Tuesday, September 1, 2009

How to lose in Afghanistan

That was the title of yesterday's Cordesman op-ed, but probably the simplest way to accomplish that task would be by listening to Thomas Johnson, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School. His response to the question "is the war in Afghanistan worth fighting?" was featured in yesterday's Post alongside Nagl, Bacevich, Erin Simpson/"Charlie" (who is listed as a contributor to Abu Muqawama even though she hasn't posted since, what, April?), Clint Douglas, and Danielle Pletka. Here's Johnson:

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.

"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.

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.


  1. I still think the problem is that the WH seems directionless. Aren't questions about strategy supposed to come from that level? Or, is this inevitable given the progressive politics of the President's party. I'm not a lefty, so I don't know about these things.

  2. The Taliban, even the non-religious zealots, still have no reason to negotiate with the United States or the Afghan government.

    I don't want to use the word winning, but the Taliban is in a good enough position right now that there's no advantage to them giving up.

  3. Travis -- Agree. So?

    The operative phrase here is "the jihadists will never sincerely negotiate with us." True. But "the jihadists" are a much smaller group than Johnson suggests.

    That aside, who is saying "let's end the war right now through reconciliation/negotiation"? Not me.

  4. This blog also has jumped the shark. Anything so declarative certain shouldn't be taken as a serious discussion about Afghanistan or any other conflict.


  5. Anything so declarative certain shouldn't be taken as a serious discussion about Afghanistan or any other conflict.


  6. SNLII -- This blog also has jumped the shark. Anything so declarative certain shouldn't be taken as a serious discussion about Afghanistan or any other conflict.

    I'm serious: I don't know what you're referring to here.

  7. I think he's saying, "Don't bother reviewing things that are obviously stupid," but I'm just guessing.

  8. Hmmm... We shouldn't take it seriously when an "expert" (though he seems to want to prove otherwise) writes a piece in the Post? Please.

  9. I think he's saying, "Don't bother reviewing things that are obviously stupid," but I'm just guessing.

    Got to be honest, I don't think that was his point. That doesn't even really make sense.

  10. With all due respect, why should any of you care what SNLII thinks? Okay, so he's my second favorite commenter, ever, but so what? My first favorite is someone called Punjabi boy, but that's a different story......

    Write the blog the way you want, be bold, be brave, say something meaningful, and let the chips fall where they may.

    *I guess I am kind of irritated (aren't I always) because I see some more high profile academic blogs kind of pooh-poohing the boisterousness of this debate, putting down readers and the commenters, and then, two days after the boisterous commenters make a point, parroting the same thing in more measured language. Feh. Reminds me of my time at Harvard, and how much I disliked that cloistered, closed, hive mind atmosphere.

    I think I'm done with your world, people, you are all kinds of awesome. Good luck with everything.

  11. "This blog also has jumped the shark. Anything so declarative certain shouldn't be taken as a serious discussion about Afghanistan or any other conflict."

    We can parse it like in high school English! I think it hinges on what the "Anything so declarative" is. It could be your blog post, Gulliver, or it could be Johnson's commentary. If it's Johnson's commentary, then this blog has temporarily "jumped the shark" for bothering to review Johnson. If it's your blog post, then you're right and I don't know either.

    Goodbye, Madhu!

  12. Ah, I think I'm getting it, Tintin: the "certain" was meant to be "certainly," in which case the whole thing makes a lot more sense.

    Madhu -- Disappointed to hear that you're stepping out. Shoot me an email, if you don't mind -- can't figure out how to contact you on your blog.

  13. Madhu, don't leave ;-) I hope you reconsider.

    SNLII, you are brilliant . . . and I love the cryptic Yoda, Vorlon (from Babylon 5), and occasional Haiku thing you have going. But I would love it more if I understood what you were saying. :LOL:

    Gulliver, I am astonished by the ignorance of Afghan history on the part of most "analysts." OK, ignore the pre 1500 AD history as too old to be relevant. But please at least study the period of Mongol Moghul South Asian rule (two centuries until 1700), Persian rule (Herat 1500 to 1700, and all of Afghanistan until 1747), the Durrani empire (Eastern Persian empire or Eastern Iran, Southern former USSR, Afghanistan, Pakistan, large parts of India 1747 until the Brits came), British influence (until 1919 or 1945), 1945-1973, and recent instability 1973 to 2009.

    Here is a thought to consider:
    Afghanistan for the large majority of its history going back over 5,000 years has been part of larger alliances or empires. What broader alliance or set of relationships should Afghanistan form with the neighborhood and international community now?

  14. Che Guevara wrote in one of his “theoretical” manuals on guerrilla warfare that there is one and only one thing that differentiates the jungle bandit from the revolutionary guerrilla: the support of the locals on the sites where combats take place. Incidentally, it is this lack of support by the autochtons that doomed his guerrilla venture in Bolivia... And when you look at some reports from Afghanistan, like this one from France24, one conclusion comes to mind: the Afghans certainly don’t consider Taliban insurgents as Guevara’s “bandits”; and it might just be that the "war of hearts and minds" is already irretrievably lost!... Just today, BTW, the Afghan deputy chief of intelligence was killed in Kabul!

  15. A little background about how the Taliban - when in power - were not purely religious zealots unwilling to negotiate etc. That's just propaganda of course.


    From which a nice little tidbit:

    "On November 23, 2000, Mohabbat got a call from the NSC saying they wanted to put him officially on the payroll as the US government's contact man for the Taliban. He agreed. A few weeks later an official from the newly installed Bush NSC asked him to continue in the same role and shortly thereafter he was given a letter from the administration (Mohabbat tells us he has a copy), apologizing to the Taliban for not having dealt with bin Laden, explaining that the new government was still setting in, and asking for a meeting in February 2001.

    The Bush administration sent Mohabbat back, carrying kindred tidings of delay and regret to the Taliban three more times in 2001, the last in September after the 9/11 attack. Each time he was asked to communicate similar regrets about the failure to act on the plan agreed to in Frankfurt. This procrastination became a standing joke with the Taliban, Mohabbat tells CounterPunch "They made an offer to me that if the US didn't have fuel for the Cruise missiles to attack Osama in Daronta, where he was under house arrest, they would pay for it." "

  16. Tharpa, do you believe Mohabbat? I don't. Mullah Omar intentionally helped the Jihads in Chechnya, Uzbekistan, Uighar and Kashmir. Why would you have trusted Mullah Omar 1998-2001?

  17. Mullah Omar intentionally helped the Jihads in Chechnya, Uzbekistan, Uighar and Kashmir.

    Anand, do you have a link or other source for this?

  18. On Russia, the source is Putin. Putin nearly invaded Afghanistan in 1999 and 2001. I remember reading a Stratford report from August 2001 about a plan to use Russian close air support to help the Northern Alliance. The Russians were asking America to help fund the plan. I don't think Putin would lie about something like the Taliban's support for Chechen fighters. Putin was way too smart to risk invading Afghanistan unless he felt Russia had no other option.

    Although I didn't mention it, Mullah Omar was also guilty of horrific anti Shia pograms that nearly lead to an Iranian invasion of Afghanistan in late 1998 (I think America should have supported Iran in 1998.)

    On China; Michael Scheuer mentions in his book about how China brought up the problem of Osama Bin Laden with America in the 1990s, when America wasn't interested. It is inconceivable that Mullah Omar didn't know about OBL's role in attacking Chinese targets . . . Mullah Omar supported OBL anyway. This is why China on September 12, 2001, issued a joint statement with Iran, India, Russia and some Stan nations committing to help the Northern Alliance fight the Taliban.

    On Uzbekistan, I would need to look it up; but Karimov certainly argued that this was so.

    Mullah Omar morphed into an extremist by 1998 (not as sure before this date.) Osama openly formed the International Islamic Front with a dozen global extremist groups in 1998 (more joined in 1999.) Mullah Omar knew all about this, and the fact that OBL was publicly declared the supreme leader or "emir" of the IIF. Many countries pleaded with Mullah Omar to stop hosting the International Islamic Front and Osama Bin Laden. Mullah Omar refused to listen. (This includes anti Iranian, anti Russian, anti Indonesian, anti Philipino groups)

    This doesn't mean that there weren't other top Taliban leaders who were open to evicting the international extremists; I am sure there were.

    The evidence with respect to Mullah Omar's complicity with Kashmir is that the three major Kashmiri militant groups that most concerned India publicly declared Osama Bin Laden to be their emir in 1998 and 1999 (joined the IIF.)

  19. So just to be clear (and I'm not trying to be snide here, I'm seriously asking), your source for Taliban support to any extremist/separatist/terrorist movements aside from ones based in Pakistan is basically just the national leaders who claim that their particular local annoyance is related to transnational terrorism, i.e. that it's linked to Afghanistan and the international legitimacy- and money-magnet called the GWOT?

  20. Gulliver, could you please elaborate.

    The international islamic front held a public conference in Afghanistan on Feb 2, 1998. Many groups from many parts of the world "publicly" declared that they were part of the IIF and that Osama Bin Laden was their emir. Uzbek, Chechan and other groups "publicly" acknowledged OBL as their emir.

    Are you questioning the significance of IIF linked groups in violence against Russia, Iran, China, Uzbekistan etc.? You have a point that much though not all the violence in these areas was due to factors other than IIF linked groups; but that does not mean that the IIF wasn't involved in "SOME" of the violence in these areas.

    I am not sure what you mean. Maybe you are saying that Osama Bin Laden was involved in all these terrorist activities; but Mullah Omar lacked the capacity to remove OBL has his allies from Afghanistan. Is this what you are arguing?

  21. The international islamic front held a public conference in Afghanistan on Feb 2, 1998. Many groups from many parts of the world "publicly" declared that they were part of the IIF and that Osama Bin Laden was their emir. Uzbek, Chechan and other groups "publicly" acknowledged OBL as their emir.

    I guess my point is... well, so?

    Unless they're being materially supported -- guns, money, fighters, and so on -- then this doesn't really strike me as a compelling reason to hate the Taliban even more. Further, if "the IIF" (to the extent that it can be said to be an organization in anything more than name) is involved in "'SOME' of the violence," does that mean 1) that bin Laden "was involved in all these terrorist activities," or 2) that this would make his continued existence somehow less acceptable to Americans, of whom he's already been responsible for the death of ~3K?

    I guess I just don't understand your point. Has the Taliban materially aided OBL and AQ? Yes, obviously. They've been punished for that mistake, and their leaders are ensconced in Pakistan, hiding. Do you honestly think for one second that if "the Taliban" or some cobbled-together insurgent movement were to retake Kabul and govern Afghanistan after the coalition's departure, that Mullah Omar would show his face, or that he would feel safe from American reprisals?

  22. The IIF may no longer exist now as the "IIF," but it was very real as an operations committee "Shura" to coordinate activities 1998-2001.

    The groups that joined the IIF, publicly swore fealty to Osama Bin Laden and declared him their supreme leader. In the culture and value system of islamist groups, that "DOES" mean a lot; their sworn oaths mean a lot. The culture and value system of Jihadi groups is different from the culture and value system of the West; where breaking one's word is a far more casual and acceptable affair. In fact, one of the major causes of the negative view of westernized values in the east is the perception that westerners do not value their word. {I don't agree with this by the way.}

    OBL remains a rockstar among extremists. If he asked a major militant group that pledged fealty to him to do something; I think we would have to assume that they would try to comply with OBL's request.

    IIF groups did significantly materially coordinate, help and finance each other. Osama Bin Laden played a major role in running training camps in Afghanistan for IIF groups. Zawahiri personally fought in Chechnya. After 9/11, IIF groups gave OBL sanctuary. Khalid Sheik Mohammed was captured in a Lashkar e Taiba safe house in 2002.

    I think Americans are committed to resisting Osama Bin Laden. However, many Americans now want to make a deal with the Quetta Shura Taliban and Mullah Omar; and cut off foreign aid to the GIRoA and ANSF. I think that this would be a mistake . . . unless Mullah Omar publicly swears that he will oppose the extremists.

    My point in mentioning Mullah Omar's complicity in terrorism committed against other countries is to question those who think Mullah Omar can be persuaded to renounce extremist movements. Mullah Omar is probably too tied in with them to do this. The fact that Mullah Omar married OBL's daughter; and that OBL married Mullah Omar's daughter makes Mullah Omar renouncing his AQ linked allies still more unlikely; although I hope I am wrong.

    The reason I wrote my comments was that Tharpa seemed to be advocating some sort of a deal between America and the Taliban. Another reason was to describe why Russia, Iran and China might view the Taliban as a greater threat to themselves than some might believe.