Small Wars Journal

Smoke and Mirrors in Kabul

Smoke and Mirrors in Kabul - an op-ed well worth reading and pondering by Andrew Exum at Foreign Policy. With a tip of the hat to Mark Safranski at Zenpundit who also chimes in. Don't believe the hype about reconciliation talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban -- this war isn't even close to over.


Publius (not verified)

Tue, 10/26/2010 - 8:30pm

Nice shot, Duck, but I think you tend to misunderstand Gian Gentile. As I see it, he's not really anti-Coin--even though we all know that's his reputation--it's more that he's anti-stupid Coin and even more anti Coin-tail wagging strategic dog. No Army officer is going to be arbitrarily anti-Coin; there is a time and place for everything and Gian knows Coin should be part of the toolkit.

Many of us, however, have reservations about the efficacy of current Afghan operations in support of what is supposed to be about neutralizing threats to the US. Threats to the US, not pacifying Afghanistan. If I thought pacifying Afghanistan would support the strategic goal of security of the U.S., then I would be all over doing so. And I know Gian Gentile would be, too. Unfortunately, many of us see little evidence that even outright defeat of the Taliban would do much to secure the homeland. And that is the strategic goal, not making Afghanistan into the land of milk and honey. I'm not suggesting we ignore Afghanistan, but I'd rather see the money spent on Coin spent on more sophisticated operations against harder targets in several areas.

We've got to keep our eye on the ball. What good are Coin successes unless they support the overall strategy?

gian p gentile (not verified)

Tue, 10/26/2010 - 6:18pm


You win dude, you got the best of me.



Bob's World

Mon, 10/25/2010 - 4:50pm


Good observations. This is a complex mix of stakeholders, and cannot be observed as a monolith.

For the insurgency (not our actual mission, but one we allowed ourselves to take on) it is the poor governance radiating out from the illegitimate Karzai government that fuels the the top tier of the revolutionary insurgency, with our very presence lending fuel to the fire for the lower tier resistance insurgency that we deal with on the ground daily.

Behind this one then has the external players all out for their own interests. The US and the coalition already possessing interests in the current government of Afghanistan conducting FID; and then those governments seeking to promote their interests through these insurgent groups conducting UW. Pakistan is but one, there are half a dozen other states playing this "great game" at various levels as well.

The US must indeed reconcile the conflict of interests we have with Pakistan, and to help Pakistan reconcile the internal conflict of interest that we have created for them. Pakistan's number one interest is survival versus India, and the instability in Afghanistan managed by their Taliban agents was a key part of that deterrence strategy. When the US wanted instability there was no conflict; now we switched 180 degrees and created a nation-destabilizing conflict of interests for Pakistans. They need good relations with the US, but they need deterrence with India as well; and we have them dancing on a razor's edge trying to maintain both. It isn't working for anyone.

The U.S. could win a "war" in Afghanistan, and trigger a nuclear exchange between two allies in the process. I think we should consider that possibility carefully and incorporate it more fully into our overall approach to the region.

The U.S. has been pursuing a moralistic grandstraegy of idealism ever since the rise of Red China. We shifed from containing a phyiscal threat to one of containing an idea. It is time to get back to interest-base Realism; and attempting to contain Islamism driven liberty is not going to work any better than efforts to contain communism-driven liberty did the 60 years prior. (Yes, evil forces hijack the forces of liberty for their own agendas, but it has been the pursuit of liberty that truly moved those many populaces to action).

Bill C. (not verified)

Mon, 10/25/2010 - 4:16pm


If my above description of this insurgency is correct, to wit: a conflict between foreign entities; wherein, the insurgency radiates out -- not from the local government nor from the insurgency -- but, rather, from foreign sources,

Then, in order to achieve reconciliation between these foreign sources, should we be not be concentrating on the issues that are of concern to them (the controlling foreign entities) who would seem to be the true antagonists in this conflict?

Stated another way: Should the issues of concern to the Pakistani ISI be resolved in a manner that they -- and the United States -- find to be acceptable,

Then should we expect that the insurgency in Afghanistan would go away?

Bill C. (not verified)

Mon, 10/25/2010 - 12:11pm

In that the Taliban is seen to be the creature of the Pakistani ISI, and the local Afghan government is considered to be the agent of the United States,

Then would it be correct to say that the issues that drive this insurgency emanate out -- not so much from local sources -- but, instead, from the conflicting interests and agenda of foreign entities (to wit: the United States and the Pakistani ISI)?

duck (not verified)

Mon, 10/25/2010 - 10:27am

Poor Gian P. Gentile. I feel sorry for you man, I really do. It must be tiring being the guy who has to keep his fingers in the dike to keep the coindistas from conquering the world. That's hard work.

And truly, pop-coin is slowly taking over our world. Just yesterday i was watching a football game and I heard the announcers talking about how important special teams are. I mean don't they know that offense is the most important phase of the game--the phase that scores points? I mean why do teams even bother practicing special teams when everyone knows its the offense that scores the vast majority of points in football? Coindista crap. It's just everywhere these days. I truly feel for you Gian, being the lone voice against the gale.

gian p gentile (not verified)

Sun, 10/24/2010 - 12:41pm

Andrew writes this piece from the level of the tactics of population centric counterinsurgency (aka nation building, or Robert Jones's government-constitutional centric approach). Exums short criticism of President Obama's public announcement to begin withdrawal of troops in July 2011, which Andrew calls a "blunder" betrays his tactical focus. Andrew is focused on the doing of population centric coin at the tactical level, which does by rule and a perceived sense of history, demand lots of time to carry out.

But the president's announcement of a timeline was one fundamentally of strategy linked to his policy objective of disrupting, disabling, and defeating AQI in Afghanistan.

The President was talking strategy, Andrew Exum's criticism of him was in a sense from a different--less important--level of war: the tactics of nation building at the barrel of a gun.

Other than that I do applaud Andrew in the piece for exposing the truth of conditions on the ground relative to the smoke and mirrors of the narrative of progress that is currently be constructed. Andrew is being a good realist about the situation as it exists now, and what it will take to succeed along this current path. Unfortunately his realism is still trapped in the box of the doing of population centric coin.


Bob's World

Sun, 10/24/2010 - 12:05pm

Some good points. I'd offer to Andrew a slight change of perspective. He see's the virtual impossibility of reconciling these various groups and leaders. I agree.

I also believe firmly a couple of key points:

1. Insurgency radiates out from the government, not in from the insurgent. So solutions lay with fixing of government, not defeating of insurgent.

2. Related to this, reconciliation is the key to true COIN success, rather than temporary suppression of insurgent groups.

3. To achieve reconciliaiton, I believe the key is to focus on reconciling the ISSUES rather than the individuals or their organizations that feed on these issues. Keep the focus on the populace and how the government governs them, not the wants or goals of those (often self-serving) men and organizations that rise from this base of popular discontent to challenge government.

With a slight change of perspective I believe we can make major advances forward.