Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Who Should Apologize to Whom?

The reports about the bilateral agreement between the US and Afghanistan that would allow American troops (and other western countries essentially) have suggested that President Hamid Karzai would support the agreement if President Obama apologized or admitted mistakes in the conduct of the war.

This, of course, has produced a reaction or two, given that President Karzai might have a lot of gall to be asking of this given that more than three thousand outsiders (Americans, Danes, Canadians, etc) gave their lives to help the Afghan government.  On the other hand, Obama just apologized for Obamacare's rollout which has yet to produce any real collateral damage, unlike the American and ISAF efforts in Afghanistan.

So, should Obama admit the US made mistakes in Afghanistan?  Well, did the US make mistakes in Afghanistan?  Here are some that might come up?
  • Not committing enough and getting distracted by a war elsewhere?  Apologizing for Bush's mistakes can be fun.
  • Changing commanders and thus strategies as if they were tires.  
  • Awful organization of the chain of command so that unity of effort, even just among the Americans, was damned near impossible with all kinds of SOF out there doing stuff that ran counter to the NATO effort. Oh, and having the Marines have their own chain of command was pretty bad.
  • Speaking of the Marines, how about surging into the wrong place?
  • Not doing enough to coordinate the efforts in the various provinces, as each provincial reconstruction team was doing its own thing, often not coordinating with the Afghans.
  • Letting the Germans do the police training at first even though their restrictions meant that they really could not mentor them (see the forthcoming book).
  • Inconsistent efforts to reduce collateral damage.  
  • Not such good accountability for officers who made bad decisions.  What happened to those commanders that put American troops into places like Wanat where they could do little good but yet antagonize the locals and get themselves killed. 
The military will certainly do a Lessons Learned exercise after the war is over (well, they are probably doing it now), which will identify things that could have been done better.  Those things would be called mistakes.  And we can admit that, can't we?  Isn't the US a secure enough nation to say: "we tried hard, but we made some mistakes along the way?"

On the other hand, having to admit mistakes to Karzai is kind of like telling Rob Ford that you are sorry for having a couple of extra drinks.  Karzai, too, could admit a few mistakes, including:
  • Running against the war instead of taking ownership of it.  The ISAF troops are there supporting his government.  He could have certainly pointed out mistakes, but should have done more leadership than that.  "These foreign troops are fighting for our people--we need to support them as they support us."  Where was that?
  • Perhaps he could have tried to turn the rapaciousness amongst his agents from 11 on a scale of 1 to 10 down to a 7 or so.  What people do not appreciate is that Karzai had the ability to hire and fire government officials all the way down to the district level.  Imagine if Stephen Harper could fire Rob Ford or Obama could fire the Mayor of city x.  This is a heap of power, which means that Karzai could have influenced the level of corruption without eliminating it and without harming his own political position.  
    • I am not suggesting that he could have or should have eliminated corruption--just find an optimal level whereby government officials could profit from their jobs but in ways that did not undermine the war effort so much.  
  • Perhaps let the institutions work things out just a bit.  He didn't need to steal the 2009 election--he was going to win anyway.  
Everyone in and near Afghanistan has made mistakes.  Admitting that reality is not a sign of weakness but of maturity.  Which is why I find it typical but frustrating that the Canadian government is sitting on its own lessons learned report.

So, if American interests indicate that the US should stick around awhile longer (and that can be debated), I don't think it would be that hard for the President of the U.S. to say: we could have done this better.  Of course, Karzai is unlikely to do the same.  But if the US wants to be there beyond Karzai, then this is a pretty low price to pay.  If we do not want to be there, then screw him and send the troops home.  The issue of staying or leaving should hang on American and NATO interests and not on this relatively irrelevant demand.  If it gives Karzai yet more cover (as if he needs it), then whatever.

The only lesson I have learned from this bargaining process between the US and Karzai is that I really need to read Jennifer Lind's books on Apologies and IR.

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