Belmont Club

Time after time

It’s often the case that verifying the correct answer to a problem is easier than finding the answer in the first place. That’s why it’s simpler to use a cell phone, for example, than it is to invent it.  Now everyone would recognize an Afghanistan that worked. There would be industry, agriculture, peace and order, a bustling population. The hard part is finding the formula to get there. The solution probably exists. The problem with Afghanistan is that the time scale required to find the answer can be longer than that available. Michael Yon’s recent article “The Girl With No Future” gives us sense of the complexity involved in finding the answer. Afghanistan can be fixed, but it’s going to take a heck of a long time. Michael Yon says in an email to me, “on a per capita basis, our losses here in Afghanistan will almost certainly eclipse Iraq even during the darkest days.”

Let us be frank. We must look at the situation and ask, “How far can we nudge this place by the year 2100 … if Afghanistan is to reach even the level of Nepal — maybe we could do that in 25 years. Meanwhile, Germans and Canadians seem to be growing weary … Yet we and our many allies must realize that this cake will not be baked in 10 years. … a key Japanese official … told me they are committed to 10, 20, maybe 30 years. It will take 100, but at least the Japanese are thinking straight, while most of us are not.

The current plan for Afghanistan campaign has implicitly assumed that the goal of creating a society able to resist al-Qaeda like groups can be reached with the time and resources available. There’s no reason to believe why this must be true beyond the assertion that it is. If Michael Yon’s insight is correct, then the assertion is not proved; and we may be trying to solve an problem of exponential complexity with a polynomial time algorithm; that is to say trying to attain a strategic goal unreachable by the tactical means at our disposal. The way forward in these cases is to solve a smaller problem that will have most of the benefits of solving the big intractable one. Good strategists find these smaller but still useful solutions when they can’t fix everything. Bad strategists simply hire spin doctors to declare things fixed before the cracks show.

There’s a saying among the Taliban that the Americans have all the watches but the Jihadis have all the time. Good strategists find ways to make time work for them. Bad strategists and spin doctors know only one kind of time: the “decent interval”. Michael Yon’s dispatches raise questions to which there may be no good answers. But getting the right questions is half the battle won.

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