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Quote of the day: Our Afghanistan War explained in 22 words

26 August 2009

It’s in red, and appears after the jump.  From “The War in Afghanistan … and Haggling“, Andrew Exum, Abu Muqawama (of the Center for a New American Security), 23 August 2009 — Excerpt:

Last week, I flew to Boston to give a talk on Afghanistan to a collection of senior-level government officials from the United States and abroad as part of the Kennedy School’s Executive Education Program. All credit goes to the excellent audience — which happily agreed to listen to a talk on strategy and operations from a 31-year old and peppered me with some great, thought-provoking questions. But without a doubt the most persistent questions I received were along the lines of “What are we doing in Afghanistan and why are we there in the first place?”

The fact that these are the questions that I am now receiving from career public servants in our nation’s departments and agencies should be a huge warning bell for the administration. And it means that Kagan is exactly right — this is now Obama’s war, and he and Stan McChrystal need to explain to the American people in non-IR-speak why we are in Afghanistan and what we are doing there. (Hint: if you cannot explain your policy to folks in the 3rd Congressional District of Tennessee in a way they can understand it, you might need to change your policy.)

As one career public servant explained to me afterwards, “It’s not like we do not support the war in Afghanistan — it’s just that no one has explained what we’re doing there.

Question of the day:  does Exum see the insanity of this statement?

(4a)  Afterword

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For more information about this topic

To see all posts about our new wars:

Some posts about the war in Afghanistan:

  1. Why are we are fighting in Afghanistan?, 9 April 2008 — A debate with Joshua Foust.
  2. Stratfor: “The Strategic Debate Over Afghanistan”, 13 May 2009
  3. Real experts review a presentation about the War (look here, if you’re looking for well-written analysis!), 21 June 2009
  4. The Big Lie at work in Afghanistan – an open discussion, 23 June 2009
  5. “War without end”, a great article by George Wilson, 27 June 2009
  6. “Strategic Calculus and the Afghan War” by George Friedman of Stratfor, 17 July 2009
  7. Powerful insights about our war in Afghanistan, part 1, 18 July 2009
  8. We are warned about Afghanistan, but choose not to listen (part 2), 19 July 2009
  9. Powerful insights about our war in Afghanistan, part 3, 20 July 2009
  10. You can end our war in Afghanistan, 20 August 2009
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17 Comments leave one →
  1. senecal permalink
    26 August 2009 2:44 am

    excellent point, FM. Wars are fine with us, we’re not afraid of them. Heck, they’re even good for a nation now and then; keeps our spirit up so we don’t become complacent. But, hey, we’re not Russia or one of those axis-of-evil countries. Give us a reason that makes us feel like the decent, peace-loving nation that we are!

    Like

  2. Pete permalink
    26 August 2009 7:01 am

    “If you cannot explain your policy to folks in the 3rd Congressional District of Tennessee in a way they can understand it, you might need to change your policy.”

    Precisely Fabius, and please add a corollary: any policy, bill, measure or law that cannot be read or explained because it is “too complex” or “too big” – does not merit passage. And I include military strategy, doctrine, tactics and the like in that formulation.

    The notion around D.C. these days seems to be “baffle ‘em with B.S.” – well, the people are onto that trick, and it isn’t working, for them or for us.

    Contrary to popular belief, it is simplicity that is difficult, anyone can muck it up by making something simple complex, or something complex even more so. Eistein had it right, be as complex as necessary but no more than that.

    Like

  3. Andy permalink
    26 August 2009 9:55 am

    Exum: “Hint: if YOU cannot explain YOUR policy to folks in the 3rd Congressional District of Tennessee in a way they can understand it, YOU might need to change YOUR policy.)”

    This use of the third person is especially rich coming from a professional propagandist who has spent the better part of the last decade shilling for these eternal non-wars in his unique “subaltern’s advice to the generals” style. Now that the worm is turning, suddenly it was all someone else’s idea.

    Ah, well. At least Exum got a job out of it all (with health care! – as he never ceases to chirpily remind us). Apparently the thousands of killed and wounded on all sides bother him not at all as long as he has a privileged place at the trough.

    Like

  4. 26 August 2009 10:22 am

    It may be that the war should be significantly reconfigured, certainly Lind thinks so, and makes his points very well as usual: “On War # 313: War of Exhaustion or War of Maneuver?“, 25 August 2009.

    What seems to be missing from a lot of the material at this site is an articulated alternative that addresses the issue of allowing what would seem to be a Taliban victory and allowing al-Qaeda to essentially get off relatively scot-free from 9-11. Obviously this is a Bush/Cheney error from eight or so years ago, but still… OBL dead or alive was the right idea and Iraq the wrong one, but what do we do to clean up?

    Thinking along Lind’s lines, I have long felt that one major American problem in such situations is following the British model and failing to build an operative interface that matches the local society. Mostly for matters of gravitas we seem to insist that the locals build a faux version of our infrastructure with presidents, generals, and so on, if only so our representatives are not diminished by dealing with people who aren’t their ‘peers.’ However if the other society is not similarly structured, the people we meet with are figureheads who cannot deliver the goods.

    Thus one idea for Afghanistan might be for us to work through figures in our society who reflect those in Afghan society… our mullahs and tribal leaders. In other words, let’s sic Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, Rick Warren and the like on ‘em and see what happens. Can’t be worse than we are doing, and has at least a coherent theory behind it. I imagine that the first time a major official refused to deal with someone due to their status, the argument was conducted in chimpanzee language, and things have not changed since.

    Overall, I do have to say that while all matters mentioned here are important and the scope of this blog is interesting in its comprehensiveness, I frankly think that the vast majority of people cannot, will not, and should not try to develop clear positions on too many matters. People have jobs, those lucky enough to, personal responsibilities, a minimum necessary need for pleasure and relaxation, and overall limited bandwidth in a number of domains. At most the general public can handle a couple/three issues, and somewhat rightfully assumes that people who are being paid full time to handle things should be competent to deal with the rest. This is why so many things are neglected. This summer, I would say most people are concerned about vacation and their children, the economy, and health care. That’s a handful in itself. China, women in the military, and so on… when does it stop? Can’t the diplomats and military competently handle ANYTHING without constant detailed supervision by the populace? If they can, we should be able to essentially ignore such things. If they cannot, that is another problem, and way too big to be solved in any simple way…
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    Fabius Maximus replies: You must be kidding us.

    “… issue of allowing what would seem to be a Taliban victory and allowing al-Qaeda to essentially get off relatively scot-free from 9-11.”

    Thourgh standard police and intelligence efforts we appear to have crippled much of al Qaeda’s operations. And killed a fair number of its leaders (as the joke goes: “What’s the most dangerous job in the world? #3 in al Qaeda).

    So what if the Tailiban rules Afghanistan? Why is that a threat to the US? More broadly, why do we care?

    “I frankly think that the vast majority of people cannot, will not, and should not try to develop clear positions on too many matters.”

    You can move to Singapore, where you will not be troubled with such vexing and difficult questions. Please excuse the rest of us if we disregard your fears and attempt to be citizens of a Republic.

    Like

  5. 26 August 2009 11:37 am

    “As one career public servant explained to me afterwards, “It’s not like we do not support the war in Afghanistan — it’s just that no one has explained what we’re doing there.“”

    People want to believe that their leaders know what they are doing. They want to believe that everything has been well considered. And as a result, they want to believe that the problem is just a communication issue. The alternative is scary… very scary.

    Like

  6. 26 August 2009 3:22 pm

    Re: “It’s not like we do not support the war in Afghanistan — it’s just that no one has explained what we’re doing there.“

    Oh, please. George M. Cohan explained this long ago in “Over There, Over There”.

    Send the word, send the word,
    Over There
    That the Yanks are coming,
    The Yanks are coming,
    The drums rum tumming everywhere
    So prepare,
    Say a Prayer
    Send the word,
    Send the word to beware
    We’ll be over, we’re coming over.
    And we won’t be back till it’s over over there

    Cohan further explicates:

    I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy
    A Yankee Doodle, do or die
    A real live nephew of my Uncle Sam
    Born on the Fourth of July

    I’ve got a Yankee Doodle sweetheart
    She’s my Yankee Doodle joy
    Yankee Doodle came to London
    Just to ride the ponies
    I am the Yankee Doodle Boy

    As for what we’re doing in Afghanistan — why pick on Afghanistan? After more years than I care to admit, I’ve never been able to figure out why we had to get involved in World War I – rather than let the Europeans sort things out.

    As for the need for clean up. Hell! All of subsequent US foreign policy and quite a lot, if not most, of our subsequent US domestic policy can be explained as clean up for our WWI adventure.

    So going abroad and kicking butt is just what we do. I reckon it will continue at least until somebody decides to return the favor and comes over here and kicks our butt.

    Like

  7. 26 August 2009 5:11 pm

    Re 4 by Greg Panfile: “Can’t the diplomats and military competently handle ANYTHING without constant detailed supervision by the populace? If they can, we should be able to essentially ignore such things. If they cannot, that is another problem, and way too big to be solved in any simple way… .”

    Your heads exactly where mine was at a year ago. I was pretty sure that Keynes combined with Milton Friedman had pretty much dialed in the economy thing. Foreign affairs were above my pay grade, and “Let the experts do it” was my general mantra. Unfortunately, I was then rather rudely and abruptly mugged by reality. My 401 K fell by half. The presidential election convinced me we have no real choices offered to us by the current establishment. The state I live in, Ca. went broke.

    I believe the phrase I’m looking for is, “I was Fat, happy, and stupid”. Notwithstanding my personal preferences, I can no longer afford to stay that way. Neither can you, you just don’t know it yet.

    Like

  8. phageghost permalink
    26 August 2009 6:22 pm

    @bc,

    Glad to hear the scales have fallen from your eyes. Sometimes it does take a dose or two of adversity to awaken the critical faculties. Along similar lines, two evolutionary psychologists hold that depression is a beneficial neurological adaptation that improves analytical problem solving. As Samuel Johnson recognized: “when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”

    @Greg Panfile: “What the World is Really Like: Who Knows It — and Why“, Noam Chomsky, Excerpted from The Chomsky Reader (1983):

    QUESTION: You wrote that Henry Kissinger’s memoirs “give the impression of a middle-level manager who has learned to conceal vacuity with pretentious verbiage.” You doubt that he has any subtle “conceptual framework” or global design. Why do such individuals gain such extraordinary reputations, given what you say about his actual abilities? What does this say about how our society operates?

    Chomsky: Our society is not really based on public participation in decision-making in any significant sense. Rather, it is a system of elite decision and periodic public ratification. Certainly people would like to think there’s somebody up there who knows what he’s doing. Since we don’t participate, we don’t control and we don’t even think about the questions of crucial importance, we hope somebody is paying attention who has some competence. Let’s hope the ship has a captain, in other words, since we’re not taking part in deciding what’s going on. I think that’s a factor. But also, it is an important feature of the ideological system to impose on people the feeling that they are incompetent to deal with these complex and important issues; they’d better leave it to the captain. One device is to develop a star system, an array of figures who are often media creations or creations of the academic propaganda establishment, whose deep insights we are supposed to admire and to whom we must happily and confidently assign the right to control our lives and control international affairs.

    Like

  9. 26 August 2009 7:03 pm

    As regulars know I am a resolute critic of our enduring A. caper and an equally resolute American patriot who recognizes there is an Islamist threat toward not just the USofA but to the Bill of Rights in all its forms and expressions. Comprehending this rising threat from religious extremism which was predicted by Nietzsche as the scourge of the 21st century!!!, is critical to our navigating the coming decades. With regard to the current focus I strongly recommend :

    * Joshua T. White, Pakistan’s Islamist Frontier.

    * Islamic Politics and U.S. Policy in Pakistan’s North-West Frontier, which includes an excellent overview of the invention of Islamist politics which began in the late 19th century in Bengal. A publication of something called the Center on Faith and International Affairs, it is superb scholarship and ethnography. Draw your own conclusions from it but much of what you need to know to evaluate what we are doing is available to you.

    I am not for cut and run exactly but we are fighting the wrong war in the wrong place one more time, destroying what little credit we have left.

    Like

  10. 26 August 2009 8:43 pm

    I concur with Exum’s admonition. The Obama administration has been dishonest in the conduct of this war. Folks like Kilcullen and Barno stand up and say that we will be in Afghanistan for the next 25 years, that such a presence will require multiple “surges” over the next five, and that the number of American men and women who will die in foreign climes will raise – drastically so. These are the men planning this war. But, none of these facts seem to get to the general public. Obama & co.’s rhetoric does not reflect the reality of counterinsurgency.

    This is where the anti-COIN advocates who have been causing such a ruckus recently should make their point. That Gian G., Bernard F., and the rest waste their time accusing Exum and his think tank pals of stifling debate is silly, really. There are much larger battles to be won. These men are fighting a tempest within a tea cup while a true storm brews around them.

    Our President has yet to tell the American people the true cost of this war. An act of cowardice on his part, and a disservice to this nation – A national debate on the matter is impossible until the American populaces truly understands the costs involved. Why the Anti-COIN folks do not train their gun on this target is continually a mystery to me.
    .
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    Fabius Maximus replies: Where does Kagan or Exum say that Obama has been dishonest?

    Like

  11. anna nicholas permalink
    26 August 2009 10:38 pm

    When people talk of ‘ fighting religious extremists ‘ I cant help but wonder if we are aligning ourselves on the wrong side . The ideology of an atheist extremist might be more scary .
    France talks of banning the burqua , but should they not also ban breast implants ?

    Like

  12. gpanfile permalink
    26 August 2009 10:42 pm

    I am somewhat aghast at the lack of substantial engagement in some responses. First, The Taliban aided and abetted bin Laden and refused to turn him over. Allowing them to return to power allows them to get away with that, albeit after an interregnum. If that is OK, let’s hear why, and if not, let’s hear what to do about it.

    I specifically mentioned that the economy was one of the issues people were paying attention to, and should. So it is somewhat odd to have someone point out that they were awoken to needing to care about it last year, and contrast that with what I said.

    Lastly, we have a representative government and not a direct one, for reasons, specifically those outlined by our Founders. If Chomsky or whoever thinks that the Founders are wrong, let’s hear why, and hear the alternative proposal, and how it will deal with the issue of demagoguery, lack of education, various types of tribal and ethnic biases and so on.

    The point I was trying to make is that there is no citizenry however noble and enlightened where everyone can master every issue of any importance. People can handle only a few things at a time. If someone is to make an argument that that is wrong, let’s hear it.

    A strong case can be made that there has NEVER been a serious foreign threat to the US since the end of WWII. The Soviets were never going to strike because they would lose their culture, and the same went for us. Eisenhower’s warning about the military industrial complex, and the distribution of military contracts across congressional districts, and the corruption of our political system are the root causes of manifestations like Iraq and Afghanistan insofar as they do not address our security issues. I’ve written in this space what I think needs to happen in Afghanistan – dealing with the border, the ungovernable Pashtun non-state. Until that is realized and some sane approach is made to it, the place will be a mess, and the next bin Laden or similar phenomenon is days away.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: This makes little sense to me.

    (1) “The Taliban aided and abetted bin Laden and refused to turn him over.”

    The report of the 9-11 Commission clearly states that we never asked them to turn him over (See page 332, chapter 10 — Wartime). Bush Jr decided to invade, instead.

    (2) “Allowing {the Taliban} to return to power allows them to get away with that,”

    How long do you intend to punish the Paston tribe for 9-11, given their minor role in it (for details see You can end our war in Afghanistan)? Perhaps you could specify the number of women and children we must kill before your desire for vengence is sated.

    (3) “Until that is realized and some sane approach is made to it”

    I am gung ho for you to implement Thomas Barnett’s vision of closing the gap, starting with Afghanistan. Raise the money, grab a gun, and hop a flight. Just leave my government and our soldiers out of it, please.

    Like

  13. phageghost permalink
    27 August 2009 1:33 am

    Greg,

    My point was that any type of representative government, be it a republic, direct democracy, anarcho-syndicalist collective, whatever, requires an informed and engaged citizenry. A republic is not “fire-and-forget.” I find that the two biggest mistakes to make in any human endeavor are to assume that 1. anyone knows what the hell they are doing, or that 2. anyone else is looking out for your interests.

    Granted, one only has so much time, but this to me is a further argument for getting out of as many foreign entanglements as possible. We’ve got more serious things to deal with than which tribe controls the Hindu Kush.

    As an aside, I would actually argue that there hasn’t been a serious foreign threat to the U.S. since the War of 1812, but that’s going a little far for most people.

    Mahalo.

    Like

  14. 27 August 2009 2:25 am

    All good points Greg, but unchecked the Germans and the Japanese would have mounted invasions of the United States. A good reason for destroying each of them. We have been a threat to ourselves ever since.

    Like

  15. Kung.Fu.Panda permalink
    27 August 2009 4:42 am

    The President should declare the GWOT to be over and say to America in a televised address that we remain “alert, on guard, and prepared to respond to any hostile acts by enemies of America”. Bring the troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan and let the respective countries fend for themselves.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: A more interesting question, IMO, is why Obama does not do this. His pro-war stance is one reason his political bse is evaporating, although he did run on a pro-Afghanistan War platform.

    Like

  16. 27 August 2009 5:20 am

    FM: “Where does Kagan or Exum say that Obama has been dishonest?

    I did not mean to imply that Exum was chastising Obama for his dishonesty. Forgive me for being unclear on this point. Exum’s admonition reads “this is now Obama’s war, and he and Stan McChrystal need to explain to the American people in non-IR-speak why we are in Afghanistan and what we are doing there.”

    I second this sentiment. Furthermore, I think Obama had dealt dishonestly with the American people by refusing to do this. Would you concur?
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    Fabius Maximus replies: I agree, like you, that this is now Obama’s war. He campaigned as a pro-war President, and now he is. America has taken notice that this war is escalating, and voices are being raised asking why.

    Just a guess — Iraq seems self-evidently an important nation in a critical region. For most people the significance of Afghanistan is not obvious, and the odds of successful nation-building are not compeling. Hence the decline in the polls. Not yet severe, but perhaps gathering momentum.

    Like

  17. underscore permalink
    27 August 2009 5:40 am

    @ 13/phageghost

    interesting point about the war of 1812. certainly was the last time things looked really, really bad for us on home soil. but we can at least argue that the japanese started it in ’42. at the very least, we came of WW2 looking like nice folks… unless you were japanese, of course.

    i don’t think we’re going to walk away from afghanistan with that halo. and i don’t think the president has realized that pretty words aside, there’s little hope of getting public support for the war back on track. even if we weren’t concerned with domestic crises of massive scale, i seem to remember one of the apocryphal reasons for bush invading iraq was that afghanistan wasn’t a sexy enough target. myth though that may be, i think it does capture a truism about the american people–we never cared much about afghanistan because most probably hadn’t heard about it and those who had could not have cared less. 9/11, though a national tragedy, only had the power to keep afghanistan on the map for a little while, a second poorly received war and a couple of recessions later hastened our return to apathy.

    the only reason the left got riled up about it being the “right war” was because they could slam conservatives on national defense without being dovish. and now we’re stuck with it. the election is over and afghanistan is no longer a tool for unfavorable comparisons. so we now have “public servants” asking why we’re in the war (def insane… what the hell are they doing if even they don’t know what the talking points are?!) and experts telling obama/the media/the public that this is the “right war” if it is pitched or sold right. i guess its about time our national defense policy occupied the same hallowed ground as used car sales.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: I wonder about the numbers of pro-war folks suddenly willing to question aspects of the Af-pak War, esp given the continuity of policy from Bush to Obama. Would they do so now if was President McCain’s war?

    Like

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