On Reading

Obama presses for Middle East peace at UN. Our reading list notes the best books on this topic. What do you suggest? http://fam.ag/adOCxe

This tweet from Foreign Affairs reminded me of something that I have been thinking for a long time, and it’s something that I believe offers comfort to the Outsider.

The constant stream of books, blogs, news articles, magazines, journals, op-eds, interviews, videos, that comes your way is overwhelming. My question in this is: What is the role of the Outsider when there seems to be no way of parsing all of this data and making sense of it?

Another, bigger question would be: Does reading more necessarily make you more intelligent and knowledgeable on a topic? Nicholas Nassim Taleb would probably answer in the negative. His argument being that sociology is largely a self-serving discipline.

In the reading that I have undertaken so far for the MPhil, I feel that I have learned a lot. Certainly I have learned more than I had discerned from passive consumption of news and other media before beginning my university career.

Reading and Passive Consumption

Since finishing my undergraduate degree, I have come to realize the power of reading.

Since starting this blog, which, although it is only a couple of weeks old has been fermenting in my head for several months, I have come to realize the power of passive consumption.

Every day, I get back from my wage slave job, and I check on my Twitter feed. There have been around 200 tweets each day for the last few days.

I only follow 60 or so people. Most of these people are in Afghanistan or heavily involved there or in other realms of foreign policy. Every night I come home and parse maybe 10-20 pieces from that feed, of which I read maybe 4 or 5.

If something exciting happens, like last night’s pre-release of Bob Woodward’s book, which has caused a firestorm, I might read a bit more, grab some more of the information, be better informed as to the argument, or just, in that case, to be better informed on the situation in general. But on the whole, I’ll read very little. I’ve read three books (almost) since starting as a wage slave, three weeks ago (eleven weeks left!) and my understanding of Afghanistan has increased greatly. (I was going to say ten-fold, but realized that this was an entirely arbitrary number, as it implies that there is some kind of a cap or limit or goal to knowledge acquisition.)

Reading books is a great way to get an overview of a topic, but I think that there is no substitute for getting out and living what you are studying. I hope that I will be able to visit Afghanistan in the course of the MPhil research, if not, I will make the trip for PHd study. It has to be done, for this is the only way to truly understand the situation.

I am not criticizing Foreign Affairs for this endeavour. Indeed, I personally downloaded this bibliography from Christian Bleuer’s Afghan Analyst project. I haven’t even looked at it yet, but I know that it will prove an invaluable resource, come January.

A trip to Afghanistan would preclude me from the group I am trying to foster here. I would no longer be an Outsider. And yet, in a sense, I think that I would remain in that position, just better informed. For instance, I will likely remain naive to the realities of battle, the fear of combat, the adrenaline rush of the fire fight. (A book that I own, but have yet to read is Anthony Loyd’s Another Bloody Love Letter, in which he describes how his heroin dependency vanished the moment he was in the face of battle.)

The role of the Outsider, with regards to books then, is, in my mind, to allow them to inform you and allow them to challenge you and your beliefs. But it is important to bear in mind Black Swan cynicism and criticism. There is no way that you can know everything.

How do you find reading benefits your understanding? Do you prefer books, articles, journals, magazines?

(Afghan Outsider is an Amazon affiliate. If you click on the book links and go on to buy the book, we receive a small commission. Thanks for your support.)

Don’t Call Me Counterinsurgency, Baby!

Two things inspired this post. A conversation with a friend over dinner, and this piece at Danger Room.

Scrubbing of Systems

First, the article: The US military establishment is doing away with the term ‘counterinsurgency’. They are scrubbing their “systems, practices and institutions for lameness.” Among the other elements to be jettisoned are the frequently maligned Power Point presentations, and the notion of brigade level command.

The excising of ‘counterinsurgency’ (there’s something disturbingly Orwellian about that notion; here’s the latest from MiniPax (TPMB’s idea is used with the greatest respect. I love his idea of the “Department of Everything Else.” I am an unashamed TPMB Fanboy)) from the US army’s lexicon is the brainchild of General Martin Dempsey.

“His beef is that the term is reactive, defining an Army task in terms of a type of enemy, rather than describing something that the Army does affirmatively.” Dempsey is wrong. Counterinsurgency is a highly active form of warfare. It has to be.

It might not be shouty and tanky and running aroundy and overly shooty, but it is by no means passive. This is where the problems lie in the popular American understanding of counterinsurgency warfare. From the start, one might be forgiven for thinking that Americans expected the Taliban to stand up and fight; like they fought the Germans, and like they were preparing to fight the Soviets. That’s what they have been preparing for over the last 60 years or so. Witness Operation Desert Storm. The Iraqi army was ridiculously outgunned, but the Americans were unsuccessful in achieving anything substantial, in part I believe, because they were anticipating a 1945-esque capitulation on the part of the Iraqi Defense Force; this scenario was repeated in Operation Iraqi Freedom, which promptly dissolved into a violent insurgency.

In the immortal (and mortal) words of Helmuth von Moltke the Elder: “no plan survives contact with the enemy.” The IDF refused to give up as ordered. The American military establishment was not prepared for this kind of indolence. The same thing happened and is happening in Afghanistan. A softly-softly approach, with a good dose of ass-kickery to those who need it (there are more subtle ways of dealing with those who deserve ass-kickery: the story of Tanjong related by John Nagl in Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife, 89, is a great example), is the order of the day in counterinsurgency.

Linguistics and Reification

The conversation I had revolved around the central premise that ‘counterinsurgency’ is just a word. It is an abstract noun in the most abstract of senses. It’s entirely invented. It’s a set of instructions which work a lot of the time. It’s not a map. It’s not flat-pack directions. It’s not the answer. There isn’t an answer. My friend’s key point, and one that I push hard elsewhere, and plan to make a key to this blog, is that whatever the end point is, there is no way that we can have any idea as to what it might be. It will just be what it is at the time.

Counterinsurgency itself doesn’t exist. You can’t just go about it and hope to get results. Instead, it’s a set of principles which, if adhered to, give one a platform to achieve ones aims. It’s abstract in the same way that ‘war’ is an abstract term. ‘War’ is organized violence. Beyond that, there’s no saying what will happen, or how things will pan out.

We’re Never Gonna Leave

General Petraeus seems to get it. Maybe it’s more difficult to get others to tow the line. The New York Times point out that “military officers, who support General Petraeus’s counterinsurgency strategy and say he readily acknowledges the difficulties ahead, caution that the security and governance crisis in Afghanistan remains so volatile that any successes may not be sustainable.” This is true. It will likely ‘always’ be true (whatever always means, that’s another post for another day).

Is there a way out? Is there a way out of Germany? There have been American troops there since the end of the Second World War. Maybe there will always be some American troops in Afghanistan. The challenge then would become changing the global perception of those troops from occupiers to friends and supporters. And therein lies the crux of counterinsurgency.

Doing away with the term, reified as it is, won’t achieve anything. Humans’ desire to know what things are, the basis of language, will simply lead to another term. (Hint: this can’t be peacekeeping; peacekeeping is a passive activity.)