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Our Knowledge Problem in Afghanistan Won’t Be Solved in One Friedman Unit

Do we need to increase our efforts in Afghanistan or do we lack the sort of partner who can make counterinsurgency work? Maybe stringing things out for another Friedman Unit will resolve the matter:

“We’re going to know in the next three to six months whether he’s doing anything differently — whether he can seriously address the corruption, whether he can raise an army that ultimately can take over from us and that doesn’t lose troops as fast as we train them,” one of Mr. Obama’s senior aides said. He insisted on anonymity because of the confidentiality surrounding the Obama administration’s own debate on a new strategy, and the request by Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the American military commander in Afghanistan, for upward of 44,000 more troops.

Like Spencer Ackerman I’m skeptical. What can you really tell in six months? Karzai knows we’re considering sending more support to his government. He also knows we’re concerned about corruption. So he’ll almost certainly deliver on some kind of anti-corruption measure. But will it be effective? Will it even be intended to be effective? It would be the easiest thing in the world to make a big show of curtailing abuses by one or both of the other Karzai brothers, and then ease up as soon as attention drifts elsewhere.

The good news about this is that I think the significance of creating a corruption-free Afghan central government is being overstated in the American debate. But in terms of creating one, recall that US foreign policy is always at its least-effective when it comes to manipulating the domestic politics of other countries. We have more more than Karzai. And more guns than Karzai. And better satellites than Karzai. But we don’t have a better understanding of Afghan domestic politics than Karzai. On the contrary, Karzai — like most important foreign leaders — probably understands our politics a lot better than we understand his. Karzai, and lots of key figures around him, reads English and can fire up his web browser and see what’s going on in the New York Times or Politico or whatever. What’s the highest-ranking American official who reads Dari or Pashto?

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