Posts Tagged ‘reasoning from conclusions’

REPRISE: Reasoning from Conclusions in Afghanistan

Sunday, August 19th, 2012

See Jennifer Rowland, “NATO under-reporting green-on-blue violence,” Foreign Policy, May 1, 2012.

Editorial, “The Enemy Within,” New York Times, August 20, 2012.


First published on May 18, 2012

The Observer has often been struck by the manner in which the U.S. military in Afghanistan, and the U.S. government, basically plan policy in Afghanistan–and not only in Afghanistan–by reasoning from conclusions. For years, we have all heard that the strategy of the U.S. is to “stand up” strong Afghan military and police forces that can take on the Taliban, and to “stand up” a competent government that can enlist the loyalties of the Afghan people. Because these steps are necessary, we have reasoned for many years, they represent goals that will be achieved as a result of our military and civilian efforts, and those of our allies, in Afghanistan.

A striking illustration of this mode of thinking is provided by Michael Hastings in his fascinating book, The Operators, published by Penguin earlier this year. Describing general Stanley McChrystal’s approach to “communication strategy”, Hastings summarizes the corresponding mental operations as follows:

Dave…arranged logistics for the general’s travel and played a key role in shaping McChrystal’s communication strategy. He spoke in quick and compact bursts, compressing complex ideas into an insanely efficient militarized syntax. One of his jobs was to handle the Sync Matrix, or as Dave explained it, “to map out what the general is trying to accomplish, then put that on a time chart and functionally organize what we’re doing by his end states and objectives at certain dates and times, and then identify what events are missing based on his goals, plug those events in, and then leverage existing events as the forums we use to articulate our message.

–Michael Hastings, The Operators (New York, The Penguin Group, 2011), p. 40.

(Hasting is the author of “The Runaway General,” Rolling Stone, June 22, 2011. The article’s revelations led to General Stanley McChrystal’s dismissal by President Obama.)

This approach to not only justifying military policy in Afghanistan, but also developing and implementing it, seems to have been endemic in U.S. involvement in the country for a number of years. It explains, perhaps, the wide gap between military assessments of the situation in Afghanistan and those of U.S. intelligence agencies, whose mandate includes providing a dose of skepticism and critical judgment.

Reasoning from conclusions, and the consequences of this approach, are worth thinking about.

As we wrote in 2009,

Catastrophic Failure
One overriding fact remains. Our diplomacy in Afghanistan has not been successful. It has failed. It has failed in a catastrophic way.

The bad decisions are becoming evident, with no sign they will not be followed by even more bad decisions. They include:

1) Failure to understand that the NATO and UN templates from Bosnia and Kosovo were utterly unsuited to the realities of Afghanistan, where fresh analysis and program development was required.

2) Failure to change an electoral law that makes the development of national political parties almost impossible.

3) Agreeing to Afghan elections conducted by a Karzai-appointed commission, instead of sticking with the UN-conducted elections that worked so well in 2004 and 2005.

4) Not insisting, as (Peter) Galbraith wanted, that the fraud being prepared by the Karzai government be stopped.

5) Acquiescing in the election fraud, and the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) looking the other way while the fraud occurred.

6) Failing to insist on a correct vote tally and a second round of voting, as required by Afghan law, thus showing Afghans what we, NATO and the UN really believe about democracy in their country.

7) More broadly, throwing out the whole democratic rationale for being in Afghanistan by going along with the election fraud.

Legitimacy–First Things First

The failure in Afghanistan has been a diplomatic and political failure, not just a military failure. Military strategy will falter if diplomatic and political strategy does not keep pace. We cannot succeed in Afghanistan by proceeding on the naive belief that we can “stand up” a legitimate government born of fraud, or that we can “stand up” an Afghan army both capable of defeating the Taliban and loyal to a government lacking in legitimacy and losing public support. Legitimacy is the key to developing both a more effective government and a more capable army and police. Without legitimacy, both possibilities appear to be but chimeras in the desert sand.

–The Trenchant Observer, “More Troops, or Better Diplomacy? Diplomatic and Political Failures in Afghanistan, October 6th, 2009

The utter fiasco of the “government in a box” concept in the Marja campaign in February, 2010 was a sure sign of how difficult it could be to establish “good governance”. So the United States decided to back Hamid Karzai to the hilt, and to more or less forget about the corruption problem. Moreover, the further assumption has been made, or reaffirmed, because it is necessary for the model to work out, that the trained and expanded Afghan military and police forces will remain loyal to the central government of Hamid Karzai.

The growing number of attacks on ISAF soldiers by Afghan military, the very people we are training to hand the country over to, points to the underlying issue of the loyalties of Afghan soldiers once the Americans are removed from combat and have a much lower profile in the country. The Americans, living in their military compounds, are not exposed to the intimidation and reprisals Afghan soldiers and their families face. Once they are gone, or their numbers greatly reduced, a drastic change in the dynamic in the country could occur.

There are no easy solutions here. We are now condemned to suffer the consequences of earlier bad decisions. We can hope for the best.

But even at this remove, reasoning from conclusions is not going to help us.

The Trenchant Observer

For links to other articles on Afghanistan by The Trenchant Observer, click on the title at the top of this page to go to the home page, and then type in “Afghanistan” in the search box.

Urgent Note to Obama and Petraeus: Reread the Eikenberry Cables, Avoid Reasoning from Conclusions, and Adjust Course

Thursday, July 1st, 2010

The replacement of General Stanley McChrystal by General David Petraeus signals an important change in the military leadership in Afghanistan. However, with commentators suggesting that Petraeus will be the new American “proconsul” in Afghanistan, it is far from clear that President Obama is moving to redress the serious imbalance in his team’s combined civilian and military approach and strategy in Afghanistan.

To date, undue weight has been given to military solutions and military considerations. Comments from White House officials on background suggest problems on the civilian side of the equation, with thought being given to replacing Ambassador Karl Eikenberry and Ambassador Richard Holbrooke.

It is a disservice to President Obama and to these men, who have given years of distinguished service to the nation, to paint them as clinging to their jobs.

That aside, why Secretary of State Hilary Clinton has not defended the State Department, and her own perogative to choose State’s team for Afghanistan and Pakistan, is an open question.

She appears to be out of the White House loop on Afghanistan policy. Whenever she does become visibly involved, as she did during last year’s reexamination of our Afghanistan strategy, she seems to agree not with her ambassadors but with the Pentagon, every step of the way.

It is a serious miskake for White House officials, themselves lacking deep foreign policy expertise or experience on the ground in Afghanistan, to personalize differences of policy by referring to “Eikenberry” or “Holbrooke”. The latter represent the expertise of the State Department, including the views of senior diplomats stationed in or with experience in the region.

It is their views, the views of the professional diplomats in the State Department, which require a new and fresh hearing.

In particular, Ambassador Eikenberry’s cables last November laid out the stark realities in Afghanistan. These realities have been forcefully confirmed since then by developments on the ground.

With the confirmation of Petraeus, it is more urgent than ever that the policies that have failed in the last nine months be reexamined with a fresh eye. In particular, the military’s current penchant for reasoning from conclusions (e.g., because a competent government, military and national police force must come into existence for our strategy to succeed, they will…) must be corrected and avoided.

Eikenberry’s cables are worth rereading now. The following article contains links to them.


“Eikenberry Memos Place Spotlight on U.S. Dilemmas in Afghanistan,” The Trenchant Observer, March 27, 2010

On January 25 in a story by Eric Schmitt, the New York Times reported on and published the full text of memos written by Ambassador Karl Eikenberry on November 6 and November 9, 2009, detailing his reasons for opposing the counterinsurgency strategy and “surge” proposed by Gen. Stanley McChrystal and the latter’s boss, CENTCOM commander Gen. David Petreus.

The cables strongly suggest that President Obama’s much-touted and drawn-out Afghanistan policy review in the fall did not fully address the validity of key assumptions upon which the McChrystal proposals were based, including 1) the assumption that Karzai and his government could become the kind of government partner needed for the strategy to succeed; and 2) the assumption that the Afghan army and police could be trained and built up quickly to take over and hold areas cleared by U.S. and NATO forces (including the additional 40,000 troops requested by McChrystal).

The fact that the U.S. ambassador in Kabul, himself a former commander of U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan, felt the policy review had been too narrowly focused on counterinsurgency doctrine and strategy, is in itself quite amazing.

Perhaps sensing that his views were on the verge of being eclipsed by the recommendations of Mr. Obama’s military advisors, Eikenberry in the second cable urged further study by a broader group to fully weigh considerations such as those raised in his cables–which he obviously felt were not being given due weight in the current review.

The memos confirm that the U.S. has a capable ambassador and diplomatic team in Kabul, who understand the broader picture of what is going on in Afghanistan.

But in the end, Mr. Obama did not follow the main thrust of Eikenberry’s arguments and advice. The President has gained time, perhaps, in domestic political terms, and perhaps also to see if the new strategy of protecting populations can reverse the momentum of the Taliban.

Reading these cables, however, and Eikenberry’s cogent descriptions of what sound like insuperable obstacles to be overcome, it is difficult to discern grounds for optimism regarding the success of the current strategy.

See also The Trenchant Observer, “Commentary on Eikenberry Cables, Intelligence on Afghanistan,”
January 28th, 2010

The Trenchant Observer

Comments and debate are invited.