Sunday, September 13, 2009

Mything Afghanistan

Colin Kenny, the leading Canadian senator on Defense matters, called for a retreat from Afghanistan in today's paper. Obviously, there can be merit in such an argument. Last month, I blogged about why NATO should stick around and I wrote an op-ed in the Globe and Mail that received heaps of attention (critical, that is) for arguing that the mission in Afghanistan actually matched Canadian values and interests.

What drives me crazy about Kenny's argument is not the conclusion but how he got there--by repeating the same myths that everyone else does. So, let me focus some attention on these (I already blogged about the myth about how long we have been doing COIN):

  • No one has ever won in Afghanistan. The British were initially defeated, yes. The Soviet Union was defeated. But the British came back and did serve as the colonial power for quite some time. And then there was a government in Afghanistan for decades. This is very similar to the ancient hatreds argument to justify non-intervention in the Balkans. Violence always varies, and there are always periods of peace. We would be better off understanding this and trying to figure out what conditions were associated with the peaceful periods than ignoring those eras entirely.
  • Afghanistan is the "Graveyard of Empires." That is, not only do great powers lose in Afghanistan, but it hurts them so badly that the empire falls apart. Well, it is pretty hard to trace the end of the British Empire in the early 1900s to a lost battle in the first half of the 1800s. Indeed, after the British were defeated in 1842, the empire expanded significantly in between India and England--the Middle East and Africa. While the Soviet Union was damaged by the war in Afghanistan, it is fallacious to think that the war caused the USSR to disintegrate (but join Bin Laden in that club). The Soviet Union faced a variety of stresses and strains due to its economy (which began to fail in the 1970s), the costs of subsidizing similarly failing economies in Eastern Europe, a bankrupt ideology, and a geriatric political strata.
  • Perhaps most importantly, that war is a process by which victories steadily accumulate. The advanced democracies are incredibly impatient, expecting victory within hours (like the Kosovo bombing campaign), when even conventional wars last years and when victories are followed by defeats which are followed by victories. Lincoln had to wait for Gettysburg to emancipate the slaves since he wanted to do it after a victory. The Allies lost their first real battle with the Germans in North Africa at Kasserine in 1942. The Italian campaign was really a series of defeats for the Allies throughout 1943 and 1944. If the invasion of Normandy happened today, I wonder what the media and the politicians would make of being stuck for more than a month on the beachhead.
  • One last myth or, more accurately, false logic: the price paid thus far in lives and money should neither be a justification for continuing (sunk costs) or a reason to depart, as they costs have already been paid. To make decisions about tomorrow, we should use the best information we have about the costs and benefits going forward.
My previous posts revealed my doubts about the mission, but progress in a counter-insurgency campaign is not going to be steady. The opponents do get a vote in how things progress, and violence was expected to increase as the US increased its troops on the ground.

Progress on the governance side of the effort is the key, and we are right to be disappointed by recent events. We can be skeptical about the effort, but let's do so in an informed way, rather than just repeating the false myths.

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