Friday, July 24, 2009

Working the frame

Two points with respect to Aaro's latest.

1. Here's a conversation you never, ever hear in the world of business (or at least, not in functional organisations), but which you get in politics all the time. It's practically definitive of the difference in attitudes.

A: "It is impossible for this project to succeed"

B: "But if it fails, the consequences will be terrible"

A: "OK, it isn't impossible then".

(I have made this point a lot of times on AW, I know, sorry).




2. More importantly, Aaro is not being straight or serious here in his framing of the issue. He's written it as if there were two options:

a) maintain our presence in Afghanistan

b) leave Afghanistan.

But actually, there's a third

c) massively increase our presence in Afghanistan

Ignoring c) is precisely the evasiveness and refusal to face up that he's accusing his opponents of. All of his arguments about the terrible state of Afghanistan, the danger of the Taliban and the necessity of victory, are arguments for c), not a). He doesn't have a convincing argument to the effect that the battle against the Taliban can be won with the current level of resources, so he should be arguing for a very large increase, the kind that would require either a material increase in the rate of income tax or cuts in other government spending. Aaro is, specifically, not spelling out the (political) costs of doing Afghanistan properly.

His final paragraph appears to explicitly rule out c), with a rather flippant remark about "dead teenagers". As far as I can tell, General Aaronovitch's strategy for the Afghan War is simple attrition; to wait it out with our current forces, trust in our national resolve, and assume that we are more committed to our vision of the political future of Afghanistan than the Taliban (who live there) are committed to theirs. History's usually not kind to this kind of general.

(and note that of course, this column was written about a zillion times between 1963 and 1972 about Vietnam)

18 Comments:

Anonymous Phil said...

There's also something seriously dishonest about that neat little conclusion -

the goers refuse to spell out the consequences of their advocacy, while the stayers must live with the constant price exacted by theirs.

Brave "stayers", cowardly "goers"! Except that he's comparing a known - a situation that's actually happening - with an unknown. The "stayers" have no choice but to acknowledge what's actually happening (apart from lying); while the "goers" have half a dozen different strategies for what the West should actually do about Afghanistan (united only by the words 'not this'), and in the nature of things can't know what the consequences of any of those strategies would be.

It's ultimately very conservative, this mindset - you get the feeling he's going to start talking about the realities of power in a minute.

7/24/2009 01:38:00 PM  
Anonymous gastro george said...

I can't help feeling that the current brooha about resources is less to do with "backing our boys" (TM) than the generals deciding that (c) is not politically feasible, the time for (a) will run out shortly, and the need to establish some reasons for (b), i.e. "it wasn't our fault".

7/24/2009 03:03:00 PM  
Anonymous organic cheeseboard said...

Also includes the typical Decent straw man argument:

Here is a paraphrase of a typical withdrawalist prospectus: failure is inevitable, intervention was historically pre-doomed, the idea of “Western-style democracy” in Afghanistan is a delusion, in any case there is mission creep, we are only there to please the Americans, sooner or later the Taleban will win, better to get out. And that’s it. As for what happens next, let’s not go there.

also - what was that about Aaro and lying? He says:

The New Statesman magazine a week ago reminded its readers that it had opposed the invasion of Afghanistan back in the autumn of 2001, but failed to remind them of what it had advocated instead.

But look what we have here!

In the wake of the 11 September 2001 atrocities, there were few who denied the western alliance the right to some form of armed response. This magazine advocated launching commando raids with the specific aim of capturing Osama Bin Laden and destroying al-Qaeda camps.

He goes on:

If, pace Lord Malloch-Brown, Afghanistan is not a big external security threat right now, that is precisely because our young men and women are fighting and dying in Helmand.

...so we need to invade Pakistan too?

and what does it end with? why, aaro's report of the opinions of a few troops he's heard interviewed. no quotations, obviously, but a lot of 'they seem to'.

Our young soldiers seem to realise that a people cannot advance if half its number — the half that brings the children into the world — is, in effect, held in ignorant, violent and unhealthy servitude.

But - to reiterate a point on the other thread - the US-backed government has tried to bring in laws legalising rape. aaro can drone on all he wants about 'some observers on the Left whose insouciance on this point is literally sickening' but as SplinteredSunrise says:

This is where Decents suffer from a common liberal fallacy - they identify the democratic process with liberal outcomes, and their brains can't process it when democracy gives you illiberal outcomes.

Aaro brushes over this with part of his straw-man argument - ridicules the idea that 'the idea of “Western-style democracy” in Afghanistan is a delusion' - but although some might think that, surely the big problem is actually that western-style democracy might not see the Afghan equivalent of Obama elected - indeed, it hasn't. and when Afghanistan's govt does try to introduce this law, what happens? the US and other countries force it to back down. not sure how democratic that is.

7/24/2009 04:26:00 PM  
Blogger ejh said...

My view is that the consequences either of staying or of going are really the responsibility of the people wh owere keen on going i nthe first palce and staying as long as this. Yo ucreate a disaster, it's not up to other people to tell you how to get out an impossible sitation that you created.

I can't imagine any good outcomes for Afghanistan from here. But I couldn't imagine any good outcomes of the invasion. That's why I was against it.

It also reminds me very much of the "well, all right, if you're against invasion what are you going to do about Saddam?" question, to which the only acceptable answer was "be in favour of invasion".

It's weaselly, it really is.

7/24/2009 05:03:00 PM  
Anonymous Bunbury said...

But raising point c) would also raise the question of what on earth we have been doing for the last 8 years and why we didn't escalate sooner.

7/24/2009 05:19:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There are presumably an infinite number of potential strategies for Afghanistan, but as I've never been to Afghanistan and I don't have access to key political and military information (how many soldiers are available, how many helicopters are available, how much this would cost etc etc) I'm in no position to propose anything. For me the only two alternatives are a) and b).

The present a) doesn't make sense. No-one has been able to explain the objectives and what the strategy is to achieve them. Therefore I favour b). It is up to people like Aaro to propose some version of a) that makes sense: if they cannot then we shouldn't be there.

By the way: I have been at various meetings and seminars about Afghanistan, and even people from DfID and FCO agree that a western-style democracy in Afghaistan is a very distant prospect.

7/24/2009 05:35:00 PM  
Blogger Chardonnay Chap said...

I've an awful lot to say about some of this. Aaro really does seem to assume that 'Western style democracy' will always select the most progressive/least corrupt candidate. It didn't: a) Thatcher/Callaghan; b) Reagan/Carter; c) Bush/Gore d) Berlusconi/anyone. Democracy makes good decisions more likely; but it's more like 60/40 that 100/0. (One question I really want answered: was Victorian Britain under, say, Disraeli a democracy? No votes for women or most of the populace; public executions; terrible conditions for most people.)

The Taliban don't and can't control most of Afghanistan. They control certain regions, the size of which can swell and ebb, but they'll never be a national power. That's like imagining Scotland run by Rangers supporters. There are quite a lot of them and they're extremely vocal, but they're concentrated in one place and they're hardly the intellectual creme de la creme.

And it's all very well sneering at commando raids and missile strikes, but Clinton kicked OBL out of Somali that way.

I also think Aaro is wrong about nation-building. I'll always be impressed by post-WWII Germany and Japan. But that took dedication, willpower, and serious planning. All of which were missing from the start in Afghanistan and Iraq. I don't think anything like the Marshall plan could ever have worked in Afghanistan, but Iraq had an educated, secular, materialist middle class keen to swell its ranks and affluence. It had universities and infrastructure. I never bought the Hitchens' "regime change" thing: it mostly seemed to mean "kick Saddam out and [miracle happens here] a hundred flowers will bloom". But I do believe that Iraq could have, in time, become something like the sort of democracy AW readers would at least not boycott. Well, Bush and Blair cocked that right up.

7/24/2009 08:31:00 PM  
Blogger Bruschettaboy said...

One question I really want answered: was Victorian Britain under, say, Disraeli a democracy? No votes for women or most of the populace; public executions; terrible conditions for most people.

and, as George Orwell points out, ruling over a thin one billion Africans and Indians who were about a zillion miles away from having a vote.

7/24/2009 09:10:00 PM  
Blogger Alex said...

The problem with c) is that adding resources isn't necessarily or even obviously the way to success. General Harkins said that what the Vietnam War needed was the three Ms - Men, Materiel, and Money. DePuy said that the solution in Vietnam was more bombs, more shells and more napalm until the enemy cracks and gives up.

7/25/2009 12:43:00 AM  
Blogger ejh said...

That's like imagining Scotland run by Rangers supporters. There are quite a lot of them and they're extremely vocal, but they're concentrated in one place

Eh?

7/25/2009 06:26:00 AM  
Blogger Mr Kitty said...

Hmmm

"That's like imagining Scotland run by Rangers supporters. There are quite a lot of them and they're extremely vocal, but they're concentrated in one place"

That wouldn't get my AW simile of the month award either CC.

7/25/2009 08:34:00 AM  
Anonymous organic cheeseboard said...

Just remembered this bit, which passed without comment:

If the lessons of history tell us of the dangers of intervention, they also tell us something just as important about hit-and-run — something visible in the lost statues of Bamiyan, the executed of the Kabul football stadium, the murder of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the reduction of women to the status of slaves — no, lower than slaves — the spread of jihadism and the fall of the twin towers.

what exactly is he suggesting here?

7/26/2009 08:17:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"That's like imagining Scotland run by Rangers supporters"

It mainly was until the 80's (although the Rangers supporters concerned were of the upper class variety)

Sonic

7/26/2009 10:31:00 AM  
Blogger ejh said...

Perhaps another point worth making would be this: that while there may at various times be good arguments for supporting this war or that, their being a stick with which to beat the left is never, ever, one of them.

7/27/2009 09:34:00 AM  
Anonymous ichomobothogogus said...

If the lessons of history tell us of the dangers of intervention, they also tell us something just as important about hit-and-run — something visible in the lost statues of Bamiyan, the executed of the Kabul football stadium, the murder of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the reduction of women to the status of slaves — no, lower than slaves — the spread of jihadism and the fall of the twin towers.

surely these were all "dangers of intervention" too. after all the jihadis and their guns and international terrorist networks didnt come out of nowhere, and the Taliban wasn't exactly short of international backers in their heyday. If you're genuinely worried about crazed religious fanatics seizing control of countries, perhaps the best solution is not to throw money at them for 20 years.
also interesting that he seems to think the assassination of a murderous warlord is morally equivalent to the enslavement of women and mass executions of innocent civilians. wasn't Masoud a Jihadi too?

7/27/2009 10:32:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Organic Cheeseboard asks what Aaro is trying to say in his paragraph about hit-and-run. I think that he is referring to the fact that the USA lost interest in Afghanistan after the USSR pulled out of Afghanistan, and then there were some horrible results. It is interesting to note that Aaro's examples all have something to do with the Taliban, and that he skips over the period between the withdrawal of the USSR and the coming to power of the Taliban: he seems to be suggesting that the USA should have stayed in the late 1980s to fight the Taliban, even though the Taliban didn't exist in then. Really horrific things happened as well between the withdrawal of the USSR and the rise of the Taliban.

The way that the USA destabilised Afghanistan and then did nothing to restabilise it is a scandal. But that probably would have meant the USA supporting Najibullah, which would have been interesting!

7/27/2009 10:54:00 AM  
Anonymous organic cheeseboard said...

i see, that kind of makes sense. I thought he was talking about how bad it was or Russia to pull out, which would make very, very little sense. but i blame the subbing and/or writing for that misreading, natch. I guess he's going for the same kind of cop-out as the ending of 'Charlie wilson's war', where IF ONLY the USA had given tons and tons and tons of cash to the Afghans, maybe 9/11 wouldn't have happened, or something. it's very much the easy way out of the issue.

by the way, 'The Wasted Vigil' is a very good recent novel about Afghanistan...

7/27/2009 01:00:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Update (Aug 8th): "UK troops could be in Afghanistan for 40 years". Without firing a shot, presumably.

Guano

8/08/2009 12:16:00 PM  

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