I have just returned from 10 days traveling around Afghanistan — along with retired Army Colonel Pete Mansoor and former Army Ranger Andrew Exum — at the invitation of General David Petraeus. Upon our return, all of us have published articles laying out our findings. Pete and I, for example, wrote an article for the Los Angeles Times laying out the progress that our troops have made as well as the challenges still posed by bad governance and Pakistan sanctuaries. Rather than engage in a respectful discussion of our analysis, some overly excitable critics of the war effort have chosen to impugn our fact-gathering methods, suggesting that we have somehow been duped by the wily Petraeus into thinking that the war is going better than it actually is.
There is always a danger of drawing incorrect conclusions based on a 10-day visit — but that danger is even greater if, like many who opine on Afghanistan or Iraq, you never visit the country at all. (Or, like so many congressional delegations, spend only 24 or 48 hours in-country.)
The record will show that I have hardly been an unalloyed cheerleader for military efforts in either country — but nor did I ever conclude, as did so many others, that the situation was hopeless. In the case of Iraq, I may have been overly optimistic in my early assessments, as many were; but by 2006, I was writing that we were losing the war, much to the consternation of some conservatives — and I said so face to face with President Bush in the Oval Office in September 2006 (which didn’t make him happy). In 2007, I saw a turnaround and wrote that we were starting to win at a time when the conventional wisdom was that there was no way we could win. I think my trips to Iraq and Afghanistan have been invaluable in helping me to assess the situation, even if (like everyone else) I don’t always get it right.
I approach all such trips with great intellectual humility and do not claim to have greater expertise than I actually have. I just report what I see, and try to put it in the context of my close, ongoing study of the war effort and of previous wars. I would not by any stretch claim that 10 days in-country tells me everything I need to know; I always leave humbled by the limits of my understanding.
But on the other hand, I also get a better overview of conditions than many soldiers/civilians who spend longer periods of time in-country because they tend to stay in one small area, thus developing deep knowledge of that area but remaining aware of what is happening elsewhere. (Some soldiers — known as “Fobbits” — never leave their Forward Operating Bases at all.) Also, those who are actually deployed don’t generally keep personal tabs on what is happening after they leave — unless/until they prepare for another deployment — whereas the advantage that think tankers have is that we can keep traveling fairly regularly to examine progress or lack thereof.
The notion that these are Potemkin tours designed to highlight only progress is ludicrous; in the past on a similar outing, I have been in a Humvee that was hit by a complex ambush in Mosul when it was the worst remaining area of Iraq. (Note: I am not claiming that the level of risk or discomfort I or others experience on such trips is remotely comparable to that of the average lance corporal; I always return in awe of the soldiers, Marines, and others who can endure such tough conditions and face such great risks for many months at a time — I realize how coddled we visitors are by comparison.)
To the critics of these fact-finding trips, I ask: What are they suggesting? That we would be better analysts if (like so many who write about Iraq and Afghanistan) we never visited at all? Or that there are analysts who are more deeply informed about events than we are?
I would agree that there are certainly people with deeper knowledge of the countries
in question than I possess, and I try to learn from them as much as possible. I would not dare to compare my country knowledge with theirs. But I think I can still make a useful contribution to the public debate by offering a broader view informed by my study of military history. If you want to disregard my analysis because I am not as deeply steeped in these areas as some others, be my guest. But keep in mind that even area experts are hardly infallible.
In general, I would suggest that commentators focus on the merits of the analysis provided by me, or by others, and stop slinging mud about our fact-gathering methods.