Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Guns vs. Butter

Afghanistan is beginning to weigh heavily. The longer I consider the President’s decision, the more distressed I become. The thought of dispatching 30,000 additional troops to defeat the Taliban and Al Qaida begins to sound like the definition of insanity—“doing the same thing over and over, while expecting a different result.”
I no longer even can be sure how we would know success. For a large part of my career, I taught and practiced that arcane field called program evaluation. We were taught and we attempted always to practice the art by starting with a definition of success on which all the participants could agree, and for which we were confident in our ability to measure objectively the outcomes. We also focused in this art on the intervention that was being put in place to achieve the desired ends. Our first question always was, “is the intervention plausible?” If the answer was, “No”, then we would stop, because proceeding with an evaluation would be pointless.
When our right-wing antagonistas, such as John McCain, insist that we should never leave until “Victory” is achieved, I keep wondering whether they/he has any idea how we might know whether “Victory” was at hand.
But even beyond the simple issue of measurement, and our ability to know whether what we are doing is likely to succeed, I keep asking myself whether we have learned anything from our own experiences in Vietnam, and our predecessors and our own experience in Afghanistan, mainly the British and the Russians. They shot up the place fairly dramatically, yet, in the end, they gave up and walked away with their tails between their legs. Now, to be fair, we provided substantial material assistance to the Taliban, the first time around, to help assure the Russian defeat. We assume the reverse is not operating now. Mainly, though, it is becoming clear that, short of killing everything human in Afghanistan, we probably cannot subdue a population by killing innocents and true enemies willy nilly. We never really seem to know the difference, so in the end, we seem to make as many enemies as we kill or subdue.
We also seem to be incapable of moving the Afghan population very far beyond their 14th century lifestyle, so they may never adopt our view of a democratically stable nation. I do imagine that the Afghan people would prefer a government that doesn’t cheat them, and doesn’t threaten them routinely, and, since we support corrupt, essentially evil national governments, it seems unlikely that we will “win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people.”
But perhaps my biggest problem is what we should do instead of shooting up the place. Walking away seems a non-starter, mainly because, after nine years, our past investment of blood and money really would be simply wasted, much as our investment of blood and money in Vietnam was wasted. So we seem faced with two equally awful alternatives. I keep hoping some third alternative will suddenly occur to one of our resident geniuses, although why I keep hoping is beyond me.
What might an alternative look like, I wonder? I keep thinking schools, hospitals; some global cooperative economic development program would be preferable to gunslingers. Certainly, a strong police force, either local, or international would be needed, to keep the thugs from blowing up the schools. But that should be different from drones shooting missiles at wedding parties. I wonder whether anyone has consulted anyone on this strategy beyond our generals and retired military minds. Wouldn’t hurt guys.
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