A War of Overstatements

As I think I’ve made clear, I think the folks out there arguing that an ambitious, expensively, long-term population-centric counterinsurgency mission in Afghanistan is essential to the national interest are mistaken. Indeed, I think they’re being somewhat absurd. At the same time, I think their critics have developed a tendency to drastically understate the extent to which COIN could “work” in Afghanistan. For example, here’s Kevin Drum channeling Tom Friedman:

If Obama and McChrystal can come up with a truly plausible plan for stabilizing Afghanistan, I think I could gulp hard and support it. But the absolute bare minimum requirement for such a plan is a national government that’s largely supported by the population. Like Friedman says, it doesn’t have to be Switzerland, but it has to be good enough. Without that, Afghanistan really is Vietnam 2.0.

And Friedman himself:

We have been way too polite, and too worried about looking like a colonial power, in dealing with Karzai. I would not add a single soldier there before this guy, if he does win the presidency, takes visible steps to clean up his government in ways that would be respected by the Afghan people.

This kind of seems like so much pious myth-making to me. I went and looked up the most corrupt countries on earth at Transparency International and added Switzerland (since Kevin mentioned it) and Denmark (the actual least-corrupt country) for comparison’s sake:


Afghanistan, as you can see, is pretty corrupt. That said, it’s not really far out of line with local norms. Sundry other central Asian states join it at the bottom of the barrel. And while it’s true that some of the most corrupt countries are anarchic failed states, the examples of Myanmar and Turkmenistan clearly indicate that establishing effective control over your territory doesn’t at all require you to develop good governance or be respected by the people. Indeed, one of the few countries on earth that registers as more corrupt than Afghanistan is Iraq, scene of our last population-centric COIN success story. As I’ve said, I think that success came at great cost and didn’t achieve anything worthwhile. But it was a success. And undue pessimism on the part of surge skeptics bears substantial responsibility for the current COIN bubble that’s driving the discussion about Afghanistan.

This still leaves me totally unpersuaded that an ambitious COIN campaign in Afghanistan is “worth it” in any reasonable sense. But if it’s a bad idea it’s a bad idea in the way that the F-22 is a bad idea — a very costly hedge against a likely-nonexistent problem — not a Vietnam-style looming catastrophe.