Afghanistan 2050 Roundtable Summing-Up

[Other contributors who wish to post any follow-up or further thoughts are welcome to do so.]

I. Moral Clarity

I am posting this on September 11, 2010. We attacked the Taliban regime because they supported and granted havens to America’s enemies. That initial invasion was just.

The Taliban are one of the most vicious and evil enemies America’s soldiers have ever faced. Killing them is just. Our soldiers are on the correct side of the moral equation in this struggle. The Taliban murdered hundreds of thousands of people in the decade they controlled Afghanistan. Destroying their rule was a just cause. Destroying them forever may be beyond our power. But it would be worth doing if it could be done at tolerable cost.

No one else mentioned this moral dimension except me, in the post that began the Roundtable. And I only did so in an update, after an email exchange with our friend Nate, who is actually serving over there.

Whatever the wisdom of our strategy, whatever the outcome of our effort, whatever the ultimate fate of Afghanistan, the enemy was mightily worth killing. Our warriors can have pride in their effort and their cause.

If anyone digs back in 40 years and considers the moral issue, that will still be the correct conclusion.

II. The Roundtable Posts

I initiated this effort because I wanted to think-through the current effort in Afghanistan and I was spinning my wheels. I was seeing all kinds of immediately relevant granularity and not much big-picture thinking. For example, within days of announcing it Gen. McChrystal resigned, an event that dominated the headlines for a few days, but is unlikely to even be a footnote in four decades. For me, personally, the RT was a success. I enjoyed the posts, all of which were good, and some of which were excellent. I believe the whole is superior to the sum of its parts. The RT has given me a better idea of the big picture, and I see that others are thinking along similar lines. I hope the rest of our participants and readers also found it valuable or interesting.

I printed out the RT posts with comments, and re-read the whole thing. It was 107 pages, the scale of a moderately sized book. We had 24 posts by 20 contributors.

Despite the diversity of styles and viewpoints, several themes emerged over the course of the roundtable which overlapped and showed some consensus among our posters.

Among the recurring patterns were the following:

• Many posters made the distinction between deep trends and contingency, the former permitting some degree of prediction, the latter preventing prediction from being more than general in outline.

• Most posters predicted or suggested that the current American effort in Afghanistan would fail.

• Several posters predicted that the Pakistan would not continue to exist.

• Several posters predicted or that Pakistan’s demise would involve the use of nuclear weapons.

• Several posters predicted that Afghanistan’s long term future would be as an economic satellite of China.

• Several posters predicted serious setbacks or decline for the United States in the ensuing decades.

• Several posters noted that the Afghanistan campaign marks an over-reach or a misdirection of American effort.

• A few posters speculated on the long-term effects of the Afghanistan campaign, and the American military venture in Iraq, on the American military.

• Posters were divided on the prospect of Afghanistan culture changing or adapting.

• Virtually no one predicted a happy outcome for America, Afghanistan or Pakistan.

I underlined and made comments in the margins of every post. I could have written a response which incorporated each of them, if I’d had time. I will only be able to discuss a few of them below. I have been carrying around my marked up copy of the RT for a long time now. It is time to type, post, and move on.

A. Deep Trends v. Contingency

In my initial post, I made the distinction between deep trends, which I noted over a 250 year period, and contingencies which make predictions impossible. While contingencies, personalities and “black swans” are inevitable, they are unlikely to completely derail the deep trends. The major contingencies during the quarter-millenium up to 2040, so far, were the Industrial Revolution, the Anglosphere settlement of North America and dominance of the global commons, and the nuclear peace that has pushed conflict below the level of great power war.

On the theme of deep trends, I mentioned the relative decline of the United States and its waning role as a global hegemon, the continued rise of China and India, the ongoing and steepening decline of the Islamic world, the continued development of technology and the global economy. In my fictionalized history I suggested some contingencies, including a limited nuclear war between India and Pakistan in which Pakistan is destroyed, civil disorder including military-scale violence and the collapse of Communist Party rule in China, a massive but temporary breakdown in globalization leading to famines and terrible loss of life, an economic and Constitutional crisis leading to the dissolution and reconstruction of the United States, a worldwide religious awakening, centered in a majority Christian China. These are all speculations, “made up stories” which seem plausible to me. They are meant only as indications of the kind of curve balls that can come our way. In the face of these vast events, the US involvements in Iraq and Afghanistan will seem to be merely small ticks on the timeline of decline at the end of the era of US global dominance.

In the realm of contingency, the prospect of a religious revival or transformation occurred in two posts beside my own, which surprised me.
Charles Cameron chose to “clothe his speculations in science fiction” and posited the discovery of parallel universes. The thrust of the post though is a religious awakening which leads to a move away from a violent version of Islam, in Afghanistan and elsewhere. David Ronfeldt, in his third post posits a New Theory of Prophecy, which insinuates itself into existing religions and tips the scales against the more violent tendencies within Islam.

Cheryl Rofer suggested a game-changing dues ex machina, in the form an initiative by Nelson Mandela, followed by an Israeli outreach to the Pakistani people, nuclear disarmament, the resolution of the Afghan conflict as a side effect. This post granted the most power to contingency and agency over deeper trends. Others may find it more convincing than I did.

Most other posters believed that over the next 40 years existing long-term trends would play out, and that human agency and contingency would be noise around the signal.

Dan Abbott applied the XGW framework, and made what I found to be the most compelling statement in the RT, which I will paraphrase. Dan noted four timescales: short, medium, long and very long. The first is the realm of military action, the second of political action, the third of economic change, the fourth of cultural transformation. The 40 year time scale of the RT is beyond the scope of military or political action, but too short for cultural transformation. So, the answer to where Afghanistan will be in 40 years lies in the realm of economic development. This sphere is relatively resilient and resistant to the happenstances of human agency. Which means that the very great likelihood, assuming current trends continue, is that Afghanistan will be an economic satellite of China. That seems to me to be exactly right.

B. Failure of the American Effort in Afghanistan

Our posters were nearly unanimous that the current American effort in Afghanistan would not succeed, or even have a long-term effect on Afghanistan. That is an expected, but still damning vote of no confidence on the decade-long Bush-Obama non-strategy for Afghanistan. The strongest counter-example was Trent Telenko, who suggested a strategy to secure the country that sounds plausible to me, an non-expert.

Joseph Fouche had my second favorite observation of the Roundtable: “America has the firepower to destroy a large country, the heavy forces to invade a medium country, and the manpower to occupy a small one.” The USA and its military are not configured to do the kind of nation-building the US Government seems to want to do. Thomas P.M. Barnett has long observed that these tasks, if they can be done at all, require lots of people. The USA has a military composed of a small number of highly trained and expensively equipped people. The only way that a country the size of Afghanistan could be pacified is to put lots of boots on the ground. The only countries that have that many boots are China and India. Afghanistan will not be pacified by the USA, using hearts-and-minds methods. It may be pacified by one of the two large Asian powers, using more direct method. Jim Bennett speculated on what it would look like if China moved in, bulldozer fashion. His vision seems highly plausible over the long term.

Fringe provided a thoughtful analysis of the US failure in Afghanistan, which I won’t summarize but I strongly suggest you read. I think it is the single most informative post in the Roundtable. He notes that successful US wars have not had an “exit strategy.” To the contrary, they consisted of a battlefield success followed by an extended occupation. This provides an initial test, before the outset of a war. If it is not worth an occupation, it is not worth invading in the first place. “With few exceptions, if it’s worth a war, there is no exit strategy.”

One intriguing set of predictions was of ongoing, networked non-governmental efforts to provide some relief for the Afghan people. Dr. Madhu predicts ongoing turmoil, with NGOs doing humanitarian work where governments are unwilling or unable to go. David Ronfeldt foresees a “secretive ethicalist netfirm” operating swarms of surveillance UAVs to protect Afghan women. While this seems exotic at first glance, David is probably tapping into what seem to me to be the likely trends.

Radical advancement in technology may make much of our current thinking obsolete by 2050, and probably a lot sooner. Zenpundit noted in a comment that “[t]he DIY movement combined with high tech sectors like desktop manufacturing and nanotechnology are going to permit [individuals] and small groups to have their own capacity for military intervention.” The bad guys will take advantage of this first, since governments will try unsuccessfully to control the process. Once that fails, we will see a massive breakout of self-help as military scale violence becomes accessible and ubiquitous. Once this happens, the nation-state itself will be an over-priced, unusable legacy system that not only fails at providing the core function of providing physical security, but obstructs it. We will have to move to a different arrangement entirely. Goodbye, Westphalia, you won’t be missed very much. The good guys will win but the process will be ugly. This was roughly what I predicted in my initial post, with a posited dissolution of the USA, followed by a networked regrouping of the successor entities.

C. The Role of Culture

A theme that ran through the roundtable was that Afghan culture was an obstacle to progress and hope. Most posters either believed Afghan culture to be immutable or a few saw it as changeable. Those who saw it as immutable predict the destruction of the Afghan people (Selil, and Jim Bennett), or a permanent state of stasis once the outside world stops paying attention to them. Shane depicted this in a post that was almost poetic.

Karaka Pend is the only person who offered a proposal to change to the culture in Afghanistan, as opposed to speculating about a religious change which might occur spontaneously at some point. She proposes empowering Afghan women, but balked at the prospect of securing their proposed new freedom by arming them. Nonetheless, I believe she has correctly identified the center of gravity for any attack on the backwardness of the Pashtun culture. Whether this will happen is an open question, and the means required to achieve such a liberation may be harsh. Non-government outside support, such as David Ronfeldt suggested may be a realistic way to do it, as the tools improve.

III. Finis

My thanks to the other contributors. I am grateful for the opportunity, and the freedom, to participate in conversations like this one. Life is good.

September 11 has become a solemn day in American life.

So I am moved to close with a prayer.

God bless our warriors who are fighting in Afghanistan.

God bless the people of Afghanistan and grant them peace.

God have mercy on all who died on September 11, 2001, and all who have died in the conflicts which followed.

God please spare us the worst predictions some of us ventured here, and give us the grace to understand and overcome all adversity and to live charity despite all provocation.

God bless America.

8 thoughts on “Afghanistan 2050 Roundtable Summing-Up”

  1. I ran out of time, as I said.

    Col. Gentile’s post provoked a very active discussion at the time.

    I could have written more about his, and several posts, if I had many more hours to work on it.

    I don’t have those hours.

    I am grateful to Col. Gentile for his participation.

  2. As much as I support our troops and the defeat of the Islamists, interference in the family life and bedrooms of the Afghan people is the height of imperialist arrogance.

    Since when is forcing feminism upon other cultures a moral imperative? Haven’t we seen enough downside in the West already?

  3. @ Joseph Somsel: I might be misunderstanding you a bit, but I’m afraid I don’t see how second or third-wave feminism applies to Afghanistan today?

    I do agree, however, that trying to change another culture from the outside – and via force, at that – is problematic.

    I wanted to read all the Afghanistan 2050 contributions and leave a comment under each one (for my own educational benefit) but the RT happened during a busy time at work.

    I think I’ll try now, though.

    – Madhu

  4. @ Lex: The point about moral clarity is an interesting one. It kind of stopped me in my tracks a bit. Why didn’t I engage with that topic in my post? Hmmm….

    – Madhu

  5. “I think I’ll try now, though.”

    Don’t. Instead, put up a post of your own. Otherwise it will get lost in the shuffle.

    Moral clarity.

    The USA has fought some wars it is not proud of, and it has fought some enemies who had a decent case for their side. Smedley Butler said the wars he fought in were nothing but a racket, with his once beloved USMC serving as gunmen for Big Business. Politics is usually murky, and war is the continuation of politics with an admixture of other means.

    Whether we ultimately fail in the Afghanistan effort or not, there is far less than the usual murkiness about the malice of the enemy. The Taliban enemy deserved whatever we threw at them.

  6. OneParkStreet,

    Imposing our notions of gender roles upon Afghan culture is my working definition of feminism in this context. I can see some legitimacy in their not putting scarce resources into education of females but not in changing the family economic basis within their economy. What “is” within a culture is usually that way for a reason, tested by survival and competition. Not the way I want to live nor would I want that for my daughters but I live in California, not Kabul.

    My real stimulus for my first post was seeing Senator Barbara Boxer and then Senator Hillary Clinton going on during a hearing a few years ago about how the US MUST change the role of women within Afghanstan. Their moral clarity is not mine nor is it apparently that of the majority of Afghans.

    I certainly agree with Lexington Green in that the Taliban deserve the worst we can do to them. They too are trying to impose change on Afghan society, change even more arrogant that Senator Boxer’s. I say, kill the Taliban and let the Afghans freely adjust themselves.

  7. @ Joseph Somsel:

    Thanks for answering my question. Yes, that makes sense.

    Mission-creep and mission-diffusion seem to be a large part of the problem in Afghanistan – well, as much as a nobody like me (and stateside, too!) can tell. So I might be wrong on all that.

    I understand the proposed endstate but I’m not sure how the specific and varied programs get us there. They don’t seem very durable.

    – Madhu

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