Via Leah Farrell, fulsomely praised here, comes this scorched-earth post by Security Crank, whose blog I’m now putting in my RSS. The Crank is pissed at what s/he describes as a level of blind ignorance displayed by anyone who describes Afghanistan as a tribal society or who believes that a troop increase by itself will fix Afghanistan. A motley crue of pro/anti/neutral voices get the grapeshot: Selig Harrison, Dexter Filkins, Gareth Porter, the Kagan clan and Leslie Gelb.

From my perspective, Security Crank is most incensed by the assumptions that appear to animate an emerging effort to cultivate Afghan militias against the Taliban-led insurgency. I am going to have more on this in the very near future, so it happens that this is where my head is at. But watch Security Crank unload on Filkins’ recent piece about that effort:

I didn’t realize the Taliban were lead by a group of tribal elders. Yuck. This reads almost like a press release from ISAF: demonstrate one’s understanding of a SAMS course on Afghanistan, then talk about how it’s America’s job to reshape Afghan society into what we think our image of it should have been before the Soviets ruined everything. The arrogance such a pair of paragraphs requires—starting with the assertion that Pashtuns are tribal and form solidarity through kinship and ending with the assumption that we can repeat the Awakening movement in Afghanistan.

The both assertions have been discussed at length in a paper prepared by the Human Terrain System, which practically begs the Army to stop trying to repeat the Sunni Awakening in Afghanistan. “the desire for “tribal engagement” in Afghanistan, executed along the lines of the recent “Surge” strategy in Iraq,” it says, “is based on an erroneous understanding of the human terrain.” The reasoning is that tribes in both countries are structured fundamentally differently, and that Afghans, even Pashtuns do not primarily organize around tribal lines. (More on the tribal militia idea-that-just-won’t-die is here.)

Eh, I didn’t think that Filkins implied that it was America’s job to reshape Afghanistan society, nor am I getting that motivation from the effort itself. But it’s legitimate to note that all of us — myself most certainly included — are dealing with a country that we don’t sufficiently understand and too often pass off safe conventional wisdom as if it reflected deep and nuanced study of Afghanistan, when in fact all it does is reinforce what we already believe. (“Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires” or “What we need is a Pashtun Awakening.”) I remember getting pissed off when I read left and right voices in Iraq talk about how the Sunnis and Shiites were locked in a 1300-year old war there when in fact the last major significant sectarian clash in Mesopotamia happened 1300 years prior. That focus on first principles and emperor-has-no-clothes-ishness is enough to overcome for any overheated points about the specific efforts in question.

One last thing. SC wants to know why the media “ignored” the Human Terrain System paper s/he links to that undercuts the case for fomenting tribal revolt. “Do they not like having their assumptions about a neat tribal solution to all of Afghanistan’s problems challenged?” I’d respectfully suggest that very few reporters actually knew about it. I certainly didn’t, and I think I’ve got HTS on my radar screen as much if not more as most national-security reporters not named Noah Shachtman. None of my sources ever mentioned it to me, even those who aren’t happy with a Pashtun Awakening model. I’ve found that HTS does a pretty poor job of publicizing its product, certainly compared to other military entities. To be clear, I’m not offering excuses. I wish I had seen this paper before, and I accept the criticism that I should have. But this is just a reminder that not every media failure is motivated by avarice or intellectual dishonesty.

Spencer Ackerman

Spencer Ackerman