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Second thoughts by 2 major boosters of the Af-Pak War (better late than never)

10 December 2010

Summary:   Guest author Bernard Finel discusses yet another think-tank report giving prescriptions for the Af-Pak War.  But this one is a surprise, a serious walk-back by one of the powerful institutional advocates of our foreign wars.  Perhaps they’re cutting their losses and gearing up for the next war.  Iran or Mexico?

FM Introduction

Here Bernard Finel reviews “A Responsible Transition”, David W. Barno (Lieutenant General, US Army, retired) and Andrew M. Exum (Captain, US Army, retired), Center for a New American Security (CNAS), 7 December 2010.  Reports from well-funded groups like CNAS (see Wikipedia) are America’s version of opera; read carefully and you’ll hear the sound of money in motion.  Summary:

The summer of 2011, when U.S. troops will begin to draw down in Afghanistan, will mark a watershed in the U.S. and NATO’s decade-long effort in the country. A second watershed will occur in 2014 when the United States and NATO will transfer full responsibility of their efforts to Afghan leadership. But how does the United States and its allies get there from here? And what should the U.S. role be in Afghanistan beyond 2014?

Responsible Transition: Securing U.S. Interests in Afghanistan Beyond 2011, authored by CNAS Senior Advisor and Senior Fellow Lieutenant General David Barno and Fellow Andrew Exum, lays out a strategy for the post-July 2011 phase of U.S. and NATO efforts in Afghanistan, defines the U.S. troop presence and commitment beyond 2014, and offers operational and strategic guidance for protecting U.S. and allied long-term interests in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Analysis by Bernard Finel

I have trouble being objective on this.  Last year, we some of us were making similar proposals, report co-author Andrew Exum called us “half-assed.”  Well, now the ass is on the other foot, I guess.  Or something.  Point is, Dave Barno and Exum are, in their report, essentially embracing a “counter-terrorism plus” approach.  So let me deal with this as fairly as I can.

(1) This is a very good report, better than the Afghanistan Study Group report both its details and structure.  I agree with the vast majority of their arguments at this juncture.  And this is a very positive development in the debate.

(2) I think the report broaches the topic, but does not close the loop, on precisely what is requires to continue to suppress al Qaeda in South Asia. But then again, no one has a good answer to that. Given the nature of al Qaeda, virtually every policy instrument — and certainly military force falls into this category — is a hammer rather than a scalpel. In short, all strategic concepts are open to an “appropriateness” critique precisely because there is no single, clearly appropriate construct to use.

(3) The report remains incoherent on the issue of Pakistan. I think this is a major problem in 95% of what is written on Afghanistan. The notion that Afghanistan is a key leverage point in promoting stability in Pakistan lacks any empirical support or strategic logic. I’ve called Afghanistan “irrelevant” to Pakistan. I think that remains true. The problem with getting this issue wrong is that it completely screws up an assessment of the stakes in the conflict.

(4) The report opens with a vague preamble about changing circumstances and new facts.  This is bogus.  Developments in Afghanistan since the 2009 surges have been exactly as any informed observer would have expected.  Gates’ statement that “Frankly, progress — even just in the last few months — has exceeded my expectations” is probably accurate.  The point is, it is disingenuous to argue that changing circumstances are dictating a new approach.  The reality is, Exum — and other proponents of the Afghan surge — were simply wrong based on the available evidence at the time.  Anyway, it is great that Exum has come around. It is tragic that we’ve had to waste 2 years and $150 billion for him and many of his COIN colleagues to come around. If they hadn’t been so ignorant and pigheaded in 2009, we could have saved a lot of time, effort, and money.  Whatever.  Spilt milk I guess. But this is yet another demonstration that there is no cost to being wrong in Washington if you’re well connected.  Point is, this is a fine report, but I’m not sure why anyone would particularly want to listen to Exum and/or CNAS on this issue at this point.

(5) Finally, about CNAS.  I know it has no “institutional positions” and hence no obligation to explain shifts in analysis.  But that is wildly disingenuous. 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.

Other relevant articles

About the author

Bernard Finel currently serves as Associate Professor of National Security Strategy at the National War College.  His views are his alone and do not represent the position of the National War College, National Defense University, or the Department of Defense.

Before that he was senior fellow at the American Security Project, a non-partisan think tank located in Washington, DC.  Previously, he was an Associate Professor of Strategy and Policy at the National War College and Executive Director of the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University.

At his website he writes about politics, national security, crime and justice, and social commentary.  He holds a BA in international relations from Tufts University and an MA and Ph.D. in international relations from Georgetown.

His articles on the FM website can be found here.  Some of his other articles:

Other posts about the war’s advocates at the Center for a New American Security

  1. Obama’s national security team: I hope you didn’t really believe in change?, 26 November 2008
  2. A wonderful discussion about the American Empire, 24 June 2009
  3. “Striking a Balance: A New American Security”, 1 July 2009
  4. Are we blind, or just incurious about important news?, 6 July 2009
  5. Who are the experts advising our generals? We know what they’ll say., 3 August 2009
  6. The Flynn report, itself a symptom of deep problems in the government establishment, 11 January 2010
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