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April 3, 2012


The Truth That Refuses to Be Spoken

by Mike M

Another tragic sign in the emerging Afghan endgame:  The flight of cash and investment.  As the American and coalition departure looms, more and more schemers are shepherding their profits out of the country, despite the futile efforts of the government to block them.  To paraphrase a famous line from Jurassic Park, “Cash will find a way.”

A new Times story (be careful before you click—you might use of one of your 10 precious free stories this month … because, you know, newspapers are dying, and they need to squeeze each available penny out of every bit and byte) catalogues the depressing litany.  Over 30,000 Afghans aiming for asylum outside the country last year, four times the figure in 2005—and meanwhile, the numbers of expat Afghans trying to come home is dwindling.  Tens of millions in cash, much of it hoarded off misbegotten profits from US “aid” and military largesse, shunted out of the country every day.  Hundreds of Afghans who had opened small businesses setting up parachutes in nearby countries, ready to flee at a moment’s notice.  The only western bank that had opened in the country, Standard Chartered, now closing.

All of this is going to be played as the natural result of the “Obama cut-and-run strategy.”  Look, Afghanistan is collapsing, because Obama pulled the plug, critics (on the right and, to some degree, the center-left) will say.  This was a “winnable” war, or at least “holdable”—and President Obama set an unnecessary “deadline,” and look where that got us:  The perception of an endgame; people rushing for the exits; failure.

Such claims would make sense, if we were talking about a totally different sort of war, in a completely different country, in a totally different time.  As it is, they are narrow-minded foolishness, dressed up as sober geostrategic hard-headedness.

First:  The US had no choice but to set some form of deadline.  It’s been embroiled in Af-Pak dilemmas for a decade.  The latest polls make very clear that the American people are sick and tired of endless war; over half now say quit the place, before the ANSF training is even done.  Meantime the “dependency syndrome” was fully in evidence:  If the Americans are here to win the war, why do we have to?  The alternative to some sort of beginning-of-the-end-of-our-commitment narrative—a “we’ll stay as long as it takes” narrative—would have been politically untenable and strategically unsound.  Sure, it would have played fine for a year or so, as some tough-minded administration admired itself in the geostrategic mirror as it muscle-flexed and congratulated itself on doing what was “necessary.”  But then reality would have set in, the logical inconsistencies of the mission would have reared their persistent heads—and the “in it to win it” narrative would have collapsed.

Second:  This war was never America’s to win, lose or hold.  Well, check that—a massive infusion of US forces and money could have kept fingers in various dikes and generated an appearance of holding the line.  But that was always a short-term strategy.  Ultimately, Afghan institutions and forces were going to have to step up.  A few have, and are; many have not, and are not.  And there was precious little, one way or the other, that the United States could do about that.  It could point the way, and beg, and plead, and offer, and cajole, at levels from squad to ministry; but in the end, if a nation—from local police chief to tribal leaders to businessmen to minister of what-have-you—will not take full accountability for the effective, efficient, progressive management of affairs, that pretty much decides matters.  A damning fact is that, after ten years of a massive infusion of foreign cash, investment, training, and capacity building, US and coalition war expenditures still account for 90 percent of economic activity in Afghanistan.  That’s not Washington’s fault, and it surely isn’t Obama’s fault, except insofar as misguided earlier US approaches prolonged the conflict.  Ultimately, a nation is responsible for its own fate.

Third:  A resulting strategic lesson is that there’s nothing to be gained from caring more for a particular model of governance of a country than it cares about that model.  To be sure, fate and tragic circumstances can hold a vibrant people back, and in just the right situation catalytic outsiders can turn the right set of keys to generate something.  But ultimately, outsiders can almost never make the decisive difference.  A critical mass of popular disaffection with stagnation, combined with decisive and visionary leadership and the rudiments of workable institutions—the formula for escaping state failure is reasonably well defined.  But if a people thinks they have models that have worked for a long time and don’t see a reason to change, who are we to cram Taylorist bureaucracy–or, for that matter, the “rule of law”–down their throats?

The problem, and this is the great strategic paradox so horrifically exposed on 9/11 and one which after all these years we have not figured out how to deal, is when we confront a situation (a) over which we have little to no control, but (b) whose outcomes have serious implications for our security.  Much of the recent US strategic dialogue involves a great big stroll around this paradox, without ever coming to grips with it.  (“So  COIN waged by outsiders is too costly and doesn’t, in fact, usually work?  Well, how about ‘COIN lite,’ where we’ll bomb them and train up some local guys?  Wait—that’s not sustainable without effective institutions?  So we’ll do capacity building … Wait, that’s state-building, which brings us back to COIN?  For God’s sake!”)  This paradox has to do with “failed states,” to be sure, but also radicalization of populations in developed nations and a number of other key challenges.

Our response has been to shift from full-scope COIN to lesser included operational cheats—drones and so forth.  But the real problem is broader—our whole post-9/11 mindset, hammered into public consciousness in the single most understandable and yet thoughtless and ultimately irresponsible act of the Global War on Terror.  That is the notion that it is the responsibility of the US government to keep Americans safe from all terrorist attacks, at all times; the insistence that one attack amounts to failure, that the standard for homeland security is perfection.

In the emerging world of massified security challenges, decentralized capacity for large-scale violence and mischief making, and increasingly vulnerable hyper-networked societies, such a standard was OBE the moment it was articulated; and it has led us on a global campaign to manage situations that cannot be managed, to change situations that it is not in our power to change.  (Please don’t throw the trope at me that we’ve gone a decade since 9/11 without a major attack.  There have a been a whole series of them, just not in America; there have been a number of close misses; and the day when another occurs is merely a matter of time.)

We await an American political leader who will tell us the Whole Truth:  That in the emerging connected and networked world, we cannot be made totally safe.  That despite their level efforts, life—and strategy—are full of choices, and tradeoffs.  In so many ways, American public life these last few decades has been all about the avoidance of truth, and choice, and tradeoff, the promise that we could have everything and avoid the bill.  Many bills are now coming due; long-delayed tradeoffs are being foisted.  And one of them, sooner or later, will be the simple, unalterable fact:  We cannot dominate the earth, and so we must accept some risk at home.

Pretty straightforward, when said out loud.  Such an admission would be the first, necessary step toward attaining the proper strategic perspective on wars like Afghanistan, which is to say:  Yes, leaving on the best possible terms (that is, imperfect ones) increases the risk that some plotter or other may someday “strike America.”  But guess what—plotters may some day strike America, and we can’t fight an endless series of global wars in places whose political cultures make success problematic if not impossible.  Hence we do our best to seek out the plotters in conjunction with partners; and we accept some risk.  We cannot, cannot, have a standard of Unalterable Global Victory.  We will sail our ship of state onto a set of historic rocks, guided by that intoxicated lodestar.

And when the day comes when an attack does occur, we learn from experience.  This time, we don’t look around to cast blame; we don’t accuse; we don’t try to see who got what memo on what day.  We simply move forward, and get back to work seeking out those who would do us harm, secure in the knowledge that we have made a tradeoff that, despite its risks, remains better than the alternative—a futile and self-destructive spasm of global interventions that will leave us bankrupt, reviled, and no safer in the bargain anyway.

But then again:  It sure feels a lot tougher, doesn’t it?

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. Matt J
    Apr 3 2012

    Mike, this is your best post yet. These are indeed the truths that need to be told. There are probably largely non-military options for shaping the environment in positive ways to reduce radicalization, but these depend critically on defusing perceptions of a U.S. strategy aiming at world domination. Their implementation would be at best a very slow and gradual process. And, I’d think, the simple attractive power of a healthy, financially sound democratic society, if we were to become such a society once again, would exercise most of the influence needed in that regard.

    On a minor point, I’d note that many Afghans (including many if not most occupying prominent positions in the government) have long been salting away plenty of money overseas. They have seen this whole movie before, and I suspect have never really intended much more than to profit from the US and international largesse while it lasted, for themselves and their families.

  2. Mike M
    Apr 11 2012

    Many thanks, Matt, for the kind words. I wonder if the truth of the last point doesn’t come as much from their recognition of the limits of the possible in that context–which could be overcome with miraculous policies, perhaps; but short of that, there was always a substantial recognition in the local environment of the limits of outside influence. Anyway: Much appreciated.


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