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A Response to Brandon Friedman’s “Five Myths About the Afghanistan Escalation”

Posted by alexthurston on February 5th, 2009

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Brandon Friedman wrote a piece for to about his support for the Afghanistan escalation. I commend him for engaging in this discussion. Our responsibility as citizens demands we have this discussion before sending more men and women into danger, and that’s why a broad coalition of writers, bloggers, and other activists have come together around the Get Afghanistan Right campaign against the escalation. Brandon took some time to dispel what he feels are “myths” creeping into the debate, and in the same spirit I’d like to address his concerns and offer corrections to his perception of the reasons we oppose escalation in Afghanistan.

Before I dive into his myths, I want to take issue with a statement in his introduction. Brandon says:

“…what we don’t need is a ‘bloody’ conflict between allied groups over foreign policy just as the Obama administration is getting started.”

Now, I want to be clear where I stand: I voted for President Obama. In fact, several of my friends worked in senior positions in his campaign, and until recently I worked for a member of Congress who was among Obama’s first public congressional endorsers. I stood in line in the freezing cold for long hours to get into the cheap seats at the inauguration (they didn’t actually charge, but you get the idea). And I believe that Obama’s election marks a transformative moment in our nation, and that he has the potential to be one of American history’s greatest presidents.

However, support for Obama should not translate to passivity in the political process during his presidency, even during the “honeymoon.” His election is not merely the outcome of a successful presidential campaign. His victory is the exclamation point at the most recent end of a long, long struggle for democratic values and justice in our country. That movement made Barack Obama possible, not vice versa. I had the privilege of hearing Van Jones speak on this topic at an Alliance for Justice event the day before the inauguration, and I highly commend his speech to everyone. Suffice it to say that, as Jones said, it would not honor our movement to refrain from pressure and protest when the policies of the president merit protest and criticism. If we do our job as engaged citizens, we will help him become the president we hope for and need him to become.

So while I understand and share Brandon’s desire for support for the new president, I firmly believe that Obama needs our constant pressure to create political space for needed policy changes. Those who work for peace and justice have an obligation to make peace and justice politically possible. The Get Afghanistan Right campaign seeks to make other choices besides escalation possible for our new president. That’s not ‘bloody’ conflict; that’s political engagement. The actual bloody conflict rages in Afghanistan, and it won’t wait for our honeymoon to end.

Having said that, let’s take a look at Friedman’s debunking of the “myths” in the escalation debate.

Myth #1: Those who support additional troops believe military force is the primary solution to the conflict in Afghanistan.

Quite the contrary. If America wants to see failure on a massive scale, it can get behind a primarily military solution. …The aspects that will win this effort in the long term are economic development, educational infrastructure, civil infrastructure (like roads, electricity, and clean water), and a transition in farming from opium to something else. But regardless, none of this will ever be accomplished in Afghanistan unless someone can secure the population. Because you can’t accomplish any of those non-military acts in the middle of a raging Taliban insurgency, or in the event of a pull-out, a civil war. And that’s why sufficient military force has a role to play in fixing this situation.

I would hope, then, that Friedman would express his consternation at the following report from the New York Times.

WASHINGTON — President Obama intends to adopt…a new American approach to Afghanistan that will put more emphasis on waging war than on development, senior administration officials said Tuesday…They said that the Obama administration would work with provincial leaders as an alternative to the central government, and that it would leave economic development and nation-building increasingly to European allies, so that American forces could focus on the fight against insurgents.

The Times story makes it clear that the impending strategy will further de-emphasize development and the non-military options that will actually lead to “victory.” Lip service paid to political solutions (which have a strange way of not materializing or receiving adequate resources from our government) that require breathing space provided by military force seems awfully familiar. (See the next “myth.”) But even if we take this enthusiasm for political solutions at face value, Friedman misses the real issue here. The debate is not about whether there is or is not a primarily military solution in Afghanistan. The real question is whether we carefully considered all our options or instead chose escalation by default.

Friedman may be right that “you can’t accomplish any of those non-mlitary acts in the middle of a raging Taliban insurgency.” He fails to explain, however, how more military force will be employed to arrest the growth of the Taliban. Some point to our military occupation as a driver of the current phase of the Taliban’s growth. For example, Afghanistan expert Rory Stewart said:

…the Taliban will be able to outlast any commitment NATO has to maintain a foreign military presence in Afghanistan. While public opinion in the West is turning against the war, he said, the Taliban is waging a successful propaganda campaign portraying the country as being under foreign occupation.

“The reason the Taliban is growing in reach and strength is not primarily because of our failure to deliver on technical development projects,” he said, referring to good governance and anti-corruption issues.

“It’s got quite a lot to do with politics, religion, nationalism. A lot of the Taliban message is ‘We are fighting for Islam and Afghanistan to get rid of a foreign military occupation.’ “

Friedman fails to explain how adding more troops will counteract this propaganda campaign (or aid efforts to counteract it) especially as we further emphasize military force and de-emphasize the other steps needed to resolve the conflict. Adding more troops to “take the fight to the Taliban” will not end the Taliban’s resurgence or defeat al-Qaida.

Myth #2: This escalation in Afghanistan is just like the unquestioning drive toward war in Iraq.

To shore up the credentials of Obama’s team, Friedman pointed to several experts:

  • Robert Gates,
  • Michele Flournoy,
  • Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Paul Eaton,
  • Craig Mullaney,
  • Nate Fick, and
  • John Nagl.

Note, however, that he cited only military/defense experts. Friedman actually reinforces the first “myth” he set out to try to dispel, a “myth” further reinforced by the fact that our new envoy to Kabul, Lt. Gen. Karl W. Eikenberry, is not a diplomat but the former top military commander in Afghanistan. Despite his qualifications, Eikenberry’s appointment highlights the atrophied State Department (was there no senior diplomat similarly qualified due to lack of resources?) and the militarization of our foreign policy. More people serve in military bands than serve in the State Department, a resource dearth so dire that apparently State’s efforts in Afghanistan apparently have not produced a diplomat more qualified to lead our diplomatic, non-military efforts in Afghanistan than a military general. This does not reassure us that the folks surrounding Obama will look at the situation through eyes other than military eyes absent constant pressure (and political space) to do so.

The main criticisms that relate Iraq to Afghanistan are that the key players crafting the escalation inappropriately apply frames created in the Iraq conflict to the Afghanistan conflict, and that they drew all the wrong “lessons” from Iraq and now would like to “apply” them to Afghanistan. The most dangerous “lessons learned” include the role of large numbers of U.S. troops in tamping down violence and the utility of arming local groups. But as I’ve written elsewhere, the former of these tactics relies on a legitimate host nation government for its success, while the latter undermines the legitimacy of the host nation government and risks pushing Afghanistan back towards armed factionalism.

No, Iraq is not Afghanistan, but the distinctions between the two should urge more caution about escalation, not less.

Myth #3: Those who support an escalation in Afghanistan aren’t concerned with civilian casualties.

Friedman rightly critiques the use of airstrikes and their collateral murder of civilians. He correctly points out that counterinsurgency doctrine calls for large numbers of troops mixed with local populations to minimize the need for such airstrikes. He and other escalation proponents hope that a drop in the use airstrike-caused civilian deaths will take some of the steam out of the Taliban’s and al-Qaida’s recruitment efforts. However:

  1. The numbers of additional troops we plan to send to Afghanistan may not decrease the number of airstrikes. In fact, adding the planned number of troops may cause more airstrikes. Under the presumptive strategy, we won’t add nearly enough troops for a successful counterinsurgency according the U.S. Army / Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual. In fact, the number of troops we’ll add will provide almost exactly half of the minimum number of troops required by COIN doctrine only in the very worst parts of the most dangerous regions in the country. So, rather than provide one contiguous secure area, a troop surge of the size we’re talking about risks simply multiplying the number of locales where insufficient numbers of troops face hostilities, thus increasing, not decreasing, the demand for airstrikes to support hard-pressed units in combat.
  2. The hope that more troops will decrease the number of airstrikes and civilian casualties (thus taking away the cause for the outrage driving popular hostility toward our forces) ignores two other causes for popular outrage. Absent major changes in tactics, adding more troops will increase popular outrage caused by night home raids and highly aggressive driving by coalition convoys. A recent study showed that coalition raids of Afghan homes at night caused as much outrage as civilian casualties due to airstrikes. Another recent article cited the mayhem caused by steamroller coalition convoys as a rage-inducing P.R. victory for the Taliban and jihadists. If adding more troops multiplies these incidents, the troop increase will stimulate, not depress, Afghan rage.

This leads us to Friedman’s fourth “myth”: “Afghans don’t want us there.”

Trust me: You’ll know when they don’t want us in their country. To this day, the vast majority of Afghans truly prefer U.S. forces over the Taliban. What they don’t like, however, is our overwhelming failure to make progress after our initial gains in 2001 and 2002. If they hated us in general, the Afghans would’ve kicked out our meager force of 30,000 troops years ago. What they hate is when we tell them that we’re going to run off the Taliban and fix their country–and then we don’t. What they hate is when we offer them incentives to side with us against the Taliban, and then, when the Taliban return to their villages, we leave them hung out to dry. What they hate is when we are forced to rely on air power–resulting in unnecessary civilian casualties–because we don’t have enough ground troops.

Here Friedman cherry-picks from a rather large bowl of cherries. As stated above, there several reasons for Afghan popular outrage, but Brandon only addresses the outrage that he feels could be solved by adding more troops. But at the risk of being repetitive, let’s look at more of the cherries:

  • The Taliban and al-Qaida use the presence of foreign troops to drive an effective propaganda campaign portraying themselves as defenders against foreign, anti-Muslim aggression;
  • We’ve backed a horrendously corrupt host nation government which has not sufficiently improved the lives of those it serves;
  • Yes, we’ve killed many civilians with airstrikes; but
  • We’ve also humiliated families and communities through aggressive night raids without accountability; and
  • We’ve endangered and angered Afghans living near major roadways as our military convoys utilize highly aggressive, high-speed “defensive” driving.

And for what it’s worth, Americans (remember us?) don’t want more troops sent to Afghanistan. Only one-third of Americans support a troop increase in Afghanistan.

Finally, Friedman sets out to debunk the idea that the Afghanistan policy is set in stone. I hope he’s right, but the leading edge of the escalation is already in Afghanistan. It’s not too late for Americans to make known their opposition to the policy, but every moment we wait to express our dissent on this policy closes off opportunities to craft a better strategy. We don’t have time to wait for Obama’s honeymoon to be over, and if we’re really interested in having an honest debate about this policy, we have to actually engage with arguments presented rather than knock down caricatures of those arguments.

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