2009 December 25 Friday
Obama Afghanistan Strategy Doomed To Failure

Writing in Foreign Policy Thomas H. Johnson and M. Chris Mason argue that Obama's strategy in Afghanistan has absolutely no chance of success.

As German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer once said, truth is ridiculed, then denied, and then "accepted as having been obvious to everyone from the beginning." So let's start with the obvious: There isn't the slightest possibility that the course laid out by Barack Obama in his Dec. 1 speech will halt or even slow the downward spiral toward defeat in Afghanistan. None. The U.S. president and his advisors labored for three months and brought forth old wine in bigger bottles. The speech contained not one single new idea or approach, nor offered any hint of new thinking about a conflict that everyone now agrees the United States is losing. Instead, the administration deliberated for 94 days to deliver essentially "more men, more money, try harder." It sounded ominously similar to Mikhail Gorbachev's "bloody wound" speech that led to a similar-sized, temporary Soviet troop surge in Afghanistan in 1986.

One first has to picture Afghanistan. It is not a nation as we understand the term. Loyalties are to family and tribe, not to a nation that includes enemy tribes. The Pashtuns were the dominant (and largest) tribe under the Taliban (who were mostly Pashtuns). The tribes allied with the US special forces that overthrew the Taliban are the enemy as far as the Pashtuns are concerned. How are we going to build up a now heavily Tajik army to hold down the Pashtuns? How are we going to get the Pashtuns to support a national government which serves enemy tribes?

They see all of Obama's arguments for eventual success as lame.

The president's final argument, that Afghanistan is different because Vietnam never attacked American soil, is a red herring. History is overflowing with examples of just causes that have gone down in defeat. To suggest that the two conflicts will have different outcomes because the U.S. cause in Afghanistan is just (whereas, presumably from the speech, the war in Vietnam was not) is simply specious. The courses and outcomes of wars are determined by strategy, not the justness of causes or the courage of troops.

They argue that Afghanistan's national army is a joke, that negotiating with moderates is a joke, and so on. The Pakistanis think Obama will fail and are planning accordingly.

Most critically of all, Pakistan's reaction to Obama's speech was to order its top military intelligence service, the ISI, to immediately begin rebuilding and strengthening covert ties to the Afghan Taliban in anticipation of their eventual return to power, according to a highly placed Pakistani official. There will be no more genuine cooperation from Pakistan (if there ever was).

An enormous amount of Machiavellian intrigue would be needed to control Afghanistan. But I do not see that the Obama Administration is up to the task. I've said it before: Obama is a lightweight. He can push for cliche left-wing causes like expanding heallth care spending. But the tricky international stuff is beyond his depth. At the same time, the US military's culture really cuts against the needed level of intrigue. One needs an enormous cynicism about human nature to handle a place like Afghanistan. Our own national ideology of multi-cultural democracy blinds officers and civilian policymakers alike from the mental model of human nature needed to do deals in Afghanistan.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2009 December 25 02:53 PM  MidEast Afghanistan

marky mark said at December 25, 2009 3:58 PM:

I remember watching 3 segments on consecutive nights on Britain's Newsnight program earlier this year regarding the involvement of British forces and being shocked at the comments of various senior commanders.

i) in one segment a senior commander was interviewed who had been in command in Kabul for several months admitted on camera that he had only just recently become aware of the British Afghan campaigns in the 19th century and was reading up on them.

ii) in another segment a British army guy had been working with a warlord/politician guy in a rural city to improve the functioning of the city, civil society etc - the reporter asked him if he thought things would revert back once the British left - the guy said that he was sure things wouldn't as he had spent a lot of time with the leader and trusted him and that "[the leader] had changed".

iii) in a third segment i discovered that the British were sending 'territorials' to Afghanistan and that fighting the rebels was proving "tougher than expected".

Randall Parker said at December 25, 2009 4:55 PM:

marky mark,


It is my impression that the officer corps in the US and UK used to attract better people. I suspect the educational opportunities have grown so much and private industry does such a good job of finding and recruiting talent that the militaries just can't get the needed caliber of officers.

If we are going to play imperial games we really need talent to run the show. Obviously we do not have the talent in the government or military.

Eric Johnson said at December 25, 2009 8:48 PM:

This 30 minutes, largely combat footage of the Soviet invasion (non-bloody), is great for seeing the military situation with the hills and mountains:


By the way, anyone know what that opening music is?

I watched a few hours of various stuff on youtube the other night. It seems that the Talibs will be extremely harsh on anyone that abets the US. Apparently at least a few people died of hunger in Kabul during their siege of Kabul years ago.

Obviously, the reverse isnt true; the US has to play nice. So theres a basic asymmetry of incentives for civvies and semi civvies, when it comes to deciding which side they should play along with more than the other. Though of course they tell each side they are with them; they would be foolish not to at least try this.

Also, they just sit in the hills and snipe on these US forward outposts for days, also banging away at the choppers that come to supply them. Fortunately the outposts have walls, concrete I guess. But the US guys can never spot where these dudes are, so they cant do a hell of a lot about it. So the guys are out there trying to win over locals with winter clothing and such, but I'm not sure they get out that much. And when they do Talibs try to roadside-bomb them.

Mercer said at December 26, 2009 11:15 AM:

"An enormous amount of Machiavellian intrigue would be needed to control Afghanistan. But I do not see that the Obama Administration is up to the task."

Since neither Britain or Russia managed to control Afghanistan I doubt the US can no matter who is president. When I listened to Obama speech I don't think believes he can either. I think his plan is a response to the rightwingers who think the "surge" in Iraq created a utopia. He will "surge" for a couple of years and then draw down the troops no what the conditions are in Afghanistan.

Bobby said at December 26, 2009 12:35 PM:

Pashtuns are not a tribe; they are an ethnic group for the same reasons Europe's Serbs and Croats are not tribes. The word tribe is a loaded word dripping with racist undertones.

Bob Badour said at December 26, 2009 1:11 PM:

Serbs and Croats are capable of holding allegiance to a federal government--at least under the right circumstances. The Pashtuns are a tribe in that they hold tribal allegiance above all else just as all the other tribes in Afghanistan do. The reason nobody can rule Afghanistan as a nation is it isn't a nation. It isn't even a federation of nations. It is a mostly worthless shithole occupied by mostly geographically separated clans and tribes.

Bobby said at December 26, 2009 1:35 PM:

Bob Badour -- Serbs and Croats are capable of holding allegiance to a federal government--at least under the right circumstances.
OK, pigs are not swine because they can fly--at least under the right circumstances. Also, a spade is not a digging implement because it can be used to smack a moron upside the head--at least under the right circumstances.

Bob Badour -- The Pashtuns are a tribe in that they hold tribal allegiance above all else just as all the other tribes in Afghanistan do.
So, decades after Bob discovered Afghanistan for the civilized world, he shares his deep knowledge of the Afghan tribesman. Next up: folks who hold ethnic allegiance above all else.

Bob Badour -- It is a mostly worthless shithole occupied by mostly geographically separated clans and tribes.
Nice basis for your definition. Post shithole, ergo propter tribes and clans. Geographic separation creates tribes; this must stop!

Bob Badour, Great White Genius, world renown shithole analyst and Afghan tribal expert for the win!

Bob Badour said at December 26, 2009 3:19 PM:
OK, pigs are not swine because they can fly

Writing random absurdities and insults does not make what I wrote any less correct.

Eric Johnson said at December 26, 2009 3:36 PM:

I wonder if the Russkies couldnta had Afghanistan if theyd really wanted it, they way they wanted to crush the spirit of the sometimes-terrorist Chechnya. They basically wrecked Grozny. They "disappeared" many a man and killed a mess of civvies. They seem to have tortured some people, possibly a lot of them.

But why would they have wanted to do that in Afghanistan? A thing like that is truly terrible to do. In Chechnya there was more reason for doing it. Losing to separatists -- and terrorists -- in your own nation is a lot more problematic than losing an imperial war in Afghanistan. (I would call them "terrorists/guerrillas/freedom fighters/whatever" had they attacked only soldiers, but they attacked civvies.)

In the same way, we could have Afghanistan too -- for the price of torture, the price of many many semi-judicial executed in which you dont worry overmuch if 25% of those executed are innocent, the price of destroying many many homes or interning mass numbers of civvies as the brits did when fighting guerrilla Boers, etc etc. But we arent going to do those things. Were we to receive a few mass attacks from that soil, or several small ones, we might do those things, or just nuke Kabul and Kandahar. Neocons like Whiskey think we have displayed spine by going over there, and signaled to everyone that we have some sack and might well do truly terrible things if pushed. This is certainly true to some extent -- the question is whether it is true *enough* to justify all the stuff that has gone down. We probably should have installed a tough, nasty strongman, just as we did everywhere throughout the 20th C. It aint pretty, but its better than endless war, whether native v native or native v us: thats what dudes like Jimmy Carter didnt understand in their shame (partly justifiable, sort of, in a way) over our strongman-installing past. It certainly didnt work well in Iran (the Shah), I admit that. But what else are we going to do?

Sailer wants to break it up because local native govs will run a lot smoother and fairer than a national one. Probably true. But who is gonna stay there forever to keep these many polities from fighting one another and having acceptable non-radical govs? Us? My yet-unborn children? Hmmm. What are the odds that there will ever be a stable peace between 14 Afghan micro-states, or stable non-radical govs that will be hardline anti-terrorist?

And if we leave without putting in a mean strongman, why *wouldnt* terrorists train there again? I guess maybe because they can just train and coordinate in Waziristan in any case... or if you believe Greg Cochran, in Hamburg, or any city anywhere. But I'm not certain about all that myself.

Eric Johnson said at December 26, 2009 3:42 PM:

I guess Bobby here is an Afghan/Iraq democratist. What do you want to do, yo -- stay in both nations until there is an iron-strong democracy and an army? Theres more hope in Iraq of avoiding civil war subsequent to our departure. But how much? When do you think we can get out of there with some confidence that a democratic gov will hold?

Bob Badour said at December 26, 2009 3:58 PM:


Why the fuck should we care what sort of government they give themselves? I think we would all have been better off if we had gone in there, broke things, killed people (including all of the former ruling class,) and left again. If they started training more terrorists, we could go back, break more things, kill more people and leave again. Eventually, somebody with a sense of self-preservation would seize power.

Randall Parker said at December 26, 2009 5:21 PM:


People who practice consanguineous marriage at high rates are tribal. The Pashtuns meet a dictionary definition of tribe.

Profanity and insults of other posters does not make your own arguments more persuasive. If you persist in the insults I will delete further comments from you.

Bobby said at December 26, 2009 11:02 PM:


Read my comments. No profanity from me. Bob Badour used profanity; I was simply using his words to make a point.

And no, I'm no Afghan or Taliban supporter. Or a Democrat. Or liberal.
Authoritative Merriam-Webster definition of tribe:

Main Entry: tribe
Pronunciation: \ˈtrīb\
Function: noun
Etymology: Middle English, from Latin tribus, a division of the Roman people, tribe
Date: 13th century

1 a : a social group comprising numerous families, clans, or generations together with slaves, dependents, or adopted strangers b : a political division of the Roman people originally representing one of the three original tribes of ancient Rome c : phyle
2 : a group of persons having a common character, occupation, or interest
3 : a category of taxonomic classification ranking below a subfamily; also : a natural group irrespective of taxonomic rank

There are 42 million Pashtuns and they do not meet any of the definitions above or any of the definitions you provided.

We will fail against Afghan insurgents as long as we continue to use terms that suggest that they are incapable of intelligent or sophisticated strategies and tactics. If we continue to view them as wogs, we will continue to lose.

Enoch Powell said at December 27, 2009 2:58 AM:

Formerly the British were very savvy regarding the mendacity and treachery of East Indian people (read your Kipling!) and tailored policy regarding Indians with this fact uppermost in mind.
Indeed a few thousand Englishmen ran the whole of India (that includes Pakistan)and its massive population effortlessly.
The reason? - that generation of tough-minded public-school educated Englishmen (think of the 'Flashman' novels)were even more devious and cunning than the pakis - and rather sadistic to boot.
Read hhow the great William Raikes Hodson single handely took on over a thousand armed pakis (who were too cowardly to challenge him), stripped a pair of paki princes stark naked (to deliberately humiliate them) and personally put a pistol against their temples and blew their brains out and then dumping their bodies on the maharajah's steps.
If only modern Englishmen could treat their contemporary paki problem with such ruthless efficiency.

Bob Badour said at December 27, 2009 7:55 AM:

"A social group comprising numerous clans" sounds like the pashtuns to me.

Any way you slice it, Bobby, they come up tribal because they have a very tribal culture. You would do well to pay attention when Randall mentions consanguineous marriage in the context of tribalism. Even the Amerinds were far less consanguineous and far more nation-building than the Afghanis.

As you mature, Bobby, you may realize that political correctness is just so much Orwellian double-speak and that sticking your head in the sand to ignore reality won't change it or make it go away.

Mercer said at December 27, 2009 8:52 AM:

"few thousand Englishmen ran the whole of India (that includes Pakistan)and its massive population effortlessly."

Wikipedia has three Anglo-Afghan wars in less then a hundred years. I would not describe that as effortless. We also live in age with far more third world nationalism then the Victorians.

I don't know if the Afghans are tribal. I do know they speak different languages. That makes them a poor candidate for having a stable country.

Bob Badour said at December 27, 2009 9:22 AM:

Enoch and Mercer,

One key difference between the British Raj and Afghanistan is the stratification of Indian society even before the brits showed up. Yes, Indian society is very tribal. Yes, parts of India are even more consanguineous than Afghanistan. Yes, tribes have regional tendencies in India.

However, in any given area of India, multiple tribes or castes co-existed and interacted daily. By encouraging and strengthening the stratification of the caste system, the British were able to rule with very few of their own feet on the ground. By co-opting the castes that saw themselves as having a birthright over other castes, the brits put themselves at the apex of a pyramid of control in India.

Afghanistan lacks the stratification because different families, clans and tribes in Afghanistan generally have geographic barriers among them. With a flatter organizational structure, no pyramid of control exists so no apex exists for any ruler to occupy.

Randall Parker said at December 27, 2009 6:08 PM:


Some dictionary definitions are better than others. From the one I linked to:

tribe [Lat., tribus: the tripartite division of Romans into Latins, Sabines, and Etruscans], a social group bound by common ancestry and ties of consanguinity consanguinity (kŏn'săng-gwĭn`ĭtē), state of being related by blood or descended from a common ancestor. ..... Click the link for more information. and affinity; a common language and territory; and characterized by a political and economic organization intermediate between small, family family, a basic unit of social structure, the exact definition of which can vary greatly from time to time and from culture to culture. How a society defines family as a primary group, and the functions it asks families to perform, are by no means constant.

The bonds of consanguineous marriage (and very high birth rates that are needed to sustain them) are essential in understanding Afghanistan.

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