The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Battling a Straw Man and Still Losing

March 15, 2010

[I don’t mean to rail on the Washington Post’s coverage of the war in Afghanistan two posts in a row, but the coverage is honestly a bit dismal this week. In my last post, I showed why Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s article “At Afghan outpost, Marines gone rogue or leading the fight against counterinsurgency?” completely misunderstood the strategic importance of the town of Delaram from which the report was written.]

An Op-ed article in yesterday’s WaPo by Michael O’Hanlon and Hassina Sherjan, “Five Myths About the War in Afghanistan” poorly argues the case for “toughing it out” in Afghanistan. Since my time is limited, let me just tackle the first myth they seek to refute (i.e. “Afghans Always Hate and Defeat their Invaders”). Even though I substantively agree with what they are arguing in this section, the way they argue is objectionable for the following reasons.

First, in seeking to dispute a crass Orientalist straw-man argument that Afghans “always hate and defeat their invaders,” the authors note,

“The Afghans drove the British Empire out of their country in the 19th century and did the same to the Soviet Union in the 20th century. They do fight fiercely; many American troops who have been deployed both in Iraq and Afghanistan in recent years have asserted that the Afghans are stronger natural fighters.”

Natural fighters? I am not quite sure what is meant by this phrase or why the authors would even concede to this notion.

Al Qaeda and the Taliban are not “natural fighters.” These groups have studied and carefully adopted tactics from the US and other countries. As Patrick Porter argues, Al Qaeda’s doctrine of “Long War” is partly inspired by Clausewitz (Porter 2009, 62). Copies of Clausewitz’s writings have been found in Al Qaeda safe houses in Afghanistan. In addition, Al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan are known to use manuals from the US and UK special forces as well as a collected anthology of asymmetric strategies from China and South America.

The Taliban has benefited from its interactions with Al Qaeda, in addition to the strategies and tactics imparted to the mujahideen in the Soviet-Afghan War. In any case, since the Taliban have shifted tactics and strategies (e.g. to include suicide bombing which was once alien to the Afghan conflict), it is incorrect to state that they are “natural fighters.”

Second, O’Hanlon and Sherjan cite highly dubious survey data to support their case:

“Afghans are far more accepting of an international presence in their country than are Iraqis, for example, who typically gave the U.S. presence approval ratings of 15 to 30 percent in the early years of the war in that country. Average U.S. favorability ratings in recent surveys in Afghanistan are around 50 percent, and according to polls from ABC, the BBC and the International Republican Institute, about two-thirds of Afghans recognize that they still need foreign help.”

When this survey was first published, I (and many others who are monitoring this war) posted some reasons why we should be highly skeptical of this particular study, which claimed that 70% of Afghan respondents believe that “things” in Afghanistan are heading in the right direction (up from 40% the year before!).

The point that O’Hanlon and Sherjan want to make could be done without the use of such questionable survey evidence. In fact, as a general rule I think that surveys conducted in war zones should be considered as inadmissable evidence in an argument.

Third, they attempt to paint an image of a small Taliban force (25,000) relative to the mujahideen (250,000) who ousted the Soviets. My problem here is that any estimate of the size of the Taliban should indicate a range of the estimated size. Estimates that I have seen range from 30,000 to 40,000 for this year. So the authors seem to be low balling the estimate to suit their argument. Nevertheless, it is true that the current Taliban forces are much smaller than the estimated number of mujahideen in the Soviet-Afghan War. However, it should be noted that the mujahideen never overran a Soviet base, something which the current Taliban can at least boast (although US/ISAF completely disputes the Taliban’s characterization of events).

Fourth, they argue:

“Finally, though U.S.-backed Afghan forces overthrew the Taliban after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, today’s international presence there does not amount to an invasion. Foreign forces are present at the invitation of the host government, which two-thirds of Afghans consider legitimate, if somewhat corrupt.”

The idea that ISAF troops are present at the invitation of the host government is about as ridiculous as the same claim by the Soviets during their occupation of the country. The current head of state, Hamid Karzai, has been a crony of the CIA since the late eighties. Even he does not dispute the label of “puppet” to describe his regime. It would be more honest for O’Hanlon and Sherjan to acknowledge that this is an occupation but one that is not detested to the same degree as the Soviet occupation.

[Cross-posted from my Afghan Notebook]

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Vikash is an Associate Professor of Political Science and Asian Studies at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, NY. His main areas of academic interest are (post-) globalization, economic development, and economic freedom, with a regional focus on South Asia