REPRISE: Reasoning from Conclusions in Afghanistan

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

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About the Author

James Rowles
"The Trenchant Observer" is edited and published by James Rowles (aka "The Observer"), an author and international lawyer who has taught International Law, Human Rights, and Comparative Law at major U.S. universities, including Harvard, Brandeis, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Kansas. Dr. Rowles is a former staff attorney at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) of the Organization of American States OAS), in Wasington, D.C., , where he was in charge of Brazil, Haiti, Mexico and the United States, and also worked on complaints from and reports on other countries including Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. As an international development expert, he has worked on Rule of Law, Human Rights, and Judicial Reform in a number of countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Russian Federation. In the private sector, Dr. Rowles has worked as an international attorney for a leading national law firm and major global companies, on joint ventures and other matters in a number of countries in Europe (including Russia and the Ukraine), throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Japan. The Trenchant Observer blog provides an unfiltered international perspective for news and opinion on current events, in their historical context, drawing on a daily review of leading German, French, Spanish and English newspapers as well as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other American newspapers, and on sources in other countries relevant to issues being analyzed. Dr. Rowles speaks fluent English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish, and also knows other languages. He holds an S.J.D. or Doctor of Juridical Science in International Law from Harvard University, and a Doctor of Law (J.D.) and a Master of the Science of Law (J.S.M.=LL.M.), from Stanford University. As an undergraduate, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree, also from Stanford, where he graduated “With Great Distinction” (summa cum laude) and received the James Birdsall Weter Prize for the best Senior Honors Thesis in History. In addition to having taught as a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, Dr. Rowles has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs (CFIA). His fellowships include a Stanford Postdoctoral Fellowship in Law and Development, the Rómulo Gallegos Fellowship in International Human Rights awarded by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and a Harvard MacArthur Fellowship in International Peace and Security. Beyond his articles in The Trenchant Observer, he is the author of two books and numerous scholarly articles on subjects of international and comparative law. Currently he is working on a manuscript drawing on some the best articles that have appeared in the blog.