David Brooks on Afghanistan: Caveat Lector!

David Brooks on Afghanistan: Caveat Lector!

Writing in today’s New York Times, columnist and armchair warrior David Brooks offers a spirited defense of the war in Afghanistan. In addition to being an unrepentant hawk with a miserable track record, Brooks is fond of citing academic literature to give his punditry a faux intellectual veneer. Unfortunately, he doesn’t seem to read these works very carefully.

In today’s column, he cites a recent study by political scientists Andrew Enterline and Joseph Magagnoli of the University of North Texas (available here at FP), which supposedly shows that “counterinsurgency efforts that put population protection at their core have succeeded nearly 70 percent of the time.” But political scientist Alexander Downes of Duke University, who is a much more careful reader than Brooks, points out on a private list-serve what the article really says (my emphasis):

Unfortunately, Brooks engages in some very selective citation to support his argument in favor of fighting on in Afghanistan.  Enterline and Magagnoli collected data on 66 cases in the 20th century in which “a foreign state fought a counterinsurgency campaign to establish or protect central-government authority.”  The overall winning percentage for the state actor is 60%, but only 48% after World War II. The statistic that Brooks cites is that if the state actor switches from some other strategy to a “hearts and minds” strategy during the course of the war, their winning percentage increases to 75% (67% after World War II). 

But Brooks omits two further important findings from Enterline and Magagnoli’s article. First, if the state actor switches to a hearts and minds strategy, the average conflict duration after the change is nine years. Switching to some strategy other than hearts and minds generates an average duration after the change of five years. Second, no state that switched to a hearts and minds strategy after fighting an insurgency for eight years (as the U.S. has in Afghanistan) has ever defeated the insurgency.  In other words, if history is any guide, the U.S. can expect to continue fighting in Afghanistan for nearly a decade and still not be able to win.  That’s a pretty different message than the impression that Brooks conveys.”

Or as another correspondent of mine put it, “wouldn’t the relevant statistic be the number of foreign empires that have successfully occupied Afghanistan and installed their preferred government? That research is much less difficult to do. The answer is 0 for three if we count the Soviets, the British (who actually tried it twice and failed both times), and perhaps Alexander?”

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