Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Essence of Confusion

(apologies to Graham Allison)

After (nearly) four weeks in Kabul, I've now gotten into enough conversations about current events to make some tentative generalizations. This is anecdote, not data; if nothing else, the sample is limited to Anglophones with the patience to explain very simple things to the American girl who obviously doesn't get it.

The most common reaction to news about American military strategy is bafflement. They dump more funds than can be spent effectively into unstable districts but provide minimal development assistance to peaceful areas that remain loyal to the central administration even despite their own complaints with its governance. ("Bamiyan will start an 'insurgency' just to get aid," one person remarked offhand.) They take advice from former and current warlords. They offer huge contracts for logistics and transport and then express surprise that the companies who take them pass a protection cut along to enemy forces. Trying to make sense of this, the main question I get is, are they stupid, or is there some secret plan - and, really, what's the secret plan?

Cut to Professor Allison: in The Esence of Decision, he proposes three models of analysis and applies each to the Cuban Missile Crisis. The first depicts the state as a unitary, rational actor - it evaluates courses of action and selects the value-maximizing option. The second considers a government instead as a bureaurcracy, dependent on defined organizational roles and responding to new situations using existing patterns of action. The third considers leaders as political beings and evaluates actions as opportunities for exchange between these many players, with external decisions reflecting internal competition and bargaining.

So when I open the New York Times Sunday Magazine and read "I asked Jones one morning how he could square his fondness for Shirzai with his new task of establishing good government. 'I guess I hadn't thought about it that much,' Jones said, transparent to a fault. 'The people probably did view him as the thug. But what else could we have done?'" I see the organizational model at work - the same article notes that Shirzai "may have been loathed by the people but could be counted on to deliver American war materiel to anywhere in the region for only $5,000 a truckload." It isn't a case of the American military deliberately promoting Shirzai as a model leader, it's a case of using the guy who has the power to wield it on your behalf. It's probably similar institutionalizing of the simplest method that leads to articles like Dexter Filkins's latest, revealing that a portion U.S. transportation logistics dollars are almost certainly being passed along to the Taliban as protection money.

But I'm not talking to experts in American politics, or political scientists with coursework in game theory or Graham Allison. The simplest model, rational actor analysis, treats the United States as a single player led by the will of President Obama - and this assessment yields utter bewilderment. Why would President Obama have met with Shirzai on a visit to Afghanistan back when he was still a Senator? For that matter, why is Shirzai the governor of Nangarhar, seeing that he was so unpopular he had to be removed from Kandahar? The New York Times didn't even mention Shirzai in its initial account of the visit, as it simply wasn't a critical element of the story among an American audience. Here, on the other hand, it led to rampant rumors that Shirzai was invited to the inauguration. As far as public diplomacy goes, it doesn't even matter that this is patently false - it's widely believed, and the perception is damaging. If the United States is working with these kinds of people, dark ulterior interests must be at work. No one can possibly claim ignorance of his reputation, and the "I hadn't thought about it much" defense seems dangerously implausible coming from the representative of a superpower.

What's more, it stems from the fact that the U.S. does have a working relationship with the man Sarah Chayes described as a "source of insecurity" in 2003. I count among my friends an Army officer who has worked in Nangarhar: he, too, found Shirzai to be a valuable political partner despite his past and his personal shortcomings. I also count among my new friends a colleague who tells stories of Shirzai's violent dog-fights and tyrannical leadership.

This is a difficult balance - while it's possible that working with Shirzai (who is really a sample case for many similar choices the U.S. makes regularly here) is absolutely critical for success, and that those who despise him are not so passionately opposed as to expand the insurgency, that's simply not an equation I can calculate. I'm not certain if anyone can.

As another example, when Andrew Exum writes, "For a variety of reasons - some good, some less good, some having to do with massive oil spills that didn't exist in 2009 and a financial crisis that didn't exist in 2007 - the United States and its allies will likely not provide the resources necessary for a long-term counterinsurgency effort," I hear a political model at work, assessing just what agenda the President and Congress can successfully balance for both the good of the country and the goodwill of the population. It's my own government, after all, and I've spent long enough following the twists and turns of politics to know just how complex the process is. What comes across here is that we don't care about the Afghan people, and given that their desires really don't play a direct role in the policy evaluation process, that's a hard claim to rebut. Of course we care; but that's not why we're here, and empathetic concern alone isn't going to keep a large American aid presence.

There's still some chance all this will succeed, and that by pursuing the American national security interest we'll manage to offer Afghans the leadership and development they fervently hope for. But in the meantime we certainly can't teach all of Afghanistan Graham Allison, and so these choices, and analyses, look pretty damning to their eyes.

(postscript: On an analytical level, nothing expressed here is novel, let alone revolutionary, but I do think it's important to keep in mind. Furthermore, there's a clear lack of implied action stemming from these observations - an obvious flaw from my policy-wonk perspective. We'll see if I can come up with anything in the weeks to come.)

1 comment:

Flaxmail said...

Great post. Sort of tangential, but it made me think about how bad the media are at disabusing people of destructive rumors in the US (see: death panels) and how much easier it probably is to spread destructive rumors among people in Afghanistan. Sigh.