Thursday, July 02, 2009

Warblogging: Serious and Unserious

Serious first...

While I was traveling recently I picked up Dexter Filkins' "The Forever War" in Dulles while I was on a medium-sized layover, and it's an excellent book. Anyone who is interested in Iraq and Afghanistan, and really even in modern war generally, should read it. Filkins is not a leftist by any stretch, and anyone could probably find information in the book to support their political leanings if that's what they were looking for, but quite apart from any ideological importance the book bears witness to war as it really is and that's worth reading no matter what your convictions.

Now, putting on my Dirty Fucking Hippie hat:

It's once again my duty to point out as we read about the most recent improvement to the Awesome War of Good Neighborliness that the war in Afghanistan, despite being substantially less stupid on its face than the war in Iraq, is unlikely to ever produce any outcome that could reasonably be described as "good" and that any operation undertaken today is likely to have the long-term effect of killing a large number of people for no real reason at all.

If you read through the linked article, you might notice two things. One is that some pretty important strategic realities are papered over with Newspeak (emphasis mine):

That mistrust [of the Marines by the local Afghan population] stems from concern over civilian casualties resulting from U.S. military operations as well as from a fear that the troops will not stay long enough to counter the Taliban.

First of all, this use of the term "concern" reminds me of the way dentists love to use the word "discomfort" to mean "pain." "Discomfort" is when you're shifting in your bus seat because your ass is sweaty. A steel drill boring into your tooth is painful.

In the same way, if someone kills your brother with a big-ass bomb, and you happen to run into the bomber on the subway, it's unlikely the ensuing dialogue will prominently feature the word "concern." Presumably you'd be angry. In a murderous rage, even.

Meanwhile, it seems unlikely to me that the people who are "concerned" over the large number of locals being killed by the Marines are the same folks worried that the Marines won't stick around long enough to finish the job. It seems more likely that those are two distinct groups with distinct interests, who need to be approached in (at least) two different ways.

The second thing you might notice upon reading the article is that in an article of some 1500 words, one paragraph is spent actually describing the goals of the mission:

Once basic governance structures are restored, civilian reconstruction personnel plan to focus on economic development programs, including programs to help Afghans grow legal crops in the area. Senior Obama administration officials say creating jobs and improving the livelihoods of rural Afghans is the key to defeating the Taliban, which has been able to recruit fighters for as little as $5 a day in Helmand.

I'm tempted to say that the first clause in this graf is doing all the work, but actually I don't think that's the case. My limited but not totally impoverished knowledge of asymmetric warfare suggests to me that when the US military really focuses on restoring "basic governance structures," the results are usually pretty good. Marines grumble a lot when they're asked to do "nation building" (later caricatured in the article as eating goat and drinking tea with locals), but the results, tactically speaking, can often be surprisingly impressive.

The problem, almost always, comes next - "helping Afghans grow legal crops" and the like. International agricultural development is pretty good at solving technical problems - reducing transaction costs through the use of scrip, etc. - but it's not great at solving problems like "the entire economy of this country is based on the production of an illegal crop." There's just no sustainable path forward for Afghanistan to join the international economy as a normal agro-export country.

When the US leaves, whether that's in ten months or ten years, Afghanistan will revert to its natural state as a poor, landlocked country with a weak central government and constant warring factions that mostly operate by bribing each other's soldiers to change sides before any real battles can happen. If great powers would leave the place alone for fifty years, maybe something better would come along, but in the meantime it's all just wishful thinking.

The Afghani economy, outside of opium and pot production, doesn't really exist. Subsistence agriculture, a little wheat. . . there's just no there there. No platoon of Marines, however well-trained and well-intentioned, is going to fix that fundamental problem.

What they can do is kill a bunch of people for no good reason. And that, their training and intentions notwithstanding, is what they will do.