Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Damned if you do, damned if you don't

Babble on.

Neither the revival of Iraq nor of Afghanistan is going as well as proponents of both wars, myself included, would have hoped. The authority and legitimacy of both local and national governments remains tentative, violent insurgencies are still active and effective, and reconstruction and revitalization efforts have yielded disappointing results. Neither country is as far down the road to recovery as any of us would like.

The purpose of this post is not to delve into the various and sundry reasons for that state of affairs. No, I'm simply interested in pointing out a particular dynamic operating among many of us who look back and try to figure out how it all could have been done better.

On the one hand, you have folks - including at least one very senior officer in the Canadian military - who think the de-Baathification of Iraq and the disbanding of the Iraqi army were collosal mistakes. Bruce at Flit falls into this broad category of pundit:

First off, much of the German army was kept in being or reconscripted into labour battalions to assist in early rebuilding. I identified the May 23, 2003 decision to permanently disband the Iraqi military and aggressively de-Baathify the civil service as a huge error in September of that year, and nothing that's happened since has changed that opinion.

Many of these same people will argue that the way the Afghan situation was handled was a much smarter line of attack: work with those, regardless of previous political affiliation, who seem to have a grasp on how to push and pull the levers of power and command the authority within their community to do so effectively. In Afghanistan, this meant bringing 'warlords' into the fold.

The problem with that particular plan is now quite evident to people on the ground:

Even before I arrived in Kandahar, in December, 2001, I was worried about what kind of government would replace the Taliban regime. For it seemed that U.S. officials were ushering discredited warlords into positions of power, though the Afghan people wanted nothing of them, and gave President Hamid Karzai a resounding mandate to expel them from the body politic. In 2002 and 2003, the U.S. government prevented Mr. Karzai from moving against these warlords, and then he, discouraged, gave up trying. The result is a government that is devoured by corruption, with offices up for sale, and officials whose entire motivation is to extract money and favours from their countrymen.

Safia Ama Jan, unfortunately, was one of those, and so her death is very emblematic indeed. She used her office to monopolize money earmarked for Kandahar women, pocketing much of it and using the rest to favour exclusively the members of her own ethnic group. Afghans currently dread interaction with officials like Safia Ama Jan. Bribes are extracted for the least administrative task; soldiers manhandle people or shake them down; principals steal humanitarian assistance earmarked for their students.

"We are like a man trying to balance on two watermelons," said Zarghona, a member of my co-operative, this summer. "The Taliban prey upon us at night, and the government preys upon us in the daytime."

As I mentioned on this blog a year and a half ago, I find the second-guessing on this particular issue frustratingly unconvincing.

Some of the other points critics of the war make are questionable, and come down to carping. Take the example of disbanding the Iraqi army and banning Baathists from holding any positions of power. Turned the country into a chaotic mess, right? In hindsight, maybe. But we'll never be able to know what would have happened if the U.S. had taken the other fork in that road. It's quite possible the insurgency would have been far more effective with Baathist sympathizers in key government positions. And how much would the brutalized Shia and Kurdish populations have supported the reform process if their oppressors had been left in positions of influence? This sort of criticism is about counting angels dancing on pinheads.

Is it worth having the discussion about hypotheticals? Sure it is. But we shouldn't jump to unsubstantiable conclusions. That holds true for my side of the argument as well: keeping experienced Baathist hands on levers of government with which they were intimately familiar might well have avoided much of the chaos that has allowed the insurgency to survive this long. Just because I have a hard time swallowing that line of reasoning doesn't mean I'm right.

Historians, political scientists, and military strategists will dissect the decisions made in these campaigns for decades to come. Distilling the one essential factor that made post-war Japan different from post-war Iraq (or Germany from Afghanistan) will be the speculative work of many a scholar.

But the truth of it as I see it, in the simple terms my non-scholarly understanding permits me, is that there is no definitively right or wrong decision when it comes to rebuilding a country, an entire society from the ground up. Perhaps neither decision would have been a good one; perhaps both were equally unlikely to produce the desired results.

That's why I'll continue to straddle the fence on this issue: nobody's yet made a convincing argument to jump one way over the other. Somehow that doesn't seem to stop either side from trying.

Babble off.


At 2:10 p.m., Blogger Olaf said...

Thoughtful post,

There is no clear way to rebuild a country. I'm equally torn, but on an earlier stage in the debate - namely, not how but whether.

I have a lot of trouble just leaving the oppressed to their own devices, whatever may come. I really do believe that the majority of Afghan's are better off now than they were under the Taliban, and I'm hoping that they'll pick up the ball and run with it, with our help, ofcourse.

But, at the same time, things in Afghanistan are far from assured, and Iraq is in even worse shape.

So, do you just leave people to be subjugated and deprived of even the most basic rights, or do you try to do something and risk making it worse.

If you ever figure it out, fill me in.

At 3:36 p.m., Blogger arctic_front said...

hmmmm, a simple quote, and I'm not sure wqho said it, but it fits regardless of one's religious beliefs: "God helps those who help themselves."

In Iraq, afghanistan and other places where civil war is going on, there seems to be a serious lack or internal resistance like what was seen in France during WWII. Things looked so hopeless back in the very early 40's for the French, but they had a very active and effective resistance. Not since then has the French been worthy of any type of recognition of bravery. Today, we send our soldiers to fight the battles of oppressed people around the world. In how many places do the people of these oppresed countries rise up and fight the good fight for thier own survival? Unfortunately, not many. We can do what we did in France back in the 40' the resistance and supply weapons and technical assistance where possible( example Afghanistan during soviet occupation)but we need to demand that the people fight for thier own freedom as well as ending our young men and women to die for thier freedom. In Afghanistan, the people sit on the fence, waiting to see what side is gonna win before they throw their support behind them. That is totally unacceptable. You want freedom?...fight and die for it just like we have had to do for centuries. As a older mentor of mine told me: "If you didn't earn it, it's not really yours."

It's time our leadership starts to demand more from the people we are trying to help. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, the local police and army are way too slow in getting up to speed in defending their own people, while they sit back and watch the West send our soldiers off to die in foreign lands, for their freedom, not ours.

I fully support our mission and our soldiers there...but I also expect much more in the way of sacrifice from those we are there to help. As G.W. Bush said early on....."Your either with us, or against us". Time to put up or shut up.

At 7:48 p.m., Blogger MarkC said...

Arctic Front, the Afghan and Iraqi armies are taking casualties much higher than our or the Americans', trying to beat the insurgents.

At 12:47 p.m., Blogger GenX at 40 said...

I think the two situations are sufficiently distinct as to be hard to compare. We call them war lords but Afghan leaders of this sort are also local leaders, tribal leaders. They are not sitting on fences, they are sitting on their actual borders that may be invisible to us. The system has been in place for centuries. Ba'athism has none of that. But Kurdish, Shi'a and Shi'ite (excuse spelling on those last two) is a reality. Maybe the entities we are trying to protect are so unnatural that they cannot hold without Saddam the Tyrant or Taliban the Tyrant. That does not mean the CF action in Afghanistan is not right. But it may be that we can befriend one province, keep it safe, develop it. The international buddy system. Holland may have to take care of the next county, the UK the next.

This would not work in Iraq. If the north and the south we let to be what it wants to be, they offer us no harm. Then we deal with what is left. Worked in Yugoslavia in that at the end the dividing created less of a critical murderous mass. Divide and weaken. Maybe even then take a side in the civil war that follows as we effectively did against Slobo - whose death in a Dutch prison cell warms my heart even now.

At 2:08 p.m., Blogger Tybalt said...

But the truth of it as I see it, in the simple terms my non-scholarly understanding permits me, is that there is no definitively right or wrong decision when it comes to rebuilding a country, an entire society from the ground up. Perhaps neither decision would have been a good one; perhaps both were equally unlikely to produce the desired results.

Right sentiment, wrong terms of analysis. No one ever "rebuilds an entire society from the ground up". It can't be done; it never happens. The society persists long after the thin veneer of the state is torn away and junked. Rebuilding a society (without doing a Pol Pot and murdering your way to the bare metal) can only take place from inside the society itself.

Look at one of, if not the most, radical reconstructions of civil society since the 1950s: Russia. Russian society, throughout most of its strata (especially away from Western-influenced centers in Moscow and St. Petersburg) has changed extremely slowly where it has changed at all since the fall of Communism, and that was 15 years ago.

These things take time. If the expectation was to reconfigure Iraq or Afghanistan in five years, so that it could be left alone and forgotten about, it was *entirely* off base. I actually think that was the expectation, but we can't now seriously hope the impossible is going to happen just because we were ignorant before.

Eventually, both societies WILL change provided that the battle to remain involved in them isn't lost. But change will be sloooooow and that may not be good enough (or cheap enough) for the West.

At 2:45 p.m., Anonymous Anonymous said...

There are two very different wars going on here. The political war is both a cultural (tribal) struggle and an economic (most of the worlds heroin production starts here) one. In Af'stan, if you are a person of consequence, your hands are dirty (by western standards anyway) in one way or another. It's a Faustian roundtable that will almost certainly shortchange one side or the other, but that's for the diplomats & pols to figure out.

Then there's the boots on the ground, or more aptly... the pointy end of the spear.

It's also the one place where the ordinary citizen has the chance to make himself heard... so, being inordinately ordinary myself, I will.

"I think it's time to change the rules. The next time we capture any of these mutts, they should be turned over to our Afghani allies for 'questioning'. The subsequent increase in intel would measurably reduce the incidence of ambush, and the "stricter interrogation" would serve to indicate that we are serious about winning this thing."

At 7:41 a.m., Blogger The Tiger said...

That's the lesson here, isn't it? Tried to be too idealistic, tried to satisfy every moral qualm, caused a problem (made it worse, rather).

What this tells me is that the political critics are in no position whatsoever to throw stones, but that also doesn't do a damned thing to fix what has gone wrong.



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