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May 14, 2010

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"Sustainable" end state?

That would be feuding warlords, each with their own little patch of territory and subjects.

It's easy to get to that state...just GTFO, but leave behind lots of small arms and ammo.

take the infamous "government in a box"

There are moments in any given discussion when you realize that there's not much point in going any further, your interlocutor's head is so far up his or her behind that the game is over.

Or maybe nobody's head is up their butt, the situation is just so freaking FUBAR that talking about a solution is like talking about how best to reassemble a clock radio that you accidentally ran over in the driveway.

Throw in the towel and call it day, cos it's all over.

When I first heard the phrase "government in a box", I had the sinking feeling that that moment had arrived. I say that with all due respect to McChrystal, because he's a guy who was handed a big box of festering turds and told that his mission was to turn them into a lovely, delicious apple pie.

Nonetheless. "Goverment in a box"? We're screwed.

We're going to dick around over there until everybody gets sufficiently sick of it that the political cost of bailing out is less than the political cost of staying. As soon as that moment arises, we are going to declare, not victory exactly, but some version of "mission accomplished", and then we're going to cut the Afghans loose.

I put that moment about five years out, approximately 15 years after 9/11. Might be sooner, might be later. When that moment arrives, Afghanistan is going to look approximately like it looks right now, and like it's looked for the last five years.

Then, after we leave, the Afghans will sort their own situation out.

Government in a box.

It is essentially a function that we should try and have some skill. Whether it is a natural disaster like Haiti, or a deposed enemy, or a failed state, there are times it is in our interest to be able to deliver governance as part of a package.

I don't think Afghanistan is a laboratory where we will find success, but I don't discount the concept. Having trained and ready skeleton teams of leaders ready to expand quickly and train/develop workers (indigenous or otherwise) works in other areas. Military reserve units have worked that way for decades (trained leaders ready for conscript or new enlistees).


Teams with knowledgable people about power, water, waste treatment, disease, policing, infrastructure, that could rapidly assist or replace local government...has to be a good idea, even if not always able to achieve the mission.

russell: We're going to dick around over there until everybody gets sufficiently sick of it that the political cost of bailing out is less than the political cost of staying. As soon as that moment arises, we are going to declare, not victory exactly, but some version of "mission accomplished", and then we're going to cut the Afghans loose.

Sounds like what seemed to be happening with Iraq, only I have the feeling that U.S. personnel are never going to leave there. Ever. It's become a self-perpetuating enterprise... and this president is as unwilling as all the others to face the truth, much less tell it to the public.

jrudkis: I was having a beer with some foreign policy think tank denizens a couple weeks back, and one item of general consensus was that Afghanistan was a particularly bad laboratory for any number of pet theories (be they in making war, delivering aid or nation building).

FWIW.

...as was Iraq before it. Plus ça change, and all that.

We're going to dick around over there until everybody gets sufficiently sick of it that the political cost of bailing out is less than the political cost of staying.

It's really too bad that the political costs carry so much more weight than all the other costs put together. Whatever happened to reality? It's as though the physical world were just words and pictures on paper, secondary to more important things, like the things going on in peoples' heads and what comes out of their mouths. The fog of war, the fog of group-think, the fog of institutional inertia, the fog of political cowardice, the fog of American exceptionalism - all of these seem to be blinding our leaders.

This year alone, the United States is planning to spend upwards of $100 billion in Afghanistan in operations, almost 10 times the amount of Afghanistan's GDP of $12 billion.

I mean, WTF? For what?

I don't discount the concept.

jrudkis, many thanks for the thoughtful reply.

I completely agree that establishing basic, essential services -- water, power, roads, waste treatment, basic security -- is a great idea, and often a necessary element of achieving our broader goals.

Those things aren't governance, they are services. They are services normally provided by a government, so I suppose there is a sense in which you could think of them as "government in a box". If that's all McChrystal intended by the phrase, perhaps I do him an injustice by responding so negatively.

But either way, basic essential services are not the same as government. They have about the same relationship to government as, frex, being able to walk up a flight of stairs without passing out has to being in good health.

A huge amount of the foreign policy of this country since (at least) WWII has been driven by the idea that we can engineer other people's polities into forms we find congenial. Sometimes it's well-meaning, sometimes it's absolutely not well-meaning. Either way, with the possible exceptions of Germany and Japan after WWII, I can't think of a case where it was particularly successful, and where it didn't result in generations of resentment toward us from the countries involved.

If you want to help, help. But if your idea of "help" is "re-engineer another country's political and social culture", help is probably not going to be the result.

Katulis begins his piece by asking two questions, one of which is "what is the desired sustainable end state in Afghanistan?". To me, as soon as you ask that question, you're screwed, because it assumes that the end state in Afghanistan is something that is under our control, or even something about which our opinion is even relevant.

The relevant question is "What do the Afghans want?".

If what the Afghans want is to kill all the Americans they can get in range of, or to provide safe harbor for other folks who have that goal, we have every right to make it clear to them that pursuing that path will cost them more than they probably want to pay.

But I don't think that's actually what the Afghans want.

The longer we involve ourselves in Afghanistan's internal politics, the longer Americans are going to keep getting killed there, and I'm not sure we're getting anything out of it anymore.

In the future, people will be born with Microsoft® Windows® Gestalt® 7.0 pre-installed. When a person's behavior exceeds set parameters, pressing the left mastoid bone will initiate a reboot.

"Government in a box"-some assembly required; batteries not included.

Truly, a metaphor for futility. Leave. Leave now.

Perhaps if the stark and uncompromising challenges of remaking Afghanistan in our image were confronted, analyzed and processed at the onset, and the limitations of our Afghan mission were enunciated, "settling" for something less than a radical reordering of Afghan society wouldn't appear like such a defeat to Obama administration officials.

Where's the data point illustrating that it does? I take Katulis to be saying not that the stated end-goal is unattainable and needs to be (embarrassingly) walked back, but rather that there simply isn't a coherent stated goal for the effort. That is certainly a sharp critique, but it doesn't seem to match the one you favor: that the endpoint goal is all too clear -- and preposterously ambitious. The operational problem with that situation is as you suggest: there is a major political problem standing between current engagement and desired disengagement, namely failure to achieve stated ends. The operational problem with the situation as Katulis diagnoses it is quite a different one, however: it's that we won't know when we've accomplished our task. This is a very different kind of problem for policymakers, and in some sense from the political perspective may be far more feature than bug. While it should certainly bother the earnest policymaker not to have clear stated goals for the effort, for the political decision maker faced with certain knowledge that support for the effort is finite and disengagement without disaster or national shame above all the preferred outcome to the country, the idea that there is little that is specifically stated to be necessary for success would be a definite plus.

Your analysis of stated goals may very well be more accurate on the record than Katulis', but then you seem to have a vested interest in that being the operating problem with the policy: overambition and the accompanying necessary political humiliation. Though statements to that effect may back you up technically, I think pieces like this from insiders like Katulis are a decent indicator that the necessary goalpost moving that you suggest will be such a heavy lift politically is in fact already well under way (and likely has been since even before the statements of ambition you would reference to make your case were made publicly), and can be done much more imperceptibly to the public, and therefore easily politically than you are suggesting.

July, 2011.

...I should hasten to add this: There is, of course, no covering up outright failure to achieve any positive result or of course of defeat, which are things that look entirely plausible at this point. And the real cost of having initially identified overinflated objectives will come into view not when they are walked back, but rather if or when it were to become clear that the strategy that was set for the overall effort was influenced by those fantastic objectives in such a way as to make later adjustments to it designed to pursue more realistic objectives far more difficult or indeed impossible to execute.

Your analysis of stated goals may very well be more accurate on the record than Katulis', but then you seem to have a vested interest in that being the operating problem with the policy: overambition and the accompanying necessary political humiliation.

Vested interest? How so?

Though statements to that effect may back you up technically, I think pieces like this from insiders like Katulis are a decent indicator that the necessary goalpost moving that you suggest will be such a heavy lift politically is in fact already well under way (and likely has been since even before the statements of ambition you would reference to make your case were made publicly), and can be done much more imperceptibly to the public, and therefore easily politically than you are suggesting.

I sure hope so. That has been my hope all along, as I've written for well over a year now. In the meantime, the ditch is being dug deeper, however - both literally and rhetorically.

Russell,

Thanks. I see the difference you are talking about (the method and form of governing), but it seems to me that "government" is all about who controls essential services. Who cares who is the mayor if he doesn't control anything? It would be like figure-head "royalty" where the actual work of government is performed by someone else. They would be inconsequential.

I think weak governments face this issue with NGO's too: if the population doesn't rely on government for services but instead on NGO's, who is really in charge? And if it not the government, the vacuum allows for other actors to sieze control.

This is also why it is a big deal that the Taliban is providing services like courts in some areas. Service providing tends to be a marker of a succesful insurgency: not simply disrupting, but replacing gonverment services.

This is also why it is a big deal that the Taliban is providing services like courts in some areas. Service providing tends to be a marker of a succesful insurgency: not simply disrupting, but replacing gonverment services.

Maybe the Taliban is going to be the government in some parts of Afghanistan, whether we like it or not. Maybe they already *are* the government in some parts of Afghanistan, whether we like it or not.

Russell,

That is probably true, and why I don't think Afghanistan is the place for "Government in a Box" operations. There is simply nothing we can accomplish there.

You *seem* invested in the inevitability of that political outcome to that policy error, whatever your interest in it, I mean. It's at the center of all that you write about the problem, and now you make the humiliation aspect of a walkback explicit, though it has always been implicit.

...also, I really have not read you to be taking at all seriously the possibilities that either a) public statements can have been read to comprehend a broader range of realistic outcomes than might immediately be thought, or b) whatever public statements might indicate, there has been realistic thinking and adjustment to what is feasible going on in the councils of government throughout. I don't recall much stated hope on that front either. I just recall you constantly going in for the most maximal understanding of what the stated objectives entail (even now, it's supposedly, "remaking Afghanistan in our image"). I don't recall all this 'hope' on that score that you say you've displayed.

I've linked on several occasions to my hope that Obama is attempting to "tilt the battlefield" to make conditions ideal for withdrawal.

While that is my hope, I'm left to deal with the world as it is, and the empirical analysis thereof. Which has entailed a troop buildup, coupled with the enunciation of grandiose goals. In Obama's defense, the stated goals preceded him. The troop buildup did not.

The troop buildup was all but guaranteed by the themes of the 2008 presidential election; the grandiose talk is a simple requirement for rallying public support for war. That is not a defense of either thing. But it does suggest there is much room to reason speculatively and from reporting about how real thinking and planning among policy makers has proceeded and evolved, IMO.

Atrios has an interesting link to a piece by Kevin Drum.

True Mike. There is always room for such hope. And, on numerous occasions, I have written about my hope. I do, however, also write about my fears. They co-exist.

Thanks Sapient. Saw that. File that one under "Hope."

I certainly don't read every post as closely as I could, so I'll just say I'm glad to hear you allow for the possibility that more realistic thinking foes on inside the government on this than I had understood you to do. I was pretty tolerant of the general 2009 thrust toward recommitting to the war in Afghanistan b/c it had been such a clearly stated policy of the candidate, and in an optimistic world, I'd like to see us leave something workable behind in Afghanistan (whereas I probably astrategically never cared much what happened in Iraq). So I was willing to take on board ome of the inevitable analytic and strategic shadings needed to make the effort hold together conceptually - because I thought the need to attempt to address our neglect thereto justified it. What will be completely unacceptable to me (and which I admit is likely) is for the next major round of reviews of the effort to be characterized by anything other than, as you say, truly clear-eyed, fact-based assessment. The initial recommit I could support, if impassively. However, if the best efforts of our best men and women, directed by our best minds, have made next to no progress in a year (a major review is set for the winter i understand), then clearly that needs to be a determining fact for our approach going forward from there. Otherwise, we are setting ourselves up for year-by-year recommitment to an extended failure.

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