"It's hard to defeat an enemy if you don't understand him." Yes, correct. The problem, of course, is that he's got everything else pretty much exactly backwards.
The war in Afghanistan is worth fighting only if we have well-defined goals and a realistic political and military strategy to achieve our objectives. Right now, we have neither. If the goal is to build a stable, "democratic" regime in Kabul, we will almost certainly fail. Afghans will never see such a government in Kabul as legitimate because democracy is not and has never been a source of legitimacy for governance in Afghanistan. Legitimacy in Afghanistan for thousands of years has stemmed exclusively from dynastic and religious sources.
Just as we misunderstand the basis for regime legitimacy in Afghanistan, we also profoundly misunderstand the nature of the enemy. In Afghanistan, we insist on fighting a counterinsurgency strategy based on secularly defined objectives, while the enemy is fighting a religiously inspired jihad. It's hard to defeat an enemy if you don't understand him. Most insurgencies end through some combination of negotiation and reconciliation, but the jihadists will never sincerely negotiate with us. Our "clear, hold, and build" approach is failing in Afghanistan for the same reasons it failed in Vietnam -- because we insist on prosecuting the approach sequentially -- not simultaneously. We can succeed in Afghanistan, but we need a strategy that is village-based and represents decentralized, bottom-up nation building based on traditional Afghan tribal leadership and legitimacy.
First things first: it's not a terribly controversial argument to say that American-style democracy is unlikely to succeed in Afghanistan. "American-style" anything is pretty unlikely in a country that doesn't share our history, not to mention our prosperity. I'm no great supporter of democracy promotion as foreign policy, but it's getting a little boring to consistently hear critics say "there's no way the _________ will ever be able to pull off American democracy!" when there isn't really anyone suggesting that this is necessary or likely.
That digression aside, let's examine Johnson's specific assertion that "legitimacy in Afghanistan for thousands of years has stemmed exclusively from dynastic and religious sources." Bottom-line up front (BLUF), as they say in the military: this is the plainest BS.
I appreciate that the format is limiting, and that there isn't a whole lot of room for examples, evidence, or explanation. But there is simply no way to justify the argument that "legitimacy in Afghanistan has stemmed exclusively from religious sources," and the only way to understand "dynastic sources" as determinative is to misread history pretty dramatically. I happen to have just finished reading a great paper that speaks to the way legitimacy has historically been established in Afghanistan. It's called, conveniently enough, "Problems in Establishing Legitimacy in Afghanistan." The author, Thomas Barfield, notes that leadership in Afghanistan has usually been a prerogative of the strong and the (comparatively) rich. But perhaps even more interestingly, the Pashtuns have been something of an outlier to this trend: rather than falling in behind powerful leaders and accepting the legitimacy of those warlords and princes whose armies prevailed in battle, Pashtuns are more apt to ask what you've done for them lately:
If there was an alternative model to this system [of rule by victors in war], it was to be found among the tribal warriors who inhabited the marginal zones of steppe, mountains, and deserts of the region. Organized through segmentary kinship groups which were often egalitarian in social structure and prone to reject the legitimacy of any hereditary leadership, they had a high rate of participation in warfare, open political systems, and rarely considered defeat in war anything other than a temporary setback.And then a little later:
Leaders had little formal power to command because their authority depended on building consensus to create a coalition of the willing. In the absence of such a consensus they had no power to command obedience or to punish the recalcitrant.No mention of whether the "coalition of the willing" was religiously-mandated.
So it doesn't sound much like the Pashtuns derive legitimacy "exclusively from dynastic and religious sources," does it? That may not be democracy, but isn't there something at least a little democratic about a people who accept leadership from those most capable of serving their interests?
That leads in to Johnson's second paragraph, where we learn that our counterinsurgency approach is misguided because you can't talk a religious zealot out of fighting you. Only the vast majority of the enemy are not religious zealots, whatever the talking points might say about mujahedin or jihad. Johnson's argument may pertain to al-Qaeda, and perhaps even to the most committed, hard-core Taliban, but it most certainly does not apply to the bulk of Afghan insurgents. (This fact is so well-understood by this point as to be taken for granted, so I was almost shocked to see it invoked by someone considered to be a serious commentator on Afghanistan.) As Stathis Kalyvas has proven, the populations embroiled in civil and sectarian war generally support the party that proves itself most capable of providing security. Violence is instrumental, designed to serve a purpose, and typically not a product of the motivations to which it is more often ascribed: ideology, the breakdown of social norms, political polarization, ethnic identity, and so on.
All of which is to say that Johnson has it about as wrong as you can get it. Josh Foust has highlighted poor analysis by Tom Johnson before. Here's yet more evidence that superficial (often ideological) appeal is more important when trying to get in the papers than, you know, being right.