The further to the left or the right you move, the more your lens on life distorts.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009


Some problems are intractable (that is, they have no solution). Such problems are typically defined by a large set of parameters that must each be addressed individually. At the same time, all parameters must be addressed collectively. In many cases, addressing one parameter successfully only makes another more difficult to solve.

Afghanistan is like that. In order to solve the Afghanistan problem, many parameters must be solved: (1) a primitive, tribal culture, (2) a populace that embraces extreme Islamist thought and has instantiated Sharia Law at its worst, (3) a corrupt and often violent collection of local war lords who cannot be negotiated with or trusted, (4) an economy that is predominantly driven by the heroin trade, (5) a harsh topography that makes military movement difficult and sometimes impossible, (6) a non-existent infrastructure, (7) a corrupt and unfriendly government, (8) a porous border, and of course, (9) the hyperviolent Taliban.

In an ideal world, we select one parameter at a time, “solving” each and then moving to the next. But when one parameter is solved, we exacerbate others. For example, we try to eliminate Taliban leaders, but any collateral damage that occurs as a consequence alienates a populace that sympathetic to Jihadists in any event.

George Will addresses the Afghanistan “problem” in a widely discussed column:
The U.S. strategy is "clear, hold and build." Clear? Taliban forces can evaporate and then return, confident that U.S. forces will forever be too few to hold gains. Hence nation-building would be impossible even if we knew how, and even if Afghanistan were not the second-worst place to try: The Brookings Institution ranks Somalia as the only nation with a weaker state.

Military historian Max Hastings says Kabul controls only about a third of the country -- "control" is an elastic concept -- and " 'our' Afghans may prove no more viable than were 'our' Vietnamese, the Saigon regime." Just 4,000 Marines are contesting control of Helmand province, which is the size of West Virginia. The New York Times reports a Helmand official saying he has only "police officers who steal and a small group of Afghan soldiers who say they are here for 'vacation.' " Afghanistan's $23 billion gross domestic product is the size of Boise's. Counterinsurgency doctrine teaches, not very helpfully, that development depends on security, and that security depends on development. Three-quarters of Afghanistan's poppy production for opium comes from Helmand. In what should be called Operation Sisyphus, U.S. officials are urging farmers to grow other crops. Endive, perhaps?

Even though violence exploded across Iraq after, and partly because of, three elections, Afghanistan's recent elections were called "crucial." To what? They came, they went, they altered no fundamentals, all of which militate against American "success," whatever that might mean. Creation of an effective central government? Afghanistan has never had one. U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry hopes for a "renewal of trust" of the Afghan people in the government, but the Economist describes President Hamid Karzai's government -- his vice presidential running mate is a drug trafficker -- as so "inept, corrupt and predatory" that people sometimes yearn for restoration of the warlords, "who were less venal and less brutal than Mr. Karzai's lot."

Because Afghanistan presents the United States and the Obama Administration with an intractable problem, we can’t solve it. In the extreme, our only real choice is to manage it.

But what does management really mean in this context? It means developing a strategy for extricating ourselves from the Afghani cesspool. This won’t solve the problem, but as I indicated, the problem is intractable.

I’m afraid that I must agree with Will when he states: “Genius, said de Gaulle, recalling Bismarck's decision to halt German forces short of Paris in 1870, sometimes consists of knowing when to stop.”

President Obama will show real leadership if he demonstrates that he knows when to stop, even if a political firestorm erupts as a consequence. If he’s as smart as his supporters suggest, it would seem reasonable to expect that he can recognize an intractable problem when he sees one.