The Skeptics

Pushing Back Forcefully against Critics versus “Hating” Them

Andrew Exum replies to my post on the Afghanistan Study Group Report and his criticisms by wondering whether I carry some personal animus toward him, which I do not. Similarly, he writes on Twitter that Steve Walt “hates” him, which I’m fairly sure isn’t right. I would usually just write this off as a misread or hyperbole, but Joshua Foust characterized my response to their snickering at the ASG report as being “hateful,” later clarifying that he intended sarcasm. Either way, I learned long ago that no matter what, when two people read something you wrote in the same way independent of one another, you need to stop to consider whether they might be onto something. So maybe I did get my Irish up a bit.

In any case, as I stated directly to Foust on his blog, I have nothing even approaching hatred for Foust, Exum, either’s blog, or any other vehicle, person, or agent involved in this debate. Exum in particular, whom I have never met, seems to be a very congenial person, a rarity in Washington. I do not believe, as he suggests I might, that he is “unintelligent.”

So with all that out of the way, I did make a very serious and pointed charge about the nature of the critique, which I stand by: namely, that neither writer was engaging with the alternate strategy proposed by the group, instead leveling (or endorsing, in Exum’s case) tactical or operational critiques of a strategy document, which didn’t make much sense to me, particularly given the tone of the criticism. To be clear on my own views: the ASG report has flaws, and these deserve to be pointed out. Critics should also consider that any document which won the signatures of 46 scholars and practitioners coming from a very wide range of backgrounds is likely to contain some passages that not all authors agree with. This was certainly true in my case.

But the critics’ focus on operations and tactics was, I argued, reflective of an inclination toward operations and away from strategy. That was the reason I quoted Exum’s defense of a report he coauthored during the summer of 2009 that urged the Obama administration to deepen its involvement in Afghanistan. In advising that Obama go deeper into Afghanistan, Exum either endorsed or accepted as a given the counterinsurgency strategy that was by then already coming together. During a panel discussion, Exum said that his report had “specifically focused…on the operational questions and some of the lower-level strategic challenges that are presented by Afghanistan and Pakistan without getting into grand strategy.”

As I wrote before, I believe the most important role of think tankers is to stake out positions on strategic questions. It’s a privilege we have, and one we should use. Otherwise we’re willingly accepting a dubious role described vividly by Rory Stewart:

“It’s like they’re coming in and saying to you, ‘I’m going to drive my car off a cliff. Should I or should I not wear a seatbelt?’ And you say, ‘I don’t think you should drive your car off the cliff.’ And they say, ‘No, no, that bit’s already been decided – the question is whether to wear a seatbelt.’ And you say, ‘Well, you might as well wear a seatbelt.’ And then they say, ‘We’ve consulted with policy expert Rory Stewart and he says...’”

Exum also again recommends other experts with whom we might have consulted, including Columbia’s Austin Long, whom Exum rightly suggests could have helped “sort through how [we] might operationalize an alternative strategy in a way that makes sense in Afghanistan's local context.”

But criticizing a group that tasked itself with sketching an alternative strategy for not fully operationalizing that alternative strategy is simply criticizing the report for not being something it wasn’t intended to be, and was never marketed or sold as. Now, every alternate suggestion needs to pass some sort of basic laugh test. People shouldn’t spend time and money drawing up facially absurd strategic options. I think the signatories themselves could be counted on to sniff out a laughable or absurd alternate strategy, but maybe others disagree. This is one reason why the Study Group Report consulted and even cited Austin Long’s Orbis article about operationalizing a narrower CT mission in Afghanistan. The very same Austin Long article to which Exum points.

I’m not sure what this exchange has produced, but I don’t like people I don’t hate thinking I hate them, so I hope this post has cleared the air while shedding more light on why I think that the criticism I leveled stands.

P.S. I think Exum was right to criticize my use of the modifier “reasonably” in my sentence arguing that America’s interests in Afghanistan “are actually reasonably easy to achieve.” I should have said “relatively” easy to achieve. Relative to what we have been trying to do, that is.