Quiet Power

The USG probably ought have planned to stay in Afghanistan either for eighteen months or fifty years, the level of commitment of either a smash-and-grab or the rebuilding of post-war Germany and Japan, and acted accordingly. For want of time travel capability, however, the present administration had to choose from a different set of options and elected for a total withdrawal at the twenty year mark. Perhaps from this vantage something along those lines offered the least terrible outcome but it’s hard to say — the USG’s troop deployment and dollar costs were way down from the peak but Afghan civilian casualties have proven consistently awful for a long time.

Table that choice for a moment, however, and consider how we might have navigated the present circumstances under the auspices of an unavoidable total withdrawal in 2021. Within that narrowed context many choices still remained.

I find myself reflecting on the conflict last summer between Columbus’s Police Department and Black Lives Matters demonstrators…

On May 30th, the Saturday after George Floyd’s grisly killing, protesters gathered and the city police adopted an extremely aggressive stance. The latter’s non-nuanced engagement essentially guaranteed conflict by placing heavily armored shock troops at the frontlines. An entirely predictable calamity ensued.

The next day, however, cooler heads seemed to prevail. Riot cops and national guard soldiers took up position in the city. These heavily armored contingents, however, waited in the wings, while unarmored and cordial police had peaceful interactions with protesters and limited their work to directing traffic. It was, if just briefly, like night and day.

The present withdrawal from Afghanistan offered similar challenges along with analogous opportunities to take a robust and nuanced approach — the Afghan government fretted over how an aggressive preemptive evacuation would foment a self-fulfilling prophesy while USG intelligence agencies suggested a range of potential scenarios about the Taliban’s capacity to overrun the country. How to deal with with such ambiguity and risk of inadvertent tampering? Pre-provision capacity for contingencies and manage it quietly while simultaneously executing changes so incremental as to be imperceptible.

Sadly we took an entirely opposite approach. We abandoned the Bagram Airfield so abruptly and unceremoniously as to foment a crushing collapse in morale of Afghan forces. We then assumed an adequately large probability mass for the scenarios of the Taliban taking at least several months to overrun Kabul. Given the high stakes we clearly acted with criminal incompetence, accepting unreasonably high odds of placing ourselves in an horrific and entirely preventable situation. US service personnel and Afghan civilians alike find themselves in appalling and sometimes fatal circumstances. We are begging commercial airlines for last minute support. As we scurry to the exit the Taliban’s grip will become complete. Senseless, shameful, atrocious…

How woefully often we sacrifice robustness and humanity on the alter of efficiency and convenience, foolishly trying to wring every possible advantage by behaving recklessly optimistically, guaranteeing that in the fullness of time countless people will pay a terrible price for our failure to maintain slack in our systems…

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