Monday, December 14, 2009

Stupid question, unbelievable answer

Have you ever heard of a media interview with a public official being embargoed until after the announcement of some major policy decision? Me neither, but that's apparently what happened after Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Trudy Rubin spent two hours with GEN McChrystal last month.
Our interview was off the record, because President Obama hadn't yet laid out his Afghan strategy.

But now that the strategy is unveiled, and McChrystal has testified before Congress, I'm free to use some of the conversation.

Uh, ok. Anyway, the part that's interesting is what COMISAF actually said:

What will happen if we don't try to stabilize Afghanistan, I ask? His sober answer: "Civil war that kills . . . one million? No side can win. Al-Qaeda will come back. If Afghanistan implodes, I'm not sure Pakistan would survive."

Why in the hell would you ask what will happen "if we don't try"? Who gives a damn about trying?? Have you considered the possibility that we may try and still fail, and that precisely the same conditions will obtain afterwards, only we'll have wasted $100 billion and 1,000 or so American lives? Is trying going to prevent civil war, or the return of al-Qaeda, or the much-feared collapse of Pakistan?

The phrasing of the question is telling, really -- it's revelatory of the way that we tend to think about asymmetric wars, about conflicts with seemingly disorganized armed bands in what we like to think of as backwater countries: we couldn't possibly lose if we're just trying hard enough.

Maybe I'm making too much out of this. And I haven't even really addressed GEN McChrystal's scaremongering. (Why would al-Qaeda return when the absolute best-case scenario they could hope for in Afghanistan is to replicate the conditions that presently exist in Pakistan?) But really, shouldn't we be asking the question "what is going to happen if we can't achieve our objectives?", rather than "what happens if we don't try?" And then, better yet: how much can we hope to accomplish even if we are trying?

9 comments:

  1. “Why would al-Qaeda return when the absolute best-case scenario they could hope for in Afghanistan is to replicate the conditions that presently exist in Pakistan?”

    If they sought to make a full-scale effort to secure their gains in Pakistan, or to do some very serious business in the tribal areas, wouldn’t Afghanistan be a vital sanctuary for them to work from potentially? I’d imagine that if pressure from the Pakistani army became too intense, Afghanistan would be a great fall back point, among many other things. Also, with all the drugs coming out from Afghanistan, wouldn’t that be a potential, secure source of funding for future operations?

    I’m not arguing a particular viewpoint here, but rather just raising some questions that I hope someone more knowledgeable than me can address. From what I’ve come to understand about insurgencies, sanctuaries are about the best thing they could possibly have in order to fester.

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  2. Oh, I don't know, Gulliver. Perhaps it's just a verbal tick and the reporter ought to have said, "what happens if we don't stabilize Afghanistan?" Are you getting a little to hung up on a throw away word which may represent a verbal tick?

    - There's lots to this post, so I may respond more later. Or not! Never know... .

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  3. Perhaps it's just a verbal tick and the reporter ought to have said, "what happens if we don't stabilize Afghanistan?" Are you getting a little to hung up on a throw away word which may represent a verbal tick?

    But Madhu, it's not a transcription of the interview -- it's an article based around a conversation. So how can it be a verbal tic in writing? Aren't written words chosen more thoughtfully than spoken ones? (All evidence to the contrary on this blog!)

    I agree that she chose her words poorly, and it's possible that it's as simple as that. But why choose your words poorly in that way?

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  4. If they sought to make a full-scale effort to secure their gains in Pakistan, or to do some very serious business in the tribal areas, wouldn’t Afghanistan be a vital sanctuary for them to work from potentially? I’d imagine that if pressure from the Pakistani army became too intense, Afghanistan would be a great fall back point, among many other things. Also, with all the drugs coming out from Afghanistan, wouldn’t that be a potential, secure source of funding for future operations?

    It's a bit circular, isn't it, for us to imagine that AQ needs a Pakistani sanctuary for operations in Afghanistan, and an Afghan sanctuary for operations in Pakistan? But we're getting ahead of ourselves -- forget about operations in either of those countries and consider the stated objective of the U.S., which is to deny al-Qaeda sanctuary from which it can plan, train for, and launch catastrophic terrorist attacks ("...on the West," we can continue, even if the president doesn't).

    Now then: which sanctuary makes that more possible? Or rather, are there any factors that commend Afghanistan over Pakistan when it comes to AQ having their choice?

    Now as for the insurgency and the Taliban, that's a whole different story. But as far as I can tell right now, AQ central hasn't shown that much interest in operationalizing its big dreams about launching the caliphate through quasi-Leninist revolution in one country... at least not since the Iraq failure.

    Further, Leah Farrall makes a compelling case that an open theater of conflict actually makes it easier for AQ to attract money and recruits from radicalized segments of the Islamic world -- after all, isn't it more romantic to give money to the jihadis who are bringing death to the infidel armies than to contribute operating funds to a planning cell?

    (Leah Farrall does awesome work, by the way. Check out her blog, "All Things Counter Terrorism;" we've got it in the links list.)

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  5. This very funny epistle was sent to a COINish listserv I'm on. I gained the approval of the author to post it here.

    He only wants you to know that he wrote it tongue emplanted firmly in cheek.

    SNLII

    -----------------------------------------



    "I met him in his spartan office"

    Stick to the narrative, sir. General Petraeus knows best. Play up the Spartan, monastic business. Reporters eat that up!

    "His sober answer: 'Civil war that kills . . . one million? No side can win. Al-Qaeda will come back. If Afghanistan implodes, I'm not sure Pakistan would survive.'"

    No, it would be soooo stupid to suggest that it was AMerican actions that exacerbated what is now a civil war of retribution between various Pasthun militias and the semi-official Tajik/Uzbek/Hazara contraption of Kabul's quasi-warlord military.

    So, let's get this straight. A civil war is going to kill one out of every 10 men in the entirety of Afghanistan? Really? And Pakistan someone would be disturbed by the end of an imploding Kabul kleptocracy?

    Other dire events that might occur include the designated hitter's rule spreading to the National League, a return of Flavor Flav to VH-1 programming and Jessica Simpson dating every quarterback in the NFL so as to jinx an entire league.

    Is he serious?

    He must be because the columnist said that he was: "McChrystal is serious, low-key, and very straightforward. Contrary to his reputation for spare eating, he tucked into a dinner of salmon chunks over pasta."

    Sir, we told you to stick to the gruel! You're going off message, sir, and CENTCOM sent out that memo. Go run in front of the reporters, Sir! Run a lot! Also, the hair shirt is a nice touch.


    "Absolutely, we need a credible partner. "

    Who said that you're a credible, legitimate occupier to the target populations?


    "and to buy time and space for the Afghan government to protect its own country"

    Caveat: In the Maoist sense, the various Taliban also shall be trading space for time as they exploit their safe harbor inside one of our "credible" partner's nations.

    " It also means funneling more aid through competent provincial governors and district heads, and pressing President Hamid Karzai to increase their numbers."

    Corrupt, incompetent and feckless provincial governors and district chiefs bepopulate the land. Solution, get the corrupt, incompetent and feckless president to appoint more of them!

    "The people of Afghanistan have to believe they are the critical element."

    New Age jackassery in lieu of serious comment. The "people" need to keep doing what they're doing --being credible, rational consumers who make choices. Why aren't they choosing the US-proxy Karzai kleptocracy? Why do they have grave doubts Kabul's military will survive a real Taliban push? Why have they taken our aid and remained opposed to us, or, at least, not sided with us?

    Some might suggest that generals attempt to determine the causative forces of a rebellion before defaulting to bumper sticker notions of counter-insurgency warfare. Well, we go to war with the generals ...

    "McChrystal acknowledges they must be careful not to empower old, or create new, Afghan warlords."

    Like the seven out of every 10 kandak commanders who are former NA flunkies, with the rest being an assortment of other warlords helming a rickety vessel that loses a quarter of its cargo of troops to desertion at any time.

    "Meantime, McChrystal fully recognizes the complexity of the challenges ahead. "

    After reading this, I'm not convinced that either the general or the columnist recognize them. Both, however, recognize a symbiotic need for the other as they manufacture narrative and, perhaps, consent from the people they're really working on -- you and me.

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  6. I actually thought is WAS spelled Tick, not tic.


    On a different note related to the "spartan office": I don't might a few - a very few and well chosen - novel-ish details in newspaper articles or interviews. It helps me to read the stuff, actually. Less dry that way.

    - Madhu

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  7. On a different note related to the "spartan office": I don't might a few - a very few and well chosen - novel-ish details in newspaper articles or interviews. It helps me to read the stuff, actually. Less dry that way.

    Agree; in fact, I don't understand it when people bitch about the writing in the New Yorker being overwrought, too detailed, too and-so-I-was-there-interviewing-this-guy, and-you-can-tell-because-of-all-of-these-irrelevant-details -- I eat that stuff up.

    I just wish that the local color on McChrystal didn't always include the words "spartan" and "ascetic." Use the same words too often and they start to lose their meaning.

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  8. I've always found the spartan/austere comments to be kind of funny. Show me a Soldier who would look at McChrystal's office or hooch at ISAF HQ and declare it to be "spartan." I guess it's spartan in comparison to a normal 4-star's office in the US or Europe.

    When I saw his office during the 60 Minutes piece a couple months back, I wasn't particularly struck by the supposed austerity. "One meal per day" also didn't seem like a big deal. I would have traded my 2 MREs per day (or the tainted chicken and rice that the locals insisted on feeding us) for that dish of real food that he was eating.

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  9. Hey, this is my last comment for a bit (really, I'm not addicted, I am not addicted!), but Prime Minister Singh was doing the same "scare mongering" in the Washington Post. The Lally Weymouth interview I linked at my place and blabbed about at zenpundit. I wonder what his intelligence services are telling him? I.n.t.e.r.e.s.t.i.n.g.

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