Wednesday, January 12, 2011

How to kill a perfectly good lunch hour fiddling with an essentially meaningless thought experiment; Or: How this graph mathematically proves withdrawal is a good idea

Step 1: Browse Abu Muqawama

Step 2: Observe new post positing a simple graphical model for Chinese and Iranian engagement in Afghanistan

Step 3: Immediately assume that this model is fundamentally flawed in extremely simple, easily illustrated way

Step 4: Second-guess, equivocate, hedge, rethink, repeat

Step 5: Sink an hour into playing around with your own draft

Step 6: Refresh browser, notice that Ex has appended explanatory update that basically resolves concerns

Step 7: Review Step 3, revise conclusion to reflect that Gulliver's brain is fundamentally flawed in an extremely simple, easily illustrated way

Step 8: Choke yourself

Seeing as I've now spent so much effort demonstrating my high nerd quotient and talent for auto-distraction, I suppose I ought also own up to being a blowhard and a popinjay by sharing the product of my scribblings. (N.b.: the time I spent carefully modifying Ex's graph was meant to have been dedicated to a far more substantial post, one illustrated by yet another semi-original visual aid. That one will have to wait.)

I promise this made sense a few hours ago
So there it is: my redrafting of Ex's graph and some explanatory notes. What the hell does it all mean?

First of all, I think the original depiction suffers from a well-intentioned attempt at parsimony and elegance. The concept being depicted is too complex to be accurately rendered with just two lines. I understand the attempt, and the logic behind it is so simple as to be nearly self-evident: as U.S. engagement in Afghanistan decreases, other states will likely become more involved in the country so as to protect their interests. In the near term, those states that view the U.S. as a competitor will try to bandwagon off American efforts -- taking advantage of the stability dividends of NATO presence in Afghanistan to serve their own economic and geopolitical interests -- while enjoying the relative benefit of reduced U.S. readiness and flexibility attendant to the commitment of a substantial force. As the American footprint shrinks, countries like China and Iran will seek to assert themselves in Afghanistan so as not to suffer an interruption to the largely beneficial status quo.

Ex lays all of this down in two simple assumptions. (There are certainly more implicit in the model, but it's a good beginning.)
Let's start by assuming both China and Iran have an interest in U.S. military assets remaining in Afghanistan at great expense. Let's also assume that neither country, both with interests in Afghanistan, wants more instability.
Ok, so let's double back: Here he's saying that Iran and China want instability in Afghanistan to continue at present levels so as to ensure the U.S. continues to dedicate resources and military assets to it, but that China and Iran have broader interests in Afghanistan such that increased instability would be detrimental to them (outweighing whatever benefit is derived from continued heavy U.S. involvement). Put another way: an increase in Afghan stability would benefit those interests that exist independent of the relationship with the U.S., while harming the specific interest those countries have in continued U.S. involvement in the conflict.
This is all predicated on the idea that the presence of U.S. troops in Afghanistan contributes to stability, and that their departure will likely presage instability (absent other mitigating circumstances), or at the very least that a precipitious withdrawal of all American forces would threaten whatever stability currently exists. The Chinese and Iranians, then, want instability so much as it's required to cement American presence (and thus enhance their own position vis-a-vis the U.S.), but not so much as to threaten their own independent interests.
But what if decisions about U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan were made independent of assessments about the country's stability? What if the timeline for withdrawal was not controlled or impacted significantly by the security situation, and American troops were to be brought home without a care for whether or not the Afghan government could be counted on to secure predictable political outcomes? Because as it happens, that's our reality: NATO has pledged to turn over primary responsibility for the country to its own government by 2014, a benchmark that's helpfully highlighted on the graph. With a withdrawal timeline set, we can't argue that stability impacts force sizing in any meaningful sense. So U.S. troop levels aren't going to increase, and in fact are going to decrease on a generally predictable schedule. As such, we can eliminate that variable from our assessment of Chinese and Iranian interests and say that stability in Afghanistan is an objective "good" for those countries.
This is worth repeating: because China and Iran benefit from Afghan stability in a broad sense, and because the only detrimental effect those countries suffer from Afghan stability is increased U.S. flexibility and readiness, and because U.S. troop levels (and thus flexibility and readiness) are determined by an independent political decision and are thus not connected to Afghan stability… we can ignore U.S. troop numbers and say that all things which increase Afghan stability benefit China and Iran.
Still with me?
If Afghan stability benefits Chinese and Iranian interests – that is, if there’s a directly proportional relationship between the two – and if it’s assumed that stability will decrease after 2014, then China and Iran will seek to engage in behaviors that either counter this decline or mitigate the relationship between Afghanistan and their other interests. (This means that their options are to make Afghanistan less impactful on their other interests or to try to make Afghanistan more stable. This is the same choice the U.S. is facing right now, and we’ve determined that the threat of terrorism makes it impossible to pursue the first option. At least until 2014.) So as U.S. troop levels go down, Chinese and Iranian willingness to take stabilizing actions must increase in order to keep the “Afghan stability” indicator from spiking downwards. This is a decidedly different concept from what the original graph is meant to represent.
Of course, I wrote all that before Ex made his "clarification" (which is really a correction!). So you can see on my chart that I've redlined "Chinese and Iranian interest in a stable Afghanistan" on the original graph and replaced it with "Chinese and Iranian willingness to take actions to ensure stability." The conflation (or at least confusion) of these two variables was a major flaw. I addressed this by adding a new line which you can see across the top of my version: "Chinese/Iranian interest in Afghan stability." Over a limited timescale, this measure should stay relatively flat. The dotted line that scoops upward from "willingness" to "interest" is meant to illustrate the mistake we make if we fail to consider the intended U.S. withdrawal timeline: our adversaries' enduring interest in Afghan stability is only variable if a decrease in stability is met with a flexible U.S. response -- meaning an escalation and the attendant consequences for readiness.
Does this new graph have any broader meaning or explanatory value? Well, it ought to indicate that so long as we're willing to assume that other countries have an interest in Afghan stability, reducing our troop presence is certainly the correct decision. It prevents potential competitors from continuing to bandwagon and coattail, and we reap benefits from improved readiness and increased strategic flexibility. (But we already knew this, right?) It also means that those states that perceive a threat to their interests from uncertainty in Afghanistan should be lining up to get involved in a productive, stabilizing capacity -- both now and after the U.S. heads for the exits. (An predictable and unfortunate side-effect is that the internationalizing of the conflict absent strong U.S./NATO leadership is likely to have negative outcomes for the Afghan people, if not for "stability.") So why isn't that happening? Well, there are a few options: either A) those other countries don't perceive a similar level of threat from instability; B) they feel as though they're sufficiently shielded from the negative effects of instability or that the U.S. will continue to shield them in some way, even without troops on the ground; or C) they simply don't believe the U.S. is really going to leave.
That's what spits out at the end of all this? Fuck, what a waste of time.


  1. I can understand seeing Chinese gov. interest being primarily in stability, but Iranian gov. thinking seems a bit more, um, dynamic.

  2. It's things like this that make it hard to believe you play rugby.

  3. I think one question we have to consider is what Afghan stability means for each actor in question.

    Presumably both China and Iran would benefit economically from a more prosperous Afghanistan, and both have reasons to oppose the recreation of a Taliban government, since neither would benefit from a safe haven for militant Sunni Islamists.

    However, debating Chinese and Iranian interests in Afghanistan doesn't seem all that useful to me without plotting them with an eye to India and Pakistani intervention. Both India and Pakistan have much stronger reasons to intervene in favor of some form of Afghan "stability," but both would react rather differently to Chinese or Iranian involvement.

  4. Your handwriting is too neat (as much as I can tell from the blurry pic) to be a medical professional. Not that anyone handwrites anything anymore.

    OT: Hey, I super swear (and this is for real) I did not read the following article before I proposed my "challenging conventional wisdom" blog throw-down on a previous thread around here:

    I really did think that idea up all by myself!@ Great (or mediocre even) minds think alike!

  5. Ha ha, the best title in that series is "Sometimes the conventional wisdom is right."

    Hahahaha. Well played.

  6. I can't believe you spent so much time on Exum's trolling. The point of Exum's "thought experiment" was not to test assumptions. It was a trial balloon on a new line of argumentation about Afghanistan -- i.e. the importance of calibrating our presence there in order to manage Iranian and Chinese ambitions.

    When we get to the point where we are predicating decision on Afghan policy on vague assumptions about Iranian and Chinese incentives, we are truly outside the realm of strategic analysis and well into the realm of ungrounded rationalization. And that is true regardless of whether you conclude that from your assessment of Iran and China that we should leave or that we should stay.

    The inability of people to think rationally and enunciate with any clarity our national interests in Afghanistan is mind boggling and infuriating.