Home > AF-PAK strategy, Commentary > Houses on Sand & the ASG report

Houses on Sand & the ASG report

I’ve been watching the debate about the Afghanistan Study Group report with interest. And while I’m cynically amused by the sooky la la reaction of some contributors to the criticism they have encountered and even more amused at the irony of this given their report criticized the current US strategy, I’m also extremely worried.

Several people have criticised the report not so much for the conclusions that it reached but the manner in which it reached them. See for example Josh, Christian and maybe Andrew .  To my mind, the main issue of contention seems to be that the foundation of knowledge (or assumptions) upon which this report was based is deeply flawed. That’s been covered elsewhere in great detail, some of which I agree with and some of which I don’t.

But what worries me the most is the “so what?” issue that seems to be prevailing in response to criticisms about issues with the foundation of knowledge, or whether it is required when authoring a study like this. That somehow a policy document does not need such a foundation.

The “so what?” dynamic seems to be manifesting as an argument that goes something like this: since this is a document dealing with US national interests and grand strategy it does not matter.  But this isn’t just a document about grand strategy.

It’s a document about strategy in Afghanistan. Look at the five point approach for example. Leaving aside the issues here in terms of a levels of analysis problem, and also purpose schizophrenia, I’d like to highlight why I think people are getting their knickers in a knot over the foundation being flawed because it seems that this has not been set out in some of the critiques.

And the way I like to look at these things is the good old “what if?” question. What if this document is accepted, and then adopted?

Here’s where it gets tricky.  If the foundation of knowledge upon which conclusions are drawn and an alternative strategy fashioned is wrong, what follows will be wrong.

For example imagine if the premises upon which the ASG formed this “way forward” shape or influence operational strategy.  That’s when things would start to go very pear shaped, if the foundation of knowledge was wrong. Because the reality doesn’t meet the strategy, because the strategy has started top down and not only just top down but based on assumed wisdom that is potentially deeply flawed. Then the top down strategy gets imposed onto the situation and some poor bastard  has to try to move forward with something that doesn’t fit the reality and is basically given the task of trying to hammer a square into a circle.

Or we might look at it this way. The ASG has reached similar conclusions to a number of people, but based on a reportedly deeply flawed foundation.  So, imagine if they then get asked to provide input as to how to operationalise this strategy. Because of the way in which they have reached their conclusions and their “way forward” and the deeply flawed foundation of knowledge they have, the way that they suggest going forward  is not going to meet the outcomes they outlined.  Nor would it necessarily survive on the ground, and thus be a pretty pointless exercise. To my mind, aside from the other critiques, this is the main point people are trying to make. That this report and its “way forward” is a house built on sand. It looks great, people  like it. But it can’t hold up because the foundation of knowledge is flawed.

I think Andrew Exum touched on this when he suggested he’d have people who were in charge of operationalising a strategy as well as subject matter experts involved with formulating such a study. (at least this is my reading of what he meant)

I know that my outline above is a very simplistic reading of “what if” but it is important, because as Steve Clemons himself noted, the signatories have influence. That’s great, but in this case, if the foundation is flawed, it’s also a big problem.

I’m not averse to their conclusions, like many others. But I do think, given the concerns voiced about their foundation of knowledge being deeply flawed,  they have a responsibility to “rethink” their “rethink”. Here I’d draw upon the objectives of the study being to put forward an alternative strategy. To continue to push forward in this direction without further engagement and consideration of whether the foundation upon which they based their study is indeed flawed,  would be deeply irresponsible.

So, on that note, I’m sincerely hoping to see reports of more meetings and a revised document. The folks of the ASG have a wonderful opportunity to now show us how it is done. And we’d all learn from it.

  1. Natalie Sambhi
    09/15/2010 at 9:23 am

    Steve Clemons also notes that many of the contributors also opted, for various reasons, to have their names omitted from the report. If it had been predominantly because the report lacked such quality that it would have been an utter embarrassment to have been linked to it in any way (indeed this was Joshua Foust’s response if he had been consulted), then that is also concerning. That a group of academics and practitioners whose input was either ignored, sidelined or eventually obfuscated by other voices in the ASG (members of which whose credibility as consummate Afghanistan experts was easily questioned), and who now publicly represent a “brains trust” on Afghanistan, is a worry. Perhaps I’m being paranoid, and perhaps a little old-school, but I like a good foundation of knowledge as well and, by extension, evidence. I agree with your suggestion of a ‘rethink’ of their so-called ‘new strategy’.

  2. 09/18/2010 at 1:13 pm

    Very well said. In a debate that has become emotional, staying focused on such salient facts is key. The ‘so what’ is important. You are correct to point out that this paper does stress strategy in regards to Afghanistan. As one who has put in a lot of time in Afghanistan (finishing the 27th month in-country) the paper itself is based on a lot of sand and unfounded opinion. Anthony Cordesman’s recent publication, “Afgahanistan: A Progress Report,” has tons of facts at the higher level, much of which are easily understood by those on the ground. His recommendations are simple and direct, based on those observations, facts and the viewpoint from which they are interpreted. If there is to be any discussion of strategy at this point, any debate, it should be based upon a firm footing.

    If the ASG report is what one side of this conversation wishes to frame their argument around, then they are on very shaky ground indeed. In this “hearts and minds” campaign, they are leading with their heart while starving the mind.

  3. PaulG
    09/24/2010 at 3:38 am

    One thing that concerns me about ALL reports I see on Afghanistan is that none of them seem to even attempt to quantify the value to those who are paying for the conflict of the respective end states that might reasonably be attained. We didn’t do this in Iraq and have consequently incurred $3 trillion in costs (which don’t even include the largest cost — the lost opportunity cost). Ultimately, there has to be some upper limit on what we are prepared to spend to obtain the desired result. Failure to do this is the first step toward open-ended commitments and strategy papers that don’t even consider either the cost or the value of what we wish to achieve. It’s not like this is difficult — insurance companies do it all the time.

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