There’s an old chestnut about an economist stuck in a deep hole with two other people whose occupation depends on who’s telling the story. But after the other two try to escape in ways appropriate to their jobs, they turn the economist for a solution. The economist replies, “Assume a ladder.” The point of this story (and similar ones involving economists, desert islands, and can openers) is that economists tend to assume things that aren’t actually so.
This timeless joke about the economics profession popped into my head as I was reading Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s leaked Afghanistan assessment. Overall, the assessment makes good recommendations as to what changes the international military effort in Afghanistan needs to make to improve the odds of success. Increased embedding and enhanced partnering with Afghan security forces, taking greater force protection risks to better protect the population, reversing the insurgency’s momentum, and the like will all be important if the Obama administration decides to go forward with McChrystal’s strategy.
But there’s an incredibly important blind spot in the assessment. Like the economist assuming a ladder, the assessment assumes a more effective Afghan government, and what’s more, an Afghan government that wants to be more effective. It’s astonishing that the assessment makes this assumption given the ink it spills detailing the severe problems the Afghan government has delivering security and basic services — not to mention the crisis of legitimacy the August election has exacerbated. To wit:
The weakness of state institutions, malign actions of power-brokers, widespread corruption and abuse of power by various officials, and ISAF’s own errors, have given Afghans little reason to support their government. These problems have alienated large segments of the Afghan population. They do not trust GIRoA [Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan] to provide basic services, such as security, justice, and basic services.
But at the same time:
ISAF’s center of gravity is the will and ability to provide for the needs of the population ‘by, with, and through’ the Afghan government. A foreign army alone cannot beat an insurgency; the insurgency in Afghanistan requires an Afghan solution. This is their war and, in the end, ISAF’s competency will prove less decisive than GIRoA’s; eventual success requires capable Afghan governance capabilities and security forces. [Emphasis added.]
What these two statements say to me is that even if McChrystal gets all the resources he asks for, (which probably won’t be enough anyway) and even if the ISAF executes the best counterinsurgency campaign in history, it won’t matter much unless the Afghan government can make a noticeable improvement in its ability to govern the country on a minimally satisfactory basis. And that objective in and of itself requires that the Afghan government has the desire and willingness to make an effort at improving the way it operates.
As Spencer Ackerman asked on Monday, “Is a government that was willing to return itself to power by stealing an election really willing to enact the kind of good-government reforms that would be necessary to mitigate this [insurgent] threat?” This question is exactly the one the Obama administration needs to answer before giving General McChrystal the 40,000 troops he’s apparently going to ask for.
It’s also why, contra Eliot Cohen, it’s good to see that there’s still a healthy debate going on in the Obama administration. Vice President Biden has taken the lead in formulating an alternative, and so far President Obama has not committed one way or another. The decision to send more troops to Afghanistan is the biggest foreign policy decision the Obama administration has had to make so far, and it is entirely appropriate and correct not to rush it.