Monday, April 27, 2009

Oil Spots in Afghanistan

Just finished this nice little article over on the Small Wars Journal (PDF). Nothing there which is especially new to any who are conversant in COIN theory. But it does present in promisingly fine-grained operational detail some of the ways in which that theory may be applied in the 'Stan.

I do so love reading about this COIN stuff; I'm routinely, forehead-smackingly floored by just how smart it is, how it balances force with (admittedly utilitarian) philanthropy, routing the fruits of each to where they will do the most good. It is an imperfect learning process which balances risk with benefit, and often falls short in its execution. But I see this as a feature, not a bug (I am quite fond of that phrase). When you link the rising and falling of your fortunes with the people you seek to woo and win, your intentions can become plain in the ways in which you recover from those inevitable errors. The first (or at least the third) time coalition forces suffer casualties and do not respond with a hail of angry, ill-aimed bullets, some will see exploitable weakness, while others will see that-much-more plausible partners in deals they just might honor...And we'll get better at telling the differences between these groups.

Pakistan is one rabid rhinoceros of a wild card in all this, of course. But one of the benefits of successful COIN operations is the insulation of a local population from the influence of external actors who have not shown themselves to be as capable as agents of desirable change. This a necessary, though most assuredly not a sufficient condition for success in the AO. But applying pressure on the assorted avatars of the Taliban on both sides of the Af-Pak "border" by mounting credible competition for the hearts and minds (and bellies and skins) of susceptible populations cannot help but raise the temperature of the situation to a more malleable condition.

At that point, we best aim our hammers really freakin' true.

7 comments:

Mike said...

I swear to fucking god it took me at least 5 tries to read a very interesting and well thought out 11 page pdf. That's how busy I am these days.

IAC, yes, very intelligent strategy. I suspect it will run in to two major snags (plus some more I can't think of):

1. I think you will increasingly find that the tenets of Islam are simply not compatible with those of Democracy. Christianity can be viewed in such a way as to allow it, but Islam not so much. I think you'd be better off promoting a friendly Caliphate of some sort. From what I know of Islam, it seems it can be twisted to suggest that Muslims be nice to non-Muslims. Of course, the reverse can more easily be argued.

2. Herion. It was touched on very briefly in the pdf, but how long do you think they U.S. can keep paying these folks more for turnips than they used to get for poppies? What happens after that time, when they are forced to compete in a free market?

Regardless, best of luck with it. I'm really glad I don't have to pay for it.

Noocyte said...

1. I think you will increasingly find that the tenets of Islam are simply not compatible with those of Democracy.I'm the last guy who'll argue that Islam is particularly fertile ground for democracy, but the picture is not universally bleak. Turkey comes to mind, as does Indonesia. Bosnia is not a bad example at least of the integration of a moderate form of Islam with relatively liberal democratic society.

The history of Islam is by no means bereft of highly advanced, rationalist thought which is highly amenable to a naturalistic philosophy of science and governance. It's just that those folks are drowned out by the inmates who've taken over the asylum pretty much ever since. Still, it does show that not every facet of Islam is necessarily inimical to the formation of societies with which we could deal.

The installation of a friendly strongman has a defensible Realist argument to support it...I just happen to think that it's wrong. It may have been the main game in town during the Cold War, but we're still paying a parade of pipers for it. I believe that the goals we are working for during this conflict are at odds with such penny-wise, pound-foolish tactics.

2. [Heroin]Big Problem. However, it is one which is in large part linked with factors which a successful Oil Spot strategy would address. Part of the problem is that communities where poppy is grown are often ill-served by a viable system of roads and other services. The thing with poppy is that, once cultivated and harvested, it can be stored for long periods of time, far longer than it would take for many other crops to rot, unsold. This enables relatively isolated people to monetize the stuff, selling it off as needed.

Improving the security environment as well as the infrastructure will make a wider variety of products become viable, progressively (if never entirely) de-justifying the poppy trade. Emerging markets have a way of finding out how to provide supply for growing demands (and vice-versa).

Glad you liked the article.

Noocyte said...

BTW, what the frack is up with the initial line-breaks between paragraphs in these posts?!

sigh

Mike said...

I'm the last guy who'll argue that Islam is particularly fertile ground for democracy, but the picture is not universally bleak.Perhaps not universally bleak, but by and large, really fucking bleak.

Turkey comes to mind, as does Indonesia.Turkey has been very encouraging, but I may just think that because I've never been there. Certainly, it's decreasingly encouraging as the party currently in power is decidedly Islamist, but there is still hope there. As for Indonesia (which I have visited), it's very complicated. It's barely even a cohesive country so it's really hard to say what's going on, but there are several areas under de facto Sharia law and I suspect they will be expanding.

The history of Islam is by no means bereft of highly advanced, rationalist thought which is highly amenable to a naturalistic philosophy of science and governance.Well, the thing that happened to Islam is this guy. His influence was vast and critical to all interpretation of Islam after him. It pretty much put an end to all that advanced, rationalist thought, and sealed the end of the Islamic Golden Age.

Still, it does show that not every facet of Islam is necessarily inimical to the formation of societies with which we could deal.I wouldn't argue that every facet of Islam contradicts Democracy. The Koran, like the Bible, can be read to mean dozens of different things. However, after over a millenium of interpretation and wrangling, it has come to mean something to virtually all its adherents that directly conflicts with the basic tenets of Democracy. Can you imagine an Islamic republic with no penalties for verbally insulting Mohammed? I suspect that's currently the case in Turkey and Indonesia, maybe even the parts of Pakistan that are not Taliban controlled, but for how long? And could you picture the same thing happening in Egypt (which, BTW, is likely totally to explode when Mubarak dies)? I can't.

The installation of a friendly strongman has a defensible Realist argument to support it...I just happen to think that it's wrong.I wasn't advocating the installation of a strong man. I think a strong man will easily emerge absent outside interference in the region. It really seems to be what the people want. What I was advocating is a cessation of interference in that process, and the establishment of friendly-ish relations with said strong man once he emerges.

[Heroin]Big Problem. However, it is one which is in large part linked with factors which a successful Oil Spot strategy would address. Part of the problem is that communities where poppy is grown are often ill-served by a viable system of roads and other services. The thing with poppy is that, once cultivated and harvested, it can be stored for long periods of time, far longer than it would take for many other crops to rot, unsold.The other problem with poppies is that they allow a farmer to make 10-20 times as much money with the same land as they could with any other crop (except maybe Cannabis or Coca, which carry the same problems).

Improving the security environment as well as the infrastructure will make a wider variety of products become viable, progressively (if never entirely) de-justifying the poppy trade. Emerging markets have a way of finding out how to provide supply for growing demands (and vice-versa).Yeah, and in Afghanistan, that way is poppies. I don't think this problem will manifest itself too strongly until significant progress is made against the radical Islamists. But once that player has been significantly weakened, I suspect you'll see the drug lords (which are probably much smarter players) become a serious factor. Have a look just South of your border for that kind of situation.

Also, I thought of a third problem, which probably trumps the first two: The strategy under discussion is going to take a very long time and be very expensive. I strongly suspect the U.S. will run out of money or political will long before the situation becomes self-sustaining (assuming everything else works out O.K., which is a hell of an assumption), leaving Afghanistan more or less where it was in 1989.

BTW, what the frack is up with the initial line-breaks between paragraphs in these posts?!It's not too late to move to wordpress. It's a dramatically more serious platorm.

Noocyte said...

Delayed response. Family stuff (good but time-consuming).


Turkey: True that Erdogan's ATK party is far more Islamist than post-Ataturk Turkey has been inclined to tolerate...but that's not really saying all that much, given the severely secularizing tendencies it attempted to ram down a traditional and very poor nation's throat. As it currently appears, the religious wing is not aspiring toward what one would necessarily call an Islamist style in the vein of al Qaeda, et al (see here for example). The trend appears to be toward a decreasing influence of traditional religious voices as urbanization and education take hold. Could still go south, but there is reason for informed hope.

Indonesia: As in other places, one of the main appeals of the Islamists in Indonesia appears to have been an alternative to corruption. The results of recent elections also show reason for hope that a sufficiently fair government can sway the people away from Sharia. As you say, though, Indonesia is a sufficiently complex landscape that all hope must be tempered with wary vigilance.

Still, both of the above examples argue for the salubrious effects of modernization and prosperity in keeping the medievalists in check.

This guy: Yah, I remember this guy from GSP. What a calamity. Nothing squashes rational thought like this kind of muzzy-headed occasionalism. Still, the Inquisition wasn't a whole lot better, and Christianity emerged from the darkness (maybe not entirely, but more so than not).

Time was that you could be burned at the stake for questioning Christian orthodoxy, and much can be found in Christian scripture to support that policy...it's just not the dominant paradigm anymore. The fact that so much of Islam is still terrifyingly amenable to that kind of interpretation does not mean that it must always be in ascendancy. It may be that enough examples of people thriving under a form of Islam which permits pluralism will inch it toward the tipping point that Christianity crossed so long ago.

Strongman: Ah, I see. I think it may be simplistic to say that the people want another strongman. However, it is fair to say that Iraq, for example, still suffers form what one might call "Post-Totalitarian Syndrome," where the desire for order can trump other yearnings when confronted with the "dizziness of freedom." this article is a nice discussion of that problem. If anything, this speaks to the importance of continuing to "interfere," to hold the edges of those Oil Spots against the encroachment of chaos long enough for populations to crawl up the strata of that Maslow pyramid and demand more than mere order.

Heroin/poppies: No argument that there is a serious profit motive here. But the thinking is that, offered the choice between huge profits...guaranteed by vicious warlords and fickle Islamists, versus lesser profits more reliably guaranteed by tribally-sanctioned and less-dangerous government apparatus (with beneficial services and trustworthy protection offered in return), more and more people will opt for the latter, despite the undeniable appeal of the former. Mexico is indeed a fine example of what happens when the latter fails in its mandate to offer a credible alternative.

Of course, your point about money and political will is all-too well-taken, given the present US Administration, which does not offer much hope on either front...

Mike said...

Delayed response. Family stuff (good but time-consuming).Glad to hear it. Really busy on this end too. We move 4 weeks from yesterday, and I'm finding out we've accumulated a great deal of junk over the past two and half years.

Turkey: The trend appears to be toward a decreasing influence of traditional religious voices as urbanization and education take hold. Could still go south, but there is reason for informed hope.There's certainly reason for hope. Turkey really could end up more European than Islamic. Or it could go the other way (and so could the rest of Europe...). Time will tell.

Al Ghazaili: What a calamity. Nothing squashes rational thought like this kind of muzzy-headed occasionalism.Actually, it's hard to argue with the guy. If you posit the existence of an omnipotent god who wants to be believed in and worshiped, engaging in science truly is impious at the very least. Unfortunately, rather than recognizing this as the disproof through absurdity of the existence of such a god that it really is, the Muslim world went with it.

Time was that you could be burned at the stake for questioning Christian orthodoxy, and much can be found in Christian scripture to support that policy...it's just not the dominant paradigm anymore.Exactly. The Christian world went one way, the Muslim world another. This may or may not be due to differences inherent in the belief systems, but regardless, that's the way it went down. I certainly suspect that the lack of a charismatic figure with Al Ghazaili's insights in the Christian world helped a great deal.

The fact that so much of Islam is still terrifyingly amenable to that kind of interpretation does not mean that it must always be in ascendancy.True enough. But it takes an awfully long time for a culture that size to do an about face.

I think it may be simplistic to say that the people want another strongmanThe same poll I linked to in an earlier reply shows that the vast majority polled wanted a return to a Caliphate. It's kind of inherent in their belief system.

However, it is fair to say that Iraq, for example, still suffers form what one might call "Post-Totalitarian Syndrome," where the desire for order can trump other yearnings when confronted with the "dizziness of freedom."Yeah, there's that too.

If anything, this speaks to the importance of continuing to "interfere," to hold the edges of those Oil Spots against the encroachment of chaos long enough for populations to crawl up the strata of that Maslow pyramid and demand more than mere order.That could and probably would take generations.

Heroin: But the thinking is that, offered the choice between huge profits...guaranteed by vicious warlords and fickle Islamists, versus lesser profits more reliably guaranteed by tribally-sanctioned and less-dangerous government apparatus (with beneficial services and trustworthy protection offered in return), more and more people will opt for the latter, despite the undeniable appeal of the former. Mexico is indeed a fine example of what happens when the latter fails in its mandate to offer a credible alternative.How so? Seems to me that Mexicans, Colombians, and Peruvians can grow whatever they want and get it to market. There's even a "Fair Trade" movement that pays them higher than market rates for licit crops. A great many choose to grow illicit ones nonetheless.

Of course, your point about money and political will is all-too well-taken, given the present US Administration, which does not offer much hope on either front...And that, really, is the strongest argument against the strategy. It sounds great on paper, and provides a great deal of flexibility for changing and unexpected conditions. However, it's really expensive for a really long time. A democracy is almost guaranteed to run out of political will long before such a strategy could bear fruit even if all else goes surprisingly well (and that's a big if). And even the most robust free market goes through recessions which leave little excess capacity for large scale social experiments like these.

As such, the strategy should have been rejected on grounds that it's unlikely to be fully implemented, clever though it may be. And this is true even if the U.S. had it's own house in order, which it most decidedly does not.

Mike said...
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