Friday, October 23, 2009

Afghanistan and the Death of Common Sense

I've been reading The Economist for decades and have always admired the magazine for its coverage, insights, and eclectic politics (who else in the media has called for Bill Clinton's resignation, gay marriage, war in Iraq, and drug decriminalization?). I've respected the magazine's opinions even when I disagreed with its conclusions. But lately, I find myself wondering about its common sense. Two pieces from the October 17 issue, Obama's War and To Surge or Not to Surge, both calling for escalation in Afghanistan, are useful to study not just to expose the flaws in escalation theory specifically, but to illuminate various species of weak critical thinking in general. Let's take the magazine's arguments for escalation one by one.

1. "A less intensive, more surgical 'counter-terrorism,' relying on unmanned air raids and assassination... is more likely to kill civilians and create new enemies than to decapitate and disable al-Qaeda."

Certainly killing civilians and creating new enemies would be counterproductive for any policy. It's reasonable, therefore, to ask whether sending tens of thousands of additional foreign troops into the country eight years into the war might have a similar effect, or even a worse one. Yet The Economist doesn't consider the costs of its favored policy. It's as though those costs don't exist.

The general flaw here is the assessment of costs only of one course of action, not of its proposed alternative. If your house and belongings were being ruined by a leaky roof and someone told you repairs would cost a thousand dollars, would you reflexively say, "Forget it, too costly?" Or would you also consider the costs of ongoing water damage caused by an unrepaired roof, and measure one against the other?

2. "Anarchy in Afghanistan, or a Taliban restoration, would leave it prey to permanent cross-border instability."

The specific problem here is that the argument ignores not just theoretical alternatives, but also actual history. If cross-border stability is a goal, it's important to ask whether there was more of it before or after the current war began. If the answer is "before," we can reasonably infer that the presence of foreign troops in the country is part of the cause of the current instability, and that more troops would make things worse.

The more general problem here is unexamined assumptions. Afghanistan has a whole history of instability. Why ignore that history when asserting withdrawal would worsen things? Why leave a critical assumption untested when you have so much data to test it with?

Note too the related assumption: stability in Afghanistan is so vital a western interest that no one even has to explain what the interest is. Stability is one of those words that just gets intoned, thought-free, by serious-sounding people who rarely bother to explain why the stability is important enough to warrant a war to maintain it -- and who even more rarely pause to consider how war might foster stability's opposite.

3. "Defeat for the West in Afghanistan would embolden its opponents not just in Pakistan, but all around the world, leaving it open to more attacks."

The argument is that we shouldn't do something to embolden our opponents, yes? Then why does The Economist not also discuss the way war -- particularly escalation -- emboldens our opponents? Or can only withdrawal embolden opponents, while escalation can't?

Again, it seems the only costs are those associated with the course of action The Economist seeks to dismiss. The magazine's preferred alternative is free of such costs, and apparently of other costs, as well. Wouldn't it be nice if life were really like this?

4. "Withdrawal would amount to a terrible betrayal of the Afghan people, some of whose troubles are the result of Western intervention."

I don't know how you measure something like this, especially after the kind of rigged election Karzai just pulled off. Regardless, will this always be true? Afghanistan seems historically a hard place to pacify. How long does The Economist propose staying to avoid betraying the Afghan people? How many lives is it willing to spend for this avoidance? How much money? It doesn't say.

Starting to see a pattern here? If a salesman were trying to sell you a car this one-sidedly -- "no costs, unless you don't buy the car!" -- would you get out your checkbook?

5. "The Afghan conflict, it is often said, has been not an eight-year war, but eight one-year wars. NATO comes off worse each time. And so the most important reason for persisting in Afghanistan: the coalition can do much better."

If you knew someone who had been married and divorced eight times, would you recommend he give it another go because he can do better? If, as you lay down on the operating table, you learned that your surgeon had killed her previous eight patients, would you take this as a sign your operation will be a success?

They say past performance isn't an indication of future results. Maybe not. But the notion that eight years of failure means ipso facto next year will be better is contradicted by history, everyday experience, and common sense. As an argument, it is, simply, delusional.

6. "The coalition’s leaders, at least, seem to have grasped that it must behave not as an occupying army but as a partner, whose aim is to build up the local forces that will ultimately ensure Afghanistan’s security. And soldiers and civilians are beginning to understand that development aid can benefit local people rather than foreign consultants and contractors."

If it took eight years for our leaders to figure these things out, is that cause for encouragement? Or despair? If you knew someone who'd been driving for eight years and only just figured out the importance of using the turn signal and rear view mirror and putting on the headlights at night, would you then confidently hand him the keys to your vehicle? Or would you instead sense that someone who learns this slowly will never manage to safely drive a car?

7. "The coalition, however, lacks three essential components of a successful strategy. It needs a credible, legitimate government to work with, the resources to do the job and the belief that America’s president is behind this war."

I think Rory Stewart said it best: "This is not a plan: it is a description of what we have not got."

8. "As for resources, it is worth remembering that in 2006, before the American surge, prospects in Iraq looked far bleaker than they do now in Afghanistan."

It's odd to tout Iraq as the kind of success we might emulate in Afghanistan. Andrew Bacevich:

Six-plus years after it began, Operation Iraqi Freedom has consumed something like a trillion dollars—with the meter still running—and has taken the lives of more than forty-three hundred American soldiers. Meanwhile, in Baghdad and other major Iraqi cities, car bombs continue to detonate at regular intervals, killing and maiming dozens. Anyone inclined to put Iraq in the nation’s rearview mirror is simply deluded. Not long ago General Raymond Odierno, Petraeus’s successor and the fifth U.S. commander in Baghdad, expressed the view that the insurgency in Iraq is likely to drag on for an-other five, ten, or fifteen years. Events may well show that Odierno is an optimist.

Given the embarrassing yet indisputable fact that this was an utterly needless war—no Iraqi weapons of mass destruction found, no ties between Saddam Hussein and the jihadists established, no democratic transformation of the Islamic world set in motion, no road to peace in Jerusalem discovered in downtown Baghdad—to describe Iraq as a success, and as a model for application elsewhere, is nothing short of obscene. The great unacknowledged lesson of Iraq is the one that the writer Norman Mailer identified decades ago: “Fighting a war to fix something works about as good as going to a whorehouse to get rid of a clap.”

For those who, despite all this, still hanker to have a go at nation building, why start with Afghanistan? Why not first fix, say, Mexico? In terms of its importance to the United States, our southern neighbor—a major supplier of oil and drugs among other commodities deemed vital to the American way of life—outranks Afghanistan by several orders of magnitude.

9. "Mr Obama... might well reflect on a line from a British counter-insurgency specialist, quoted in Lewis Sorley’s book 'A Better War,' which White House staff are said to be busily reading. South Vietnam, he says, could have been saved if America had not cut off military aid to its government. 'Perhaps the major lesson of the Vietnam war,' said Sir Robert Thompson, 'is: do not rely on the United States as an ally.'

Perhaps so. Perhaps the point would be more relevant if Sir Thompson and The Economist could point to the country whom South Vietnam could have relied on instead. Otherwise, you could as well argue that Bill is useless to have your back in a fight because he lacks mutant invisibility powers and titanium-coated skin.

10. "Most of all, Mr Obama needs to fight this war with conviction. His wobbles over the last month have done more to comfort his enemies and worry his allies than any recent losses on the ground. Only if he persuades his troops, his countrymen and the Taliban that America is there for the long haul does he have a chance of turning this war around."

This sounded familiar to me. So I looked up William Westmoreland on Wikipedia and found this in his 1967 address to a joint session of Congress:

In evaluating the enemy strategy, it is evident to me that he believes our Achilles heel is our resolve ... Your continued strong support is vital to the success of our mission ... Backed at home by resolve, confidence, patience, determination and continued support, we will prevail in Vietnam over the Communist aggressor!

Indeed, the oddest thing about reading The Economist's articles this week was my sense that, had the word Vietnam been substituted for the word Afghanistan, they could have been written anytime during that earlier war (and I'm sure they were). Well, those who don't learn the lessons of history and all that.

Measure the costs of all proposed courses of action, not just one. Identify and test your assumptions. Recognize that multiple failures and extraordinarily slow learning are not cause for optimism for success. Don't confuse a description of what you lack with a strategy for achieving it. Spot and learn from historical parallels. Common sense, you would think. But not, apparently, when such common sense is most urgent.

P.S. On the subject of weak critical thinking, conservative NYT columnist Ross Douthat claims the secular arguments against gay marriage can be summed up as "institutional support for reproduction."

Reproduction needs institutional support? I actually can't think of something that needs less institutional support. Breathing, maybe. And the guy calling for this institutional support for reproduction also calls himself a conservative, presumably in favor of small government and all that? Bonus points, Ross, for irony.


Timothy said...

Great read and thanks for the thoughts. The comparison to Vietnam several times was pretty interesting...

I'm taking a few law classes right now for my MA. I think you did a post awhile back on making critical arguments, but I can't seem to find it.
I'd be much obliged if you could link to it again!

PS: took a copy of Rain Fall with me to Egypt. Sharing it with my roommate now! Can't seem to find the others here... wonder who i need to talk to about that;)

aaron said...

With respect, your presented alternative is...?

I don't disagree with the parallels between Afghanistan and Vietnam. They are far, far more accurate (in my opinion) than anyone should be comfortable, especially given that in each instance we (America and her government) seem incapable of admitting that support to a host nation government is useless, save that government be worthy of support.

I don't disagree that the past six, seven years have been mismanaged. Perhaps the initial strategy was also flawed, for all that it was well-executed. That's a case of beer's conversation in and of itself.


If you argue against the surge (or against the points supporting it), and you criticize the status quo, it would be nice to see an alternate course of action presented. Everything we've done and everything we're thinking about doing doesn't/won't work...duly noted. What will? Man in the arena, and all that...

Charles Kaiser said...


This is a brilliant post. And as someone old enough to remember those leaders in The Economist in 1968, I can tell you that if you substituted "Vietnam" for "Afghanistan", you would have read everyone of these identical, idiotic arguments 41 years ago, just as you suspected. Long after Walter Cronkite, NBC News and the editorial pages of The New York Times and even The Wall Street Journal had concluded that our effort in Vietnam was hopeless, The Economist remained relentlessly hawkish.

As for the notion that with just a little bit more resolve, we could have won in Vietnam, it's just flatly false--mostly for the same reason that we are doomed in
Afghanistan. In both places, our ally was/is a massively corrupt and mostly incompetent government--although the South Vietnamese government and Army were about ten times more effective than their equivalents in Afghanistan.

As Ho Chi Minh told the French when THEY were fighting their pointless war in Indochina, "You can kill ten of my men for every one I kill of yours, but even at those odds, you will lose and I will win."

He spoke the truth.

Charles Kaiser
author, 1968 In America

Tristan said...

Very interesting and clever Barry ;). This was my nightmares all along. When we decided to invade Iraq. My tought was..Vietnam. Tet offensive 68, WE WON, but we don't finish the job. And 7 years later we have to withdraw from Vietnam. Too many people rush to judgement and wanted to have our CINC to send or increase our troop present in Afghanistan. As you cleverly described about Westmorland request of more troops. In the hight of Vietnam War, we have 560,000 troops in Vietnam the size of Texas. And 58,000 plus can't go home because of it. My issue is always, it is much easier to send young man to die. It is harder to take care of them when they come home. And most people who so eager to send the troop to fight their war, many of them are never in combat or volunteer their family to be in combat with others. I am sadened to see how many wounded warriours currently we had. I am a volunter at the VA Med. Ctr most of the time at TBI (trauma brain injuri) unit. To see too many young man with years a head of them and sadly when they get out, NO ONE really care about them. Do you know how many they are in your community? How many times you shake their hands to just to say thank you, how many of you donated something, times or money to veteran organization as token of appreciation to them. As a combat veteran, I hate this war. Sorry for my rant. Tristan

Lawrence Mark said...

Greetings Barry! Thanks for the link from Twitter- I might have missed this line if not for that.
I am so sick and tired of the "We cannot leave until we win" argument. The reasoning is both childish and dangerous. It means we will never leave, essentially. This is a sad example of people willing to spend your money and send your son or daughter to fight and die for their own morbid idea. I am quite certain that if this "war" were to be set as a national referendum vote, it would be defeated soundly. All that would be required for your vote is a personal committment and the name of your child and your bank account number. Those hawkish people would not volunteer their own money or blood for such a sadly pathetic situation. They expect the rest of us to help pay for their folly. Most of the veterans I know would rather go there themselves than send their own child or the child of anyone they know personally. I know that I would be willing to die for my sons, but I would not send them to such a place for such a cause just because we cannot leave until we "win".
Every REAL and true PATRIOTIC American needs to ask themselves just this one question: What will we win? The answer is: Nothing tangible.
This is an archaic and tribal place on the other side of the world. I personally think that those people will never embrace our ideas, because they are zenophobic even about each other! They do not think like PATRIOTIC Americans. REAL PATRIOTS tolerate the "melting pot" mentality because it is the AMERICAN WAY.
I totally agree with Tristan. No one even thinks about the maimed and permanently scarred vets who reurn home. They do not hear about the mental scars that never end.
I wish that the "fair and balanced" crowd would subject their "patiotic" viewers to a dose of that reality every single day. It would not take long for that group to realize we all need to get the hell out of the hell we are sending those brave men and women into. I could go on and on, but
I always write too much!
The name "The Economist" is a real misnomer, don't you think? As you mentioned, they do not seem to reflect on the economic costs, let alone all the blood, sweat and the loving tears that will never go away.

Charlieopera said...

I was one of the suckers who believed Iraq was about to release WMD against us (through proxy terrorist groups). It was what the then White House spewed and the Democrats (the vast majority of them, including our current Sec. of State bought into hook line and sinker). Because of what I had felt (and still do feel) was weak national defense by the Clinton administration, I took the bait, swallowed and it took me 6 years to upchuck the poison. Phil Donahue was right. We (the United States) wanted to punch somebody in the mouth after 9-11 and a thoroughly opportunistic and corrupt administration (the one I voted for) decided to throw a second punch (Iraq). I gave up my liberal principles for the sake of national defense and couldn’t have been more wrong. Unhappy with Democrats who seemed to accomplish nothing (gay rights, etc.) and voted way too centrist-right for me, I decided, “Hell, I’ll give these other guys a shot.”

Now I wouldn’t vote for either party with a gun to my head. I know my vote for Nader is considered a wasted vote. Fine. At least I’ll feel better knowing I’ve turned closer to my convictions (socialism). These wars (both of them) are nothing short of insane. Obama cornered himself with campaign rhetoric (“the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time”). His labeling Afghanistan a “necessary” war may have helped him get elected, but now that he’s repeated the phrase, he’s left himself (and our military) in an abyss.

He hasn’t veered very much at all from his predecessor (who was tortured in the press for his incompetence and rightfully so), yet Obama has actually increased the budget for Blackwater (and I had to watch Bill Maher to learn that tidbit). The Democrats have a solid majority in both houses and no more goddamned excuses for getting NOTHING done. Yet, once again, NOTHING is what they’re doing. There’s no justification for continuing either of these wars. If anything, the clowns who got us into the 2nd war (Iraq) should’ve been (and should still be) persecuted on both the world stage (The Hague) and domestically. Afghanistan? Between a corrupt government and the history of armies getting their asses kicked over the long haul there, what’s the point? What do we gain? Hasn’t 8 years of this ridiculousness been enough?

It is interesting how Obama uses 2011 as the date we leave “the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time” … one year before the next presidential election.

Bush should’ve been impeached for the pre-emptive disaster that turned into. Obama should be impeached for keeping us (and Iraq) in it.

Nader in 2012 … or just more of the same old, same old.

Barry Eisler said...

Thanks as always for the comments, everyone. Aaron, the main point of my post was the way poor critical thinking leads to poor conclusions, so offering up my specific policy alternative seemed extraneousness. But I think you can guess what I think is the best course of action (especially given my comparison to Vietnam): withdrawal. If Obama wanted a fig leaf, he could have pointed to Karzai's stolen election and said we're not going to continue to send young Americans to fight and die to support rigged elections.

I can't think of any vital interest we're protecting by our continued presence there. And I can think of plenty of problems our presence is causing, such as cross border instability, creating new enemies, and the destruction of our $11-trillion-in-the-hole economy. Not to mention the good people we continue to lose there every week. The main argument for staying (and The Economist, naturally, made it) is that leaving would damage our prestige. Well, any time politicians argue that the main reason we have to stay is because we're already there, my bullshit meter goes off, and loudly.

BTW, is this Aaron who I met at Fort Lewis (think it was Ft. Lewis... or Hood?) If so, I'll take you up on that case of beer's worth conversation. Thanks, brother.

Charles, thanks, and for anyone interested in the parallels between the current debate and the debate about escalation in Vietnam, "1968 in America" is a great resource. I'm almost done reading it and it is superb -- my Amazon review is here:


And thank you, Tristan -- for everything.

aaron said...

It was Ft. Lewis...and for that conversation, you'll have to wait until I'm done causing "cross border instability, creating new enemies, and the destruction of our $11-trillion-in-the-hole economy."


I redeploy from here in February, or so I'm told. Got any plans this coming March?

I agree with most all of your points and parallels. I feel that we should define our interests and pursue them by whatever means are available to us. If your point is we gain nothing by staying in Afghanistan...well, I already packed up most my warm-weather gear. I can fill my A-Bag and be gone from here in a couple days, wouldn't hurt my feelings. Would make my wife happy, and my mother less worried.

If we do find that we have interests in Afghanistan, then I suggest we turn the debate to what those interests are and how we would best achieve them. I can only think of one viable interest here, and I'll get to it in a minute.

Afghanistan has no natural resources in sufficient quantity or quality that we could benefit from their being brought to market. The traditional geographic links that made Afghanistan a necessary acquisition during the time of the British Empire are no longer very relevant. There are no cultural or religious factors that make this part of the world particularly significant to anyone but its current inhabitants, and a lot of them would leave if they had all that much of a chance at it.

The only reasons (I can see) for continuing to stay here would be obligation to aid those whose country we kicked the holy shit out of (#4 on your list), and to kill the individual leaders that were sheltering Bin Laden waaaaay back in '01.

I submit that the military is probably not the best tool for the former-witness its continual failure to do so for the last seven years. The purpose of a military is to fight and win wars. Our military is not geared, nor (culture-wise, budget-wise) should it be. Expanding the role of the military to do charity work just leaves you with frustrated soldiers and second-rate results; neither of which (offhand) sounds like a good thing. Perhaps leaving a framework of soldiers to provide security, and having the bulk of US efforts carried out by people who don't carry rifles and a predisposition to use them? Maybe if that sort of thing is our goal, we could try giving the Peace Corps some money, some people, some permanency, a career and retirement plan similar to what the military enjoys; then let them dig wells, build schools, and run clinics.

For the record, I don't believe the Marshall Plan or its philosophical descendants should play a part in modern policy. Which is to say, I don't like this reason for staying, and I think that this is the wrong way to do it anyhow.

Second, at this point, without the ability to pursue in force (we're talking use of *the military*, not use of specific covert military assets) throughout the world, and particularly in Pakistan, is there a realistic chance at the latter? If there is, is such a goal going to be furthered by increasing overall US troop presence in Afghanistan? In other words, I like this reason for US involvement, but I'm not certain this is the right way to go about it.

I have no solid answers, and certainly no moral preference about the issue; but I'm willing to work on solutions, right down to the bleeding.

Barry Eisler said...

"It was Ft. Lewis...and for that conversation, you'll have to wait until I'm done causing "'cross border instability, creating new enemies, and the destruction of our $11-trillion-in-the-hole economy.'"

I knew it was you... ;D

Glad you'll be back in Feb. I have no plans in March, other than a convention or two. So let me know where I need to lug that case of beer...

And thanks for the insights from someone who's been there -- who *is* there. I'm honored and grateful, amigo.


PBI said...


Good to see you blogging again!

Like you, I have been reading The Economist for a long time. I've become increasingly disenchanted with them in the past few years, however, and now peruse it with a very jaded eye.

Sensen No Sen

Unknown said...


It's so GOOD to have you back!

Best, Pat.

if you get a chance, drop in to my (seldom used) blog and read about our recent CLIFDEN ARTS WEEK

Anonymous said...

Paul wrote:
"Like you, I have been reading The Economist for a long time. I've become increasingly disenchanted with them in the past few years, however, and now peruse it with a very jaded eye."

Yanno, I hear the same complaints about Playboy.