Afghanistan SmackDown: El Snarkistani v. O’Hanlon, Unfuzzy Math and Creative No More Problemo

So we were watching Brooking’s Michael O’Hanlon on teevee one night talking about Afghanistan. These network folks should really invite our blog pal, El Snarkistani to talk about our pretend 51st state, because he talks more sense. But we were not disappointed because El Snarkistani later blogged about. Excerpt below:

I admit that I don’t know a whole lot about Michael E. O’Hanlon or Ian Livingston, but they wrote a piece for the New York Times: basically, things in Afghanistan are going just fine (By the way, Stephen Saideman did a short post on this. He raises some interesting questions.):

Here is what we know: Afghans are wealthier, healthier and better educated than ever before. Unquestionably, Afghan security forces are bigger and better. Despite the occasional spectacular attack, Kabul is relatively safe, accounting for less than 1 percent of violent episodes nationwide, thanks largely to the efforts of these troops. The security situation in the more dangerous south is also much improved, after two years of efforts by foreign and Afghan forces. The north and west are at least no longer deteriorating and collectively account for less than 10 percent of violence nationwide.

And now I know all I need to know about O’Hanlon/Livingston.

Oh, for those of you following along? This post is the one I talked about yesterday.

Allow me to retort, and I’m only going to limit myself to one line in that paragraph, as much as it physically pains me to do so.

Unquestionably, Afghan security forces are bigger and better.

That’s a great word: unquestionably. That means you have “facts” that are likely “irrefutable” which is another big word for “we are experts,” and can therefore “do math.”

That last shot across the bow will make sense shortly.

I’m not going to debate the quantity of ANSF. The force is definitely bigger: every year, there are more of them.

Better? No.

Then he went down the bottom of that dark bucket and looked at the bigger and better Afghan security forces. It turns out that “after nearly 10 years of ISAF intervention, and nearly two years of concerted effort by NATO Training Mission – Afghanistan (NTM-A) personnel, no unit at any level had achieved an “independent rating.” And he got the numbers and can do unfuzzy maths, too.

“So they changed the definition,” El Snarkistani writes.

They changed the definition of … Holy Mother of God and All Her Wacky Nephews! 

Via It’s All Sunny in Kabul: From page 43 of the 1230 report in October of 2011:

Prior to the spring campaign, IJC reviewed the definition of an Independent unit and concluded that the definition was too restrictive and would be difficult for any ANSF element to attain. As a result, IJC rewrote the definition of an Independent unit to reflect the reality that most ANSF force enablers will likely require long-term coalition assistance.


In a war that offers relatively few metrics by which to measure success, being run by an organization that shifts those metrics randomly to fit their message, it’s unusual to find solid numbers to demonstrate anything. In this case, it’s simple math.

The interwebs is hard.

I’m off to break the news to my wife: in honor of the genius that walks among us mere mortals, we’re naming our first child “O’Hanlon.” And he shall be great. And able to do the maths.

O’Hanlon El Snarkistani, tee-hee!  You really should read El Snarkistani’s stuff here and reader comment round 2 is here.

This reminds us of the large staffing gap at the State Department once, must have been during the tenure of Warren Christopher in the last century. (Yeah, I’m ancient, but no Botox!) Anyway, since it became a really bad problem, somebody decided to solve it surgically and quickly — by eliminating all the positions with a dash of a pen. So, no more staffing gap problem although the work still had to be done.

Eliminating the gap  and  redefinition are just a couple of tricks in your creative problem solving toolbox.  In some places, I bet that creative problem solving can get you a Superior Honor Award or if you are really, really lucky, even a Presidential Rank Award.

Anyway, El Snarkistani is not the only one who has issues with the notion that Afghanistan is fine.  “Mobutu Sese Seko”, the founder of the blog Et tu, Mr. Destructo has this piece, Winning the War Against Yesterday: Mike O’Hanlon’s Afghan Mad Libs with the following quip:

“What’s frustrating is how expected this all is. The Brookings Institution—still billed as the “left-wing” think tank by conservative media—is just as much a corporatized centrist disappointment as every other major Washington institution. It’s in the imperialism business: selling it, cheerleading it and then excusing it. (Just look at that donor list flush with arms contractors.)”

Now that’s enough to ruin your midnight snacks, isn’t it?

Domani Spero