Monday, February 9, 2009

Lieven Leaves Me Shaking My Head

My thanks to Vampire 6 for cluing me in to this.

What that link points to is an article in the Financial Times by Anatol Lieven, a professor at King's College in London, advocating evacuating Afghanistan posthaste. There are numerous failures in this article, but I am struck by two thoughts.

The first is that there is good news for the America in that the behaviors and capabilities of the past do not necessarily doom one to similar behaviors in the future. We aren't actually trapped by our history into repeating the mistakes of Viet Nam. This is proven by the fact that the British have now shed the mental and organizational agility that led them to success in COIN in Malaysia and have now become unable to grasp the concept. If this is possible for the British, it is then possible for us to change our spots and become an agile and adaptive organization that can grasp COIN and actually do it.

The second is that this man has never read any counterinsurgency texts. If he had, then he would realize that the Taliban are performing exactly as predicted as insurgents. Dr. Lieven's predilection for appeasement and his willingness to accept the promises, "under threat of bombing," of international criminals for the sake of ease is absolutely devastating.

Take note that this is what is passing for what the Financial Times would refer to as "substantive and authoritative commentary." Really? "Let's quit!" is the level of "substantive and authoritative commentary" in Great Britain?

My Infantry Tourette's is about to kick in. We've got words for this in Infantrese that would decidedly go against my attempt to keep this blog family-friendly. Words that contain references to the excretions of barnyard fowl and steaming cups of adamant invitations to silence swirl in my head.

How about "poppycock?"

This is yet another cry of, "It's too hard! The Afghans are magically different from the other peoples of the world... you just don't understand; I mean, look what they did to the Russians, for Gawd's sake! Those are the most foul, cruel and bad-tempered hillbillies you've ever seen. Just look at the bones, man!"

Good grief.

Now, I'm sure that Anatol Lieven, son of Russian nobility and British education, is a very smart man. He's a writer and political scientist with a PhD and experience in Central Asia as a writer for the Financial Times. He wrote a book about how Chechnya is the tombstone of the Russian Empire. He's also a Senior Fellow at a Washington-based think tank, the New America Foundation, whose mission statement reads, "to bring exceptionally promising new voices and new ideas to the fore of our nation's public discourse." Ladies and gentlemen, this is not promising discourse. It is pessimistic fog-wandering in search of a home. Lieven obviously wrote this article on a day that he forgot to take his antidepressants. The basic tone of his piece, read by millions who assume that they are being offered a serious solution to a difficult situation is, "Man, what a mess. Let's all hang ourselves!" If we were to accept the basic premise, we would believe that insurgents are victorious from the word "go!" and therefore central government and the rule of law is basically an archaic concept.

This must have been the conclusion he drew from watching the Russians, the world's most brutal and ineffective counterinsurgents, flail about destructively in Chechnya.

Okay, conniption complete. This American son of potato-grubbing Irish immigrants; this educationally-challenged blue-collar non-commissioned bastard child of the long war is going to deconstruct the bit of defeatist drivel that counts as "exceptionally promising""substantive and authoritative commentary" from what one would assume would be a leading intellectual in Great Britain and, apparently, America.

Let's start at the top.

This is less because of Afghanistan itself than because of the impact on neighbouring Pakistan – a country of critical importance to global security, where extremism is being gravely worsened by the war on its borders and the demands being placed on it by Washington.

Folks, Pakistan is more critically important to global security than Afghanistan because they have nukes and for no other reason. While Pakistan is not insignificant, relegating the problems plaguing Afghanistan to the level of an appendix on the bowels of Pakistan is ridiculous. Pakistan was the hotbed of recruiting, indoctrinating and training militants for the Taliban in their fight against the Northern Alliance from the 90's forward. It was the pathway for our feeding of the anti-communist insurgents of the 80's, as we unwittingly strengthened the roots of a growing wave of religious insurgent zealotry begun on the last day of the last conventional defeat of Arab armies by the Isrealis. Pakistan is unstable because of many reasons, but one of them is the Islamic Fundamentalist warring parties that inhabit the part of Pakistan that Pakistan itself cedes to lawlessness. Pakistan is a problem, but Pakistan's problems are just as much a symptom of what is wrong with Afghanistan as Afghanistan is a symptom of Pakistan's refusal to adequately govern their own country.

Dr. Lieven assumes that we can walk away from this problem and let it sort itself out "under threat of bombing." This simplistic view fails to recognize that we did in fact bomb insurgent training camps in Afghanistan with cruise missiles, which the last time I checked met the basic criteria for being described as bombs, during the Clinton administration. The result of this demonstration to the Taliban and al Qaeda of the power of cruise missiles was the demonstration by al Qaeda on 9/11 that improvised cruise missiles are to be had for the price of a few airline tickets and are actually more devastating than 63 very pricey cruise missiles lobbed at mud huts in Afghan valleys. Oh, the Taliban are going to adhere to their agreements due to that fear, let me tell you.

If the Obama administration’s goal in the surge is to buy some more time for a continuation of existing policies, then the Taliban will simply bury their weapons, melt into the population and across the border into Pakistan and lie low until US forces pull back to their bases. Thirty thousand more soldiers can certainly drive the Taliban underground for a while but they are not remotely enough to garrison their strongholds permanently.

That's why counterinsurgency isn't about the Taliban so much as it is about establishing and strengthening the Afghan government to be able to provide security, rule of law, and basic services to the population, removing the Taliban's base of power. That is why economic development, helping create jobs for Afghans so that they don't need to earn money by working for insurgents and so that they are too tired at night to run around planting IEDs and nailing night letters to mosque doors, is important. That's what counterinsurgency does when it is done with well-rounded vigor. The fact that we are not doing that right now means we should fix what we are doing, not leave the mess for the next generation to clean up.

The British are no longer in Malaya, and the Malaysian government doesn't have to maintain a huge military. I guess that's because the insurgency was defeated by sound counterinsurgency and economic development ensued, leaving the communists irrelevant.

Gee, what a concept, Doctor.

As many US officials and soldiers recognise in private, there would be something profoundly odd about Washington risking a bloody disaster only in order to re-elect Hamid Karzai’s administration, in which most Afghans and westerners have long since lost all confidence.

The usual response to this argument is that Washington cannot find anyone to replace Mr Karzai.

What? What kind of imperialistic drivel is this? Who's going to decide if Mr. Karzai remains in power? Well, if we remember what elections are, that would be the Afghans. There are many who say that the next Afghan President cannot be elected without some kind of U.S. approval, but if elections are still elections I'd say that it's the Afghans themselves who will demonstrate at the polls whether or not the majority of Afghans have lost confidence in Mr. Karzai. I think Mr. Karzai himself recognizes this, because he is trying to curry favor with the Afghan voters at the expense of his relationship with the U.S.

It's not up to us to find someone to replace Karzai, folks; it's up to the Afghans themselves. That's the wonder of democracy. That, and the peaceful transfer of power. Man, if Karzai lost the election and there was actually a peaceful transfer of power in Afghanistan, that would be the first time that it has happened in oh, say, ever. And we thought we were making history electing Obama.

I love political scientists. They're so... politically savvy. It gives me goosebumps. Brrrr!

Instead of dreaming of a new strongman, the Obama administration should use the military surge to buy time for a different plan altogether. This should begin with the calling of a new Afghan national assembly, or Loyah Jirga, in order to change the Afghan constitution.

This change should include the suspension or abolition of the executive presidency in favour of a prime ministerial system, with a cabinet composed of non-political technocrats; a law allowing political parties to put up candidates for parliament; and on this basis, the legitimation of political forces representing the Taliban, which, as with Sinn Féin in Northern Ireland, can then be used to open serious negotiations with the Taliban leadership.

Oh, yeah; now we're getting into some meaty "substantive and authoritative" recommendations. Abolish the constitution with a new Loya Jirga; tell them that what they came up with the first time is no good. I'll admit that there are some changes that need to be made in the executive branch, but I think that Provincial and District governors need to be elected instead of appointed. Afghan villagers think so, too. Never heard one of them complain about the Afghan Constitution. Not one. I guarantee that you'd have some elected Taliban in Helmand and Oruzgan, but that's called engagement. Expecting formal negotiations with Omar? Not right now. More on that later.

Prime ministerial system? Uh huh. Then the Afghans can change Prime Ministers the way they wash their feet. Great recommendation, Doctor. We'll get right on that. Next!

In the long run, the aim should be a radically decentralised Afghanistan in which the Taliban can be permitted to take over much of the country in return for a guarantee – under threat of aerial bombardment – not to give shelter to terrorists.


Notwithstanding some of ridiculous recommendations made earlier in his article, this is where Mr. Lieven goes clean 'round the bend. I am mentally converting Infantrese exclamations of shock, dismay, disbelief and pronouncements of irretrievable stupidity; suppressing another conniption. I'm white-knuckling this one, folks. This man is a PhD, for Pete's sake, and he's advocating ceding a large area of Afghanistan to the Taliban? Has this man been smoking the Taliban flowers?

We've already demonstrated that the Taliban aren't particularly straightened out by the threat of aerial bombardment. On a tactical level, they hate the A-10's and B-1's (which they never see... just a bomb goes, "BOOM!") What Dr. Lieven is advocating is that the threat of aerial terrorism will keep the Taliban in check. What, pray tell Doctor, are you going to threaten to bomb? Villages? One dude's house? How are you going to know what to bomb? SIGINT? Are we now going to trust the CIA and MI-6 with choosing bombing targets to influence the government of Talibanistan?

I'll go you one better, Doc; let's just figure out the demographics, abolish the ill-conceived Durand Line and create Pashtunistan? Then at least we'll know where the terrorists can all go to be happy, joyous and free. That's a great idea! Let's create the Insurgent Republic of Pashtunistan. That would put a stop to all of this silliness right now. Then the other ethnic groups in Afghanistan could all figure it out together, as they may be actually capable of doing in the absence of those mean old Pashtuns, and everyone can go home. I'm sure the Pakistanis won't mind at all, as it would alleviate their problems in the northwest as well. They just won't have so much land that they're afraid to actually govern. Not a problem, I'm sure. So simple, so painless, so devoid of any effort to solve any really tough problems other than the relocation of millions. It's foolproof; it's purrrrrrfect.

I guess I lost that conniption struggle, but come on; that's the most asinine thing I've heard all year, and I live in America for the love of Mike. Just goes to show you that the unwashed masses and underclass NCO's don't have a lock on jackass.

To pursue any successful US strategy will, however, also require a definitive answer to a second important question: Is the surge intended to allow the US to leave Afghanistan with honour and limited success, as is President Obama’s stated intention in the case of Iraq? Or is the plan to establish a permanent US military presence in the country?

Running away with "honour;" what a concept. Limited success... in Iraq I guess that means a freely elected government that is taking over responsibility for security and providing basic services on a growing basis. Limited, yes; very limited success. And your definition of limited success, Doctor, in Afghanistan is to abolish the Constitution, change the structure of the government to include more non-political technocrats and cede a large portion of it to an international terrorist/insurgent organization in order to "harass" al Qaeda? Brilliant. I'm in awe of a man who is clearly the Steven Hawking of political thought. More goose pimples. Brrrr!

I also love the Imperialist alternative. We're either there to "do unto other, then split" or we're there to stay in perpetuity. Think tank kind of guy here, folks.

If the latter, then there will never be peace because, as long as US troops remain in Afghanistan, Pashtuns will be found to attack them and anyone allied to them. This has been the pattern of Pashtun history ever since the British showed up in the region more than 150 years ago.

We've already seen the Russian lineage come out with his horror for the fate of the Soviets in Afghanistan and Chechnya. Now here comes the British horror of Kipling's Afghanistan. The bogeyman of British nightmares is a Pashtun with attitude. When a Brit gets up in the middle of the night to check his closet, he's expecting a guy in man jammies with a long beard and an angry glint in his eye.

The prior withdrawal of American forces has been set by the Taliban as a precondition of negotiations but it seems possible that, in certain circumstances, they would in fact accept a formal guarantee to leave by a fixed date not too far in the future.

Dr. Lieven, go buy a copy of Galula and spend a couple of hours reading it. If you have read it before, try it this time without the scotch and pills. Galula points out that insurgents will not negotiate unless it is to induce the government to give crippling concessions as part of a desperate final attempt to avoid total destruction, thereby ensuring their destruction. What part of "we blow up, decapitate, hang, beat and threaten civilians to let them know that the government can't protect them," makes you think that these are honorable people who simply want to make peace?

Oh, don't forget the acidic squirt guns turned on schoolgirls.

You complete nimrod; you are buying the Taliban IO? The insurgents say, "Throw away all means of support and we will partner with you even though today we can't wait to kill you and take what you have... trust us, brother Afgan, we have changed. We won't be mean and dominant anymore. We are only hateful towards the infidels. We have learned our lessons, and we love you. Make the Americans go home and we can all have some chai and a nice hug. Ignore the gallows we are building. That's for an unrelated party later. The Hazaras are coming over for dinner later, and we wanted to show them a good time, Taliban style."

You actually buy that? Come on Mr. Chamberlain, we've got a meeting with the Fuhrer. After that we're going to plant a garden so that we can all have peas in our time. Hey, with that and a blender we can actually experience whirled peas.

This guy teaches future leaders and sits on a think tank, folks. This is an academic; a published thinker... a doctor, no less. It is time to pray.

All this will not be easy for the US to swallow.

No shit, Sherlock? Hey, I'm only one citizen of the U.S. and I'm gagging and trying to keep from spitting coffee out of my nose. This guy's going to win a Nobel, people.

...given Afghan realities, there is really a reasonable chance that 10 years and tens of thousands of deaths from now, a continued US military campaign will be any nearer to creating a successful Afghan state than it is today; and what appalling damage may have been done to Pakistan in the meantime.

Given Afghan realities and our failure to actually do counterinsurgency, there is a chance that Dr. Lieven may be right. However, the solution isn't going to be to run away with "honour," allow the reestablishment of a terrorist haven on Pakistan's frontier and think that's going to make Pakistan more secure. This guy pisses me off.

You see, short-sighted educated people like Anatol Lieven threaten my sons' lives. I want for my sons to go to Afghanistan... as tourists, not as Soldiers. Mark my words, if we abandon Afghanistan because it is too hard right now, we will consign ourselves to at least another generation of warfare in what will definitely become known as "The Long War" instead of the GWOT. We will be back in Afghanistan with the stain of two abandonments on our faces instead of just one, and the Afghans will most assuredly not be any happier to see us the next time.

Over the course of the past 40 years, when has the International Islamic Insurgency taken a break? Don't read this to say that I am anti-Islamic, because I'm not; but if you have to describe who these militant radicals are, isn't that an essential part of the description? Were the Viet Cong just a bunch of guys with no ideology? No, they were communist insurgents. Well, the Taliban and AQ are radical Islamic insurgents. If every Muslim were an insurgent, we'd have a really big problem. Not every Muslim is an insurgent, but these insurgents are driven by radical Islam.

In any case, when have they taken a break? Never. They have either been kidnapping, hijacking, bombing, terrorizing or otherwise molesting Israel and any Western society that supports Israel either materially or politically... or planning such mischief... for the past 40 years. Osama is angry with the United States because of our support for Israel. The only way to appease this international terrorist network is to summarily destroy Israel, reinstall the Palestinians, declare the Middle East off limits to infidels and hope that the desire of some for a Global Caliphate evaporates. This is just not going away.

We expect to be able to listen to men with such academic standing with some level of assurance that we may be hearing something of value. Dr. Lieven may, on any other day, be an actual brilliant thinker. On the day he wrote that article, he was a whackjob whom I vehemently disagree with. Much of what he says has no place in the public discourse; these ideas would more appropriately be found written with a crayon clutched in the toes of a man wearing a jacket with very long sleeves; safely ensconced in a rubber-lined room.

Conniption complete.


  1. Don't get me wrong, this was HILARIOUS (truly: I have made a sort of second-career out of deflating the self-important, and this is well-done). But couldn't you have summarized this with a brief lesson on the dangers of constructing arguments entirely out of strawmen and red herrings? Because that's all Lieven seems to have (i.e. leave now or stay forevs -- neither is an option the U.S. is seriously considering).

    Anyway, on with the show. You should tell us to bring popcorn next time.

  2. The bogeyman of British nightmares is a Pashtun with attitude.

    Do you have any idea how painful it is to choke with laughter on a sip of a martini and have some of it come out your nose?

  3. Thank you for the heads up on your latest post. I admit I cheated a bit and read the comments before I started. Im glad I did. I thought this would be a good read while dining on dinner. Glad I made dinner wait. As always, excellent post!

  4. "We aren't actually trapped by our history into repeating the mistakes of Viet Nam. This is proven by the fact that the British have now shed the mental and organizational agility that led them to success in COIN in Malaysia and have now become unable to grasp the concept." Sad, but disconcertingly true.

  5. I am going to dream of Whirled Peas tonight.

    Well written, well argued. Kudos.

  6. Fantastic!

    I' probably add some things to the last three paragraphs and am with Jeffrey Record concerning the use of the word appeasement ; but this is still fantastically written.

    I probably should carry some printouts with me all the time and give it to the AFG-ignorant people here I come across on a regular basis …

    Still hoping for whirled peas,

  7. Reading through Mr. Lievens article I felt like throwing up as well. But I seemed to recall reading something similar right after the Mumbai attacks and had to google it down. No surprise it was written by Mr.Royalty himself.

    The Indispensable Ally

    Mind you this was written immediately after the Mumbai attacks and no he isn't talking about India.

    He goes out of his way to be an apologist for Pakistan and its history and reality. He seems still have this romantic attachment to the country and its horsechit since he was correspondent over there.

  8. Came in via a link from

    Nice post. :)
    Some of the post almost feels as though I've written in it (in terms of sarcasm, mock shock)

    Loved the bit about British forgetting COIN, and US learning it.


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