July 29, 2009

About that Friedman piece

Old Blue, formerly of Bill and Bob, now of Afghan Quest, takes on Michael Cohen for taking on Thomas Friedman, and his little anecdote of happy schoolgirls in one of the safer Afghanistan provinces. Still tracking? Okay.

Look, I grok what Michael Cohen is saying, that having impoverished girl-children is not a necessary condition for military intervention. Because there's lots of them. Check. Got it.

Small problem, though: we're not in Friedman's construct debating a new intervention. We're not debating intervening militarily in another hypothetical country. He's debating (at least within his own mind) the moral choice of leaving the Afghans to their own devices, giving up. And he's finding that after seeing some Afghans, now he can't easily advocate abandoning them. That's a little different. Because by that act of discontinuing, we are making a new moral choice, one that will be affecting the lives of lots of little Afghan girls and boys. The moral onus on us is different, simply because we're already there in situ.

Yes, there's a sunk-cost fallacy lurking in that line of argument. I know it. (Also an aphorism about birds and hands.) But, when it comes to evaluating the moral choice of leaving Afghanistan, it is not valid to discount any death and suffering that this would cause Afghans by saying that, hey, there's lots of death and suffering in other places, too.

Analogy: you're in a lifeboat, rescuing drowning swimmers. The first person you rescue is injured/tired/whatever and needs your full attention, so now you can't keep going and save other people, too. Under what conditions would you kick that person out of the boat to drown and try to rescue someone else instead? And is that not at least a somewhat different kind of choice than choosing which of two equidistant swimmers to rescue would be?

There are virtues to walking away now. There are also costs, costs which can be mitigated through different choices on our part. Friedman is not wrong to be keeping those costs front of mind, and to encourage us to keep doing so, as well.

Posted by BruceR at 05:40 PM

Exum on Kandahar

WPR asked Triage author and recent McChrystal consultant Andrew "Abu Muqawama" Exum what left him pessimistic from his recent Afghanistan trip:

One word: Kandahar. Keep in mind that I was in one of the first waves of soldiers to go into Afghanistan, in early 2002. And what was shocking for me was the degree to which we still do not understand this country that we've been in for the past eight years. What frustrated me more than anything else is that I don't think we have a good understanding of what is going on in the city of Kandahar, which is quite possibly the most strategically important city in Afghanistan. Our intelligence and the way that we gather intelligence continues to be focused on the enemy. What we need to know to be successful in Afghanistan is not just the size, disposition and composition of the Quetta Shura Taliban, or the Haqqani network, but we need to understand local dynamics. We need to make good social network maps, we need to understand power brokers at every level, we need to understand how regional power brokers interact with the insurgency, with the government, what their business ties are. And we really don't have much visibility on that.

It's hard to see that as anything other than a disparagement by a highly placed American authority of Canadian military intelligence efforts. Offered without comment. (I do agree with his comments in the same interview with regard to the consequences of overfocussing on force protection and the need to accelerate ANSF training efforts, though.)

Posted by BruceR at 04:01 PM