February 24, 2005

Metrics For Afghans

One of the downsides to not having a campaign season any more is that certain issues no longer get talked about—nuclear proliferation, for instance. One of the upsides, though, is that we can start talking about other issues in a sane and rational manner. Afghanistan, for instance. It always seemed bizarre to me that any criticism of the current state of Afghanistan would be hailed and met with variations of this reply: "Well, they're doing better than under the Taliban, it's a 'Stone Age' country to begin with, and you have unrealistic standards of progress!" That's not right. I could toss a few crackers at the homeless guy hanging around the BART station, and he'd certainly be better off, but that's no way to evaluate my homelessness policy.

So the questions are "How much better off do we think is ideal?" and "How much do we want to spend?" On the first question, no one seems to have a good answer for Afghanistan—"better off" roughly means "no longer a threat to the United States". On that front, a cursory glance at the news suggests that, yes, the Taliban is rapidly fading out of existence—except, perhaps, in the Pakistan border regions, though that seems to be more of a Pakistan problem than an Afghanistan problem, if these sorts of distinctions mean anything. On the other hand, Pankaj Mishra makes the case that the still-not-disarmed militias and warlords in Afghanistan pose a very large long-term threat to the country's stability, as does the much-discussed poppy trade. The upcoming parliamentary elections could, potentially, make this problem worse: The major warlords are the only ones with the resources to organize actually parties, so they'll likely win a lot of seats, and hence legitimize their rather corrupt and brutal reigns. There's also the possibility of intra-party bickering over election results—this wasn't a problem during the presidential election because Hamid Karzai was the undisputed front-runner, but that won't be the case now.

The point, though, is that we don't know what this all means. No one—no intelligence agency—seems to have connected the dots and said, "Raging militias will eventually lead to X which will lead to Y which could well lead to bombs blowing up in the United States of America." So on the face it just doesn't seem like a huge problem that we're devoting relatively scant resources to Afghanistan. Liberals can hue and cry all day over whether, for instance, aerial poppy eradication raids will lead to an Afghan farmers' revolt, but it's hard to convince anyone that this is a real problem for the United States. Yet we ought to be figuring out if it's a real problem for the United States, and do it in a way that the main question is not "How wonderful does the progress in Afghanistan make President Bush look?" but rather "What's the best policy for Afghanistan?" The whole "better than the Taliban line" obviously works wonders for the former, but not the latter.
-- Brad Plumer 6:30 PM || ||