Friday, November 06, 2009

"I have lost understanding of and confidence in the strategic purposes of the United States' presence in Afghanistan" - Asking the Basic Policy Questions

Policies, say like what the US should do in Afghanistan, can be looked at from many different perspectives. But it seems to me there are two basic questions we need to answer.

  1. What purposes can we serve by being there?
    There seem to be quite a few we could list
    1. Stop Al Qaeda
    2. Change a government that makes women subservient to men
    3. Stop the cultivation of poppies and drugs
      (You can debate the extent that such goals are reasonable or reflect an accurate understanding of Afghanistan.  A key question ultimately is how important are these goals in relation to other goals we want to achieve.  Will resources spent on Afghanistan mean we don't have resources for other goals?   Which, ultimately, are the most important?  If fighting in Afghanistan meant, really, that we prevent Al Qaeda from destroying the US, then we'd certainly decide to stay there. If.)

  2. Can we achieve the purposes?

    No matter how noble and worthy our goal, if we have no chance of achieving it, one has to question our pursuing it.  Of course, few things are so absolute.  In any situation it isn't either/or, rather it is a range form 0% chance to 100% chance. 

    Decision theory gives us a number of 'rational' models for calculating level of risk and potential outcomes.  In some cases, it is relatively easy to plug data into the boxes and get a clear outcome.   But in complex policy decisions, not only is filling in the boxes difficult, but the emotional power of people's ideological stories of how the world works, causes people to interpret the same data totally differently. 
So, we have these two basic questions to ask in any important policy decision (and personal decisions as well.)

If someone is drowning and your purpose is to save him,  should you still jump in when you have a 90% probability of drowning too?   If the person in the water is a mass murderer, most people may feel saving him doesn't serve an important enough purpose unless the rescuer had 100% chance of surviving.  If the person drowning is you ten year old son, you may jump in even if you have only a 1% chance of surviving.  But most likely, you aren't even considering these probabilities, you are acting on instinct and emotion.  But if you die too, leaving two other kids without a mother, how good was that decision?  Even if the intent was noble? 

But when we are making foreign policy, we generally do have time to think these decisions out and calculate our likelihood of success.  Even if we can't do it with certainty, the exercise puts our assumptions out on the table, exposed to analysis and debate.

  • I think it would be good for the world if terrorist groups who regularly blow people up are stopped.

  • I think that Afghan women should be free to choose how they want to dress and if they want to go to school, etc.

But if the US can't achieve those goals, is it worth it to make a noble, symbolic effort?  At what cost to other projects such as better education and health care, or infrastructure, or assisting people in other parts of the world where we can succeed? 

This is the dilemma that our President faces.  Plus he has political consequences to weigh as well.  If we pull out of Afghanistan and the Taliban retake the nation and things go back to where they were pre-invasion, there is no question that Obama will be blamed for various kinds of diplomatic cowardice.  Even though it was GW Bush who took us into Afghanistan and then diverted our efforts there by invading Iraq, Obama will get the blame (or credit) for what happens now.

And if we stay and Afghanistan proves to be another quagmire that just sucks in American lives and resources with no visible gain, Obama will get blamed for that as well.

Into this discussion we now get to see the resignation letter of a US State Department employee who has been working in Afghanistan. 

Matthew Hoh first US official to resign over Afghan War                                                                                                                                                

The letter appears to be genuine.  He seems to be saying the goals might be good, but there's no chance of success.  According the the Washington Post  (Oct. 26, 2009) the US Ambassador in Afghanistan took Hoh's letter seriously: 
U.S. Ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry brought him to Kabul and offered him a job on his senior embassy staff. Hoh declined. From there, he was flown home for a face-to-face meeting with Richard C. Holbrooke, the administration's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.
"We took his letter very seriously, because he was a good officer," Holbrooke said in an interview. "We all thought that given how serious his letter was, how much commitment there was, and his prior track record, we should pay close attention to him."
And as Hoh himself is quoted in the article:
"I'm not some peacenik, pot-smoking hippie who wants everyone to be in love," Hoh said. Although he said his time in Zabul was the "second-best job I've ever had," his dominant experience is from the Marines, where many of his closest friends still serve.
"There are plenty of dudes who need to be killed," he said of al-Qaeda and the Taliban. "I was never more happy than when our Iraq team whacked a bunch of guys."
(Ouch, so if you're for getting out of Afghanistan you must be a peacenick, pot-loving hippie?  Do these negative stereotype labels never die?)

Perhaps this guy is just overly idealistic and when things didn't turn around in the five months he was in Afghanistan, he was ready to throw in the towel.  But the letter reveals a thoughtfulness that belies that sort of conclusion.

Anyway, this is more fodder for this discussion.  During the Vietnam war there were voices like this slowly adding up and they were dismissed by the Pro-War folks as 'peacenik pot-smoking hippies' (so maybe Hoh was trying to pre-empt such a dismissal).  Eventually, a majority of Americans agreed we should be out of Vietnam.  While some still argue "We could have won if we hadn't held back the firepower" the real point is that Vietnam's "fall to Communism" didn't signal that all the dominoes of South East Asia would fall to Communism.  Vietnam was not a threat to the US and much of Southeast Asia prospered.  All those stories of why we needed to be there, proved unfounded.

But that said,  we have to choose carefully which lessons from Vietnam are appropriate to apply in Afghanistan.  Nothing is simple.  But I'm guessing that in the long run, getting out as soon as we can is the best for most everyone.

1 comment:

  1. M. Hoh was interviewed by Charlie Rose and I was impressed by his conviction and resign.



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