Monday, April 25, 2011

Notes on Afghanistan

Back in February, Tim Hetherington came to Colgate and talked about his career photographing war and about how things aren't working out in Afghanistan. Then last week he was killed in Libya, and I'm left looking at this signed copy of Infidel. He was a good guy. Today Candace Rondeaux came to Colgate and talked about her career as journalist/analyst, and about how things aren't working out in Afghanistan. It's a drug-cartel war, it's a civil war, it's a religious war, and it's a war in which we're supporting the thoroughly corrupt side which many citizens decide they just can't deal with. (Of course we're also supporting the other side via drug money and oil money.) She did offer a specific, concrete suggestion: she suggested that many of the Afghan officials most responsible for corruption hold dual passports which could be pulled by their other countries. Hmm....

Bob Kraynak asked her to comment on possible silver linings, both in the short-term "decimation" of Al-Qaeda and in the long-term change in regional culture so that in several countries now we're seeing possible democratization and in a generation or so we might see a lot of it. Rondeaux does not believe A-Q has been decimated (Bob's term, here) because Taliban forces seem frequently to be guided by A-Q advisors; she admits the possibility that in a generation, or two generations, we may think the whole thing was worthwhile, but it's only a possibility if we "face reality" and stay in, but not in the way we're doing now; it's only a possibility if we take nation-building seriously.

Well, if decimated still means killing one in ten, I think it's likely that Al-Qaeda's leadership has been decimated, for what that's worth -- and I think our situation would be a lot worse if that decimation hadn't happened. I suspect that the TSA has done little or nothing to prevent terrorist attacks since 9/11, but it's not that the bad guys thought they'd done enough. They're far from gone, but they've been hurt; just as important, their friends in the Taliban got hurt. In the short run, I do think that's a silver lining on some very stormy clouds.

Democratization is more problematic; the long run is more problematic. As I've said many times, I think we're likely to be in really bad trouble somewhere in the ten-to-thirty-year time frame because a variety of technological destructive possibilities "improve" in Moore's Law style but human destructive tendencies change slowly if at all. We can withdraw from Afghanistan, and fewer Americans will be killed for a year or five thereafter, but some of the nuts we'd be leaving as we bolt are already nuclear. Things will get worse; three thousand dying at once is not guaranteed to stay maximal, or even to seem like a bad day. 9/11 may yet be recognized as the wake-up call for which we groped around, banging around the alarm clock, before finally hitting the snooze button -- for just a little too long. There are times when I agree that the reason we don't hear radio communications from the stars is simply that no intelligent species survive their inevitable development of really bad technology. "Intelligent?" Well, you (probably) know what I mean.

So what can we do? As usual, I'm left looking over what I said before, thinking that it still looks reasonable -- but maybe it's too late. I would certainly

  • cut bad-guy funding
    • in the short term, by calling a halt to the drug war -- opium should be moderately taxed and treated like nicotine, not pushing immense profit into the hands of those who hate us;
    • in the longer term, by initiatives like intrinsically blow-up proof nuclear reactors to reduce world-wide oil usage. (I'm not even thinking about carbon.)
  • improve good-guy funding
    • directly, via free trade, and
    • indirectly, by pushing transparent basic message, repeated millions of times at immense expense even in the midst of our own economic troubles, would still be close to what I said before:
      here is your RFID/bar code/photo/fingerprint/biometric ID, linked to a bank account which already has a couple of bucks in it, and here is your personal cell phone....
      (and everything has a URL)
    And there would still be a somewhat-internationalized Barnett-style SysAdmin force behind that, as before...
But of course it's not going to happen, and I don't see why any more practical plan is likely to happen either. Some nights are less cheerful than others.

clarification: A random reader might well think it's insane to think of free trade as direct support for good guys--direct support is arms and material for them what's shooting at bad guys. No, those who shoot at bad guys may be our allies, probably some good guys and some -- well, Stalin was an ally in WWII. Aid for them is necessary, but it's not the same as aid for good guys. The good guys mostly just want to live their lives with family, friends, neighbors and perhaps letting others live their lives too, sometimes even helping. Support for them is mainly lowered transaction cost for doing business, which I loosely call "free trade".

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