The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

It’s a minus-sum game

November 4, 2009

The superficiality in the debate on Afghanistan is getting downright absurd. Last week, David Brooks claimed the problem was Obama’s “determination deficit.” This week, the New York Times saw fit to give more space to Fred Kagan who claims that McChrystal’s recommendations will work as long as the administration gets moving on the right political strategy to augment McChrystal’s military strategy.

Let’s face it: Afghanistan today is a minus-sum game. There is no simple set of course corrections that will not have significant downsides. David Sanger’s piece yesterday and the lead editorial in Tuesday’s NYTimes lay out the stark realities. The Times’ editorial identifies no less than 13 different political and security imperatives that the US must get Karzai to do. The US must get Karzai to:

1. build a viable government
2. appoint a new group of ministers and provincial governors
3. reform the Interior Ministry
4. develop better leadership for the agriculture ministry
5. develop better leadership for the energy ministry
6. develop better leadership for private development agencies
7. reach out to the opposition
8. choose competent technocrats for senior jobs
9. break ties with unsavory cronies
10. prosecute General Abdul Rashid Dostum for his crimes
11. cut ties with his brother who is a big player in the opium trade
12. woo mid-level Taliban leaders in from the cold
13. develop a plan to accelerate training of the Afghan security forces.

And as if these were not challenging enough, the Times rightly notes that there is not much time to get this right.

Kagan laments that the administration has not yet developed a list of resources to help persuade Karzai to implement these types of changes. But, take another look at the Times’ list — are there any that either Karzai or the US could address effectively in the short-run and without setting in motion a series of unknowns? The last thing we need is the idea that there are simplistic solutions floating around out there waiting for the administration to find.

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Jon Western has spent the last fifteen years teaching IR in liberal arts colleges at Mount Holyoke College and the Five Colleges in western Massachusetts. He has an eclectic range of intellectual interests but often writes on international security, U.S. foreign policy, military intervention, and human rights. He occasionally shares his thoughts about professional life in liberal arts colleges. In his spare time he coaches middle school soccer, mentors the local high school robotics team, skis, and sails.