guys like Gordan Adams, Robert Pape and Stephen Walt are all really smart, sure, and are giants in the field of security studies. But it's not enough in a report like this to talk about grand strategy, the health of the U.S. budget, or the nature of alliances -- you also have to describe how an alternative strategy might be operationalized on the ground.
So I would have approached this problem a little differently. First, I would have started with the planning assumption that the president had re-thought our presence in Afghanistan and had decided that, in light of budgetary constraints and the health of the armed services, a resource-intensive counterinsurgency strategy was too much of a burden going forward into 2011 and that we needed to adopt a lower-cost, lighter-footprint strategy.
At that point, you don't necessarily need to assemble people who do not agree with the current strategy, and you almost certainly do not want arch-realist theorists or anti-war activists who might be tempted to imagine an Afghanistan that fits their favored theory -- and not Afghanistan as it exists. You just need smart people who either know Afghanistan or understand military operations and could commit to imagining an alternative, given the constraints outlined in the above assumption.
Who would I have included in the team that I would have locked in a room for 72 hours to come up with this alternative strategy? Off the top of my head and excluding all those currently serving in government: Gilles Doronsorro, Joanna Nathan, Austin Long, Steve Biddle, Caroline Wadhams, Thomas Ruttig, Shahmahmood Miakhel and Andrew Wilder with MG (Ret.) Paul Eaton and Amb. Ron Neumann serving as co-chairs of the task force. (And Colin Cookman and Katherine Tiedemann combining to take notes and draft the report.)
My group of external reviewers for whatever report they would have written might have included: Christian Bleuer, Catherine Dale, Josh Foust, Erin Simpson, and Martine van Bijlert with LTG (Ret.) Dave Barno and Amb. Zalmay Khalilzad chairing the "Red Team".
There is a bias here, I admit, toward specialists in military operations and area studies. (Who could have guessed, considering my own biography?) But I think the general absence of these two groups may help explain why the ASG report, in Josh's critique, reads as if "it starts with a conclusion and works backward to develop justifications for it" rather than an honest alternative strategy. I think a team like the one I listed above would have done better.
I read through the Afghanistan Study Group's report last night and recommend you all do so as well because some really smart people contributed to it, and I applaud anyone who attempts to construct an alternative to the current troubled strategy. But the fact that Josh Foust absolutely demolishes pretty much everything the report says might highlight how very difficult it is to construct a strategy in Afghanistan that both makes sense in terms of U.S. interests and the reality on the ground. That does not mean, though, that people should not continue to try.
(In all seriousness, goodness gracious ... this post on Registan is the most clinical and devastating take-down of a policy paper I have ever read. It recalls Tony Judt's verdict on Kolakowski's "My Correct Views on Everything": "the most perfectly executed intellectual demolition in the history of political argument: no one who reads it will ever take E.P. Thompson seriously again." Reading Josh's post, I actually found myself embarassed for the authors of the ASG, many of whom are terribly intelligent and considerate scholars, such is the cold-blooded ferocity of Josh's criticism. If you are a think tank researcher who is not an expert on Afghanistan but are about to publish something on Afghanistan, I highly recommend you ask a smart Afghanistan expert like Josh or Christian Bleuer to read what you have written before you publish. Consider that free advice from a think tank researcher who does not consider himself any kind of "expert" on the peoples, languages or history of Afghanistan but who often publishes security-related commentary on the conflict there.)
This isn't the quote itself, but a friend of mine wrote to me after reading my complaint in this New York Times Magazine article:
Exum emphasized that he is not outraged by Medal of Honor or any other military shooter. But he can’t help, he says, being a little bit bothered by these games. “This is the thing,” he told me. “Point 5 percent of this country actually fights in these conflicts.” Nearly 80,000 Americans are deployed in Afghanistan, Exum said, while 2.2 million played Modern Warfare 2 on Xbox Live during a single day last fall. “There’s something annoying that most of America experiences the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which are actually taking place, through a video game,” he said.
My friend put it better than me:
These will be the first wars in which the civilians always remember where they were on 9-11 but never wondered where a bunch of tough-ass 19 year olds spent the next decade.
Some Norwegian idiot journalist has embedded with the Taliban and shot this incredible footage of an attack on a U.S. or allied convoy. These guys sound and act a lot like a U.S. small unit, but replace all the quotes from "Anchorman" and "Talladega Nights" with "Allahu Akbar." Oh, and they have much better hair (12:18). In fact, the David Allan Coe-looking dude with the argyle socks is my new favorite Talib. (h/t Intern Steve) Update: Gah, you guys have lost it. (See comments.) I obviously admire the journalism, I just strongly believe there is a thin line between "hardass" and "dumbass" and that this wildman might have crossed the line. I'm not making a political point. Goodness gracious, you guys are touchy. And quick to defend the intelligence of some dude who later got kidnapped by the Taliban. The only other person I know to have done something like this is Nir Rosen, who I like personally and whose work I admire ... and who I regularly accuse of being an idiot for stunts like this.
It will surprise very few people to know that Battleship and Risk sit on the communal tables outside our offices here at CNAS. Ganesh Sitaraman, hand pictured, pointed out to everyone this afternoon the way in which, as in real life, Afghanistan is a nightmare: unlike relatively secure areas like the Americas and Australia, Afghanistan's porous borders mean occupying players are subject to attack from FIVE sides. Occupying armies should consider themselves forewarned: Invading is easy; staying is hard.
I like both Anatol Lieven and Tom Ricks and always listen to them both on matters related to Afghanistan, even when I disagree with them. (I currently disagree, for example, with Tom's assessments of both Iraq and Afghanistan.) I first met Tom, actually, in a tent at Bagram in between missions during Operation Anaconda in March 2002, and we now work together at the Little Think Tank That Could. And I always really enjoyed listening to the well-traveled Lieven speak on Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia when I lived in London.
I was disappointed, though, to listen to Lieven's broadside against Ricks here (at the 17:00 mark, to be specific). A more careful graduate student would never criticize a professor at the department from where he hopes to be granted a degree in the near future, but Lieven looks foolish when he brusquely dismisses Tom as a "Washington commentator" (what, because the view of Kabul is clearer from the Strand?) proffering "rubbish ... unqualified garbage" who has never "lived in an Afghan village" and is thus apparently unable to say anything of substance on Afghanistan. Lieven comes out of this looking bad, and not only because, ahem, Tom GREW UP IN AFGHANISTAN and spent 25 years covering the U.S. military at war. Lieven adopts the most condescending tone in this interview. As a public service to this blog's many readers in the United Kingdom, listen to this and realize that when you start speaking this way and using phrases like "obviously" and "of course" (not to mention "Northern Ireland"), we Yanks usually stop listening to whatever you're trying to tell us.
Anyway, even though I manage to disagree with both Tom and Lieven on Afghanistan at the moment, I came out of listening to this interview thinking a little less of a man whose reporting and analysis I normally respect.