September 12, 2010

A Better ASG

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.