Tag Archives for " Afghanistan "

Jul 02

Winning The UnWinnable

By kevin | Current Affairs , Decision Making

At the risk of beating a dead horse . . . Yesterday I blogged on what I regard as the craziness of spending billions of dollars on Afghanistan.  My lens on the problem was primarily the math but mostly it was about the impossibility of success given the frame on the problem.

Low and behold the always entertaining GOP Chairman Michael Steele was thinking the same thing.  Sort of.

The story everyone is focusing on his yet another Steele-gaffe.

Michael Steele, chairman of the Republican National Committee, drew fierce criticism on Friday after declaring at a party fund-raiser that the United States was on the wrong side of history with its conflict in Afghanistan, a military fight he called “a war of Obama’s choosing.”

“This is not something the United States had actively prosecuted or wanted to engage in,” Mr. Steele said in a speech on Thursday evening in Connecticut in which he offered a strong critique of President Obama’s military strategy.

“It was the president who was trying to be cute by half by flipping a script demonizing Iraq, while saying the battle really should be Afghanistan,” Mr. Steele said, according to a video of his remarks that was circulated by Democrats on Friday. “”Well, if he’s such a student of history, has he not understood that you know that’s the one thing you don’t do, is engage in a land war in Afghanistan?”

Wow.  Really? More than enough people have piled on this one so I won’t bother to comment beyond wondering when the spaceship is scheduled to return to the planet Mr. Steele comes from. No, the part that gets me spouting is what comes next.

Mr. Steele, seeking to clarify his remarks, issued a statement on Friday afternoon, saying, “There is no question that America must win the war on terror.”

And this . . .

“For the sake of the security of the free world, our country must give our troops the support necessary to win this war,” Mr. Steele said. “As we have learned throughout history, winning a war in Afghanistan is a difficult task. We must also remember that after the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001, it is also a necessary one.”

He added: “That is why I supported the decision to increase our troop force and, like the entire United States Senate, I support General Petraeus’s confirmation. The stakes are too high for us to accept anything but success in Afghanistan.”

I have a good friend named John who always kindly reminds me that politicians aren’t to be listened to, especially when they’re talking to the true believers as was the case with Mr. Steele. Notions like telling the truth (in all its forms) are really only suggestions in these instances. My issue is more pedantic: You can’t solve a problem when you define it like . . .

“There is no question that America must win the war on terror.”

“The stakes are too high for us to accept anything but success in Afghanistan.”

“As we have learned throughout history, winning a war in Afghanistan is a difficult task. We must also remember that after the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001, it is also a necessary one.”

Can someone please tell me what “winning the war on terror” would look like?  I mean really, how would we know?  Who would keep score? How would we verify? How would we enforce it? For how long would the win have to be won for it to be regarded as a real win? This isn’t meant to be an exercise in rhetoric, but really, words do matter.

The same line of inquiry applies to the concept of “success.”  For example, we have successfully burned through nearly $300 billion dollars and 1,000 American war dead.  If that was the objective, and clearly it was not, we succeeded.  Can we go home now?

And “necessary?”  Really?  How necessary?  Necessary enough to consider genocide?  That would do the trick.  There would be no more Afghans and by definition, none could engage in terrorist-like activities.

I get it, I get it.  This is political-talk, not decision-talk.  Mr. Steele is in the business of raising money from the faithful and scoring political points, not actually governing or solving real problems. Given the low standards of the job description he can be forgiven for his less that helpful words and thoughts about the trillion dollar black hole that is our foray into Central Asia. As a matter of public policy it would be nice if someone could offer we the people a problem definition that was useful, understandable, and achievable.  Not that I think anyone in Washington is in danger of doing that.

On a smaller scale, think about how you frame the decisions you make on a daily basis. Pay particular attention to the big ones.  Make sure you’re not declaring the equivalent of war on [fill in the blank].  You’ll never get there.

Jul 01

The Madness of Afghanistan and a Little Trick I Call Math

By kevin | Current Affairs , Decision Making

For the past decade I have made a living helping people and corporations make smarter decisions.  I say that by way of disclosing my bias when I think about nearly everything.  Yesterday I blogged about General Petraeus’ testimony before the Armed Services Committee in advance of his taking over as the overlord of the “not war” in Afghanistan.  You should read it.  It is a marvel of circumlocution.

Good decision making begins with an exam question: The entire rationale for making a decision in the first place; a statement of the problem we’re trying to solve. Use your favorite search engine and see if you can figure out the answer to the question of why we’re in Afghanistan. I figure the President’s own words from his State of the Union are as good as any . . .

As we take the fight to al Qaeda, we are responsibly leaving Iraq to its people. As a candidate, I promised that I would end this war, and that is what I am doing as President. We will have all of our combat troops out of Iraq by the end of this August. We will support the Iraqi government as they hold elections, and continue to partner with the Iraqi people to promote regional peace and prosperity. But make no mistake: this war is ending, and all of our troops are coming home.

So basically the point is to “take the fight to al Qaeda” or more broadly to “fight terror over there so we don’t have to fight it here” or something like that.  I’m sure that there are more precise thoughts than that but basically that’s the mission the American people have been sold for the past eight years by two different administrations.

There are lots of ways to think about this, so let’s pick one: The Math

From the State Department, here’s what we know about Afghanistan:

Area: 652,230 sq. km. (251,827 sq. mi.); slightly smaller than Texas.

Population (July 2009 est.): 28.396 million; slightly smaller than Texas.

GDP (2009 est., purchasing power parity): $23.35 billion.

GDP growth (2009 est.): 3.4%. GDP growth average between 2004-2009: 11.25% (est.).

GDP per capita (2009 est.): $800.

Keep in mind that GDP has been inflated by the US presence since we tossed the Taliban.

So how much have we spent to date on the “not war” in Afghanistan.  That’s a moving target, but here are some numbers that might help you understand. According to the site, Cost of War, the number to date (depending on when you read this) is $280 billion dollars. Add in the cost of the Iraq “not war” and we the people have spent about $1 trillion dollars “taking the fight to al Qaeda.”  To get a sense of some alternative uses of $1 trillion dollars, spend some time on the Cost of War site.

Keep in mind that these numbers don’t include the costs associated with the Obama surge of an additional 30,000 troops.  So what do those cost? One source I found put the figure in 2008 at $500,000 per year.  A more recent source puts the figure much higher.

The cost of sending one U.S. soldier in Afghanistan for one year is $1 million versus an estimated $12,000 for an Afghani soldier, according to Steve Daggett, a specialist with the Congressional Research Service. Those numbers fall within the calculations that the Obama administration has been using. The Obama administration is calculating $1 billion per 1,000 troops deployed to Afghanistan.

To put the cost of the surge in a different light, US tax payers will spend the entire GDP of Afghanistan to send 30,000 troops there to achieve what?

And how much does it cost the Taliban / Al Queda to fight back? It’s hard to put a number on that but a simple metric might be the cost of an AK-47.  It turns out that fighting Americans is a growth business.  A few years ago you could get a locally made knock-off for the equivalent of a few hundred dollars . . . so half a year’s pay.  Today, the price in Pakistan has bloomed to nearly $1,500. Throw in some ammunition and a year’s pay and call it $3,000 per annum, half that if you assume the person holding the gun is a variable cost.

This is the time when you need to stop and think about the mission and the math: $1 million vs. $3,000.  One bullet kills either one.

We have been in Afghanistan eight years.  Every year, on average, we spend the entire GDP of Afghanistan chasing after a couple of thousand bad guys that can be equipped and paid for less than one of our soldiers.

The war is unwinable for three reasons, all math related.

  1. It only takes one bad guy to do the thing we have spent $1 trillion dollars to prevent: commit a terrorist act on the homeland.  Call it 100.
  2. The other side can replace them faster and cheaper than we can kill them.
  3. We’re going broke.  The other side can wait.

The problem here is the problem statement. It’s like the war on drugs.  “Taking the fight” to the bad guys never ends.  There is no end zone. There is no way of knowing that you’re winning.  More importantly, the cost of the other side to stay in the game is orders of magnitude lower than what we spend. The other side ALWAYS WINS for the simple reason that all they have to do is stay in the game.  Eventually the high cost player is bled dry. The only way out is to change the question.

Finally, a reminder.  The people voting to keep us in this mess work for us.  You voted for them (or failed to). It’s time to speak up.  It’s time to stop the madness.

Dec 05

Obama’s Paradox

By kevin | Current Affairs , Decision Making

With great care I draw your attention to an article by Lee Siegel called The Zero-Sacrifice Presidency.

Obama tells us that we can have quality, universal health care without increasing the deficit. He tells us that he intends to have the 9/11 detainees given a fair trial in a civilian court but assures us that the trials will end in convictions. He declares that he will wage war in Afghanistan, but pledges to start bringing the troops home in 18 months. And everybody nevertheless takes these contradictory, irreconcilable statements seriously, as they parse, analyze, scrutinize Obama’s every word for some kind of coherent meaning. The president is like the character Chance in the novel and movie Being There, whose every fatuous utterance was celebrated for its profundity.

Some of Obama’s defenders chastise his exasperated listeners for their inability to detect the president’s “complexity.” But a fantasy of universal popularity that panders to every conflicting interest simultaneously is not the same thing as “complexity.” It is complexity if I tell my wife that I have to move to another state where I know I can find work, but that I realize the strain it will put on our marriage, and that I know the effect it will have on our child, and that I am aware of the consequences of such an attempt if I don’t find a job, having spent so much money on moving and establishing myself in a new place. It is not complexity if I tell my wife that I have to move to another state where I know I can find work, but that I will be back next week, and with lots of money.

In the spirit of full disclosure, my caution is based on two points.  The first is that I was and largely still am an Obama supporter (though I fully admit my reasons may not be rational).  The second is that I made a promise to myself that I would stop writing political screeds. So why this?Continue reading

Nov 13

Afghanistan Escalation as a Case Study in Decision Making

By kevin | Decision Making

It is surely the height of arrogance to propose an expert point of view on Afghanistan unless you have the relevant information.  I don’t have foreign policy or military expertise, but I do have a point of view on decision making, so at the risk of hubris, here goes . . .

One of the problems I see (already I’m in trouble) is that there is no shared problem definition.  That’s pretty typical of a class of puzzles many refer to as “wicked problems.”  No surprise here but this is where the problems begin. In the case of Afghanistan, it’s easy to spot the following problem definitions or frames:

According to one piece I read recently, the problem as defined by Sec Def Gates is, “How do we signal resolve and at the same time signal to the Afghans as well as the American people that this is not an open-ended commitment?”

The problem that General McChrystal sees relates specifically to the mission he’s been tasked with, which is to fight an insurgency.  Current Army doctrine on that topic says protect the civilians from the bad guys, kill bad guys, and work on building a civil society.

The problem many politicians see is “How do I position myself to score political points?”

The problem that many US citizens see is a pointless war.

The problem that many who think about these things see is how to not destroy the finest military our country, and maybe the world, has ever seen because of eight years of nonstop war.

You see where I’m going with this and you can further appreciate that each of these problem definitions, or “frames,” lead the honest thinker in different directions, both in terms of the alternatives you would consider and the trade-offs you might make.

What is true is that the collective we will not arrive at a common definition of the problem.  There was a time that could have happened, indeed did happen, but that time is now long past.  The question President Obama and his aides are asking is both geopolitical as well as simply political: Balancing the perceived need to continue to prosecute two wars in the Middle East while keeping the general populace onboard.  None of the alternatives are appealing on a good day, and it’s no longer a good day.

As a citizen, I have a point of view on what I think should happen.  As someone that thinks daily about quality decision making, I am annoyed by those who think Obama is dithering or prevaracating.  His predecessors had the dual luxury of having starting this war when the public was with them as well as an ideological lens that eliminating competing points of view and the alternatives that came with them.  Obama is not an idealogue when it comes to foreign policy and is genuinely trying to make a quality decision.  What must trouble him is the abiding fear that despite his best intentions, the outcomes will most likely not be good.

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