Thursday, December 9, 2010

Thoughts on others' thoughts on "Responsible Transition" (EDITED)

I'm not going to offer a comprehensive critique of Dave Barno and Andrew Exum's new report on the path forward in Afghanistan, because I'd like to spend a little more time going over it before I comment in depth, and because I'm not interested in spending a lot of time on it right now. But I'd like to say a few things about what other people have said, because it's easier to criticize than to do any kind of deeper analysis.

First of all, full disclosure: I'm not going to make any disclosure statements. FFS, you don't even know my name! Why would I disclose anything else? Seriously though: Ex and I are friends, but we have significantly different ideas about the war in Afghanistan. I read a draft of this paper two months ago and gave some very brief but critical feedback. So let me just say up front that 1) my friendship with Ex doesn't keep me from busting his balls and telling him when I think he's wrong, and 2) if I had any organizational or philosophical fealty to CNAS, I'd be at their Christmas party right now instead of defending their institutional integrity on the internet.

That said: it is very, very bizarre to criticize CNAS or the paper's authors for failing to recant previously articulated support for a broad-based, well-resourced counterinsurgency effort in Afghanistan. Here's Bernard Finel:
Finally, about CNAS.  I know it has no “institutional positions” and hence no obligation to explain shifts in analysis.  But that is wildly disengenuous [sic]. We are seeing a major reversal in CNAS’s position on COIN issues — which are their signature area of research and influence – and refusing to acknowledge past mistakes or address new assessments is, well, creepy.  It is vaguely Stalinist — you know, we’ll just rewrite history and pretend nothing happened.  I am pretty sure that if Heritage new year started promoting higher taxes they would feel obliged to explain why their views had changed. The “no institutional positions” line from CNAS leaders is just a cop out.  Own your past mistakes. Acknowledge them and learn from them.
And then there's Michael Cohen, who tweeted that "CNAS has gone 180 on COIN and offers no explanation." [EDIT: Let me clarify here that I'm not dealing with Cohen's criticism of the report in any kind of comprehensive way. He feels like he's been unfairly lumped in with Finel here, and that's probably true. So go read his criticism of the paper, which repeats some of Bernard's goofy lament about how wrong Ex was a year ago, but also makes an important point about how he and Barno have mostly overlooked the reconciliation process.]

"Bizarre" is probably not the right word for this; that suggests that this kind of criticism is unexpected and inexplicable. Anyone who's read Bernard's blog (or Cohen's, for that matter) could've predicted this sort of overwrought critique --- "major reversal," "creepy," "vaguely Stalinist, "rewrite history," etc. -- simply by observing how many of those who have been advocating withdrawal for some time seem so aggrieved at never having been suitably acknowledged. In fact, that seems to be some critics' main takeaway from "Responsible Transition": not satisfaction that formerly outspoken advocates of an expanded effort in South Asia have come 'round to their point of view, but rather outrage that CNAS seems not to have been sufficiently punished for giving a home to those advocates who, in Bernard's words, "were simply wrong based on the available evidence at the time." Finel is pissed, and not just at the fact that there are still people who disagree with him, or that the U.S. is still in Afghanistan -- he's pissed that everyone didn't agree with him in the first place. After all, "[d]evelopments in Afghanistan since the 2009 surges have been exactly as any informed observer would have expected," he writes. They were wrong "based on the available evidence at the time"! By this line of thinking, anyone who pushed a different policy course than he and his fellow sober pragmatists must be a charlatan, "a courtier (and worse)," a war profiteer, or a liar.

But what of CNAS' "disingenuous" refusal to excoriate its very own institutional self for "past mistakes" and a "shift in analysis"? For a "180 on COIN" with "no explanation"? Well, Bernard's own words satisfy this nutty complaint: "I know it has no 'institutional positions'..." What further need is there for qualification? They don't have institutional positions! The analysis of their employees does not constitute the analysis of the organization! To say that COIN is CNAS' "signature area of research and influence" simply because Nagl and Exum have been vocal in support of that operational approach is just as absurd as saying that Brookings' "signature area of research and influence" is the Bush Doctrine because it employs Pollack and O'Hanlon. And to say that CNAS has undergone a "major reversal in its position on COIN issues" when it DOESN'T HAVE AN INSTITUTIONAL POSITION ON ANY ISSUES is just damned goofy.

So is this the great "reversal" that Bernard is trumpeting, the "180 on COIN" of Cohen's dreams? Well, in short, no. First of all, as the report notes, the COINdinistas didn't get everything they wanted out of the so-called "surge": the president offered a more limited vision and rejected a massive, protracted troop presence. Exum and Barno are adapting to the reality of 2010: the president has elaborated his strategy, we've had an additional year to observe the progress of the war, and the U.S. government, NATO, and the Afghan government have demonstrated over that period their collective seriousness about the drawdown-by-'11, transition-by-'14 timeline. The authors aren't saying "my bad, this COIN stuff is a bunch of nonsense and it's not working, so listen up while I pimp some other plan." They're saying "look, no matter what anybody said before, these are the decisions the president has made about the near and mid-term, so here's how we get the best results out of that over the long term." To put it simply, anyone who is painting this as a "reversal" or "180" on COIN is completely full of shit.

Now, are the recommendations themselves any good? As I said before, I've got my own complaints. [EDIT #2:] For what it's worth, here's a snip of what I wrote about the draft that I originally saw:
So I guess in conclusion, I like what you're trying to do here, and I very much like the acknowledgement that the current strategy doesn't have a real, concrete end point. But I have some major concerns about a) your justification for continued involvement (i.e. WHY winning is important); b) your explanation for how this approach actually works better to achieve our goals in Afghanistan (i.e. HOW we win this way); c) your apparent willingness to sacrifice on the big picture (not getting Americans blown up by al-Qaeda) in order to meet with some limited success in the small picture (keeping Afghanistan from collapse to the Taliban) (i.e. WHAT the point of what we're doing here is).
I objected to the bits about increased leverage on the Pakistanis, both because I think we're already trying pretty hard on that one and because there's no concrete elaboration of exactly how to do it. I'm a bit uncomfortable with the sizing of the "residual force" for the same reasons: it's not that 30K is necessarily the wrong number, but I'd like to see them show their work. Why 30,000 and not 25,000? Or 15,000? Or 40,000? And then there's the bit about shifting investment away from the central government in Kabul and increasing support for local government, which I think is plainly inconsistent with an indirect approach that will necessarily be largely dependent on Afghan Security Forces... that are organized, trained, equipped, and directed by the national government. How do you keep building up ANSF while shifting investment to local government? How do you support decentralized militias/arbakai without getting them shot at by previously U.S.-trained and -equipped ANSF? Without creating yet more unpredictable conflict dynamics? And so on.

But all in all, "Responsible Transition" is something to be happy about. People with influence are taking a pragmatic approach to post-"surge" Afghanistan and trying to understand how we get from where we are and where we will be to where we need to be. They're not saying they wish the last year hadn't happened, they're not arguing that the president is dumb and shouldn't have made the decisions that he did, and they're not working with fantasy counterfactuals about woulda, coulda, shoulda or if only we hadn't. They're trying to understand America's vital and enduring interests, to make sense of what those mean in South Asia, and to move the state of play in the region from where it is now to where it ought to be under the resource and political constraints we can all feel confident will obtain in coming years. We ought to applaud that, not act butt-hurt about the fact that nobody listened a year ago.

Other criticisms of "Responsible Transition":


  1. My response to this is here:

  2. So in the link you provided where you bust Exum's balls, you wrote:

    "2328: August of 2010 a good time to gauge progress, according to Exum. Be interesting to hear what exactly we're meant to have accomplished in that time."

    Have we, over the past 18 months doing COIN, accomplished whatever we were supposed to have accomplished in that time period?

    I personally don't know either way, especially since I (and sounds like you) weren't sure what we were supposed to have accomplished in the first place.

    You also wrote:

    "Better: "gauging success a year from now" will be based on level of civilian casualties and the capability -- not just number -- of trained Afghan security forces."

    The data from the 1st 6 months of 2010 shows an increase in the number of civilian casualties over that period in every previous year:

    Additionally, I linked to some of the problems with the ANSF in my piece, so I'm not going to rehash them here, but I would say that the ANSF, despite a lot of talented people working on the problem, aren't that good; especially the police.

    My point here is that by his own metrics*, Afghanistan is not better off than the previous year. So what were we doing? That's really the accounting I'm looking for.

    * I realize those aren't the only metrics.


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