Afghanistan Signals; Reflections on U.S. Policy

I wrote this on July 30, 2018. For some reason, I never hit the “publish” button. It seems fresh as a daisy, so here it is:

(Reuters) ‘Very positive signals’ after U.S., Taliban talks: sources.

Part of this blog is about the skill of prediction, which deeply involves recognizing previous situations that analogize with the present. The news sites present snapshots of the present, leaving us vulnerable to all our hopes and fears. Sloppy analogy with past can leave us vulnerable to  our hopes and fears. Carefully drawn analogies, evaluated in number and quality,  bind the future to the past. So what is the quality of historical analogy available for the four top issues?

  • Iran: Current Iran approaches have limited but useful analogies with the neoconservative approach to  Iraq in 2003.
  • Russia: Limited analogy exists to expansionism dating to the 18th century, and to balance-of-power policies.
  • China: There is no precedent for the rise of China.
  • Afghanistan: Numerous, extensive analogies with  Vietnam exist.

With Afghanistan, as with Vietnam, it can be hard for the best minds to differentiate between the desired outcomes foreign policy goals, and the work of prediction, when we try to exclude confirmation bias. Like most Western readers, I would prefer to imagine the outcome of an Afghanistan with a civil government that has at least limited secular, inclusive aspects. The situation of Pakistan, which is more a failed state than a model, would actually be progress in Afghanistan.

So let’s start with Vietnam. As painful as the experience was,  the lesson lived in memory for little more than a generation. The goals of our fathers for Vietnam were fairly modest. The  corrupt rule of South Vietnam’s elite was supported because, so it was thought,

  • The doctrine of Containment of world communism required it.
  • Absent the lock-down of a rigid ideology, South Vietnam would continue to evolve.
  • The goals were achievable.

A magnificent book recounts  the cautionary tale. The Best and the Brightest, by David Halberstam, documents and dissects. The best thinking of the time, employing the best tools of the time, statistics, estimation theory, game theory, and operations research, could not predict the failure of the massive U.S. military and logistical footprint to defeat a small, economically primitive country with an army of foot soldiers.

At the time, it was countered that the Vietnam debacle was the result of political constraints on the scope of military operations. But if this was so, the best and the brightest toiled on, each working on an assigned part of the problem. The sheer size of the effort, and the variety of approaches and methods used, resulted in  many different measures of success:  body counts, village pacifications, battles won, positions held, enemy presence, and so forth. But out of all this, there never developed a coherent estimate of what the future would hold.

Specialists in unconventional warfare, such as William Colby, later director of the CIA, were influenced by the spirit of the southerners they worked with.  Negative opinions were voiced by those who knew the leadership of the South. Those whose priority of geopolitics made failure unacceptable retained powerful influence over the institutional voice until the 1968 Tet Offensive. Paradoxically, a military victory for the U.S. caused the vox populi to prevail over the custodians of U.S. foreign policy, beginning the process of disengagement.

Vietnam remained a powerful lesson for just a bit more than a generation. But the 2003 Iraq war, which might have succeeded as a surgical intervention, was given a huge remit by a group then known as the neoconservatives, to catalyze the development of liberal democracy in the Middle East. The similarities with South Vietnam in the 1960’s:

  • Intervention with a remit of social change well beyond the scope of military victory and occupation.
  • Porous borders through which enemy supply lines cannot be effectively interdicted.
  • Sanctuaries in neighboring countries.
  • Asymmetric warfare; the enemy accepts losses much greater than acceptable by Western forces, without strategic distress.
  • Economies restricted to subsistence agriculture and opium.
  • Village and clan based societies with little desire for services of a central government.

The last element is most important. What is the minimum government that can bind a country together?  From Trump Wants to Fire U.S. Commander in Afghanistan, a list:

  • Raise revenue by taxation.
  • Use at least some of the taxes to provide services.
  • Facilitate commerce.
  • The services provided justify the taxes enough for popular acquiescence.

These are the minimums of good government, when it is a symbiont with the population. With less than that,  a government becomes a protection racket.

In South Vietnam, as in Afghanistan today, there was too little to tax, and too little in the way of services to provide. We like to think of happy villages with modern medical care and, eventually, labor saving devices. But without a tax base, a government cannot acquire the monopoly of force that underpins the rule of law.

If all six factors hold, this implies that while Western intervention can maintain the current situation indefinitely, the Taliban will take over on exit. No amount of diplomatic paper can change this; the men with guns, powered by a religious ideology, win this game.






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