Saturday, October 31, 2009

"The logical core of Matthew Hoh's resignation letter": a counterpoint to Fallows

James Fallows has a post titled "The logical core of Matthew Hoh's resignation letter." Hoh is the former army captain and Iraq War veteran who just resigned in protest a position of responsibility in Afghanistan, warning that he "fail[s] to see the value or worth" of military support of the Afghan government.

Hoh's resignation is an act of courage and principle, and he sounds some resonant alarms. When I read his letter, I couldn't help but wonder what would have been the impact if Colin Powell had picked a propitious moment to do something similar.

However, I must disagree with Fallows. I do not think that the passage he identifies is the core of Hoh's argument, nor is it entirely logical. Here it is:
"I find specious the reasons we ask for bloodshed and and sacrifice from our young men and women in Afghanistan. If honest, our stated strategy of securing Afghanistan to prevent al-Qaeda resurgence or regrouping would require us to additionally invade and occupy western Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen, etc. [My (Fallows') emphasis.] Our presence in Afghanistan has only increased destabilization and insurgency in Pakistan where we rightly fear a toppled or weakened Pakistani government may lose control of its nuclear weapons. However, again, to follow the logic of our stated goals we should garrison Pakistan, not Afghanistan. More so, the September 11th attacks, as well as the Madrid and London bombings, were primarily planned and organized in Western Europe; a point that highlights that the threat is not one tied to traditional geographic or political boundaries."
For starters, the claim that continuing U.S. efforts to fight the Taliban and prop up the Afghan government "would require us" to invade and occupy Somalia, Sudan, Yemen, etc. is a red herring (leave Pakistan aside for a moment). The unspoken assumption is that terrorist threats from all lawless states are equal, and/or that al Qaeda could host itself equally effectively from Somalia, Sudan or Yemen, in each of which it has operated. Steve Coll has, I think, countered this assumption effectively:
It is simply not true that all potential al Qaeda sanctuaries are of the same importance, now or potentially. Bin Laden and his No. 2, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, have a 30-year, unique history of trust and collaboration with the Pashtun Islamist networks located in North Waziristan, Bajaur, and the Northwest Frontier Province of Pakistan. It is not surprising, given this distinctive history, that al Qaeda's presumed protectors -- perhaps the Haqqani network, which provided the territory in which al Qaeda constructed its first training camps in the summer of 1988 -- have never betrayed their Arab guests.

These networks have fought alongside al Qaeda since the mid-1980s and have raised vast sums of money in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states through their connections. They possess infrastructure -- religious institutions, trucking firms, criminal networks, preaching networks, housing networks -- from Kandahar and Khost Province, and from Quetta to Karachi's exurban Pashtun neighborhoods, that is either impervious to penetration by the Pakistani state or has coopted those in the Pakistani security services who might prove disruptive. It is mistaken to assume that Bin Laden, Zawahiri, or other Arab leaders would enjoy similar sanctuary anywhere else. In Somalia they would almost certainly be betrayed for money; in Yemen, they would be much more susceptible to detection by the country's police network. The United States should welcome the migration of al Qaeda's leadership to such countries.

Accepting Coll's argument -- and I'm sure that there are informed parties to the debate who don't -- narrows the main counterterrorism focus to Aghanistan and Pakistan. But it does not follow that the logic of U.S. engagement in Afghanistan suggests tat the U.S. should "invade and occupy" Pakistan, as Hoh claims. Pakistan is a different country, and requires a different approach. As Rory Stewart points out, Pakistan is a more dangerous habitat for al Qaeda precisely because it's a stronger state than Afghanistan, and at least a nominal ally, and we don't have license or capacity to "invade and occupy" it (thank God).

The fact that a strategy we're currently engaged in in Afghanistan won't work in Pakistan and can't be tried there doesn't suggest either that it can't work in Afghanistan or that some other strategy might not work in Pakistan. Coll sees the key to happier outcomes for the region, and more effective counterterrorism, to be economic development in Pakistan on a par with, say, India's.* Pakistan can't get there without going a long way toward peace with India -- a goal that the U.S. can only help further with a very light touch, if at all -- as Hillary's highly contentious recent visit indicates.

There is no question that designing and implementing a U.S. strategy that would help establish modicum of peace and prosperity in Afghanistan and Pakistan is devilishly complex and difficult. But that doesn't mean that the U.S. can abjure trying -- whatever level of military engagement in Afghanistan might help further that end. Nor does it mean that adding troops in Afghanistan entails "invading and occupying" Pakistan, let alone Somalia etc.

In my view the "logical core of Hoh's letter" -- and its strongest challenge to U.S. policy -- lies elsewhere. It's in his claim that US military engagement stimulates the insurgency -- the more U.S. engagement, the more the more stimulus, and the stronger the Taliban. This argument has several parts: 1) Pashtun identity requires resisting control by "urban, secular, educated and modern Afghanistan"; 2) foreign troops joined to a government representing that internal enemy further stimulate resistance; 3) the government to which the U.S. has yoked itself is hopelessly corrupt and predatory; and 4) the U.S. presence in Afghanistan destabilizes Pakistan.

That is a fearsome indictment -- especially since few would dispute that the dynamic Hoh outlines has been at work in recent years. McChrystal himself acknowledges these realities. From McChrystal's 8/30 assessment:
GiRoA [the Afghan government] and ISAF [the international force led by the US] have both failed to focus on this objective [understanding the choices the Afghan people make between government and insurgents]. The weakness of state institutions, malign actions of power-brokers, widespread corruption and abuse of power by various officials, and ISAF's own errors, have given Afghans little reason to support their government....A foreign army alone cannot beat an insurgency; the insurgency in Afghanistan requires an Afghan solution...All ethnicities, particularly the Pashtuns, have traditionally sought a degree of independence from the central government.
Where McChrystal differs from Hoh is in his conviction that the US military can change the dynamic by changing its own practice, strategy, and culture. That's where the road forks. He asserts that "the popular myth that Afghans do not want governance is overplayed," and that the U.S. military can win allegiance by making "protecting the population" its primary goal; by changing its "operating culture" to one "that puts the Afghan people first"; and by "building personal relationship with its Afghan partners and the protected population."

That's an oddly utopian program for a ferociously tough commander. Cheney would have had a field day with McChrystal's language four or five years ago, e.g., "All ISAF personnel must show respect for local cultures and customs and demonstrate intellectual curiosity about the people of Afghanistan." This from a man whose chief responsibility in Iraq was running assassination squads against al Qaeda. If he can sell this strategy, it's through a kind of Nixon to China authority.

We're in unchartered territory. McChrystal is calling for a counterinsurgency effort more nuanced, more sensitive, more self-sacrificing and more multifaceted than any in history. He and Petraeus et al are pivoting from a remarkable, if partial and perhaps even temporary, military success in Iraq. But that precedent is no more complete an analogy than those of Vietnam or the Soviets in Afghanistan.

*India has its own dangerous insurgencies to cope with, but these days the US doesn't get so exercised about Maoists. That's a strange irony of history. I sometimes wonder, while we're so preoccupied with Islamic jihad, what new malign ideology will burst out of nowhere to exploit the horrific tools of terror developed over the last 20 years, and seek to develop worse. UPDATE 11/1: today's Times has a front page story about India's Maoist insurgency -- and a pending 70,000-troop counterinsurgency effort.


  1. One of the better analyses I've seen. Well put. I'm still more inclined to side with McChrystal over Hoh's cynicism, but you give a good breakdown of the sides.

  2. And it turns out that Matthew Hoh was right and you were wrong.

  3. And it turns out that Matt Hoh was right and you were dead wrong.

    1. How so? I didn't say Hoh was wrong in what I took to be his strongest point.