Saturday, October 11, 2008

Now you're talking smack...

Every so often, someone says something about the `forgotten war' in Afghanistan.  I didn't realize, but there are 50000 troops in Afghanistan right now,  with some countries sending more soon.  It also looks like there is going to be some mission creep, with NATO forces now targeting the drug trade.  The Taliban insurgency is now making $100 million a year providing Europe with 90 per cent of its heroin.  Mission creep is almost never a good idea.  In Somalia in 1992-93, UNITAF did a pretty good job at doing what it was tasked to do by the UN Security Council - provide a secure environment for the delivery of humanitarian aid.  When UNITAF was replaced by UNOSOM II and the mandate changed to the establishment of state institutions, it was the inadequate trying to solve the insurmountable.  I can't see a good end to the Afghanistan war if victory or success is going to be judged by how much Afghanistan looks like Denmark in 2010.  I don't want to succumb to the wickedness of patriotism, but it seems to me that the Brits have a more pragmatic view of the matter:

The British commander on the ground, Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith, warned this week it would be impossible to defeat the Taliban and even suggested that dialogue be opened with some sections of the Taliban.

That is a Realism I can appreciate; prescriptive/normative outlook rather than analytical position.  If this seems like `defeat' to anybody, this kind of decision sounds like the `divide-and-rule' strategy that was so effective in colonizing India (whether you think that was a good idea or not).  The recent book Failing to Win: Perceptions of Victory and Defeat in International Politics, the winner of the ISA Best Book Award for 2008, focuses on situations where objective measures do not line up with subjective perceptions of victory or defeat.  One of the points to come out of that was that defining victory beyond your capacity to deliver invites disappointment and other negative outcomes, like loss of office for leaders.  There may be rhetorical limits to what can be claimed for Afghanistan, but it seems to me that if the drug trade in the US, UK and other states with high capacity, no language barrier and relatively compliant population is resistant to policing, it can only be worse in the 7th most failed state in the world. 

Add to this the conclusions of a US State Department report in 2002, in which it said that the Taleban regime both cut heroin production by 95% and was financed by it (I say, that's a bit rummy, what?), and I am left unable to choose between several overlapping possibilities:

1) The Taleban are both ideologically opposed to and materially dependent on heroin production, and are daily wringing their hands over their ill-gotten gains,
2) The opium production is not actually being run by an organized group of ex-islamic studies students,
3) The US/NATO are trying to delegitimize the warlords they are not friends with in Afghanistan by saying they are both Islamic fundamentalists and drug kingpins
4) The US/NATO don't really know what is going on or what to do about it. 

I'd like to point out that I don't have a clear plan for victory either.  However, if the developed nations are running out of cash by giving it all away (viz Davy's bailout posts), maybe soon we won't be able to afford foreign expeditions like this for much longer.  

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