Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Regarding Afghanistan

...commenting on recent political developments regarding ... Afghanistan.

If the West can live with one nuclear Islamist state (Iran), surely it can live with two (a Talibanised Pakistan). Thus there is no need to keep spending blood and treasure in Afghanistan.

I think this is the forming establishment paradigm, we shall see how successful it turns out to be! The West will probably muddle through but various democratic fellow travellers starting with the letter 'I' which are closer to the action may have a less comfortable time of it.


What got me thinking about AfPak was the linear political argument regarding the risk differential between a continuing surge (without explicit timeframe bounds) and an Exit strategy timetable.

My considered view is that we have got to look more at how the blood and treasure is being spent, the effects at the grass roots, and ignore the strategic outcomes for the moment to concentrate on value to the civilian population.

I, for one, think that if the time in Afghanistan's history this current heavy international involvement is seen by the future civilian population as "the good times" that is still a worthy achievement regardless of strategic outcome.

Veterans of Iraq and other global nation building will do better at this than the rough and ready gung-ho soldier of old. My opinion is that we should err on the side of longer deployments of the best possible people and avoid sending in inexperienced platoons just to make up the numbers.

10 comments:

Chris Fellows said...

The problem with nation-building in Afghanistan- please excuse me if I have said this before- is that there is absolutely no tradition of respect for any elected authority. The coalition should have restored the monarchy, which there was strong support for at the Loya Jirga thingy, which was a form of government that the country had some tradition of respect for. Failing to do so was IMHO the chief policy failure of the intervention in Afghanistan. At the moment a Bosnian model of de jure cantonisation or a Somalian model of de facto cantonisation might be the best way to salvage a good strategic outcome since this will facilitate economic development and prevent a refugee crisis in the non-Pashtun regions.

'ignore the strategic outcomes for the moment to concentrate on value to the civilian population.'

This is an interesting idea. In one way it is very multilateral and humanitarian and in another it is neo-imperialist hubris. If you did a global 'Copenhagen Consensus' exercise on where NATO could best apply its military force to achieve humanitarian goals, I am betting withdrawal from Afghanistan followed by an unprovoked conquest and long term occupation of the Democratic Republic of the Congo would look good in the cost-benefit analysis.@

Marco said...

please excuse me if I have said this before

Not that I can remember.

absolutely no tradition of respect for any elected authority.

I am racking my brain thinking of other similar examples. Although I think a constitutional monarchy would have been way better, the way that the constitution places Islam (as established religion) and the tradition of respect for Islam(ic leaders) can still lead to a cohesive Government sometime in the future generation. I think the Afghan generations under the law of the gun are a bigger obstacle in that it takes a generation to alter instincts of those kinds.

At the moment a Bosnian model of de jure cantonisation or a Somalian model of de facto cantonisation

I think the contrast between the two (Somalia - abandonment before resolution. Bosnia - continued foreign "influence" indefinitely) at a grass roots level is very stark.

The West may have saved blood and treasure by pulling out of Somalia, but it will cost way more in the long run, especially if you take into account the citizens welfare.

I am betting withdrawal from Afghanistan followed by an unprovoked conquest and long term occupation of the Democratic Republic of the Congo would look good in the cost-benefit analysis.@

Not if the start-up costs were taken into account. The West has invested a huge amount of political capital (as well as blood and money) to entrench what they are trying to do in AfPak. Keeping a Bosnian-type long term investment there is not going to cost anywhere near the amount that any new nation-building effort would. Even in Iraq it is wise to keep a presence on humanitarian/development/security grounds. The hurried and virtually complete withdrawal from Somalia should be something that we should consider a grave error of judgement of its time. We are paying for it via piracy, among other risks.

Chris Fellows said...

Not if the start-up costs were taken into account. The West has invested a huge amount of political capital (as well as blood and money) to entrench what they are trying to do in AfPak. Keeping a Bosnian-type long term investment there is not going to cost anywhere near the amount that any new nation-building effort would.

Hmm, hrm. Suppose you were to invest heavily in equipment and trained personnel for making novelty miniature t-shirts for weasels*. If you made them, and nobody bought them, and you kept making them, and nobody kept buying them, sooner or later it would make sense to get out of the weasel t-shirt business. Sure, you might hang on for a long time- after all, maybe every household would be forced to have a certain number of pet weasels under the CPRS**- but chances are the sooner you gave up on the project the better off you would be.

You would use the experience you gained making weasel t-shirts to do better in your next business venture- just like NATO will have better rules of engagement and a better command structure next time... and you would re-use as much of the equipment and workforce as you could, while selling the rest on eBay***- just like NATO can auction off its immovable infrastructure to anyone who has an interest in ruling Afghanistan or protecting their interests there.

Some additional benefits of the Multinational Armed Stabilisation Initative in the Congolese Interior Steaming Tropics (MASICIST) would be that:

(1) Neighbouring countries are at a much lower economic level than neighbours of Afghanistan, so the 'trickle down' effect of establishing support bases would be much greater on local economies.

(2) Having a large Western army operating in such a disease-ridden area would stimulate investment in tropical medicine (viz. 'Copenhagen Consensus' priorities.

(3) A major benefit of any small war is the opportunity to test new hardware and tactics, and there must be lots of things to do with amphibious assault craft and running around in small groups in the jungle that haven't had a good workout in Afghanistan or Iraq, while we have probably learned as much as we can about pilotless planes in barren mountains and avoiding booby-traps in dead-flat desert plains.

* - Business advice contained in this blog comment is analogical in nature. Please consult with your financial advisor before implementing this business model.

** - After all, this makes as much sense as many of the features that are planned for this scheme...

*** - The equipment, not the people.

Marco said...

Hmm, hrm. Suppose you were to invest heavily in equipment and trained personnel for making novelty miniature t-shirts for weasels
We have - see "The Way of the Weasel" for definitions of a weasel.
If you made them, and nobody bought them, and you kept making them, and nobody kept buying them, sooner or later it would make sense to get out of the weasel t-shirt business.

I do understand what you are saying and almost all indicators are that we should.

Unfortunately, there is a crucial difference in the analogy. Two year future discounting for commercial private business decisions versus Government inspired long-term investment (equals infrastructure). If the Government (agent) was half way through constructing the next generation of broadband infrastructure, and realised the alternative technology was going to be way better, it still makes sense to complete the original network. Future discounting works the opposite way for long term Government investments. Better technologies will have to wait for the following generation. "Incomplete" country building projects are like incomplete infrastructure projects - they entrench and only increase the embarrassment of spending money on no tangible results.

Equally, the Congo will have to wait its turn, for when the current crop of country building projects have matured, and realised whatever country-building benefits they will - spread as they are among the civilian population, reduced future risks, increased expat investment opportunities etc.

Chris Fellows said...

The crucial difference between *your* analogy and Afghanistan is that when building broadband infrastructure, the project has a pretty clear end point: you attach the last bit of fibre optic cable to the exchange in Innamincka and that's it, you wash your hands of the project and hope everyone's forgotten there's a much better way to do broadband by the time the election comes around. An open-ended commitment to Afghanistan on humanitarian grounds doesn't have the same clear finish line: it is more like the government *operating* the broadband network it has constructed, from now until forever, without considering whether private enterprise could do it better.

I would cavil also that an 'incomplete' country-building project *does* have tangible results; it is not like a half-completed dam that is not doing anything while it is being built. Some of the tangible results are 8 years worth of a population with much greater access to education and travel (hence much better human capital for building a state), a large body of people (government ministers, police, etc.) with an ongoing personal interest in maintaining a functioning Afghan state, and lots of pieces of military infrastructure that will be of practical use to anyone who wants to carry on with the nation-building project.

Marco said...

Yes. You are quite right in all those points.

However, in looking to concrete examples - In Somalia (which probably enforces your point on Congo) almost no tangible results remain because everything was pulled out, and the Australians were the only ones taking it to the human level.

In Iraq, private security firms have indeed taken over the way you have described.

In East Timor foreign involvement is at a good level and has been for a long time.

In Bosnia, foreign involvement is at a fairly low level but crucial.

In theory, therefore, doing more with less from foreign Governments is the right thing for AfPak, with the proviso that a mini-surge to get us past post-election issues there might be good value (see elections in Cambodia, Iraq, East Timor etc. as examples)

Klaus Rohde said...

I travelled in Afghanistan in the 60's (for about 3 weeks): Kabul, large Buddha statues, Kandahar, Herat. The country then was (it seemed to me) a happy and quite prosperous country.I spent one night in Herat on a bank in a public park and felt absolutely safe. I travelled (with a Frenchman I had met in the plane and the driver) for two days through the northern part of the country. I doubt that any foreigner would attempt to do this today. So, I would suggest that this is a time Afghan people could look back to as a happy time, and not the present.

Klaus

Marco said...

Sure, unless you were born after the mid 1970's. Hard to say without knowing the future, but if the West leaves and Afghanistan once again becomes a failed state, the current times might seem like a picnic.

From what I know, 1960's Afghanistan had been prosperous on the back of being a world class supplier of poppy as its leading cash crop. I would hope that future prosperity will be much more broadly based.

Klaus Rohde said...

Take this cum grano salis. Do you want the taliban back? After all, they very effectively cut down poppy production to almost zero more or less overnight, when they were in power.

Marco said...

A country that relies on income from a product that is illegal in most other countries could at best be viewed as disfunctional. A country which destroys its leading cash crop, whether moral or not, has completely failed.