More bad advice about Afghanistan. Why do we continue to listen?

Summary:  We see our broken OODA loop at work in the daily newspapers, but never so clearly as in the prominent role of people with a track record of consistently wrong analysis and advice. Screw-up and move up during the Vietnam War. The analytical failure of the “team B” analysis during the cold war, which led to career success for its members. And now we see the hawks who led us into two wars continue to dominate US geopolitics, while those who gave sound advice (eg, Andrew Bacevich) remain on the fringes.

Afghan National Policeman patrolling with the US Army in Kandahar, but not yet shooting them (Reuters)

The ‘Andar Uprising’ and Progress in Afghanistan“, Frederick W. Kagan and Kimberly Kagan, op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, 4 October 2012 — Gated copy; a free copy is posted at AEI’s Critical Threats.  Mr Kagan is considered one of the advocates of the “surges” in Iran and Afghanistan, which ran up the costs and body counts of both wars — while not changing the outcomes.

“The war is far from won, but a path to victory remains evident and viable if we have the will to pursue it.”


Success in Afghanistan remains possible. As tragic and regrettable as they are, recent “green-on-blue” attacks against U.S. forces do not signify the failure of U.S.-Afghan partnership efforts or the enmity of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and Afghan people. Incidents spectacular enough to grab headlines in an overheated election year have badly distorted our understanding of what actually has happened on the ground in Afghanistan this fighting season.

The most important developments this year have been the failure of a determined Taliban effort to regain key terrain that they had lost, and the displacement of continuing violence away from populated areas and toward remote locations. Add to that the resiliency of the Afghan Local Police in key villages under determined Taliban attack, and the emergence of new anti-Taliban movements in former Taliban strongholds. The war is far from won, but a path to victory remains evident and viable if we have the will to pursue it.

It’s difficult to appreciate the magnitude of this foolishness.  It’s extraordinary, even for someone as consistently wrong as Frederick Kagan.


  • The green-on-blue attacks that they so blithely dismiss are in effect an organic rejection of us (infidel foreign occupiers) by Afghanistan society, something with few precedents in modern history.
  • The local forces we’ve built exist only through our funding, and will vanish like last winter’s snow when we inevitably cut these mad expenditures.
  • As usual for advocates of the war, they don’t even bother to justify the war in terms of US national interest (sensible, as that would be difficult or impossible).
  • Lastly, displaying the Kagan’s invincible ignorance, successful insurgents don’t seek to hold land (except when near victory) or contest strongly-held territory.

Mao Tse-tung and his fellow revolutionaries brought 4GW to maturity. His works describe its key elements, as in this well-known quote from Basic Tactics (1937), Chapter VI – Operations, #2. The Use of Tactics (red emphasis added):

(1)  The redoubtable force of a guerrilla unit definitely does not depend exclusively on its own numerical strength, but on its use of sudden attacks and ambushes, so as to “cause an uproar in the east and strike in the west,” appearing now here and now there, using false banners and making empty demonstrations, propagating rumors about one’s own strength, etc., in order to shatter the enemy’s morale and create in him a boundless terror.

In addition, we must pay attention to such principles as: “The enemy advances, we retreat, the enemy retreats, we advance, the enemy halts, we harass him” …

About the Kagans

From the American Enterprise Institute:

Frederick W. Kagan, author of the 2007 report “Choosing Victory: A Plan for Success in Iraq”, is one of the intellectual architects of the successful “surge” strategy in Iraq. He is the director of the AEI’s Critical Threats Project and a former professor of military history at West Point. His books range from Lessons for a Long War (2010), coauthored with Thomas Donnelly, to the End of the Old Order: Napoleon and Europe, 1801-1805 (2006).  See his AEI reports listed here.  {Also see Wikipedia}

From Wikipedia:

Kimberly Ellen Kagan is an American military historian. She heads the Institute for the Study of War and has taught at West Point, Yale, Georgetown University, and American University. She supported the surge in Iraq and has since advocated for an expanded and restructured American military campaign in Afghanistan.In 2009 she served on Afghanistan commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s strategic assessment team.  See her AEI reports listed here.

For more information

Other posts about the Kagans:

Posts about COIN:

  1. More paths to failure in Iraq, 16 December 2006 — Myths about COIN in Iraq
  2. 28 Articles: a guide to a successful insurgency against America, 7 May 2007
  3. Is COIN the graduate level of military hubris?, 30 July 2008
  4. COIN as future generations will see it (and as we should see it today), 1 July 2010
  5. COIN – Now we see that it failed. But that was obvious before we started (when will we learn?), 6 December 2011
  6. COIN, another example of our difficulty learning from history or experience, 7 December 2011
  7. “COIN of the Realm” – reviewing one of the books driving our strategy in the Long War, 18 March 2012 — Review of Nagl’s How to Eat Soup with a Knife
  8. A look back at the madness that led us into our wars. How does this advice read 6 years later?, 26 June 2012

The history of foreign armies fighting local insurgents:

  1. How often do insurgents win?  How much time does successful COIN require?, 29 May 2008
  2. Max Boot: history suggests we will win in Afghanistan, with better than 50-50 odds. Here’s the real story., 21 June 2010 — Boot discusses 7 alleged victories by foreign armies fighting insurgencies.
  3. A major discovery! It could change the course of US geopolitical strategy, if we’d only see it, 28 June 2010 — Andrew Exum (aka Abu Muqawama) points us to the doctoral dissertation of Erin Marie Simpson in Political Science from Harvard.  She examines the present and past analysis of  counter-insurgency.  This could change the course of American foreign policy, if we pay attention.
  4. A look at the history of victories over insurgents, 30 June 2010
  5. COINistas point to Kenya as a COIN success. In fact it was an expensive bloody failure., 7 August 2012


13 thoughts on “More bad advice about Afghanistan. Why do we continue to listen?”

  1. I’d hoped against all hope that the Kagans would have shuffled off quietly into the sunset when P4 vanished into the glorious havens of Valhalla, or as some like to call it, Princeton. But, alas, such is not the case. Thanks for posting this…I’ve been asked by another blogger who to steer clear of…it had been so long that I’d forgotten about the Double-Wrong Twins here.

  2. The most important developments this year have been the failure of a determined Taliban effort to regain key terrain that they had lost

    This is a classical example of failure to understand insurgency. The tempo of an insurgent’s operations is often tied to the tempo of the invaders’! In other words now that we have announced over and over that we’re planning to leave (except for a smallish contingency of sitting ducks) they’re also waiting for us to leave because they know they’ve won and they are smart enough not to trade lots of lives for time. I was baffled by the people who were impressed by “the surge” – wasn’t the idea to load a heavy force in for a while, then withdraw it? Seems to me like a smart insurgent would decide not to take the heavy force on and maybe would sit back and wait for its inevitable withdrawal.

    If we didn’t periodically do something stupid like throw copies of the koran in the trash, to whip the natives into a frenzy, we might even be able to fool ourselves into thinking things had gotten better for a while.

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  4. The problem is thinking any process you use like an OODA loop is going to give you some optimized process into changing reality.

  5. The fact that both Fred and Kimberly Kagan have ties to the military (both of them through West Point, and Kimberly through General McChrystal as well as the Institute for the Study of War) and hence the Military Industrial Complex would seem to be the most logical way of explaining why they continue to argue in favor of remaining in Afghanistan. Let’s face it…the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, while they’ve been disastrous for the economy as a whole, have almost certainly been extraordinarily lucrative for those with connections to the Military Industrial Complex — that is, excluding most of the troops who’ve been doing all the actual dirty work and heavy lifting (which in my opinion would be worthy of a discussion all its own on this site). Now that we are no longer maintaining a presence in Iraq, withdrawing from Afghanistan would kill the largest of the remaining cash cows — and as hard as it is for me to admit this, it’s worth asking what would happen in this country (either in terms of unemployment figures and/or civil liberties) if the many subcontractors in the Military Industrial Complex had to begin laying people off because there’s no longer as much of a need for their products and services.

    It might interest you to know that the Kagan family also has strong ties to the neoconservative Republican think tank Project for a New American Century (PNAC). (Other posts here on this site — such as — have discussed the way in which the neoconservatives have used the War On Terror for their own purposes.) Fred’s father, Donald Kagan, was one of the signatories to the organization’s charter when it was first formed in 1997. (the charter can be found here: Fred’s brother, Robert Kagan, is or was a Project Director for Project for a New American Century and in addition to writing his own book (Of Paradise And Power) has also co-authored another book (Present Dangers) with fellow member and well-known FOX News commentator William Kristol, whom some people have taken to nicknaming “William The Bloody” since it appears there is no war that he will not support. To the intelligent and perceptive observer, the fact that at least four of the other signatories on the Project for a New American Century charter went on to become prominent members of the Bush administration — Dick Cheney, Lewis (“Scooter”) Libby, Donald Rumsfeld, and Paul Wolfowitz — is not insignificant either.

    It’s worth mentioning here that many of the aforementioned associates of the Kagans have for several years now also been agitating for war with Iran under the pretext that Iran is actively engaged in developing a nuclear weapons program — despite the fact that there has been nowhere nearly as much saber-rattling toward another one of the countries mentioned during Bush’s infamous “Axis Of Evil” speech (North Korea), even though they have to say the very least given off much stronger signals of an ongoing nuclear weapons program and indeed are believed to have tested such a weapon. Of course, the fact that Iran is the only country left among the top five in terms of the world’s largest proven oil reserves (according to a report from our own Department of Energy in 2006) that we have not yet befriended or invaded couldn’t possibly have anything to do with that…right? (This, too, would appear to deserve a post all its own.)

    Then there is the fact that as far back as the 1990’s, there were at least a couple of discussions in Congress concerning the possibility of building a Unocal pipeline in Afghanistan. At the time, the greatest obstacle to the proposal was cited as being the political instability in the region — i.e., the Taliban. Allegedly, the Bush administration — which had strong ties to the energy industry — opened negotiations with the Taliban in early 2001 to bargain for the delivery of Osama bin Laden in exchange for political recognition and economic aid. Over the course of several meetings, the Taliban refused to meet the conditions of the Bush administration — and finally, at the last meeting which took place in August of 2001, representatives from the Bush administration supposedly told the Taliban ambassador to “accept our offer of a carpet of gold, or we bury you under a carpet of bombs.” We all know what happened after that. Given the Kagans’ ties to PNAC, PNAC’s ties to the Bush administration, and the Bush administration’s ties to the energy industry…is it possible that the Kagans continue to promote the war in Afghanistan in the hopes that the Trans-Afghan pipeline will eventually be realized as well as supporting the interests of their associates in the Military Industrial Complex (and possibly their own)? After connecting the dots, I for one don’t think it’s as farfetched as all that.

    1. “the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan […] have almost certainly been extraordinarily lucrative for those with connections to the Military Industrial Complex — that is, excluding most of the troops […]”

      Let me raise a provocative question.

      It is my layman understanding that deployment in a war zone — not necessarily implying fighting on the front line — brings a number of tangible benefits to the troops:
      1) Generals can launch mediatic operations (“surges”, “swipes”, “clean-ups”, whatever), tout them as big successes that might be decisive if properly followed up by politicians, yadda, yadda, and can then gain additional stars more rapidly.
      2) Officers have their time spent in those areas counting a multiple towards promotion.
      3) Soldiers get additional pay (whatever name the military uses for risk and hardship allowances).

      In other words, I suspect that most of the troops actually _do_ have an interest in long wars such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan. They may well recompute the trade-off when things start getting sticky (like those “green on blue” incidents), but does anybody have evidence to the contrary that most of the members of a _professional_ army actually want, need and seek war operations abroad?

      1. That’s an interesting question! I think the answer depends on the sub-group within the military. Certainly many like deployment to war zones, especially for low-risk assignments. On the other hand, for example…

        Reserve soldiers often suffer severe disruption of their careers and family life from deployments. Many have their incomes reduced, have years away from their children — and suffer a substantial increased risk of divorce. My guess is that many or most are not happy about deployments.

        I’ve seen surveys showing a large fraction of enlisted women don’t want deployment to combat zones.

  6. Pingback: More bad advice about Afghanistan. Why do we continue to listen? – Fabius Maximus (blog) | PAULitics.US – Wake Up America

  7. It’s difficult to appreciate the magnitude of this foolishness. It’s extraordinary, even for someone as consistently wrong as Frederick Kagan.”

    I guess you have to ask what the agenda of the Kagans and their ilk is and whether or not they are successfully promoting it before you can judge their efforts. If their agenda is the protection of America, then they are foolish. If their agenda is to promote the military industrial complex, then they are very clever and extremely successful.

    1. They are at least cultural descendants of the Confederate military (brutal aristocrats), in other words, they are corrupt imperialists who have no problem destroying what is humane and decent in the world, including democracy in the USA. See Sarah Robinson’s article on AlternNet for an in-depth explanation of how the Defense, Oil and other similar “southwestern” corporate interests revived the culture of the Confederacy. They are the enemy of the real USA, and it will probably take something similar to another Civil War to beat them back into the dark corner that they should have been kept in, forever.

      I heard on the news yesterday that Obama’s camp is considering organizing a movement for a new Constitutional Amendment to overturn “Citizen’s United” after the election. That would be a good first start, but if it doesn’t work, and some other viable reform movement does not work, then the chances of the appeal of a civil war go up.

  8. Both Iran and Israel are ruled by a minority of dangerous, corrupt, ultraconservative, right wing religions extremists. One has atomic bombs, the other does not. If Israel wants Iran to not get atomic bombs, it should be an example and give up its own atomic bombs. Otherwise, it is hard to blame Iran for wanting to nullify the threat that Israel’s atomic bombs represent.

    Jesse Venture is threatening to run for President in 4 years on that platform.

  9. The commenter named Guest remarks that significant parts of the U.S. military benefit substantially (and not just monetarily) from prolonged wars, even if the wars are hopeless and bogged down in a quagmire.

    As FM points out, the people who get the shortest end of the stick are the older reserve military (national guard, often) who get dragged back into the military and forced to serve under draconian stop-loss provisions. These people are often in their 40s or 50s and lose their jobs, their marriages, their families, their careers, and often get mutilated or psychologically damaged from PTSD into the bargain. This group definitely does not benefit from the Pentagon’s “Forever War’ endless round of unwinnable foreign wars.

    But officers who need to get their “ticket punched” (i.e., serve in some forward combat capacity in order to get promoted) definitely do benefit. These people are lieutenants and captains and majors. Above major, the serious brass (those who require presidential approval) have a huge career stake in prolonging endless unwinnable wars, so at the level of colonel and beyond you will often find ardent enthusiasm for even the most hopeless quagmire — particularly if the colonel or general in question has been tasked with something like logistics or procurement or something of that sort. In that event, the longer the hopeless unwinnable war goes on, the better as far an officer in that position is concerned. See “Why our best officers are leaving the military,” The Atlantic magazine, 8 October 2012.

    “Why are so many of the most talented officers now abandoning military life for the private sector? An exclusive survey of West Point graduates shows that it’s not just money. Increasingly, the military is creating a command structure that rewards conformism and ignores merit.”

    Hit the numbers, produce the right metrics in the combat theater (body counts in vietnam, today, more sophisticated methods of “juking the stats”), produce the correct powerpoint slides, and your ticket gets punched. Whether the strategy or tactics are actually sensible means nothing. What counts is moving one’s career forward.

    For military contractors who are often retired military of rank major or above (or whose companies are staffed by large numbers of “revolving door” ex-officers), prolonging an endless unwinnable war can prove fantastically lucrative. The worse the military situation gets, the more gravy in their gravy train as they promise increasingly fantastic military miracles from wunderwaffen which will probably not even work if they are built. See, for example, “Pentagon’s lightning gun sold for scraps on ebay,” Wired Magazine Danger Room, 2011.

    Or, from 4 years ago, “GAO Blasts Weapons Budget,” Washington Post, 2008.

    Congressmen and senators benefit from looking “tough” on national security, so they get re-elected and enjoy “good optics.” Endless unwinnable wars are a gold mine…except that the parasites listed above get the gold, while the lowly grunts and the taxpayers get the shaft.

    It’s a giant gravy train. As I’ve repeatedly remarked, the U.S. miltary no longer cares much for winning wars, and while they don’t like losing them, they seem to have little interest in actually concluding military conflicts either, fanatically arguing against withdrawal from any U.S.-occupied military theater today. (See “Barack Obama and Pentagon split on Afghanistan pullout: US president set to reject military advice by withdrawing more troops from Afghanistan,” The Guardian, 21 June 2011, for example.)

    Chuck Spinney has spoken much more eloquently than I about this process — he calls it the “self-licking ice cream cone.” As a result, U.S. national security spending continues to grow relentlessly year after year as a proportion of the U.S. annual budget. Last year, while spending on all other branches of government remained flat, the U.S. military got an 8% boost. This keeps going on, decade after decade, to the point where even the dullest observer recognizes that it’s not an accident. The major objection of the U.S. military is to keep the money flowing. Everything else is distinctly secondary.

    1. Thomas More makes it explicit what I was suspecting.

      Professional soldiers from top to bottom of the hierarchy, as well as politicians involved in the “national security” theater do have an interest in wars, because it is about their career. Those who are not professional (National guardsmen) or no longer career soldiers (reserve) have no interest whatsoever in those adventures, which they dread.

      This raises the question of whether the approach, often suggested in liberal anti-war circles, to undermine the aggressive foreign policy of the US government through a “support our troops, bring them home” attitude is at all realistic: the permanent troops have vested interests in those foreign wars, while the National Guard/reserve contingents, by their very nature, are not those who influence, determine or decide what the military does.

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